The return of Brandon Nimmo to the Mets from the injured list, along with the expected returns of Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie, has given the team a newly flush roster while also presenting the absolute best conundrum to have: how should they distribute playing time while building the daily lineup?
To simplify the question, let’s assume that with only rare exceptions, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Pete Alonso, and Wilson Ramos are solidly set at right field, shortstop, first base, and catcher, respectively. That leaves four slots at left field, center field, second base, and third base that need to be filled.
The easy part is concluding that Joe Panik and Juan Lagares are back to being bench players. Both have served in full time roles with varying levels of competence, but neither belongs in an everyday lineup for a playoff contending team.
The benching of Lagares opens up center field for Nimmo, who looked every bit himself going 1 for 3 in two games this weekend with three walks and a double. He may require more rest than he normally would as he gets back into a rhythm after an extended absence, but he appears to be moving with ease. His vastly improved approach at the plate also suggests he can be a leadoff candidate if Jeff McNeil needs a day.
While McNeil and J.D. Davis are both capable of playing either infield or outfield, Mickey Callaway has primarily preferred to keep Davis in left field when both are in the lineup, preferring to use McNeil at either second or third. Davis will likely be more exposed there with Nimmo in center over Lagares, and Callaway may want to consider something of a defensive platoon with the more-athletic McNeil out there for fly ball pitchers, but the sizzling-hot Davis has earned his lineup spot regardless of position.
An outfield of Davis-Nimmo-Conforto places McNeil largely in the infield full time. Todd Frazier continues to start most games at third base, but he has been in the midst of a serious slump, with a .634 OPS going back to the start of August. Of the players who have been starting all year, he stands to lose the most playing time when Cano and Lowrie arrive.
For a variety of reasons, though, don’t expect Frazier to hit the bench immediately. His cachet as a veteran and his first-half effectiveness will buy him a longer leash than other players with similar numbers. Additionally, there are still major question marks hanging over both Cano and Lowrie. Cano’s torn hamstring was at the time considered season-ending and his speedy return likely has more to do with the end of the minor league season than with his own readiness. He will almost certainly spend the majority of his time as a pinch hitter, possibly for the remainder of the season.
Lowrie is an even greater enigma. Ostensibly signed as a likely starting third baseman, he has yet to suit up for the Mets at all this season and it’s difficult to predict just how long it will take him to shake off the rust and what if any lingering effects he will have from the myriad and mysterious injuries that kept him off the field for so many months.
Assuming Lowrie is healthy enough to start at least occasionally, expect McNeil to start the lion’s share of games at second base with Cano and Panik making only rare starts, during which McNeil would slot over at third. When McNeil is not at third, Frazier will likely continue to play the majority of the time in the next couple of weeks, but with Lowrie gradually eating into more of that time as he settles in.
There is plenty for the Mets to feel good about as they enter the final month of the season. September is going to be a grueling month for them, with just two off days and essentially every series considered a must-win for the team to stay in the race. But they are about to finally have a full contingent of players that can fill out a very talented lineup and a solid bench to boot. They’re going to need it!