Spring training will bring plenty of position battles for the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie. One of those battles determines who will be playing center field on March 31 against the Washington Nationals.
The Mets are set to begin Grapefruit League action on February 28. General manager Sandy Alderson recently said on WFAN that Juan Lagares would be starting that game in center field, according to a report from MetsBlog.
Alderson also mentioned that the starting outfield will be determined mostly by offensive production. Curtis Granderson is the only player currently assured to be an everyday starter. That means Chris Young, Eric Young Jr. and Lagares will duke it out over the two remaining spots.
Adam Rubin of ESPN New York reports that this strategy may be the easiest way to get EY Jr. in the lineup, despite Lagares being the superior defensive player.
After all, the Mets need a leadoff hitter to emerge, and Terry Collins did say that Young is the leading candidate, according to another Rubin report from ESPN New York.
However, Joe D. of Mets Merized Online provided an interesting quote from Alderson regarding Lagares’ offensive capability:
Juan is trying to adapt. It’s very important to look at things below the surface. A lot can be predicted about a hitter based on when he hits in the count, early in the count or late in the count. You probably remember from last year, he was behind in the count all the time. He’s trying to make adjustments, mentally. It’s not about drawing walks, it’s about getting into hitter’s counts.
Alderson continued to make his case:
Another thing is that Lagares has a knack for making contact, even behind in the count. There’s not a lot of power there right now, but he definitely made an improvement as the season went on.
Through 121 games played in 2013, Lagares accumulated 421 plate appearances. Of those, 234 began with a strike—putting him in an immediate hole 56 percent of the time.
The count progressed to no ball and two strikes 107 times, which accounted for 25 percent of his total plate appearances last season.
Lagares found himself behind in the count so often because he was swinging at balls out of the strike zone more than normal (35.4 percent). He also swung at balls in the strike zone 60.1 percent of the time, nearly five percent below the league average.
Despite these deviations, he made contact either at or above league average in both situations (73.2 percent outside the strike zone, 87.2 percent in the strike zone).
Alderson made the point that he’s not looking for Lagares to draw more walks in order to increase his on-base percentage. If he can put himself in better hitter’s counts, he’ll see better pitches to hit, hopefully leading to an increase in how often he reaches base.
When looking deeper into his 2013 offensive performance, it’s not surprising to see Lagares’ .242/.281/.352 line. The next question is whether or not he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments to hold on to his starting job in center field.
Throughout his professional career, Lagares has shown the ability to adjust in the minor leagues. Entering the system as a 17-year-old in 2006, it took him five seasons to reach High-A St. Lucie, struggling with the bat along the way.
After hitting .233/.248/.316 in 33 Florida State League games in 2010, he posted a .338/.380/.494 line in 82 games to start the 2011 season. That earned him a midseason promotion to Double-A Binghamton. From that point on, his batting average and on-base percentage have never dipped below .283 and .334, respectively.
Who will be the Mets' starting center fielder on Opening Day?
After the 2013 season, Lagares played in 28 more games in the Dominican Winter League, accumulating 114 at-bats. He only drew seven walks, but he clearly got into more hitter’s counts, producing a .342/.379/.412 line.
Some reporters, such as Rubin, may feel that the Mets using offense to decide the starting outfield will force Lagares to begin the year with Triple-A Las Vegas. That may not be the case if he can make the necessary adjustments, which he’s shown to be capable of in the past.
Lagares hit and reached base at a decent rate in his minor league days. Starting the first Grapefruit League game shows the Mets want to give him every chance to prove himself. An improved offensive approach—and with his superb defense—will make him the clear winner in this position battle.
That would leave Terry Collins without his preferred leadoff hitter, but that will be a separate competition to keep track of in camp.
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