Entering this season, the New York Mets’ outfield was among the most maligned units in all of baseball. GM Sandy Alderson’s November “what outfield?” quip looked like it would haunt the team worse than Bobby Bonilla’s contract.
Luckily for fans – and Alderson – the outfield has been productive and even fun to watch. As 2013 winds down, these last few weeks will provide a last look at what the team has, and what role these players can fill on next year’s team.
Juan Lagares, CF
The Dominican native has been a revelation in center field. Aside from his visibly obvious tools, Terry Collins continues to praise the 24-year-old rookie for his workman attitude and coachability. Lagares, 22, has drawn defensive comparisons to Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds for his arm and effortless ability to play shallow and make plays on balls over his head. Both the eye test and defensive metrics grade him very favorably. Among Major League center fielders, Lagares ranks second in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and third in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS); he also has the most outfield assists on baseball. UZR, which tries to quantify how many runs a defensive player saved or cost his team with his arm, glove and range, is the most widely accepted defensive metric. Even more impressive is that he’s logged roughly two-thirds as many innings as UZR leader Carlos Gomez. The kid’s glove is golden.
At the plate, Lagares is more enigmatic. He has a nice, compact swing and drives the ball to both gaps comfortably. He’s batting .258 this season, but his 9/66 walks-to-strikeouts ratio is ugly. The rookie clearly needs to work on plate discipline. The problem with his 2013 stats is that they’re boosted by an incredible July in which he hit .353/.408/.529, buoyed by a ridiculous .442 BABIP. Take away that unsustainable month and Lagares has been a well below average hitter. The Mets current lineup isn’t strong enough to support Lagares, but great teams have won before with a defense-first starting CF. If Alderson puts together a strong offseason, he can justify leaving Lagares in in the starting lineup, giving him time to adjust his bat to this level.
Eric Young, Jr., LF
New York Mets fans have appreciated Eric Young, Jr. more for what he reminds them of, more than what he’s done on the field. He’s the first real speed/OBP leadoff guy in Flushing since Jose Reyes, and he’s fun to watch; he ranks fifth in the NL in stolen bases after only being a part time player with the Rockies before the July trade. Young, a swith-hitter, is a much better hitter from the right side, but still brings energy to the team every day he’s in the lineup. Whether it’s scoring from second on balls hit in the infield or covering ground in left field, there’s something endearing about the way he always seems to be running harder than everyone else.
Speed certainly kills, but unfortunately, it isn’t the only tool necessary to survive in this league. The 28-year-old speedster can cover major ground in the field, but his arm and glove aren’t on the same level. By UZR, he’s a league average outfielder, and his -4 DRS in LF is disappointing. Young, Jr. a versatile player and is best suited as a fourth OF and emergency second baseman – his 2B metrics are unfavorable, but he’s logged over 350 ML innings at that position. He can shift over to center or right field, but his weak arm risks being over exposed there in any extended playing time. Every team needs a spark plug and defense. Young is a valuable player if used properly – namely against left-handed pitching and as a late-game defensive or baserunning substitute.
Marlon Byrd, RF
Lets get this out of the way: Marlon Byrd should win the 2013 Comeback Player Of the Year award. And while we’re passing around trophies two months early, Alderson should win the coveted – and totally made up – Best Free Agent Signing award. Byrd’s career was in jeopardy last year. After years of declining production and a 50-game suspension for a PED violation, Byrd signed a minor league contract with the Mets just ahead of Spring Training and quickly earned a spot on the ML team. Byrd launched his career-high 21st home run on Tuesday.
Big names like Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, and B.J. Upton dominated headlines, but Byrd has been by far the most productive player. In fact, he leads all free agent outfielders in homers, Slugging Percentage and wOBA. The Mets elected to keep Byrd at the trade deadline, hoping to win a few more games and remain competitive down the stretch. The veteran right fielder said he’s enjoyed his time in New York, and could conceivably return on a modest, one-year deal. But counting on a repeat year from Byrd wouldn’t be prudent. The Mets will likely look to upgrade or get younger in right field even if they retain Byrd. Also in play is the fact that another team might see his success this year as a sign of future success and offer him a multi-year deal. Although it didn’t work out too well for the Cubs and Scott Hairston last year.