The Mets Have a Mismatched Outfield Once Again

It’s only March 2, but between Yoenis Céspedes‘ media blackout, J.D. Davis‘ shoulder scare, and Brandon Nimmo’s irregular heartbeat, the Mets’ outfield has already enlivened the spring with a fair bit of drama and a few eye-catching headlines. Thankfully none those events has turned into a worst-case scenario, and as Opening Day approaches, the unit looks to be a potential source of strength on a contending team — though as ever, it could be a challenge to fit all of the parts together.

Indeed, assembling the pieces into a coherent whole has been a perennial shortcoming for the Mets, even before Brodie Van Wagenen took the reins as general manager; this team hasn’t had a true two-way center fielder — as opposed to a misplaced corner who could outhit his mistakes in the middle pasture — since the heyday of Ángel Pagán, if not Carlos Beltrán. Last year’s roster, the first one assembled by Van Wagenen, had such a surplus of infielders that its six most common outfield configurations (from among 27 different permutations in all) involved at least one infielder who had little major league experience as a flychaser:

Mets’ Most Common Outfields, 2019
LF CF RF Games Started
Jeff McNeil Brandon Nimmo Michael Conforto 27
J.D. Davis Juan Lagares Michael Conforto 26
J.D. Davis Michael Conforto Jeff McNeil 17
Dominic Smith Michael Conforto Jeff McNeil 16
J.D. Davis Brandon Nimmo Michael Conforto 10
Jeff McNeil Juan Lagares Michael Conforto 8
Brandon Nimmo Juan Lagares Michael Conforto 7
Yellow = Infielder with 13 or fewer MLB games in outfield prior to 2019.

Coming into 2019, McNeil had never played the outfield in the majors and had just eight games of minor league experience there, while Davis’ outfield resumé amounted to five major league games plus 31 in the minors, with Smith notching 13 in the majors and 26 in the minors. One had to scroll down to the team’s seventh most commonly-used configuration to find a trio of seasoned outfielders playing in the same unit. The mismatches contributed to ongoing defensive woes, as the team ranked 13th in the NL in defensive efficiency (.677), 14th in UZR (-12.8), and last in DRS (-86).

Among the outfielders the results were a mixed bag. The left fielders (led by Davis with 302 PA, then McNeil with 197, Smith with 112, and Nimmo with 82 PA) hit for a 130 wRC+ (fifth in the majors) but were a league-worst 10 runs below average in the field; still, their collective 3.0 WAR ranked 10th. Their center fielders (primarily Lagares with 272 PA, then Nimmo with 148, and Conforto with 142) hit for just an 88 wRC+ and were 6.5 runs below average afield (fifth-worst in the majors); their collective 0.8 WAR ranked 21st. Their right fielders (primarily Conforto for 501 PA and McNeil with 159 PA) hit for a 123 wRC+ (seventh-best), were 1.5 runs above average defensively, and ranked sixth at the position with 3.9 WAR. Add it up and the unit as a whole was sixth in wRC+ (114), but 24th in UZR (-15) and just 15th overall at 7.7 WAR. Of the 10 playoff teams, only the Cardinals got less value from their outfield (7.0 WAR) than the Mets.

To be fair, injuries played some part in their strange outfield picture, and this being the Mets, things only got stranger as the season continued. Céspedes played just 38 games in 2018 before undergoing surgeries to remove bone spurs and calcifications around the Achilles tendons in both heels. The team hoped to get him back at some point last summer but in mid-May, he fractured his right ankle in a violent fall at his Port St. Lucie Ranch, one that — wait for it — involved his stepping in a hole while dodging a wild boar. The injury not only wiped out his season but led to a restructuring of his contract, with his base salary of $29.5 million cut to $6 million but rising to $11 million if he doesn’t start the season on the injured list for a right foot or ankle injury related to the fracture. If he misses the Opening Day roster for an unrelated injury, his salary will be prorated to $11 million once he makes the roster. He could make another $9 million via plate appearance bonuses, with $3.5 million available in awards bonuses, and an assignment bonus whose value depends on whether he’s traded to an AL team ($2 million) or an NL one ($500,000).

