The biggest obstacle the Mets are facing this season is quite clearly finding an outfield. They went into the offseason knowing this would be an issue and they came out the offseason with very few questions answered. However, the uncertainty does not have to last as the Mets have two players that have the ability to defend the vast Citi Field outfield for years to come.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekkerhave the ability to turn things around as soon as next year. They are two speedy, defensive-minded players that have shown they will go great lengths to keep that baseball from touching the ground or, as more recently shown, go over the fence.
Nieuwenhuis and den Dekker are both traditionally center fielders. They are both left-handed hitters. They both make more outs than anybody would like to see. They also both have the potential to be productive MLB players.
Last season Kirk found a place in the lineup immediately and with it found quick success. In April he hit .325 and although that was where his average peaked for the season, he hit a respectable .271 against righties in 82 games. He hit all but one of his home runs against righties as well. Those are nice numbers for a platoon, but if he wants to play everyday he will have to improve against lefties. Excluding a somewhat rough transition to AAA, he never hit under .270 in the minors while playing everyday, so he has the ability to make the necessary improvements.
As for den Dekker, before he even reaches the Mets he has to learn to hit in AAA. He hit only .220 during his first stint with the Bisons last season, a stint that also included 90 strikeouts in only 77 games. Even so, he had similar stats during his first stay in AA, 91 strikeouts in 72 games, only to figure it out during his second stay when he hit .340 and had 21 doubles in 58 games. So before he is written off as a defense-only player, I want to see what he can do during his second stay in AAA.
Spring Training provides a great time for the Mets to give Nieuwenhuis and den Dekker the chance to adjust to each other because having two center fielders in the outfield doesn’t automatically lead to bliss, as Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron proved with one terrifying moment of miscommunication. Kirk needs the innings in left field or right field or wherever the Mets want to put him out there. Matt needs the at-bats because that’s simply how he adjusts to a new level.
The Mets would be lucky to have both of these players patrolling the outfield in 2014 and beyond. But it is up to the Mets to let both of them play. A huge problem with Nieuwenhuis last season was that they stopped letting him play against lefties. If they want to stop relying on Marlon Byrd and other cheap platoon options they need to know what Kirk can really do. They must get Kirk at-bats and innings away from centerfield. His defense in centerfield never faded last season but he was clearly more tentative playing elsewhere.
The improvements aren’t going to happen overnight but the Mets might be able to afford having Lucas Duda‘s defense out there if Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker play the way they have shown they can.
Watching the Mets has required a lot of patience since 2006. Unfortunately, this situation requires more patience from everyone involved. The Mets can’t be too trigger-happy with den Dekker’s development in AAA and they can’t take Nieuwenhuis out of the lineup because of two or three poor games against lefties.
The Mets outfield is coming together and it will be on display soon enough.