The Mets defense was bad in 2016. Really, it’s been bad for a while and for it to actually improve will take some doing. Fangraphs has the Mets 17th in fielding by Def, which is a fielding and positional adjustment stat. They were at -8.5. The Cubs were first, with 69.0. This isn’t meant to be a post about emulating what the World Series champion did last year, but it’s certainly a target area the Mets need to fix. The Cubs had 103 more Defensive Runs Saved than the Mets, and no matter what value you put on some of these stats, anyone can tell that the Cubs were good at preventing runs and the Mets weren’t.
The problem is figuring out where you can improve defense without sacrificing offense, something else the Mets struggled with at times. The easiest spot is first base; Just adding Lucas Duda back gives you much offense and boosts the defense too. Duda’s not a stud defensively but he presents a big target, makes the plays, and generally provides average defense all around. This is a big step up from what the Mets dealt with in 2016, and I don’t think it can be understated how much losing Duda hurt the team.
Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera were solid up the middle. If that’s the combo again the Mets infield should be alright. None of David Wright, Jose Reyes, or Wilmer Flores are particularly good , or good anymore, at third, but with the other three around the infield it shouldn’t be that a big deal. Certainly not a big enough deal to seek out another option.
It’s the outfield that’s going to present a problem, and it’s the key to the entire offseason. Jay Bruce is bad. Curtis Granderson is bad. Michael Conforto’s actually been alright in limited time but he’s not really a centerfielder and hasn’t hit enough, or consistently, to bank on playing all season. This appears to be a serious case for Juan Lagares to get a lot of playing time.
There are roster issues to take care of first though. The Mets could look to to add a real centerfielder, though they’re hard to come by, but they already need to clear an outfielder or two from the roster as it is. They could continue sacrificing defense by moving guys like Granderson, Cespedes and Conforto in and out of the center spot as the lineup allows, but that’s not ideal for a variety of reasons.
So can Juan Lagares hack it? The definitive answer is..maybe. We know he can defend, sometimes he defends too well and hurts himself diving. It’d be nice if he could avoid that without sacrificing range. With plus defensive numbers while playing centerfield, the bar for acceptable offense is a lot lower. Major League centerfielders put up a 96 wRC+ last year, with a .259/.324/.407 slash line. Since Lagares made his major league debut he ranks 68th of 128 qualifying center fielders in wRC+. This is behind guys the Mets previously parted ways with including Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. He jumps up to 22nd if you go by fWAR though, which really emphasizes how much of his value has been with the glove.
So can Juan Lagares be better than his norm with the bat, to justify his role as the Mets best option in center? Though it was in limited time, his rate numbers from 2016 are actually encouraging. He walked more, struck out less, and drove the ball more when he did make contact–all with a below average BABIP. Of course the league as a whole walked more and hit for more power, so it’s possible a lot of that is an illusion. The drop in strikeouts is a nice reason to hope it’s not, and that he can be not horrible at the plate which would make him immensely valuable as a Mets centerfielder. If the rest of the Mets lineup can stay healthy and hit like they are capable of, the team could probably afford to carry a slightly-subpar bat that’s adding value in run prevention they sorely need.