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Juan Lagares, injuries and finding a spot in a crowded outfield

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The oft-injured centerfielder will struggle to find playing time this season.

Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Mets having a crowded outfield is nothing new. What is new is that the logjam of outfielders is because of a sufficient number of quality options, not someone like Jay Bruce keeping options like Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo out of the lineup or in the minors. While this is a good thing for the Mets, it is potentially bad, personally, for the oft-injured Juan Lagares.

It’s crazy to think that this season will be five years since Lagares’ breakout 2014 season, the year he won a well-deserved Gold Glove in center field, hit .281/.321/.382 and posted 5.3 bWAR and 2.9 fWAR.

Prior to the 2015 season, Lagares and the Mets agreed to a four-year extension. In his first season under that new contract he played the most games of his career, appearing in 143 games. That was essentially the lone bright spot, as his offensive output cratered, with his wRC+ cratering from a 101 in 2014 to a 79 in 2015. Even more glaring was his defense, which took a big hit as well.

While that certainly wasn’t ideal out of their newly-paid man, it may have been preferable to what the Mets have gotten over the past three seasons. Of a possible 486 games, he played just 203, or under 42 percent.

He lost most of 2016 after tearing a ligament in his thumb making a spectacular catch against the Marlins. He played 79 games.

In 2017, he missed Opening Day with an oblique strain. And then on June 16, 2017, one year to the day that he was placed on the IL for the first time after injuring his thumb in 2016, he was placed on the DL after breaking the same thumb, which cost him a month and a half. He played 94 games.

And then last season, he looked to have improved at least on the surface level offensively, increasing his batting average to .339 and his on-base percentage to .375. However, he was struggling to find playing time amongst a crowded outfield, especially once Nimmo started playing well. That became a non-issue on May 16, when he crashed into a wall and tore a ligament in his big toe that required surgery and ended his season.

All of his past injury history to informed the acquisition of Keon Broxton, who is not dissimilar to Lagares in that he’s a glove-first, light-hitting centerfielder, but is younger and much cheaper. Both are also right-handed batters. Broxton’s batting history is even worse than Lagares’ worst seasons, but the difference in price points makes him more attractive as a platoon centerfielder and defensive replacement.

With the news that Jeff McNeil will be playing left field against right-handed pitchers—with Nimmo in center and Conforto in right—the openings for playing time for Lagares continue to shrink. Conceivably, he’d only get a crack at left-handed starters and, even then, those starts could just as likely go to Broxton. Plus, the Mets seem dead set on a Yoenis Cespedes return this season, which will only make the outfield more crowded.

All of this is to say that there was a good reason that Lagares’ name kept cropping up in trade rumors as someone the Mets were hoping to offload.

Lagares’ extension and following lack of performance/injury issues make him very difficult to move, a problem for both him and the Mets. He’s in line for $9 million this season, way too much for your possibly backup centerfielder’s backup. Of course, he could always be the front of the centerfield-against-left-hander platoon, but that’s still a super narrow niche for $9 million.

Lagares doesn’t have many paths to substantial playing time this season and it will be hard for him to make a noticeable impact with his glove in limited time. He’ll have to fight for playing time with his bat, a battle he was defeated in last season against Nimmo. ZiPS has Nimmo posting a worse slightly worse batting average that Lagares but a much better on-base and slugging percentages, and McNeil as better across all three.

And, of course, if he really wants to contend for a roster spot, he has to actually be on the active roster or, not injured. With his propensity for freak injuries, he should talk to new teammate Jed Lowrie about how to avoid them (even if Lowrie might be hurt already).

Lagares will have a tough road ahead of him in 2019, and it’s tough to see a scenario where he not only plays a lot, but does so because of an offensive resurgence and not a typical Metsian deluge of injuries.

But hey, he’s got new fun hair!