Juan Lagares did not start for the fourth time in five games last night. As the situation continues to unite Mets fans of all walks of life against Terry Collins, it should be just a matter of time before it results in the only desired outcome: Lagares as everyday center fielder.
The most likely outcome is that Eric Young, Jr. will return to the bench and resume his role as a part-time player, perhaps as everyday pinch-runner in late game situations. We all know how Collins is infatuated with Young’s speed, which admittedly is well-documented; even with scant playing time, EY finds himself second in the National League in stolen bases.
This whole brouhaha would go away if Juan Lagares could be an effective leadoff man. So…how about it?
We’ve seen this season that Lagares can hit. His .296 average ranks second on the team behind Daniel Murphy, and his 9 doubles rank just behind Murphy’s 12 and David Wright’s 10 (keep in mind Juan has far fewer at-bats than Murphy or Wright). His OBP is still an ordinary .336, but it is 55 points higher than it was last season.
Most importantly, Lagares has shown his shown his ability to come through in the leadoff slot. Nine times this season he has hit first for the Mets; in those games, he sports a .325 average with five runs and six doubles, and only once did he go the whole game without a hit. To be fair, it’s a small sample size, but it beats what Young has been able to do from the leadoff slot.
Obviously, what you miss by replacing Young with Lagares is the stolen bases. Juan is 0-2 swiping bags this season, while EY is 15-16. Lagares is never going to be EY on the basepaths, but there’s no reason why he can’t become a more effective baserunner. Clearly, he has some natural speed; his outstanding record patrolling center field should provide some clue of that. Juan needs to learn to channel that speed to baserunning and become selective with his stolen base attempts so that when he does decide to steal, he’ll get there almost every time.
Daniel Murphy seems to be the model for Lagares to follow. Last year Murph figured it out, stealing a career-high 23 bases (19 after EY’s arrival in mid-June) while being caught thrice. This year he pushed his consecutive steals streak close to 30 and is in the top 10 in the NL with 9 bags swiped. Murph is far from the lightning-quick base stealer a la Young or Jose Reyes, but he knows what he can do and he gets the job done most of the time. If Juan Lagares can take a page from Daniel Murphy’s book, he can become just as effective a base stealer and help improve his image as a leadoff hitter.
Juan Lagares is already a top-notch center fielder. He is becoming a solid bat, something New York desperately needs. He has shown signs of being an effective leadoff hitter in 2014, and with some baserunning lessons from the Daniel Murphy school he can add to his resume. Terry Collins favors Eric Young, Jr. as the Mets’ first hitter, but after a year at the helm, we’ve seen what Young can do. It’s time for Juan Lagares to get his chance.