NEW YORK — The Mets have hired Carlos Beltrán as their manager, which seems to have aroused in Mets fans all sorts of pro and anti-Beltrán stances. We all remember Beltrán, and the moment that divides fans so strongly. It was an unhittable pitch. He had a great series. We didn’t have to wait until the ninth inning to put together a scoring opportunity. But the facts remain.
Personally, I’m a Beltrán fan. You don’t judge a career by an at-bat, and Beltrán, with his 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases as a switch hitter, had a helluva career. Now, he’s all the more likely to enter Cooperstown with a Mets cap on his head. But forget 2006 and his Mets career for a moment: judge Beltrán as a manager. He knows baseball and can handle New York, and as such, he will do just fine.
I’m not too concerned with who the manager is, if we’re honest. I could have learned to love Joe Girardi — although I don’t understand where Mets’ fans’ sudden fervent zeal (Zeile?) for him came from — just as I’m sure Beltrán will do the job admirably. I cared far more about last offseason’s GM search than this year’s parade of interviews, and since the Wilpons passed on Chaim Bloom and let him turn some other team into a powerhouse instead, Beltrán, or anyone else who got the job, was going to manage Brodie Van Wagenen’s team. Managers are temporary. Ripple effects of GM moves — Jarred Kelenic has left the building — can be forever.
In fact, Beltrán wasn’t the only Mets outfielder in the news. The Mets officially declined Juan Lagares’ $9.5 million option, making Lagares a free agent. Besides 2014 and other occasional flashes, Lagares never managed to turn himself into a complete hitter at the plate. The field, of course, was a different story. Lagares won a Gold Glove in 2014, and if he’d stayed healthy and hit well enough to play every day, surely would have won several more. His defense was so good that it earned him a $23 million contract extension in 2015.
The offense, just good enough (.281/.321/.382) to keep his glove on the field in 2014, faded. But Lagares’ glove was always there, lurking just out of sight. A line drive to deep center evoked familiar worry, but also excitement: what’s Juan going to do this time? He became an offensive liability, but never seemed disgruntled or angry. He worked quietly and hard, always hoping to return to where he’d once been, but never quite getting there.
Now, though, we have one of those good problems. Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo each hold down outfield spots; Robinson Cano is anchored, all too literally, at second base, which means that if Beltrán wants both Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis and their formidable bats in the lineup every day, one will have to play left field while the other plays third base. Lagares, then, does not have a starting spot, and to Wilpon and company, a reserve outfielder is not worth $9.5 million.
I remember the last time I thought very specifically about Juan Lagares. It was August 4th. The Mets were below .500 but rising fast, beating up on the Pirates. I was in a boat whizzing around a lake in southern Maine, making sure campers didn’t moon houses as we passed, or whatever campers might find funny these days. I was also tracking the Mets game on my phone.
Top of the sixth. Lagares is taking his first at-bat of the game; he came in earlier to replace Michael Conforto in center. Conforto moved to right to replace Jeff McNeil. McNeil moved to second to replace Robinson Cano, because Cano came up limping as he tried for second on a line drive off the fence, because he is 36 and too fragile to dive or run fast.
So Lagares hits. He’s batting .186. But he gets a pitch down the heart of the plate, and he doesn’t miss it. A double down the left field line, a run coming home, Lagares trotting into second.
It was baseball justice. Vindication. A lollipop down the heart of the plate, and Lagares smacked it. Saw his pitch and hit it. It’s a lesson, indeed, that our new manager would do well to impart to his players, and also to fans who may dislike him: there is justice in baseball. No matter how many called third strikes you’ve taken, how many plays you haven’t made, how many hanging curves you’ve fouled off…eventually you’ll see a meatball and mash it for extra bases, and things will fall right back into place.
I don’t know where Juan Lagares will end up, or indeed, whether there’s a chance he stays in Queens. But I hope he comes back to Citi Field eventually. I’ll wear the snow-white LAGARES 12 jersey I bought in early 2014, and cheer on a kid who worked his heart out. Maybe he’ll smack another one of those doubles down the left field line, and I’ll think of August, when the sun was hot and the water was cool, when Juan Lagares was a hero and the playoffs were on the horizon and there was always another chance to make things happen, whether Carlos Beltrán struck out or not.