Sep 29, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares (12) scores the game-tying run against the Milwaukee Brewers during the eighth inning of a game at Citi Field. The Mets won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

How Can Juan Lagares Secure a Starting Job?

A week and a half ago, Terry Collins pegged Eric Young, Jr. as the Mets’ top leadoff candidate for 2014. Because free-agent imports Curtis Granderson and Chris Young fill up two-thirds of the outfield, Collins’s statement implied that Young would get his job at the expense of Juan Lagares. Many Met voices cried out in anguish, Rising Apple included, at the thought of a young fielder Lagares’s caliber sitting in favor of a speedy-yet-average ballplayer. A few days later, Collins came out and said Lagares would start Spring Training as New York’s primary centerfielder. He did follow that comment, as he did with Young’s, with assurance that anything is possible. Clearly.

Sep 28, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares (12) tracks down a line drive hit by Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki (not pictured) during the seventh inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the commotion has died down, let’s consider where Collins is coming from in instituting competition. If fielding was the only factor, it would be no contest: Lagares’s glove work is far better than Young’s. However, with other factors considered, it becomes a tight race. Young and Lagares were fairly similar at the plate in 2013. EY Jr. hit .251 with the Mets and sported an ordinary .647 OPS, while Juan hit .242 with a .633 OPS. Lagares had the higher slugging percentage (.352 to .336), while Young put up the superior on-base percentage (.310 to .281).

While neither player has numbers that would make for an obvious leadoff hitter, Young clearly holds the advantage on the basepaths. He is the defending National League steals champion, while Lagares would have stolen just six bases in a full season at his 2013 rate. If Young’s speed cancels out Lagares’s defense, New York’s need for speed makes it the trump card. Hence, the job is Young’s to lose.

Sep 12, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder Eric Young Jr. (22) rounds third and scores after being driven in by second baseman Daniel Murphy (not pictured) during the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

So, if what Terry says is true, and Eric Young has the inside track, what does Juan Lagares need to do to be the Mets’ starting centerfielder on Opening Day? What does Lagares need to do to convince Collins that his bat in the middle of the order is more valuable than Young’s at the top?

Most straightforward, Juan could solve a lot of problems if he could hit better than .242. The SNY team has talked about Lagares sealing his major-league future if he could hit around .270 or .280. A model Lagares could follow is Jim Edmonds, who hit .284 over his 17-year major-league career. Edmonds won’t get into the Hall of Fame on his bat, but his bat is a great supplement for his superb glove, which should get him to Cooperstown someday. Yes, Lagares has a long way to go before he gets mentioned in Edmonds’s breath, but if Juan can hit like that, he’ll play every day.

Of course, Edmonds also had plate patience on his side, as proven by his .376 lifetime OBP. This is where Lagares needs to make major improvements: while he’s 40 points below Edmond’s batting average, he’s nearly 100 off pace in OBP. Juan needs to develop his batter’s eye and shorten his swing to cut down on strikeouts and accumulate walks. It’s not enough just increase contact. Because of Lagares’s talent tracking the ball in the outfield, tracking the ball from the pitcher’s mound should not be that much of a stretch.

Another aspect Lagares can improve with his fielding prowess is his baserunning. As Daniel Murphy proved last year, a good base-stealer does not need to be as fast as Ricky Henderson. All he needs is to be smart about it. All the quick jumps Juan got on fly balls last season prove he’s got some decent legs; in any case, they can’t be worse than Murph’s. If he learns to pick his spots, he could easily steal 20 bases a season. Last week, Lagares was reported to join teammates for voluntary fitness training in Michigan. Perhaps that’s what he worked on.

Juan Lagares may already be the best defensive center fielder in the National League, but only after he improves his batting average, plate patience, and baserunning will he become an everyday lock for the New York Mets. Even after these improvements, Lagares may still not be the ideal leadoff hitter, and Terry Collins may still be apt to find a place for Eric Young in the everyday lineup (think Young-to-second, Murphy-to-first). If all goes well, though, Young won’t be in center field. That’s Juan Lagares’s job.

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Tags: Eric Young Juan Lagares New York Mets

  • Eric Kench

    Utter nonsense!!! Lagares made five errors in limited playing time. No outfielder makes five errors! Eric Young Jr. was nominated by managers and coaches as a Gold Glove finalist. Why does everyone keeping dreaming about Lagares? He lost his starting centerfield job the moment the Mets signed Chris Young.

    • Christian Stefos Migliorese

      Uh, go look up what assists are. Lagares in limited time posted a defensive 3.5 war. Eric Young Jr posted a -0.0 defensive war. Like, are you kidding? Anyone can see Lagares is 5 x’s the outfielder Young Jr is.

    • allucky66

      Eric! Evidently you don’t like Lagares for whatever reason and have selective vision to warrant this ridiculous agenda. His defensive contributions were superlative. Sometimes errors occur as a result of getting to a spot others can’t or making an accurate throw that takes a nasty bounce and gets away from the fielder allowing the runner to advance. Its also abit of an exaggeration to say Juan made 5 errors in limited playing time. He played enough to get a clear picture of his attributes as a defender.

    • Eric Kench

      Lagares may not even been on the roster come opening day. His fate was sealed when Chris Young was signed. He’s here to play centerfield.

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  • yagottabelieve

    “A model Lagares could follow is Jim Edmonds”. WHAT???????

    Jim Edmonds posted six straight seasons with an OPS of over .900, including one year (at age 34) when he went 42/111/.301 with a .418 OBP and an OPS of 1.061 and also won the Gold Glove in CF.

    To suggest Juan Lagares could “follow his model” is like suggesting Ruben Tejada could follow the Troy Tulowitzki model. I’d love it if it happened, but it’s not a serious possibility.

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  • Herb G

    What Juan Legares needs to do in order to secure a starting job in the outfield, is to convince Stephen Drew to acept the Mets offer. With Drew in the fold, he would get the leadoff spot instead of EYJ, and Legares job as starting CF would be secured.

    • Will DeBoer

      Drew’s strikeout numbers worry me (124 in 124 games last year), but his OBP makes him a viable leadoff man, certainly more than Young.

    • Herb G

      No disagreement there. At this time, we simply do not have an optimal leadoff hitter, and even Drew would not be nearly perfect. I had been hoping Sandy could trade for one, but that just didn’t happen. I suspect that everyone is overvaluing their trade chips.

    • Will DeBoer

      I was really hoping Tejada would become that guy last year. Showed so much promise in 2012. He’s still young but he’s running out of time, and I doubt he’ll ever be a lead off guy again.

    • Herb G

      Even at his best, Tejada didn’t fit the mold of a leadoff hitter. True he had a .360 OBP in 2011, but he simply doesn’t have the speed to get himself into scoring position often enough once he gets on base.

      I don’t know whether Sandy would consider it, since he has played only 1 game at SS since 2011 and it is surely not his best position, but Emilio Bonifacio could be good in the leadoff spot. He had a .352 OBP with KC last season in 158 AB, with 16 SB and only 2 CS. (Even better with Fla. in 2011) At very worst, he would be a great utility infielder off the bench, since he is a switch hitter who can play all infield positions except 1B, and all three outfield positions. If he clears waivers, which looks likely, I’d love to see Sandy pick him up.