Juan Lagares was one of the few lucky New York Mets to receive an early extension in the 2010s. He never did live up to his contract, but what if he did?
Let’s hit the rewind button. The date is November 4, 2014. The New York Mets finished the season with a disappointing 79-83 record. They also missed the postseason for the eighth consecutive season. However, there is a notable bright spot for fans of the orange and blue. They appear to have their center fielder of the future: Juan Lagares.
It has just been announced that the rising star has been awarded with a coveted Gold Glove trophy. Additionally, the speedy defender hit for a very respectable .281 batting average, while also contributing 47 RBI and 13 stolen bases. Perhaps even more important is the fact that the 25-year-old is just in his second season at the major league level.
The next season (2015), the Mets award their center fielder with a $23 million contract extension through 2019. At the moment, their most important defensive position is secure.
The Mets continue their momentum all the way to their fifth World Series appearance in franchise history. While the team tragically falls to the Kansas City Royals in five games, the future of the franchise couldn’t appear brighter. The New York Mets look primed for years of serious contention.
This moment is where the breakout career of Lagares begins to erode. Mets fans know the rest of the story. The 2014 Gold Glove award would be his last. While Lagares retained his stellar defensive ability, his struggles as a hitter caused him to be relegated to a part-time role.
Eventually, it led to his benching. The former star would see his batting average drop to .254 and his annual RBI average decline to a meager 26 per season. He would also never reach double-digit stolen bases again.
However, let’s imagine for a moment how Lagares could have impacted the team if he had been able to live up to his contract. Can you visualize what the current Mets’ roster would look like with the benefit of an above-average center fielder with Gold Glove abilities?
Center field is one of the biggest points of concern for the 2020 Mets. Brandon Nimmo is currently projected to be the team’s starter. The newly acquired Jake Marisnick is also expected to see time at the position. While each player brings a valuable skill set to the table, it is unclear whether either is equipped to handle the full-time role.
Nimmo is a proficient contact hitter, but profiles more as a natural corner outfielder. Marisnick, on the other hand, is a phenomenal defender but lacks a consistent ability to hit.
This has led to months of speculation that a trade for Pittsburgh Pirates’ All-Star Starling Marte could be the missing piece in New York. But imagine if the Mets already had a player like Marte on the roster?
If Lagares was able to develop as a hitter, there would be no reason to spend time and resources on a center fielder. Michael Conforto and Nimmo could line up on each side of Lagares with Jeff McNeil shifting to a role as the everyday third baseman.
The combination of Lagares in center and Nimmo in left would give the Mets a phenomenal defensive outfield. In fact, this may be the most valuable aspect of this historical rewrite. The Mets’ defense was on the border lined of historically poor levels in 2019.
However, a consistent Gold Glove winner in center could make a major difference. Imagine a world where Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz, and Rick Porcello had the benefit of one of the best defenses in MLB. It’s possible that deGrom may never allow a single run!
At the end of the day, all of this is wishful thinking. Lagares is currently sitting in free agency because of his inability to live up to the contract that the team extended to him five years ago. This means that the New York Mets are wise to consider adding a natural center fielder like Marte to try to capture an above-average defense.
As a lifelong fan of the team, I genuinely hope that Lagares is able to continue his MLB career. I hope that a team in need of a defensive presence or fourth outfielder gives him a chance to continue his rehabilitation as a hitter.
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However, whenever Lagares’ name is mentioned, I can’t help but ponder about what might have been.