A few weeks ago, three emails arrived in a five-day period asking about New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares. This one was typical but the others were along the same lines.
I don't remember anyone projecting Juan Lagares as a regular, but I think he's done pretty well for the Mets this year. Do you think he can get better? How did you rate him as a prospect?----LC, St. Louis, Missouri
Someone asked a similar question in a comment thread at the same time, so Lagares must have been on people's minds for some reason.
Answering the second part of the question first, here are the two comments filed for Lagares, first from the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book after he had such a good '11 season:
A Dominican outfielder signed in 2006, Lagares had a breakthrough season in 2011, hitting a combined .349/.383/.500 between High-A and Double-A, then following up with a .303/.343/.485 performance in the Arizona Fall League. He’s always had enough bat speed to hit well, but horrendous strike zone judgment and problems with breaking pitches held him back. He is still very impatient, but not quite as bad as before, and Mets sources report that he made some legitimate improvements with his swing. Lagares’ BABIPs last year (.379 at St. Lucie, .439 at Binghamton) were much higher than anything he’d posted before, and while I’m sure he made some genuine adjustments, it’s probable that a great deal of good luck was also involved. He runs pretty well but most scouts see him as a left fielder whose bat will have to carry him. I’m intrigued enough with his tools and youth to give him a Grade C+, but some regression seems likely in ‘12.
2012 was less impressive, as he hit .283/.334/.389 for Double-A Binghamton, though he did steal 21 bases. The report entering '13 was shorter:
He regressed. It seems clear that Lagares did make legitimate progress in 2011, improving his plate discipline in particular, but the hits didn’t fall in as often last year and he lost some of his good BABIP luck. His lack of home run power is a handicap and he needs to use his speed better, but he still has a shot as a reserve. Grade C.
As you know, Lagares hit .242/.281/.352 in 392 at-bats, wRC+76, for the Mets in 2013. That was not very good, but he held his job due to his defense (more on that in a second) which boosted his fWAR to 2.9. In 2014 he improved his bat to .281/.324/.382 with 13 steals in 416 at-bats wRC+101. He retained the excellent glovework, boosting his fWAR to 3.8, which made him the most valuable regular in the Mets lineup according to WAR.
Okay. . .so what do we make of this?
As an offensive player, Lagares' performance in the majors is very much in line with his minor league performance. He's a line drive hitter with below-average power and mediocre plate discipline, but makes enough contact and runs well enough to ring up a decent batting average when his BABIP die rolls go well.
My guess is that he will continue to show gradual improvement, perhaps showing some increase in home run power eventually, getting to the point where his wRC+ marks are consistently around league average. He could even have a season or two when he hits .300+, but without more power it could be a pretty empty .300.
The defense keeps Lagares in the lineup even when he's not hitting, and frankly the glovework is a real surprise. Not that it isn't legitimate. . .I think the gaudy defensive metrics so far are real and that he's an outstanding defender. . .but it is something that didn't particularly stand out most of the time when he was a prospect.
In the Arizona Fall League in 2011 it was his hitting that everyone talked about, not the glove, which drew little comment (at least that I picked up on). My old game observation notes said that he ran well but that his arm looked pretty weak and nothing stood out as hugely positive, or negative, in terms of instincts, route-running, or other aspects of defensive play.
Of course, that was just from seeing him play a few days in the AFL. Perhaps these observations were faulty due to my own blindness or misleading due to a small sample size, although Baseball America's report in their 2012 book was similar, noting that he moved well in the outfield, but his overall speed was "fringy" and his arm "plays best in left."
However, digging further we note this report a year later from Rob Castellano at Amazin' Avenue in April, 2013, noting that Lagares' defense had improved a great deal, "to the point that there are instructors within the organization that feel he's on the level with, or even above, Matt den Dekker."
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The shift in reports implies that there was a significant change in 2012. Although minor league defensive statistics are problematic, this change does show up in the numbers: he split 2011 between left and right field for St. Lucie and Binghamton, with decent but not outstanding numbers. In 2012 he played center field and right field with dramatic improvement in both fielding percentage and range factors. Again, minor league defensive stats can be troublesome, but these changes persisted in 2013 and he's been outstanding with the glove since reaching the Show.
So, the bottom line: Lagares looked like a C+/C type prospect in the minors, but his defensive ability has turned out to be terrific and could/should keep him employed long enough for his bat to grow further. He may never be an outstanding hitter, but as long as he can field like this, he won't need to be to stay employed.