There were plenty of things that went wrong with the New York Mets last season, and plenty of positions that the team could use an upgrade in entering 2018. Center field is not one of them.
Brandon Nimmo, the Mets’ first-round pick in the 2011 draft, also found playing time in a similar move from left field to center. Nimmo appeared in 69 games last season, and although most of those appearances were in a pinch-hitting role, he made a big enough impact that he will likely be on the major league roster entering the 2018 season.
Unfortunately for the Mets, Conforto underwent left shoulder surgery in September, and with an expected recovery time of six months, it is unclear whether he will be fully ready come Opening Day. Even if he proves to be a fast healer, the Mets might still hold him out of the lineup for the start of the season to protect their franchise player.
That leaves the center field spot open for grabs entering 2018, at least for the first few weeks. Lagares figures to be the starter for that time, as he was for several seasons prior to Conforto’s emergence as one of the best young outfielders in the league. However, there is no reason why Nimmo shouldn’t be given the opportunity to start instead.
Lagares is an elite fielder, but he has always struggled at the plate, sporting a .257 career batting average with an abysmal .297 on-base percentage. Combined with a decrease in his defensive metrics following several thumb injuries in the past two seasons, Lagares is nowhere near irreplaceable at this point in his career.
Just as Lagares started seeing a significant decline in production, Nimmo stepped up and made an outstanding first impression. Nimmo is nowhere near as solid defensively as Lagares, and his .260 average last season was not where it needed to be, but his .379 on-base percentage helped provide the offense with a spark on numerous occasions. He became the team’s pinch-hitting specialist, and his passion for the game is evident each time he runs down to first base after a walk.
Nimmo’s speed is another important factor that distinguishes him from Lagares. Nimmo hasn’t stolen many bases in the majors, but he is significantly faster than Lagares, which has allowed him to take extra bases in situations where Lagares could not have and eliminates the need for a pinch runner late in games.
If the Mets fail to sign a corner outfielder in free agency, they might have to start both Nimmo and Lagares until Conforto returns from injury. Given the Mets’ desire to reunite with Jay Bruce, who they traded to the Cleveland Indians at the deadline last year, it seems likely that Nimmo and Lagares will be fighting for one outfield spot to open the 2018 season. Nimmo gives the Mets the best chance to compete in Conforto’s absence, and if he is able to find success, the confidence he gains through this opportunity could go a long way toward helping him become the player the Mets thought he would be back when they drafted him.
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