With the news late last night that George Springer and the Blue Jays had reached an agreement on a six-year, $150 million deal, the 31-year-old who had been one of the Mets’ targets this offseason is officially going elsewhere. The Mets have still improved dramatically since the offseason began, in large part because they traded for one of the very best players in baseball in Francisco Lindor.
In the short term, though, not landing Springer—who the Mets were reported to have offered in the $120-125 million range over the course of six years—means the Mets aren’t filling their need in center field with the best possible option. Springer had already spent more time in right field in center during his career, but the Astros used him as their primary center fielder as recently as last year, when he logged the vast majority of his defensive innings there. Sometime during the next six years, he’ll presumably spend less time in center and more in right, but he would have been playable in center on an everyday basis—something that cannot be said for Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo.
Speaking of Conforto and Nimmo, the former is eligible for free agency following the 2021 season, while the latter has one more year of arbitration eligibility left in 2022 before he, too, is eligible to become a free agent. Whether they retain one or both of those outfielders long term, though, the need in center field right now is clear. On top of the defensive issues presented by playing either Nimmo or Conforto in center every day, the Mets would have J.D. Davis, Dominic Smith, or recent addition Jose Martinez in left field alongside them, creating a major defensive issue in two-thirds of the outfield. And that brings us to the center field options remaining in free agency.
Among the free agents listed as center fielders over at MLB Trade Rumors, longtime Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner leads the pack since the beginning of the 2019 season with 4.2 fWAR thanks to an above-average bat. In 708 plate appearances over that span, he hit .245/.322/.480 with 33 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and a 114 wRC+. Like any left-handed Yankees hitter, it certainly didn’t hurt to play half of his game in a stadium with an incredibly short porch in right field. And while the 37-year-old has experience in center, the Yankees have used him far more often in left field over the course of his career.
Jack Bradley Jr. ranks second among that group with 2.8 fWAR since the start of the 2019 season, and he’s the player who will get the most attention among Mets fans and writers covering the team. Whereas Gardner has experience in center field, Bradley is undoubtedly a center fielder right now, having played the position almost exclusively in his major league career with just a little bit of time in each of the corners. By wRC+, he’s only been above average as a hitter in three seasons of his career, one of which was the shortened 2020 campaign. And since the beginning of the 2019 season, he hit .241/.330/.429 with 28 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and a 98 WRC+. He’s set to turn 31 in April, and there shouldn’t be any doubt that he can play center—and play it well—for the foreseeable future.
From there, it’s Kevin Pillar, who has hit .266/.300/.440 over that same span with 27 home runs, 19 stolen bases, a 90 wRC+, and 2.5 fWAR. The Mets passed on Pillar in free agency last winter, opting to trade for Jake Marisnick instead, but the right-handed-hitting 32-year-old has very much primarily played center field—except for the time he spent with the Red Sox last year playing right field with Bradley in center.
And after Pillar on that list, things become a little less familiar. Brian Goodwin, a 30-year-old left-handed hitter, has hit .250/.319/.456 with 23 home runs, 12 stolen bases, and a 105 WRC+. He’s played center for a decent chunk of his major league career, which he’s spent with the Nationals, Royals, Angels, and Reds. Danny Santana, who had a good season as the plate for the Rangers in 2019, is on the list, but he’s hardly an everyday center fielder, having played far more at other positions—including first base.
As for the rest of the group, it starts with Marisnick, who hit well in a very, very small amount of playing time with the Mets in 2020, but is still a center fielder. The 28-year-old Delino DeShields has just a 72 wRC+ since the start of the 2019 season who is certainly a center fielder and is capable of stealing bases. The 36-year-old Jarrod Dyson is similar to DeShields when it comes to being able to play center and steal bases, but he’s been even worse at the plate. Billy Hamilton is out there, but he already had a shot with the Mets that saw him get DFA’d for making multiple blunders on the basepaths—something that’s hard to justify for a player whose primary asset is baserunning.
Albert Almora Jr., who is still just 26 and got off to a solid start in his major league career with the Cubs in 2016 and 2017 before his production declined significantly in each season that followed, is available. Chicago non-tendered him earlier this offseason, and he was worth -0.8 fWAR since the 2019 season began. And Jon Jay, who has a 58 wRC+ since the start of the 2019 season, ranks last in the group at -1.3 fWAR over that span.
Clearly, there was a massive gap between George Springer and the rest of the free agent market. But even among the players who are still available, there are clear tiers. Perhaps the Mets avoid all of these players and make a trade instead, but if not, they’d certainly be better off bringing in someone to help in center—preferably one of the good defenders with a track record of being an average-ish major league hitter.