With opening day approaching, the New York Mets still have lingering questions to answer. One is in center field, where they face what many have seen as a tough choice between Eric Young Jr. and Juan Lagares.
Mets manager Terry Collins is known to prefer Young as his leadoff hitter. Young’s speed and hustle sparked the team in the second half of the 2013 season, and he led the National League in stolen bases. He also made numerous spectacular catches to save runs and end innings. However, despite the stellar plays, Young is an average-at-best outfielder. His fantastic catches sometimes result from poor reads, and his throwing arm is not strong. As a hitter, despite the energy and excitement he provides, his .251 batting average wasn’t what one would hope for at the top of the order. He did, however, get on base at a more acceptable rate of .318.
Juan Lagares appears to be a future perennial Gold Glove outfielder. He gets excellent jumps and covers tremendous ground. His arm is one of the best in the business. He plays hard, and he always seems to do something to make his pitcher’s night easier. The problem with Lagares has generally been spotty hitting. he batted .242 last season, and his .281 on base percentage was much too low for the leadoff spot. The choice, it seemed, was between offense and defense. That is, until spring training began a month ago.
Juan Lagares has hit well this preseason, sporting a .286 batting average in 42 at-bats. He’s scored runs and stolen a few bases, and just as importantly, he’s only struck out three times. He’s fast, he hustles and now he’s making contact. Writing this off as an anomaly would be premature; Lagares showed flashes last season, hitting well from the middle of the order for a few brief stretches.
Defensive center fielders like Juan Lagares don’t come along very often. The difference he makes in the field would make his hitting excusable, if he didn’t play the same position as the most infectious leadoff hitter the Mets have had since Jose Reyes. But as exciting and valuable as Young’s contributions have been, he’d have to hit much better than Lagares in order to make up for the difference in defense–if it wasn’t for the importance of a consistent leadoff presence.
If Juan Lagares continues to show signs he can produce on offense, this biggest concern would go out the window. The fact that he’s out-hitting Young in spring training makes giving him the starting spot in center field — and at leadoff — the obvious choice.