Greener Pastures for Albert Almora Jr. and Juan Lagares, But… by Jay Jaffe February 9, 2021 The Mets missed out on signing Trevor Bauer, and they didn’t sign J.T. Realmuto or George Springer, either. That’s not to say they’ve had an unsuccessful winter — their blockbuster deal for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco significantly upgraded the team, and they’ve made other solid moves as well, but center field remains an area of need. Jackie Bradley Jr. is clearly still the top center fielder available, and would make for a sensible fit, but the Mets aren’t the only team pursuing him. Over the weekend, they made a smaller-scale addition signing center fielder Albert Almora Jr. to a one-year deal worth $1.25 million plus incentives. The question is whether that constitutes an insurance policy or an all-too-familiar half-measure. Almora is best remembered as the player who scored the go-ahead run for the Cubs in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Pinch-running for Kyle Schwarber after a leadoff single, he alertly tagged up and took second base on a Kris Bryant fly ball to deep center field, and came home on Ben Zobrist’s double. He was a 22-year-old rookie at that point, a 2012 first-round pick who had arrived in midsummer and made a solid showing as a bench player. After the Cubs won the World Series, they let Dexter Fowler depart as a free agent and handed the keys to center field to Almora. That worked out reasonably well, for awhile. Almora hit .298/.338/.445 (104 wRC+) in 2017 and .286/.323/.378 (90 wRC+) in ’18. Estimates as to the caliber of his defense were a bit all over the map… Albert Almora Jr.’s Fielding Metrics, 2017-19 Year Innings UZR DRS OAA 2017 643.0 0.7 1 -2 2018 918.1 1.9 10 10 2019 765.1 -2.5 -5 3 Total 2326.2 0.1 6 11 OAA = Outs Above Average (plays, not runs), via Statcast …which is kind of a big deal when you’re not producing offensively. A 90 wRC+ center fielder who can reliably go get it is a solid player, a Bradley type. A 90 wRC+ center fielder who’s subpar defensively is a weak link, and a player who slips even further on either side of the ball from there isn’t long for the lineup. Unfortunately, Almora’s offense plunged to .236/.271/.381 (64 wRC+) — albeit with 12 homers — in 2019, that while his defense slid into the red. Despite that struggle, Almora made a strong showing in summer camp, and received glowing words from manager Dave Ross, who said, “Almora did a phenomenal job of staying ready. He’s swinging the bat really well right now. Running the bases. His full game.” Even so, he lost his center field job to Ian Happ, and made just six starts and 34 plate appearances before being optioned to the Cubs’ alternate training site in late August. He never made it back, and was non-tendered in late November. At this stage, Almora’s biggest virtues are his youth, his speed, and his track record of hitting lefties. He turns 27 on April 16; he ranked in the 82nd percentile of Statcast sprint speed in 2019, while last year’s 47th percentile showing might reasonably be chalked up to sample size; and he owns a career .280/.332/.402 line and 95 wRC+ against southpaws, compared to an 81 wRC+ against righties. He’s walked in just 5.1% of his PA, and his career average exit velo of 86.7 mph and .295 xwOBA are nothing to write home about, either. He’s got average raw power in terms of both scouting and Statcast (annual maximum exit velocities around 110 mph) that he’s rarely gotten to in-game; he hits the ball on the ground on just over half of his balls in play. He apparently got along well with current Mets hitting coach Chili Davis, who spent 2018 as the Cubs’ hitting coach, so there’s that. If you’re left with the nagging feeling that the Mets can do better, you’re not wrong, particularly when Bradley is still available, ready to be showered with those unspent Bauer Bucks (Cohen Cash?). Via the New York Post’s Mike Puma, he’s receiving interest from “about half a dozen teams” though the Mets have been “aggressive.” Per the New York Daily News‘ Deesha Thosar, however, “Sources say the Mets are out on JBJ” after signing Almora. Puma reported last week that Bradley and agent Scott Boras are seeking a deal of four years or longer, while SNY’s Andy Martino reported that the Mets suggested a two-year deal earlier this winter, to which Boras and Bradley didn’t even respond. Without a fit, “the team basically planned all along to go the Almora route,” wrote Martino. The problem for the Mets, beyond fans’ high hopes that new owner Steve Cohen would go on a shopping spree that would land multiple name-brand free agents this winter, is that they’ve gone the Almora route or its equivalent with regularity over the past half-dozen seasons, covering for a mismatched collection of outfield parts by using a righty-swinging glove-first center fielder on a part-time basis. They’ve shoehorned Yoenis Céspedes, Michael Conforto, and Brandon Nimmo — very good hitters, all of ’em — into