By: David Weiss
After a month long stretch of horribly baseball, the Mets have finally gotten hot. They have won five out of their last seven games. This was highlighted by a three-game sweep in which the Mets knocked the Diamondbacks out of first place. However, during one loss the Mets took a serious blow.
In Wednesday’s blowout loss, Juan Lagares made a running catch in the ninth in which he crashed into the wall. It was a valiant effort in a lost cause. His foot smacked the area below the padding and MRI later showed a complete tear of the big toe plantar plate. Lagares will need surgery and his 2018 campaign ended in mid-May.
For as long as Lagares has been a Met, injuries have followed him like the plague. In 2014, he injured his hamstring in April. In June 2016, Lagares injured his left thumb. The Mets rushed him back, and in July he reinjured the same thumb. In 2017 Lagares began the season on the shelf with a strained oblique. After recovering, he reinjured that same left thumb in June and missed two months. By this point, no one is shocked to hear that Lagares got injured.
While we may not be shocked, it is hard not to feel for the guy. Since his rookie season, it was clear that he was an elite defender. Juan Lagares was the zip code where fly balls went to die. Simply everything hit in his general direction was caught. Other outfielders could guard the lines since Lagares had the gaps. He could play shallow and go back on balls like no one else.
However, starting in 2015 his defense declined. His dWAR went from being off the charts amazing to just good. Lagares made good plays but he also wasn’t as smooth as he had been previously. In a game earlier this year in St. Louis, the Mets lost in extra innings when Lagares couldn’t catch a fly ball that would have been the last out. While you can’t judge a player on one bad play, it has become somewhat emblematic of his declining defense.
The downside of his game was always his hitting. For a centerfielder, Lagares has very little power and is not a base stealing threat. While his batting average was never terrible, he always had a relatively low OBP. His best offensive season was 2014 when he slashed .281/.321/.382 and hit just four homers. In his first five seasons, Lagares had an OPS of just .663 and this relegated him to a defensive replacement.
Prior to this season, Lagares started taking his offensive game seriously. He realized that his glove was keeping him in the majors, while his bat was keeping him out of the lineup. To avoid becoming irrelevant, he started working with swing doctor Craig Wallenbrock. After 64 plate appearances, the change was clear. Lagares stopped swinging for the fences and just worked on making solid contact. Lagares hit .339 and those hits were almost exclusively singles. He went from a guy who whiffed in 20% of the time to just 14%. While he wasn’t playing a lot, his offense was noticeably better. In just 30 games, his WAR was 0.9 and split evenly both offensively and defensively.
The big question is how bad is this injury? Is this extremely detrimental to the Mets chances of sustained success in 2018 or is Lagares replaceable? Could this even be a net gain?
Since the injury, the Mets brought in Jose Bautista as a righthanded outfielder. Many are skeptical about this move. Bautista is not the fearsome slugger he once was. How much gas is left in the tank is yet to be determined. Last season he was a shell of his once great self. However, the Mets will pay him under $400,000 so the move has low-risk high-reward potential.
In center, neither Nimmo nor Conforto are as defensively gifted as Lagares, but both are adequate. Here things get interesting. With Cespedes and Bruce locked up through 2020, the Mets have Nimmo and Conforto fighting for time. Both youngsters have shown that they can be a real force. Conforto has huge power potential while Nimmo is a scrappy player who gets on base no matter what the cost. Without Lagares, we can assume that both will get a more opportunities to play.
Thankfully the Mets have depth. Even with Cespedes and Lagares out, the Mets have three legitimate outfielders and a seasoned veteran. Defensively, no one is as good as Lagares but offensively he is replaceable. While Lagares was hitting well, it was only a matter of time until his batting average would have declined. Regardless, his righthanded bat was noticeably absent in last night’s loss to a lefty. Once Frazier and Cespedes return, they will add right handed depth. Lagares is a nice player to have when he is healthy but by no means does his injury ruin the season.
(David Weiss is a lifelong Mets fan. He has lived in Israel since 2008 and runs the Facebook page Jewish Mets Fans.)