Fate has stuck Juan Lagares at a crossroads not of his own making. Lagares will be 25 before the New York Mets’ season is a quarter old and despite playing a stellar centerfield in 2013 as well as being named the 2014 Grapefruit League starter, his place on the Mets’ Opening Day MLB roster is very much in jeopardy.
As much to blame as Lagares’ incomplete offensive skill set is the perfect storm of questionable sabermetrics, faulty gut feelings, distorted perceptions of value and horrid organizational mismanagement clouding his future. What should be a very plain and simple decision – play him! – has turned quite complicated for no discernable reason.
But, just for fun, let’s try to unravel this Gordian Knot GM Sandy Alderson has sewn for us, one layer at a time.
First, the stats. Defensive metrics are particularly tricky and tend to fluctuate wildly. So, while I can confidently say “Juan Lagares had an historic defensive season patrolling Citi Field’s grass in 2013,” the numbers may show a merely above-average starter in 2014 — even if he’s the same exact player.
The important questions really are “how much will Lagares regress, metrically?” and “does it really matter?”
Prevailing wisdom says that because teams will stop trying to take the extra base on Lagares, his 3.5 “defensive Wins Above Replacement” must drop. Well, it’s going to drop for a lot of reasons (another 14 assists would be kinda legendary), but among the factors that make up dWar is ARM; and ARM factors in holds, the number of times a team doesn’t attempt the extra base because of who fielded the ball. Lagares’ ARM was a higher factor in his dWar than his Range last season.
Yes, this seems complicated and highly subjective (what if the field happens to be wet that day?), but he may or may not regress as much as we think. Which means his eye-test value can’t be ignored.
And if your gut doesn’t tell you that Lagares needs to spend this year as the everyday centerfielder, then please see your gastroenterologist.
A shortstop by trade, his instinct is to attack the ball, unlike most cautious outfielders unfamiliar with bad hops. His arm isn’t a “cannon,” but Lagares is fundamentally sound enough to play a shallow center while keeping himself in position to keep runners nervous.
Just entering his prime, Lagares deserves time for his batting eye to adjust to major league hitting. His career minor league average, including the .342 he posted during Winter League play, is a healthy .284. Considering he is under team control until 2020 for a minimal financial investment, there is no question that Lagares’ value is sky-high; far more than a year of Chris Young for $7.25 million. Well, no question outside the Mets’ front office.
And speaking of horrid organizational mismanagement, if Lagares was penciled in between Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz, would we even be having a debate about this? Of course not. His game would be allowed to mature and in a couple seasons, we would know exactly who Juan Lagares is as a ballplayer. But since Lagares’ future is subject to the head-scratching maneuvers of Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon’s front office, his career may be doomed before it ever gets started.
You know the best part of that Gordian Knot story? After the most brilliant men in all the land fail to untie it, along comes Alexander the Great. After staring at the Know for a few minutes, he takes out his sword and slices it down the middle. Problem solved.
There’s a moral there for the Mets; just play the kid!