JUPITER, Fla. — If the peak age for an emerging hitter is believed to be 27, consider that Juan Lagares will turn 29 on March 17. If he’s going to become a regular, he better hurry up.
“It’s gotta happen [soon],” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said before Lagares made his spring training debut on Friday.
At his best, Lagares may only be a fourth outfielder and defensive replacement. But if he has a good spring training, he may get a chance to be more for the 2018 Mets. Much more, actually.
With Michael Conforto out until at least May 1 after shoulder surgery and manager Mickey Callaway stating a preference for defense in center, Lagares is getting a look as the team’s leadoff hitter after returning from a strained left hamstring.
On Saturday, Lagares had a single in two at-bats in the Mets’ 1-0 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium.
“I just want to see him play,” Callaway said. “Good at-bats by him today.”
The easiest thing for the Mets to do would be to platoon the righthanded-hitting Lagares with Brandon Nimmo in center until Conforto returns.
But here’s another scenario: Lagares wins the full-time job with a reworked swing and his usual Gold Glove defense. Even when Conforto returns, it’s as a rightfielder. The Mets use Jay Bruce more than expected at first base, especially if Adrian Gonzalez gets off to slow start or is troubled by the back woes that limited him to 71 games in Los Angeles last season.
Alderson laid the groundwork with Bruce to possibly play more first base than you might expect when he signed the outfielder to a three-year, $39-million contract. It may not be needed, but Bruce won’t be blindsided if the Mets ask him to switch positions after Conforto’s return.
The Mets don’t have much invested in Gonzalez — the major-league minimum of $545,000. They have a lot more time and money invested in Lagares, who was on the cusp of All-Star status four years ago but is less regarded now.
Alderson signed Lagares to a five-year, $23.03-million contract extension after the 2014 season, which unfortunately for the Mets is still Lagares’ best big-league campaign.
He hit .281 with four home runs, 47 RBIs, 13 stolen bases and a .703 OPS. Other than the six home runs he hit in 2015, Lagares has regressed in every other offensive benchmark. Over the last two seasons, he has only amassed 432 plate appearances because of injuries and ineffectiveness.
Lagares won his only Gold Glove in 2014. His bat has not been enough to keep him in the lineup, so this offseason Lagares worked with hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock in an attempt to change his swing to get more balls in the air.
“The interesting thing about Lagares that we’re going to see in the next few weeks is if his new swing leads to more selectivity at the plate,” Alderson said. “What’s interesting to me is that you can teach strike zone discipline. But in his case, he’s changed his swing to try and get more lift. And to me, the question is going to be whether that contributes to his discipline just by virtue of the fact you can’t lift every pitch. So if he starts laying off pitches that he can’t lift as opposed to pitches that aren’t strikes, it may lead indirectly to the kind of discipline that we’re looking for. It’ll be interesting to see. That’s my theory and it could happen that way.”
Wallenbrock is credited with helping Chris Taylor of the Dodgers and J.D. Martinez (now of the Red Sox) make a similar adjustment. Martinez just agreed to a $110-million contract after becoming a premier power hitter.
The Mets aren’t looking for Lagares to improve that much. But he is getting a tad pricey for a fourth or fifth outfielder at $6.5 million for this year and $9 million for next. That’s part of why Alderson was willing to offer around Lagares this offseason for an infielder before the Mets signed Todd Frazier to play third base.
Alderson said he didn’t want to speculate on the Opening Day lineup because that’s Callaway’s call. The rookie manager, while not showing his whole hand, did state a preference for a glove man in center when asked about Lagares’ role.
“That’s very valuable,” Callaway said. “I think it’s very valuable, especially up the middle, to have good defenders.”
Lagares, for his part, is eager for the chance to reestablish himself as the player the Mets thought they had in 2014.
“I’m working hard every day,” he said. “Whatever opportunity they give to me, I want to be ready for it.”