Many within the New York Mets organization believed that Juan Lagares would be a key member of the team’s outfield in the years to come following a 2014 season in which he captured an NL Gold Glove and led the Mets with a 5.5 WAR. Less than three years later, Lagares’ lack of production has buried him on the team’s depth chart, and his future with the Mets is in severe doubt.
Debuting during the 2013 season, Lagares struggled mightily on offense, batting just .242 with a paltry .281 on-base percentage. However, his defensive excellence helped him become an everyday player during the 2014 season, and after raising his average to .281, there was hope among members of the organization and fans alike that he would continue to develop into a productive and reliable hitter.
Lagares began the 2015 season as the team’s starting center fielder, but after the Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline and called up Michael Conforto, he was relegated to a bench role. He finished the season with a .259 batting average, and although he was an invaluable defensive replacement that helped the team reach the World Series, his regression at the plate made the decision to remove him from the starting lineup incredibly easy for manager Terry Collins.
The 2016 season saw Lagares slide even further down the depth chart, as the Mets resigned Cespedes and eventually traded for Jay Bruce at the trade deadline. Additionally, Lagares injured his left thumb while making a diving catch, and after spending two separate stints on the disabled list he returned to the team as a markedly worse defensive player. His .239 batting average during the 2016 season all but confirmed his role as a bench player, and although he has hit .274 so far this season, injuries have again prevented him from recapturing his Gold Glove-winning form.
Lagares might not be the player the Mets hoped he would become after his outstanding 2014 season, but he has every opportunity over these next few weeks to play his way back into the team’s plans for next season and beyond. The Mets have already traded Bruce, and it seems incredibly likely that Curtis Granderson will also be moved before the end of August, providing additional playing time for Lagares. If he plays well down the stretch, he could be named the team’s third starting outfielder entering the 2018 season, a position which as of right now is up for grabs.
Still, in order for him to win that job, he will have to beat out second-year player Brandon Nimmo. Nimmo projects to be a significantly better offensive player than Lagares, batting .352 at Triple-A last season and establishing himself as a rather effective pinch hitter this season. Lagares might be better defensively, but unless he shows improvement offensively, it would be hard to justify keeping him in the starting lineup over Nimmo.
Lagares is under contract through 2019 with a team option for the 2020 season, making this situation a win-win for the Mets. If he proves himself offensively, then the Mets will reap the benefits for the next two to three seasons. If he fails to impress, the Mets can look to trade him and his team-friendly contract. For the time being, however, Lagares has some work to do before he can be confidently included in the team’s future plans, as he was just three years ago.
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