Juan Lagares made his major league debut with the Mets in 2013. Since then, he’s been a consistent staple on the roster, experiencing the ups and downs (more of the latter than the former, unfortunately) that this franchise has lived through in that time span. He’s never been the flashiest player with the bat, but he typically made up for it with his sparkling defense in center field (“Where extra-base hits go to die,” as Gary Cohen would so aptly describe him after making one of his highlight plays). And he has usually been a better hitter against left-handed pitchers, making him an ideal platoon player on a roster that has generally been overloaded with lefty-hitting outfielders.
Unfortunately, Lagares has suffered from recurring injuries throughout his major league career, and that was especially true in the three seasons prior to 2019, when he was limited to just 79, 94, and 30 games, respectively. He finally stayed healthy this season, but his time as a valuable role player on the team had unfortunately passed, as he was just a shadow of the player he used to be both offensively and defensively. The result was a season in which Lagares provided negative value off the bench, making it unlikely that his career in the orange and blue will continue beyond this point.
Similarly to past seasons, Lagares’s playing time was largely limited to late inning defensive replacements and spot starts against lefties. Similarly to past seasons, his less-than-stellar production against right handers justified trying to shield him from them as much as possible. However, in a shift from past seasons, his numbers against righties went from mediocre to downright dreadful, as he put up a putrid 56 wRC+ against them. And this time, he did not put up an improved level of production against lefties to make up for it, as his 69 wRC+ against them was similarly awful. The Mets still had an outfield that was mostly dominated by lefty hitters, but this time they could not rely on Lagares to be a suitable substitute for them against left-handed pitchers.
If Lagares was still the Gold Glove-caliber center fielder he’s been in the past, he could still at least have provided some real value to a roster that had plenty of offensive juice in the outfield but which lacked a true center fielder. But both the eye test and the defensive metrics tell us that his skills in this department have diminished significantly as well. After several seasons of posting eye-popping defensive numbers, the ones he put up this season—a 6.1 UZR/150 and -2 DRS—left much to be desired. Potential wonkiness of defensive metrics aside, it certainly did appear as though Lagares had lost a step in the outfield, as the otherwordly range he once demonstrated on a daily basis was on display much less often. He didn’t seem to be awful out there, but “not awful” is not going to cut it for a player who is as offensively limited as he is.
The season was not without highlights altogether for Lagares. He did have some nice individual moments, such as the September game against the Diamondbacks in which he had both the first grand slam and first two-homer game of his career. Really, his second half as a whole offered a marked improvement for him, as the 95 wRC+ he put up in the last couple months of the season allowed him to at least play some small role in the team’s ill-fated playoff push. But it was not enough to redeem his overall season, as his final numbers—a .213/.279/.326 batting line with a 60 wRC+ and -0.8 fWAR—made him a net negative to the team on the whole.
In the wake of this awful season, the organization is certain to take the $0.5 million buyout on Lagares’s contract instead of paying him $9.5 million for the 2020 season. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Mets will bring him back on a cheaper deal as well—they will be in a position where they could use a player like the one he has historically been (a righty-hitting center fielder), but there is little reason for them to have too much confidence in his ability to successfully fill that role moving forward. It is disappointing that his tenure with the Mets will end this way—bad season aside, this is still a player who has spent his entire adult life as a member of this organization, and who is one of the few remaining players from the 2015 pennant-winning team. Nevertheless, at this point it seems clear that a change of scenery would be best for both parties.