Meanwhile, Nimmo missed 89 games from late May to September due to a bulging disc in his neck and a case of whiplash, caused by an April 14 collision with an outfield wall. After a breakout 4.5-WAR season in which he hit .263/.404/.483 (148 wRC+) in 2018, his production sank to 1.3 WAR, though he was still above-average offensively despite a plummeting batting average (.221/.375/.407, 114 wRC+). Conforto suffered a collision-induced concussion in May, but his stay on the injured list was minimal; he topped the 150-game mark for the second straight season while batting .257/.363/.494 (126 wRC+) with a career-high 33 homers and 3.7 WAR.

For new manager Luis Rojas, the infield picture offers a bit more clarity than last year. With third baseman Todd Frazier having departed for the Rangers in free agency, McNeil — who tied Pete Alonso for the team’s top wRC+ (143) while batting a sizzling .318/.384/.531 en route to 4.6 WAR in just 133 games spread out over four positions — is ticketed to be the starter at the hot corner, particularly given the concerns about Davis’ defense there (-11 DRS and -2.7 UZR in just 500.2 career innings). That’s not to say that Davis took to left field by any stretch of the imagination, given his -11 DRS and -4.7 UZR in 585.1 innings in 2019, but when given the chance, he simply kept hitting. Aided by improved plate discipline and more consistent contact, he flat-out scalded the ball at a .307/.369/.527 (136 wRC+) clip with 22 homers. Per Statcast, his average exit velocity (91.4 mph), hard hit rate (47.4%) and xwOBA (.383) all ranked in the 90th percentile or better.

The 26-year-old Davis was actually playing third base when he injured his left (non-throwing) shoulder last Tuesday, jamming it while diving for a grounder against the Tigers. He remained on the ground for several minutes following the play before being assisted off the field. An MRI revealed no new damage, just inflammation, though a previous labrum tear that the Mets were aware of, but that was asymptomatic, came to light. He’s expected to resume baseball activities soon.

It remains to be seen how things will play out in left field if both Davis and Céspedes are available. The latter, now 34, has played just 135 games over the past three seasons due to hamstring and hip flexor woes as well as the heel problems. He’s been taking batting practice and running in a straight line and is hoping to play in spring training games by mid-month. And he’s apparently talking to the media again; on February 16, as camp opened, he declared his intention not to speak to the reporters “because I don’t want to,” presumably due to the roasting he received for his ranch misadventure. “Not today, not tomorrow, not at all year this year,” he said at the time. Yet within a week, he spoke to reporters through a translator, conceding, “I committed an error and paid the price for it,” before turning the focus to his availability and grading his motivation level to return at “12” on a scale of 1 to 10:

“I think the money is important, but regardless I was going to come in with the same motivation whether the money was the same or any different,” Céspedes told reporters. “A big part of the motivation is the people who have been out there and have been saying that I can’t do it. So I am going out there to prove that I can.”

Potentially crowding the left field picture even further is the continued presence of the 24-year-old Smith, who has lingered on the roster despite losing out to Alonso, the NL Rookie of the Year, as the first baseman of the present and future. With his sleep apnea issues solved, and his body in better shape (though he did miss two months with a stress reaction in his left foot) got 197 plate appearances last year between left field, first base, and pinch-hitting, and he made the most of that thin slice of playing time, hitting .282/.355/.525 for a 133 wRC+. Left field has proven to be a mismatch for him, as both the metrics (-6.8 UZR, -7 DRS in 309 innings over the past two seasons) and the eye test suggest, though Rojas, who worked with him previously as the team’s outfield coach, has seen positive signs this spring. “Dom’s got great defensive ability and I think he did a good job in the offseason,” Rojas said on February 12. “We talked about him working, movement and agility, and I saw him taking good steps off the bat and being efficient in some routes there. I would like him to keep that versatility and keep throwing more in the outfield like he’s been doing.”

