The New York Mets haven’t made many external additions this winter, so they will need some of the players already on the roster to step up if they hope to win this season. While most of the media attention has focused on getting more out of the pitching staff, one player who has flown under the radar is outfielder Juan Lagares. Lagares, who is well known for his excellent defense and questionable swing, has spent the winter trying to improve his offense under the tutelage of a swing coach. That swing coach has also worked with J.D. Martinez, who morphed from a middling hitter into an All Star slugger who should eventually land a $100 million contract this winter.
No one is expecting Lagares to turn into Martinez, but if his swing helps him improve offensively just a bit he could be a valuable player. SNY broadcaster Keith Hernandez, a former Met who was also known for his defense, has always been a believer in Lagares’ ability. Hernandez said at the end of last season that if Lagares can simply hit .260, his defense will justify any potential shortcomings on offense. Lagares last hit above .260 in 2014, when he batted .281 and won a Gold Glove award for his defense. That season was by far Lagares’ best as a pro, when he was worth 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is roughly what Lorenzo Cain produced for the Royals last season. Cain just signed a five year contract worth $80 million with the Milwaukee Brewers.
While many Mets’ fans were clamoring for them to sign Cain this winter, the team resisted that urge, which was probably a wise call given how many years the Brewers gave Cain. Lagares is younger than Cain and if he can improve modestly offensively it will be a significant better value. The Mets will need Lagares this season with the lingering uncertainty surrounding Michael Conforto’s return from shoulder surgery. Conforto isn’t expected back until at least May 1st, but it could be longer given the serious nature of his injury. Lagares is expected to be the Mets’ primary center fielder until then, and they need him to produce something on offense.
In 2017, Lagares batted .250 with three home runs and 15 RBI’s in 94 games, production that was still good enough for a 1.8 WAR thanks to his excellent defense. The Mets need Lagares to stay healthy, which has always been an issue, and boost that batting average by at least 10 points. Lagares has been working with the hitting coach on hitting more line drives, which could translate into more extra base hits given his excellent speed. That would allow Lagares to get closer to an above average offensive player, which would be a huge boost to the Mets. Lagares has a golden opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player with a big start, so he is someone to watch closely in spring training.