Why do I believe in Juan Lagares? It’s simple: he does everything.
Juan Lagares is the best defensive center fielder in the league, as confirmed by the mostly-moronic BBWAA. He is a perennially improving leadoff threat, as evidenced by his 40 point increase in OBP, and 70 point increase in OPS in 2014. He’s an improving threat on the bases, as shown by his 13 steals in 2014. He’s a batter with improving instincts, as shown by his decreasing strikeouts, which were never that high to begin with.
But that’s not all Juan Lagares is: he’s also a player with serious potential. He’s still only 25, and he’s got plenty of time to develop into a full-blown star, or at least a more-serious-than-he-is-now contributor.
Lagares, although he has not shown it so far, has some serious offensive potential: he burst on the scene as a prospect in 2011, when he hit .337 across four minor league levels. In a scouting report on the Mets Minor League Report, Lagares was described as “generating good bat speed,” and “a line drive hitter who uses the whole field well.” He was also said to lack power, but the report may not have been entirely accurate: he was also described as someone who “profiles more as a left fielder.” Lagares’ speed was also on display in the minors: he stole 25 bases in 2010, 19 in 2011, and 23 in 2012, before his major league call-up in 2013.
Over his minor league career, Lagares was never seen as a genuine power threat, because of holes in his swing. Although he has yet to prove these reports wrong at the major league level, his power is primed to improve this year: although no one expects a 30 home run season, 10-15 is not at all out of the question. Overall, his offense has the potential to improve with another year of experience: a .290 average is a legitimate projection, and with a little improvement in plate discipline, that could result in an OBP of .340 or higher. Although it’s by no means a sure thing, with a little improvement, Lagares can quickly and easily become an above-average offensive center fielder.
Quality center fielders and Mets playoffs seasons are already a proven combination: Tommy Agee in 1969, the Mookie/Dykstra platoon in 1986, the always underrated Jay Payton in 2000, Carlos Beltran in 2006. Lagares is not the best of these players offensively, but if he continues to improve, he will more than hold his own, and anything that he lacks on offense, he will make up for on defense.
Juan Lagares on defense is just special. There’s no other word for it. He’s already one of the best defensive outfielders the Mets have ever had, and if he continues to play at his customary high level, an there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, he will quickly become the best center fielder in the game – what with the hardware he took home this season, he may hold that title already – as well as one of the best in Mets history.
I always say that a championship-caliber offense is an offense that doesn’t have any easy outs. In his first year, Juan Lagares was an easy out. Now, he’s one of our better offensive players, especially if his development at the plate continues, and if he keeps up his ridiculous level of play in center field, he’ll almost certainly be one of our highest-WAR players (whether you trust the validity of defensive WAR is a whole other can of beans). There isn’t much set in stone going into Spring Training, which – I will never get tired of repeating it – draws inexorably nearer, but Juan Lagares patrolling center field is all but guaranteed.
The Mets had a whole slew of problems going into the offseason, and they have a whole ‘nother slew of problems coming out of it. But Juan Lagares is not one of them, and it’s feels reassuring to know that for the first time in years, center field isn’t a problem anymore.