Nimmo, who turns 27 on March 27, was scratched from a Grapefruit League appearance on Wednesday and underwent a series of tests related to an irregular heartbeat that only manifests itself when he’s resting. The condition was first discovered in 2016; doctors wanted to retest him to check that the walls of his heart weren’t thickening, and fortunately, he got a clean bill of health. Still, the crowd in left field consigns him to center field, where his work has been shaky (-5.5 UZR and -9 DRS in 718.1 career innings), but with Conforto no better there (-4.3 UZR and -16 DRS in 1,137.1 career innings), somebody has to take one for the team. Ex-Astro Jake Marisnick, who signed a one-year, $3.313 million deal with the team in January, has the glove (18.7 UZR and 53 DRS in 3,757.2 career innings) but not the bat (a career 79 wRC+) to be more than a backup, occasional option against lefties (90 wRC+ for his career) or late-inning replacement.

Via our Depth Charts, the Mets forecast to rank 11th in cumulative outfield WAR despite the fourth-worst defensive rating:

2019 Cumulative Outfield Projections
Team Bat BsR Fld WAR
Dodgers 77.1 6.5 9.1 14.3
Angels 56.2 4.6 -1.8 11.7
Yankees 34.3 2.3 11.5 10.7
Nationals 38.5 4.3 7.3 10.3
Astros 37.7 2.2 3.0 10.2
Brewers 36.6 4.3 5.2 9.9
Twins 14.5 6.2 14.8 9.5
Braves 28.5 4.1 6.8 9.2
Athletics 19.7 1.1 -0.5 8.0
Rays 1.0 3.4 15.9 7.9
Mets 27.9 1.4 -6.2 7.6
Red Sox 0.3 3.6 10.1 7.4
Phillies 20.3 0.6 -3.9 7.0
White Sox 9.5 1.4 -3.3 6.8
Cubs 10.4 1.7 2.8 6.8
Diamondbacks 4.6 2.0 2.7 6.3
Padres -1.8 3.6 3.7 5.9
Rangers 1.0 2.0 -8.1 5.5
Reds 7.0 -1.9 -11.1 4.9
Blue Jays -14.1 0.3 -2.9 4.4
Cardinals -15.0 2.9 3.0 4.4
Royals -28.2 1.9 7.8 4.1
Orioles -16.1 -0.6 -4.6 3.9
Indians -32.8 2.6 4.3 3.5
Pirates -20.0 3.1 -2.5 3.5
Marlins -25.9 1.5 -2.2 2.8
Giants -29.8 0.9 -0.1 2.5
Rockies -22.0 0.3 -8.5 2.5
Mariners -41.7 4.9 -0.3 2.4
Tigers -37.1 0.9 -1.9 2.3
All projections via our Depth Charts as of March 2. Rankings subject to change as personnel and playing time estimates are adjusted.

As you can see, the team’s outfield projection still ranks behind those of the other NL East contenders, though the Mets are strong enough in other areas that their 59.5% playoff odds are a close second behind those of the Nationals (63.4%), and ahead of the Braves (54.4%). But as with every other area of the three teams’ rosters, any significant advantage or disadvantage there could be a difference-maker.

Ideally, a trade that converts the surplus of corner bats into a useful center fielder would go a long way for the Mets, but neither Van Wagenen nor his predecessors have found one to their liking. The GM is understandably less than willing to sell low on Smith or Davis, each of whom has five years of club control — and two minor league options — remaining, and while moving Céspedes makes sense, he’ll not only have to show he’s healthy in order for that to happen, but the team will likely need to eat some of the remaining salary, an utter rarity in Wilponland. In the meantime, rostering everyone might be easier with the addition of the 26th man and the maximum of 13 pitchers, but right now, the Mets are a long way from sorting out their current logjam.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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David Klein
3 years ago

I doubt Ces is ready to start the season, I’m hopeful that Davis is ready and with outs above average having Davis as a competent third baseman I’d go with him at third and McNeil in LF. Conforto is a very good defender in RF according to outs above average and think if the Mets better position Nimmo I think he’ll be fine and outs above average had him as a good defender in 2029. I like Dom but his statcast numbers are meh and Davis has elite statcast numbers and if play him over Smith.

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
3 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

I also think Nimmo is a good defender in 2029. He’ll be about the same age I was when I started having my best years.

David Klein
3 years ago

Me and my stubby fingers

John Elway
3 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

2029 is still ahead of Tebow’s ETA.

Just neighing.