By Ed Coleman
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So Juan Lagares busted out of his holding cell, and then had a breakout game Saturday against the Nationals. An RBI single in the first inning, followed by a two-run homer in the third, followed by yet another spectacular defensive play in the sixth, robbing Jayson Werth of a sure home run with a leaping catch at the fence in deepest center field.
And I’m sure all the Terry Collins bashers had a field day, and felt justified, and were heartily exchanging “I-told-you-sos.”
Except for one thing. T.C. is not dumb.
He fully knows that Lagares is the best long-term answer in center field and a budding star. But he has an impossible situation (among several others) to juggle on a daily basis — how to get four players into three spots, and how to get some consistency out of an offense that drives everyone crazy (next-to-last in batting average, sixth in runs scored).
Going back to spring training, I said that Lagares had to be your everyday center fielder — if he hit at all, he was simply too much of a force defensively not to have in there every day. Eric Young Jr. was already here – not a perfect leadoff man, but the best option the Mets have available. The team signed Chris Young early in the offseason for $7.25 million, promised him sufficient at-bats and assured him of regular playing time. Collins said there’s my right fielder. Then the Mets signed Curtis Granderson. His resume — along with a contract for four years at $60 million — gave him a long leash and assured him of playing time as well.
Time to juggle, Terry.
Collins has averaged 75 wins per year for three seasons now. He has done this with minimal talent, very little help on the major league level from the front office, and no help from an ownership group that has an East Coast team with a Midwest budget. He knows talent. He’s been around the game for quite some time, and he’s working under some constraints as you might have noticed. So he knows how good Lagares is and can be.
But since May 5, Lagares was 5-27 (.185) with six strikeouts. And he hit .174 in the eight games leading up to his removal from the everyday lineup. The Mets also dropped nine of 13 during that time, and were shutout four times.
I spoke with Luis Natera, the Mets’ assistant hitting coach, who has worked extensively with Lagares both here and on the minor league level. Natera said he and Lagares worked on his “hand path” — his route to the ball — which occasionally gets out of sync, and also reducing his leg kick, which gets too high at times, during his non-starting period.
The results? Quite favorable. A direct result of sitting out and working behind the scenes? Nobody knows. But Lagares is a willing student, eager to learn, and a hard worker. All great attributes to have moving forward — attributes that can make a talented player special, and Lagares probably will be.
Sunday morning in Washington, Collins was asked whether Lagares’ performance Saturday had re-established his “everyday” status in center field and the lineup. That was a meatball down the middle that Collins couldn’t resist taking a swing at, and he let it fly.