It’s as evergreen a statement as ever: The Mets have a big hole in center field. With the exception of brief stints from out-of-position sluggers like Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto, the team has struggled to get any production at all from that spot ever since the departure of Carlos Beltran, and this year is as bad as ever.
Over 262 plate appearances in 2019, Mets center fielders have combined to hit .197/.290/.307, the worst OPS in the division and third-worst in the majors. This even includes a serviceable 75 plate appearances from the currently-injured Brandon Nimmo, and without him the group ranks dead last in every meaningful category.
The team arguably dug themselves into this hole by entering the season under the assumption that light-hitting Juan Lagares, who had missed nearly 300 games across the previous three years, would hold his own despite major injuries and inconsistent playing time. Sure enough, the once-promising Lagares looks just about done, hitting .189/.260/.279 with a 46 wRC+ and rare signs of his formerly dynamic defensive skills.
Backing up Lagares was the even-lighter-hitting Keon Broxton, whose .143/.208/.163 line earned him a DFA and a ticket to Baltimore in exchange for cash in the middle of May. The Mets also brought on a gaggle of veteran outfielders on minor league deals, but only Carlos Gomez has seen time in center field so far. Outside of a memorable early rash of big hits, he’s done little to suggest he is still able to produce at a major league level. Offseason pickup Rajai Davis was limited to right field in his brief time in Queens, while Gregor Blanco is putting up dismal numbers in Triple-A.
The Mets’ best hope of reviving their center field doldrums in the short term is the timely return of Brandon Nimmo. Center is Nimmo’s weakest position, and it’s difficult to say how his complicated neck injury will impact both his offense and his defense, but he is a strong hitter when healthy, and the recent initiation of a rehab stint suggests he’s not that far away.
But having Nimmo on the roster may not eliminate the team’s worries. If his offensive performance is compromised, or if his defense is poor enough to exclude him from center field, or openings at other positions push him back to his natural corner role, the Mets will find themselves back in the same position they have spent much of this decade in: trying to find even an average center fielder. It’s not going to come from the minors, where Matt Kemp, who isn’t a center fielder, is also struggling mightily with the bat.
If the Mets are to truly contend, center field is one of the obstacles standing between them and a real shot at breaking through in the division. Since the position is increasingly difficult to fill externally, they need Nimmo and his 2018 bat back fast because the Lagares-Broxton-Gomez amalgam is simply not getting it done.