Ever since Jose Reyes left the Mets after the 2011 season and signed a six-year, $106 million contract with the Miami Marlins, the Mets have lacked a consistent leadoff hitter that has the ideal combination of speed and desired on-base ability to be a force in the beginning of the lineup.
Jose Reyes played more than 125 games as well as hit .280 or better in six out of his nine seasons as a Met. In four straight seasons from 2005-2008, the Mets reached 83 wins or better, with Reyes only missing a total of 15 games in this entire four-year span. However, with Reyes missing significant time due to injury, declining production, and eventually his departure, the Mets have not reached 80 wins since 2008. Easily put, when the Mets have had a productive every-day leadoff hitter, they have thrived.
With unreliable players such as Eric Young Jr., Curtis Granderson, and Ruben Tejada leading off for the Mets over the past few years, the Mets need a hitter to step up and finally seize permanent control of the leadoff spot. Can young centerfielder Juan Lagares finally fill the glaring hole at the leadoff spot for the Mets this season?
At only 25-years-old, Juan Lagares has already established himself as one of the best defensive center fielders in all of baseball, exemplified by his Gold Glove Award he earned in 2014. In 2013, he was 2nd in the National League in outfield assists with 15, and has only 10 errors in 237 games played. He had the best range factor per game among all outfielders last season, according to RetroSheet records. Despite all of his defensive success, he has yet to see equally productive offensive success.
He has a career .262 batting average and a .302 on base percentage, both of which are below average for a leadoff hitter. He has only 19 stolen bases for his career and a lifetime .368 slugging percentage. Also, he does not walk a lot, as he has 20 walks in each of his two seasons. These numbers are not indicative of the prototypical leadoff hitter, but he greatly improved his offensive numbers from 2013 to 2014.
He boosted his batting average from .242 in his rookie season up to a .281 batting average in 2014, his on-base percentage from .281 to .321, and stole more than double the bases. He struck out 9 fewer times in 2014 and has shown much more plate discipline. He seemed more comfortable running the bases as well as situational hitting as the season went on and is poised to further improve on his numbers next season.
Juan Lagares will be given a shot by manager Terry Collins to take control the leadoff spot this season. He has proven with his play last season that he deserves to play everyday, but his spot in the lineup is still up for debate. He played all over the lineup last season, but during the final month of the season he was very productive as the leadoff hitter. After only stealing six bases all season, Lagares stole seven bases in 15 games. The Mets hope that this influx of speed could be a sign of things to come.
Late in September, Lagares sprained his right elbow and ended the season on the disabled list. During this time,Terry Collins was tinkering with the lineup extensively, trying to rotate the leadoff spot with players such as Curtis Granderson and Matt den Dekker to try to find one player that could grab hold of that spot.
However, nobody took control of the job when asked and once again the Mets are left with a question mark at the leadoff spot. But, if Juan Lagares can prove that he is ready and able to become the everyday leadoff hitter for the Mets during Spring Training and continue improving offensively, the Mets may already have their current and future leadoff hitter on their roster that they can build a contending team around.