Mets' big question: Can Juan Lagares hit enough to play every day in CF?

Mets outfielder Juan Lagares works out during spring

Mets outfielder Juan Lagares works out during spring training baseball practice Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Is a run saved the same as a run earned?

Not quite, at least to the Mets, who find themselves facing a tough decision about talented centerfielder Juan Lagares.

On paper, Lagares belongs in the lineup every day in centerfield, where his powerful throws and running catches made him a staple of highlight reels last season.

According to Wins Above Replacement, the statistic that measures a player's total contributions, the Mets saved more runs last season with Lagares' elite glove (plus-24.4 above average) than they lost with his faulty bat (minus-12.0).

In 2014, he's again projected to be worth the trade-off. Except the Mets have balked at penciling in Lagares, whose defensive contributions may be difficult to quantify.

As one rival team official noted, defensive metrics generally are plagued with "less year-to-year reliability," making them far less precise than their offensive counterparts.

That relative lack of precision can make direct comparisons more complicated.

"You can't just take his 2013 WAR and say that'll work," said the official, who has a background in analytics. "You have to regress defensive projections a bit and combine those with your offensive projections, plus whatever else you know about the players."

Though the WAR statistic is publicly available, big-league teams often devise their own proprietary metrics, which are used to come up with projections that the official said "will be a touch different" from others.

Lagares faces another hurdle to playing time. Last year, when measured by OPS, the Mets finished in the bottom third of the league in four of eight defensive positions. With those struggles in mind, general manager Sandy Alderson established that offensive production will carry more weight as the team sorts through options in the outfield.

Lagares hit .242 in 421 plate appearances, posting an on-base percentage of .281 that ranked well below league average.

For the Mets to maximize Lagares' value, he would have to play primarily in centerfield, one of the more difficult defensive positions. But the Mets have alternatives with more offensive potential -- just one of the variables they must consider as they decide between offense and defense.

Outfielder Chris Young, considered an above-average glove, brings the potential to hit for much more power than Lagares. Meanwhile, Eric Young Jr. appears to have the inside track to play somewhere in the outfield because manager Terry Collins sees him as perhaps the team's only true leadoff man.

Of course, with his glove, Lagares wouldn't necessarily have to dominate at the plate to justify a spot in the lineup. But the standard he must reach might largely depend on whether the Mets can extract offensive production from other spots.

"I'm not asking him to hit .330," Collins said. "But if this guy hits .280, he can be dangerous because he's such a good defender. Those are All-Star numbers if you play like he can defensively."

Paul DePodesta, the Mets' vice president of player development and scouting, said that improvement isn't totally out of reach for Lagares, 24. He's far from a finished product.

"What that ceiling is, I'm not good enough to tell you at this point," DePodesta said. "But there are physical attributes there. He has a chance to get better."

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