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.
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.
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.