By Brad Kallet
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Barring injury, Terry Collins will have plenty of juggling to do in the second half of the season.
On Sunday, the Mets recalled Michael Conforto from Triple-A Las Vegas after a 16-game stint in the Pacific Coast League. It’s great to have Conforto, who hit third earlier this season and whose average touched .330 in April, back with the big club. He tore up Las Vegas, as most hitters tend to do, hitting .344 (21-for-61) with three home runs, four doubles, two triples, 15 RBIs, eight walks, eight strikeouts and a .420 on-base percentage.
Earlier this season, I wrote that the second-year player was the most complete hitter on the club. I was wrong. But even though he slumped miserably before being sent down—.222, 10 home runs, 30 RBIs, .296 in 65 games with the Mets — there’s no question that the former first-round pick has a beautiful, compact swing and is extremely dangerous at the plate. He’s going to hit; it’s just a matter of when (and he must learn how to hit lefties.)
But Conforto is a left fielder, and MVP candidate Yoenis Cespedes said Sunday that his preference is to play left field as opposed to center.
Cespedes’ request to switch positions comes with health in mind. The slugger is concerned about the strained right quadricep that recently caused him to miss time, and he said that playing in left field would be “less work on my leg.”
The Mets have no choice but to give Cespedes what he wants — especially if they hope to keep him next year and beyond — and if the move results in less wear and tear on his body, then it’s a logical move.
But with Cespedes in left, what happens to Conforto and Curtis Granderson? One thing is clear: Cespedes and Granderson need to play every day. There are no two ways about that. Could you put Cespedes in left, Granderson in center and Conforto in right?
Granderson has played 1,151 games in center field in his career, but he’s not nearly as speedy as he once was — his range has surely diminished — and his arm strength is limited. He hasn’t played the position once this year, only played it twice in 2015 and played it just 15 times the year prior.
Is he capable out there? Probably. But effective, and even valuable? Doubtful.
Conforto has never played right field or center in the big leagues, though he did start four games in right during his short stay in Vegas. Right field is more challenging to man than left, and, like Granderson, Conforto hardly has a cannon.
Collins is also considering slotting Conforto in center field, where he never played in college, let alone in the minor leagues. Is his arm strong enough? Can he cover enough ground? After watching him play 108 games in left over the past two years, it’s difficult to imagine the 23-year-old handling himself out there.
And then, of course, there’s Juan Lagares, the best defensive center fielder on the team and a pretty good hitter in his own right. Should he platoon with Conforto, depending on righty-lefty matchups? That would certainly seem to make sense, especially if Conforto continues to look clueless against lefties.
But with a promising young player such as Conforto, you want him playing every day, not platooning. How is he ever going to develop into a star — or even a solid everyday player — if he’s only out there three or four days a week? Lagares and Alejandro De Aza are obvious late-inning defensive-replacement options, but you hate to take Conforto or Granderson’s bat out of the lineup in a close game.
There’s no easy answer to this dilemma. It’s a nice problem to have, in that the Mets have three — four, if you count Lagares, which I do — effective hitters to utilize and spread playing time out for. New York needs as much offense as it can get right now, and the trio of Cespedes-Conforto-Granderson in the outfield gives Collins’ club the best chance of putting runs on the board.
But with Conforto in center, or Granderson in center, or Conforto in right — man, I’m getting exhausted — the Mets are hurting their pitchers and putting themselves in position to lose tight games. With one of the aforementioned alignments, opposing baserunners will take liberties: the extra base, the shallow sacrifice fly, the extra-base hit in the gap that should and would have been caught by Cespedes or Lagares.
But with Cespedes making his desires known, it’s out of Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson’s hands. They need to make the best out of the situation and figure out what hurts them the least defensively, and hopefully the offensive boost will outweigh the potential negatives. If Conforto hits like he’s capable of hitting, and he and Granderson step up and hold their own in the outfield, this will be a clear positive for the Mets. Unfortunately, those are pretty big ifs.
On Monday night, WFAN baseball insider Jon Heyman reported that Cespedes will continue to play some center field moving forward, though it’s unclear how much. That will make Collins’ job easier, even if only slightly.
In Conforto’s first game back with the Mets, against the Cubs in the series opener at Wrigley Field, the left-handed hitter sat against lefty Jon Lester before being called on as a pinch-hitter, and Lagares started in center field.
We should have more of a feel for the situation Tuesday, when New York takes on right-handed ace Jake Arrieta.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet