Juan Lagares came into spring training with a new swing. He spent the offseason revamping his swing so he would be better prepared for the fly ball revolution that was taking over baseball. This seemed like a good strategy for the outfielder since he was expected to see some playing time when the season began. With Michael Conforto expected to miss the start of the season as he worked his way back from shoulder surgery, it seemed like the starting job was Juan Lagares’s to lose until Conforto came back.
There was a bit of a log jam in the outfield since the Mets re-signed Jay Bruce and signed Adrian Gonzalez. That eliminated Bruce from playing first, so there was only one open spot in the outfield. Lagares had several factors working in his favor, most notably his defense which is among the best in the league. Brandon Nimmo was his main competition for the open spot, and despite a decent showing in 2017, was still seen as an unproven youngster.
For Lagares, however, spring did not get off to the best start. He was dealing with a minor leg injury and missed the start of Grapefruit League action. When he did return to action, the results from his revamped swing simply weren’t there. In fifteen games he batted just .200/.259/.220 with a .479 OPS. He only had one extra base hit which was a double. It was certainly a small sample size but it looked like, perhaps, the new launch angle revolution was not for him.
With Lagares limited at the start of spring, Brandon Nimmo saw an opportunity and seized it. His defense can’t compare with Lagares’s but by the end of spring his offense was undeniable. He hit .306/.371/.613 with a .984 OPS in nineteen games. He was really driving the ball as well. Out of his nineteen hits, eleven went for extra bases. When Opening Day came, it was Brandon Nimmo’s name that was in centerfield and at the top of the lineup.
Despite Nimmo seemingly winning the job, Lagares still saw playing time both as a defensive replacement and as a starter. When Conforto returned, Nimmo’s playing time diminished and he was eventually sent back to Triple-A. With a lefty-heavy outfield, Lagares was a good compliment to Conforto and Bruce.
For all his struggles in spring, Lagares started off the season reasonably well. When April came to a close he was batting .342/.395/.368 in thirty-eight at bats. The power was still missing since again he only had one extra base hit, but the results were much more encouraging. Nimmo was not gone for long and he was batting .313/.488/.563 in thirty-two at bats. The playing time was split pretty evenly between the two but it was Nimmo who was showing off more power.
With Nimmo driving the ball, playing time for Lagares became scarce. He was mostly relegated to a late-innings role and a platoon player since he was a right-handed bat to Nimmo’s lefty. Yoenis Cespedes was not fully healthy, yet not on the disabled list, which opened up some playing time for the other outfielders. Nimmo got the edge. When the calendar turned to May, Nimmo had 36 plate appearances compared with Lagares’s twenty-one. Through May 16, for the month, Nimmo was batting .214/.389/.393. While the line overall took a hit, he was still getting on base at a good clip and showed off a bit of power with a home run and a triple. Lagares on the other hand, was still getting his hits but the power was still not there. His only extra base hit in May was a triple and he was batting .333/.333/.429 for the month.
With both Cespedes and Bruce ailing it looked like a platoon with Lagares and Nimmo could work. Nimmo had more power and a very good eye at the plate, whereas Lagares was still an elite defender, and despite not driving the ball, was still getting his hits. Unfortunately for Lagares, his defensive instincts worked against him. On May 16, in a game where the Mets were already getting blown out, he aggressively went after a ball and crashed into the outfield wall after making the catch. He injured his toe on the play and a MRI later revealed a torn ligament that would require surgery and end his season.
Lagares is signed through 2020 and is due a pay raise where he will be making $9 million next season. He was the subject of trade rumors this past offseason and perhaps they look to trade him again. However, he is still a useful piece to this team considering Yoenis Cespedes will not be ready for a good chunk of the season. With Bruce, Conforto, and Nimmo presumably the Opening Day starters, Lagares gives them a right-handed option on the bench. Mickey Callaway stated the Mets do need to place more of a priority on defense in the future which would certainly work in Lagares’s favor, unless they decide they saw enough out of Austin Jackson and go with him instead.
Lagares’s season came to a disappointing end in 2018 but he still could be a key piece to this club if they are looking to contend next season.