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The Mets’ outfield will hit in 2021 while mostly playing out of position in the field

The Mets’ outfield has the potential to be one of the more interesting groups in baseball, for a myriad of reasons.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The group with the most continuity for the 2021 Mets is their outfield. Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto—the left, center, and right fielders respectively—have been Mets mainstays since 2019, when Smith had his breakout campaign, and Nimmo debuting in 2016 and Conforto in 2015. This trio is most likely to make the bulk of the starts for the 2021 group, with guys like Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora pitching in defensively and against tough lefties.

The outfield is also arguably the most interesting group, mostly because how the lack of a designated hitter has virtually handcuffed the Mets into playing a defensively sub-optimal group, with the hope that their offensive contributions will outweigh that the group will almost certainly give to a potent Mets lineup.

Dominic Smith, Left Field

Dominic Smith is an outfielder on the scorecard and on the depth chart, but he really is a first baseman. He has, in a word, struggled defensively in left since the emergence of one Pete Alonso made his chances to be the Mets’ everyday first baseman pretty much nonexistent.

Smith has hardly had a easy path to this success. After a minor league career that showed issues hitting for power, he made his major league debut in 2017 and floundered, hitting .198/.262/.395 (74 wRC+) in 183 plate appearances. His struggles continued in his sophomore season, as he hit .224/.255/.420 (83 wRC+) in 149 plate appearances.

That all changed in 2019, with changes both on and off the field propelling him to legitimately become one of the better hitters in the sport. Smith hit .282/.355/.525 (132 wRC+) in 197 plate appearances (a stress fracture in his foot truncated his breakout campaign). He followed that up with a 2020 that saw him get even better, hitting a ridiculous .316/.377/.616 (164 wRC+) in a career high 199 plate appearances.

His bat has really become lethal since that 2019 campaign, and he has the 12th-best wRC+ (148) in that span among batters with at least 350 plate appearances.

The big elephant in the room, however, is the defense. He clearly needs to play because of how he has hit the past two seasons, but his natural position is occupied by a certain power hitting polar bear. Without a DH, the Mets felt that sticking him in left field and basically dealing with the defensive shortcomings is worth it. This is not to say he has not improved in the outfield—he has—it is to say that there is simply a ceiling to how good a natural first baseman will be in the outfield. He is likely to hit a ton and be replaced late in games for defensive purposes.

Brandon Nimmo, Center Field

Brandon Nimmo is also affected by the lack of a designated hitter in the National League, but not as directly as Smith is. Because Smith has to play a lot of left field this year, Nimmo has to shift over to center field. Nimmo was okay in center earlier in his career, but he has struggled mightily in the spot since his neck injury-riddled 2019 campaign. This spring, he has discussed how new outfield/baserunning coach Tony Tarasco has altered his positioning in center, moving him deeper in the outfield. The defense is the big question mark for him, and it will be interesting to see if the changes help.

Offensively, we pretty much know what to expect with Nimmo. His eye is incredible, as evidenced by his 14.7% walk rate in 2020 being his lowest rate since becoming a regular in 2017, which is a number some players could not even dream of. His ability to consistently get on base etches his name at the top of the lineup whenever he is in it, and it helps raise his floor considerably as an offensive player. He does more than just walk, too, as he had a 148 wRC+ in 2018 and 2020. He is a good player who is simply playing out of position, though it will be interesting to see if the Mets can hide his defensive shortcomings.

Michael Conforto, Right Field

Michael Conforto is 1) the only outfielder playing in his natural position, 2) probably the best all around outfielder on the roster, and 3) might be in his last season in Queens. Regardless of that, he is likely going to be the best all-around outfielder on the Mets this season.

Conforto is a quality defender, and his bat has been more good than bad in his career. After bursting on the scene in 2015, posting a 133 wRC+ as a rookie and being a key cog in the team’s National League pennant victory, he had a sophomore slump, with his wRC+ plummeting to a 97. 2017 saw him correct that slump, as he hit .279/.384/.555 (147 wRC+), en route to an All-Star Game appearance. That season ended early, however, as he dislocated his shoulder on a swing and had surgery.

He improved post-surgery every year since, culminating in an incredible 2020 campaign in which he hit .322/.412/.515 (157 wRC+), his best offensive season yet. While predicting a near 160 wRC+ is hard to do, it is easy to say that Conforto will be one of the better players on the roster, and he’s probably the best one in the outfield. There are a million more questions around where he is playing in 2022 and beyond, rather than if he will be a good player for the 2021 Mets, because he absolutely will be.

The Mets’ outfield is a very strange and interesting one. They have a first baseman playing left field, a corner outfielder playing center, and, well, a right fielder playing right field. While the defense might be an adventure at times, there is one constant about them: they can all rake. The offense will be fun to watch with this group, and the defense will be interesting to track.