The giddy high produced by almost nonstop winning has made the Mets do strange, crazy, unexpected things.
They rip each other’s shirts off. They chest bump.
They suddenly can’t get enough Juan Lagares.
Of those three, Lagares becoming an everyday, impactful player again for the Mets probably is the most outlandish. If not for the $9 million he’s being paid during this final season of his five-year, $23 million deal, he likely would have been gone by now.
But Lagares has turned himself into an essential player for this stretch run, to the degree that Mickey Callaway intends to stick with him as the starting centerfielder even when Jeff McNeil returns from the injured list, which could happen as early as Saturday.
No one saw that scenario developing, and it’s going to create some unanticipated repercussions. The Mets’ best lineup configuration would put McNeil at third, and the slumping Todd Frazier could wind up on the bench.
“You don’t know who’s going to be the man on any one night,” said Lagares, who entered Friday hitting .406 (13-for-32) with a .988 OPS in his last nine games. “Everybody is coming up big. That’s how you win games like this.”
Well, almost everybody. While Frazier brings his veteran guidance and solid glove, he has cooled off considerably at the plate recently. Callaway chose to give him a breather for the series opener against the Braves on Friday — the same day McNeil was playing third in a rehab start for Class A Brooklyn.
On June 24, Frazier was at his season’s peak, hitting .271 with an .827 OPS. But in the next 48 games, he batted .192 (35-for-182) with a .603 OPS, although he did have seven home runs during that stretch.
Frazier remains a valuable part of the Mets. But with Lagares’ new dimension, McNeil returning and Joe Panik excelling at second base, the Mets have more productive options at the moment.
Even Callaway had to acknowledge that a current starter will get squeezed out. He didn’t name names, obviously. But if you do the math, it’s Frazier right now.
“That’s really hard to say,” Callaway said. “I think we need to take it day by day. Obviously, somebody is going to get less playing time. I don’t think it’s any one person. It will probably be a mixture of everybody.”
Frazier, one of general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s former clients, enjoys favored-nation status, but this is no time for diplomacy. After Friday, only 34 games are left, and there is zero margin for error in this wild-card race. Luis Guillorme replaced Frazier at third for the Braves’ opener, with Panik again at second and Lagares back in centerfield.
Now that Lagares has flourished at the plate, while showing flashes of the defense that won him a Gold Glove in 2014, the Mets can’t quit him. Why would they? He’s certainly got the pitchers’ vote, and Callaway realizes that this revived Lagares is giving them a weapon they didn’t have.
“Lagares deserves to play right now,” Callaway said. “He’s saving runs and creating runs.”
So with Lagares locked in and Panik productive — he was hitting .342 (13-for-38) with 10 runs scored in 12 games — the choices for McNeil are either bumping off a corner outfielder or Frazier. Not much debate there, and the Mets tipped their hand by starting McNeil at third base for the Cyclones. McNeil has played his fewest games at third this season (16) compared to the outfield (79) and second (27).
With the Mets facing lefthanders Max Fried and Dallas Keuchel in the final two games of the Braves series, you’d expect Lagares to stay in the lineup, then get a blow with Monday’s break in the schedule. He’s already had plenty of rest. Lagares made only 43 starts through the Mets’ first 117 games. Getting regular burn now has made all the difference in his mind.
“When you get the chance to play, you can make adjustments and know what you have to do,” he said. “Pete [Alonso] is our most dangerous hitter. But if he didn’t get the opportunity to play that much, there’s no way he can do what he’s doing.”
Lagares is playing now, and the Mets sound determined to keep it that way.