The Mets recently lost Juan Lagares for the season due to a toe injury. He only had 64 plate appearances before hitting the disabled list, and he hit well despite the .051 ISO, slashing .339/.375/.390. One of the reasons he did not get a lot of playing time is because he has hit .260/.300/.367 for his career. Another reason is because the Mets’ outfield situation was a mess as a result of poor planning going into this season.
During the offseason, I was terrified that the Mets were going to bring back Jay Bruce on an onerous contract. Much to my relief, Bruce returned to the Mets on a very reasonable three-year, $39 million deal. That is not bad for a corner outfielder going into his age-31 season who hit .252/.317/.507 over the two seasons prior.
The Bruce deal is fine in a vacuum, but it was an odd fit for the Mets. He is a poor defender in right field, and is best suited for a transition to first base or DH. The Mets obviously do not have a DH, and at the time of the signing, Dom Smith was expected to be the team’s full time first baseman. Wilmer Flores was a suitable backup, but the Mets decided to sign Adrián González anyway. That was another odd signing, by the way, because today’s short benches do not leave room for a first base-only player.
(Ironically, I mentioned Bruce’s poor defense not long after I saw him throw out Jeff Mathis at the plate. Baseball.)
The Mets had Yoenis Céspedes for one corner and Michael Conforto for the other. Conforto was not expected to start the season until May, but Brandon Nimmo was more than ready to fill in until then. This left Nimmo or Conforto for center field, a position neither of them can play, with the possiblity that Nimmo might become too good to not play every day. That left Lagares as the team’s only center fielder.
Lagares is outstanding defensively, so despite the light bat, he is actually playable in a full-time role. Last year he accumulated 1.8 WAR in 94 games despite hitting only .250/.296/.365. The problem is that he has a storied injury history, so relying on him to be the everyday center fielder would be problematic.
The Mets had center field problems for years, yet decided to sign a player in Bruce, who did nothing to address that problem and made the corner outfield logjam even worse. If Bruce could rake that would be one thing, but his 118 wRC+ last year was his best since 2012. So far this year, he is hitting .233/.311/.376, which is just a 90 wRC+.
Between Bruce, Jason Vargas, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak, and José Reyes, the Mets committed $88 million in future salary this past offseason. To be fair, I liked the Frazier signing, and he hit .237/.357/.412 before hitting the DL on May 8th with a hamstring injury. The point is that Lorenzo Cain singed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Brewers just 16 days after the Mets signed Bruce. They could have solved their long suffering center field problem for at least a few years, but it appears that they decided to hold firm to their frustrating commitment to austerity.
Cain is currently hitting .271/.384/.432 with a 7 DRS in center field. Of course, baseball decisions should always be evaluated based on the rationale behind the decision making, but it is hard to deny that Cain’s start is making the Mets’ perceived cheapness look worse. Despite the fact that Cain cost twice as much as Bruce, he would have been a much better fit at a fair cost.
In today’s game, declining to spend money is always a choice. Always. I assure you that the Mets could have afforded Cain over Bruce even in addition to all the other signings they made. It is the kind of thing a team does when they care more about winning than saving money, a description that has never fit the Mets.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.