By Michael Mandelkern
Juan Lagares and Eric Young Jr. will be competing for a starting outfield role with the New York Mets in Spring Training. Young has been a bench player throughout his career and is likely nothing more. Lagares could be a gem and playing him everyday is the only way to find out. Ultimately, stellar defense is more valuable than speed. Center field is Lagares’ job to lose.
General manager Sandy Alderson recently told Steve Kearne of Kranepool Society that Curtis Granderson is the only outfielder guaranteed to play everyday. The Mets outfield is vastly improved from last season when the team signed Rick Ankiel out of desperation. Chris Young will make $7.25 million and has a starting role if he does not struggle.
Lagares was a rookie last year with the ease of a veteran. He has an impeccable sense of a baseball’s trajectory and charges the ball with authority. Opposing teams quickly learned not to test his cannon of an arm. His 15 outfield assists ranked second in the National League last season. ESPN named him MLB’s Best Defender for August.
In terms of advanced fielding, Lagares held 48.8 percent of base runners in his 108 games as a center fielder last season, 4.2 percentage points above the MLB average. He held 60 percent of runners in his brief 14 games in right field, 12.3 percentage points above the norm. He also threw out 8.5 percent of runners attempting to advance, nearly five times the MLB average of 1.8 percent. If he can sustain this defensive prowess he will be in Gold Glove contention for many years to come.
Without question, Lagares is vastly superior to Eric Young in controlling the opposing team’s running game, but Young is far more aggressive on the base paths. He won the National League stolen base crown in 2013 with 46, but Young’s low OBP hinders him from maximizing his agility. Young hit .251/.318/.329 in 91 games with the New York Mets last season. He posted a slash line of .249/.310/.336 in a total of 148 combined games with the Colorado Rockies with two home runs and 32 runs batted in.
Young was a part-time player from 2009 (his Major League debut) to 2012. He is a career .258 hitter with a .325 OBP and just seven home runs. After a hot start when he was traded to the Mets in June, he came back to Earth with more playing time. Young would be most effective in a limited role.
Juan Lagares’ bat is even less impressive. He hit .242/.281/.352 with four home runs with 34 runs batted in through 121 games with the Mets in 2013. He drew just 20 walks and struck out 96 times in 421 plate appearances. Lagares needs to narrow his strike zone, but at 24 years old and just one season under his belt he has ample time to grow.
He hit a meager .207/.233/.310 in his 29 leadoff at-bats. Although a small sample, he has not effectively worked counts and gotten on base anywhere in the order. He only swiped six bags in 2013.
Eric Young is a switch hitter that is underwhelming from both sides of the plate. He displayed good range in left field, but he has a noodle of an arm compared to Lagares. All but 31 of his at-bats last season were at leadoff. His propensity to get on base has been poor. It would be easier for the Mets to eat if he was more capable of setting the table.
Ideally, both of them are bench players and the Mets have a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat to provide more protection to David Wright. Putting either Lagares or Young in the outfield is an offensive liability. Speed only kills when the runner is on base. Lagares’ offensive potential has not been realized, but his outfield play alone justifies inserting him into the lineup.