center, but together that trio alone combined for -44 DRS and -20.3 UZR in nearly 3,000 innings (-20 DRS and -9 UZR per 150 games) from 2015-20. Juan Lagares helped to offset that (14.9 DRS and 5.3 UZR per 150 in that span) at the expense of offense, but Jake Marisnick, who supplanted Lagares last year but was limited to 16 games due to hamstring woes, did not, at least if the small-sample metrics can be believed. For that six-year stretch, all Mets center fielders — a group that additionally included hundreds of innings from Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson, Alejandro De Aza, and Carlos Gomez, all of them well past their sell-by dates defensively — combined for -30 DRS and -14 UZR. To be fair, Mets center fielders as a group collectively produced 15.0 WAR over those six seasons, which averages out to 2.8 per full season, but 9.3 of that came in 2016-17, and since then, they’ve gotten just 3.6 WAR from center field, about 1.5 per full season. For a contender, that’s more harm than help. What’s more, given the Mets’ current roster, the cost of not getting a true full-time center fielder has a ripple effect. As they currently line up, playing Nimmo in center opens the door for either J.D. Davis or Dominic Smith in left, which is bad news, as they’ve combined for -19 DRS and -13.9 UZR in about 1,110 innings so far. Davis at third and Smith at first ain’t pretty, either; I’ll spare you the numbers, but this is a team that desperately needs the designated hitter to hide some of those gloves. As a part-time center fielder, Almora can offset only so much of that even if he’s near the top of his game. He’s a slight upgrade over Guillermo Heredia, a 30-year-old righty swinger with a career .239/.316/.344 line and below average defense in center, but that’s a low bar to clear. On Tuesday morning, MLB.com’s Jon Heyman reported that the Mets have also reached agreement with utilityman Jonathan Villar worth $3.55 million plus incentives. The switch-hitting Villar, who turns 30 on May 2, is coming off a miserable showing with the bat (.232/.301/.292, 66 wRC+) in a season split between the Marlins and Blue Jays. He does have a sprinkle of center field experience (53 innings, 10 of them last year), but it’s probably a stretch to consider him a likely platoon partner with Almora even given his more or less even career splits (97 wC+ versus lefties, 95 versus righties). As for Lagares, who turns 32 years old on March 17, he was worth 5.2 WAR in 2013-14, but his bat just kept on fading, which is why the Mets decommissioned him from full-time play in the first place. He produced a 77 wRC+ from 2015-19, including a 60 wRC+ in 285 PA in the last of those seasons, accompanied by -3 DRS and -2.9 UZR. While the trade for Marisnick (lefty Blake Taylor and low-level outfield prospect Kenedy Corona) didn’t pan out due to injuries, the Mets only briefly returned to Lagares — who spent spring training and the first part of summer camp with the Padres before being released and returning to New York — as a roster stopgap last year, playing him twice without a single plate appearance before DFAing and then releasing him. Lagares signed a minor league deal with the Angels, one that comes with a non-roster invitation to spring training. He’ll make $1.25 million if he’s in the majors, but — I hate to be the one to spoil this — he’s probably not going to beat out Mike Trout for the starting center field job and instead will serve as a depth piece. The Angels will probably enter the season with Justin Upton, Trout, and the newly-acquired Fowler in the outfield while Jo Adell works on his game at Triple-A after a rough introduction to big league pitching (.161/.212/.266 in 132 PA). Taylor Ward has the superior bat to Lagares, and while he’s never played center field, Fowler has extensive experience there, though none in 2020 and generally unflattering defensive metrics for most of his career. Still, just as Earl Weaver was fond of saying that his backup shortstop was in Rochester, Lagares makes more sense biding his time in Salt Lake City, where he can receive a socially distanced wave from my parents and be on the next flight to LAX in case Trout — who has only played in 81% of the Angels’ games over the past four seasons — gets hurt. At least the Angels have the best player in the game to man center field and keep Lagares as an afterthought. The Mets, even if they’ve lucked into a younger and higher upside version of Lagares in Almora, still have a patchwork solution for center field. Even after adding Villar, maybe they’ve got another move in store that will allow them to keep Nimmo and Conforto in the corners where they belong, whether that means a trade for a true center fielder or at least a stronger platoon partner for Almora. Even signing the 37-year-old lefty-swinging, center-capable Brett Gardner would make more sense than stopping here. If they want somebody who can reliably go get it, they’ll need to go get it themselves.