Growing The Outfield

Sometime soon, maybe this week, maybe next month, the Mets are going to trade a left-handed hitting corner outfielder. It should be Jay Bruce, but it might be Curtis Granderson. Unless it nets them Mike Trout or someone of that caliber, it shouldn’t be Michael Conforto. Barring the arrival of Mr. Trout, the Mets need to give Conforto and Juan Lagares every chance to succeed in 2017. Along with Yoenis Cespedes, they are the Mets outfield of the future.

Conforto might be the best position player the Mets have developed in over a decade. Heck, with a little luck he could be the best position player they’ve ever developed. Of course, the bar hasn’t been set too high, no disrespect to David Wright, Jose Reyes, or Daryl Strawberry. Although the Mets have a long history of developing pitchers, they haven’t had the same luck around the rest of the diamond.
In recent years, however, when a position player has reached the big leagues, the team hasn’t often been successful at incorporating them into the plan in a way that aligns the future of the player and the franchise. Lagares is a great example.

Lagares first came up in 2013. His defense was a bright spot in that year and in 2014; he even won a gold glove, largely playing center field. A gold-glove center fielder is no small thing, particularly for a team built on pitching, and the Mets seemed to recognize this. In April 2015, Lagares signed a four-year contract.
Unfortunately, soon afterward, Lagares fought injuries which impeded his play in the outfield and cut into his development as a hitter. With the midseason acquisition of Cespedes and the promotion of Conforto, his playing time dropped precipitously. By the time spring training started in 2016, he was relegated to the role of fourth outfielder, behind Cespedes, Granderson, and Conforto. He struggled to get playing time once he was healthy, and eventually spent a chunk of the season on the DL.

Conforto, who hit his way into the major leagues in 2015, started off 2016 looking like he might blossom into one of the best players in baseball—that is, before he hit his way back to the minor leagues. Was it just a sophomore slump or something more? It’s hard to say.

With Conforto, we may have the type of dynamic hitter we’ve rarely had in Flushing. With Lagares, we may have a gold glove center fielder. In any event, with Conforto and Lagares, the Mets have two dynamic cost-controlled outfielders, who when paired with Cespedes could potentially give the team the best outfield in baseball. However, the Mets won’t know what they’ve got unless they give these young players every chance to succeed. That starts with careful planning and clear communication.

It’s a crowded outfield, but that means starting Conforto against all but the toughest lefties, and starting Lagares two to three times a week, even at the expense of Curtis Granderson, who really shouldn’t be playing center field.. These roles must be communicated clearly at the start of spring training, and the plan can’t go out the window at every bump in the road.

Additionally, providing these young hitters some protection in the batting order is important. I’d like to see Conforto batting 2nd where he will get plenty of protection from Cespedes. Lagares is trickier as his bat doesn’t have the upside, but to maximize his upside vs lefthanders, slotting him into the 2nd spot against lefties and dropping Conforto to 7th would accomplish the goal of giving them every chance to succeed.

Unfortunately, that sort of stable planning and process hasn’t really been Terry Collins’ forte. If the Mets want to get the most out of these young everyday players, that probably has to change. While the primary goal for 2017 has to be winning, it’s also the building block on which 2018 and future seasons rely on.