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Mets position analysis: Brandon Nimmo's on-base skills make defensive issues in center tolerable

Mets' Brandon Nimmo runs along the first base

Mets' Brandon Nimmo runs along the first base line on his two-run triple against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the second inning of an MLB baseball game at Citi Field on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Mets position by position. We already covered first basesecond baseshortstopthird base and catcher. Now, centerfield.

The starter: In 2014, as he was emerging as a top-100 prospect and earned a promotion to Double-A Binghamton, Brandon Nimmo played leftfield for the first time as a professional. He was strictly a centerfielder until then, but the Mets weren’t sure if he was good enough defensively to stay there long-term, so they wanted to see what Nimmo looked like in a corner outfield spot.

Six years later, after bouncing among all three outfield spots for four major-league seasons, here Nimmo is, the Mets’ starting centerfielder — and still there is a question, to some degree, about whether that is the best idea.

Nimmo the defender probably is best suited for a corner spot. But Nimmo the whole player — including a sharp eye at the plate and an on-base percentage around .400 — is an acceptable answer in center. A team is willing to take a potential hit on defense for the sake of extra hits and walks on offense.

The biggest variable in all of this is Nimmo’s neck, which caused him to miss about half of last season. He said in February that, after dealing with two bulging discs in 2019, he will need to manage his neck for at least the rest of his career, but he can “play freely” and was confident the neck won’t be an issue.

Over the past two seasons — his breakout 2018 and injury-hampered 2019 — he has a .250/.395/.459 slash line. That OBP ranks sixth among 200 big-leaguers with as many plate appearance, right behind Alex Bregman and Juan Soto and just ahead of Anthony Rendon and J.D. Martinez.

That is why the Mets are willing to play him regularly in center.

The other options: After cutting ties with Juan Lagares, who had been the team’s longest-tenured player, the Mets replaced him with Jake Marisnick, who is cheaper and better. He is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2020 season.

Marisnick is an ace defender and a below-average hitter, a solid complement to the Mets’ outfield of J.D. Davis/Dominic Smith/Yoenis Cespedes in left, Nimmo in center and Michael Conforto in right. Depending on who is hitting well in a given stretch, the Mets could start Marisnick in center and slide Nimmo to left.

Before spring training was suspended, non-roster invitee Ryan Cordell, who has played all three outfield spots, had an impressive camp.

The future: In an alternate timeline — and perhaps the literal dreams of Mets fans — Jarred Kelenic is beating down the major-league door to answer the Mets’ centerfield question for a long time. In real life, he was the centerpiece of the December 2018 trade for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano — and so it was for the Mariners that he reached Double-A at age 20 last year, his first full professional season.

The Mets don’t have many outfielders near the top of their farm system. In MLB Pipeline’s ranking of the organization’s top 30 prospects, for example, the first outfielder is No. 16: Alexander Ramirez, who signed with the Mets for a $2.05 million bonus last summer. The 17-year-old Dominican hasn’t made his pro debut yet.

That leaves Nimmo or an external addition manning center over the long term. This offseason’s free-agent pool includes two particularly attractive external additions: Mookie Betts, who is primarily a rightfielder but has more than enough athleticism to play center, and George Springer. Betts especially should receive a massive contract, the kind the Mets historically have not handed out.

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