Now would be a good time to talk about the Mets outfield, both because spring training convened in full this week, and because manager Terry Collins made comments last Friday that may throw a wrench into otherwise well-laid plans.
A week ago, before the team made any concrete decisions regarding 2014, the most sensible solution looked to be defensive whiz Juan Lagares in center field, big ticket free agent signing Curtis Granderson in one of the corner spots, Chris Young in the other, and some combination of Eric Young, Jr. and Lucas Duda serving as reserves or injury replacements. That was before Collins met with the media Friday afternoon and offered this:
Collins on leadoff: I’m going to talk to Chris Young about leading off Sitting here today Eric Young is the guy you’d like to see at the top
— New York Mets (@Mets) February 14, 2014
So where does that leave things as we head into spring training, and what does that mean for fantasy owners?
As it pertains to fantasy settings, the idea that Collins sees Eric Young, Jr. as the team’s best leadoff option is big news. That’s because Young is a one-trick fantasy pony whose value depends almost entirely on how often he plays. Splitting 598 plate appearance between the Rockies and Mets last year, EY2 stole 46 bases, tops in the National League. He doesn’t hit for average, though, he doesn’t walk a ton, and he doesn’t hit for power. So what you’re getting from him are stolen bases and runs (at best) and those are directly a result of playing time. So far, so good on that front, but that can change at any moment.
Although he has played center field, he’s better cast in a corner. It’s worth noting that Collins could find time for EY2 at second base, a position he has played in the majors before, but that seems unlikely given Daniel Murphy’s modest breakout season in 2013.
Altogether, the Mets have four players with recent experience in center field, including EY2, Granderson, Chris Young, and Juan Lagares. From a fantasy perspective, the best outcome is a “damn the torpedos” approach in which the Mets disregard defense altogether and chase the best bats their outfielders can offer (Lucas Duda, come on down!). Pushing Eric Young as the team’s leadoff man may be a step in that direction, and General Manager Sandy Alderson only stoked these flames when he spoke on WFAN Tuesday, stating the team would field its three best offensive options. He also confirmed what many assumed: that Granderson will not play center field. So what does that leave us?
A mess, mostly.
Lagares should be the team’s primary center fielder next year, on account of his stellar defense. In 819 innings last year, Lagares was second only to Carlos Gomez in terms of defensive value. Going by UZR/150, Lagares was second to none last year. That’s great for the Mets, but fantasy teams can’t expect much. His walks, strikeouts, and power are all on the wrong side of the league average, and he’s never been much of a base stealer. His only real fantasy value is in the deepest of NL-only leagues where an everyday player has value no matter how much of a wet noodle his bat is.
Lagares seems to be facing an uphill battle to get in the lineup, though, and if the Mets are expecting to see an increased on-base percentage before they pencil him in, he may be destined for a reserve role in Queens because he has never really walked much.
Granderson is the headliner here in both fantasy and real life. His 2013 (as you may have heard) was mostly a disaster. He suffered a broken arm in spring training, and when he returned to the Yankees lineup he struck out more than ever before, and hit for less power than ever before. He should be healthy again for his trek across town to play for the Mets this summer, but what can owners expect? His profile is littered with red flags, but also filled with reason for optimism.
On the negative side of the ledger: declining plate discipline. After a low water mark in 2008, Granderson’s strike out rate has risen steadily on basically a yearly basis, going from 17.6 percent in 2008 to 19.9 in 2009 to 22 in 2010 to 24.5 in 2011 to 28.5 in 2012 and 28.2 last season. Not surprisingly, the frequency he swings at pitches outside of the zone has also steadily increased, and his contact rates are dropping.
It’s not all bad for Granderson, though. His walk rate has remained mostly flat, and although his power dipped last year (hard to expect otherwise returning from a broken forearm) his ISO has topped .200 in each of the prior six seasons. This, of course, occurred in an environment where 30 homers are the new 40.
He is moving from a park that is friendly to lefty power hitters to one that is more neutral, though, as Yankee Stadium was 16 percent higher than league average in this regard, while Citi Field is only two percent above average. Of the 84 home runs Granderson launched in 2011 and 2012, only 64 would have left Citi Field. He’s also turns 33 next month, so some natural drop in power should be expected.
Still, he figures to play a ton, and his defense as a corner outfielder will likely make him worth something in the range of his real life salary.
Can the same be said for Chris Young? It’s tough to say, especially if the team is committed to finding a spot for Eric Young, Jr. Both Youngs can play center field, but neither are assets there. Chris Young’s bat is still useful against left-handed pitching, as he recorded a 99 wRC+ last year, but his work against righties leaves much to be desired (just 67 wRC+ in 2013). Eric Young, Jr. has even splits from both sides (both well below average) so there’s no obvious platoon here.
It may be fair to blame some of his poor 2013 on a quad injury that followed him around most of the season, and Chris Young has offered a power-speed combo in the past that fantasy owners covet, so there is upside here. But last year was not necesarilly isolated poor performance as Young’s overall offensive numbers have been dropping for three straight seasons, so there’s considerable downside as well. If he only plays against lefites, his fantasy value is essentially nil.
Looming in the background here is Duda, the only other above average bat even close to the outfield mix. The 28-year-old walks and hits for power, but his outfield defense is well, well, well, well, well, well, well below average, even in a corner. (He’s not very good at defense, is the point.) Duda is also in the mix at first base for the Mets, competing there with Ike Davis. But if Alderson really means it when he says the team’s best offensive players will fill the outfield, Duda will find at-bats. It’s hard to imagine a baseball team making such a poor decision, but crazier things have happened.
Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.