There was once a time when New York Mets center fielder Juan Lagares was considered the future of the team.
The Dominican-born outfielder had all the makings of a five-tool star when he broke into the league in 2013. He had the speed and the sterling defense to check off the fielding, throwing and base-running boxes while the high average and power were expected to come around as he gained experience.
Five years later and the offensive aspect of his game has not come around yet despite conscious efforts to re-tool Lagares’ swing.
While injuries have interfered with his development, the 29-year-old has put up 162-game averages of a .257 batting average with six home runs and 43 RBI over his first five years in the league. He has never hit more than six home runs in a season and other than a .281 batting average in 116 games during the 2014 season, Lagares hasn’t batted over .269.
He developed into more of a utility player over the past few years as the Mets outfield grew to hold the likes of Curtis Granderson, Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce and Michael Conforto. With Granderson being traded away last season and Conforto’s recovery from a dislocated shoulder set to hold him out until at least May 1, the starting job in center was up for grabs between Lagares and Brandon Nimmo.
His path toward the starting job was clear as new hitting coach Pat Roessler, who was an assistant for three years under former Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, made hitting the ball in the air a priority for Lagares this offseason.
In order to make that happen, he spent more than a week with swing guru Craig Wallenbrock in Southern California to tweak his swing.
“He did hit some balls hard last year, and when his timing is not off, hit the ball on the ground,” Roessler said back in February (h/t Mike Puma of the New York Post). “I think he’s got a better chance of hitting the ball in the air more often. We told him the other day we don’t mind him hitting ground balls as long as the first hop is 420 feet away.”
Lagares has yet to see any real success with that new swing. In fact, it’s been a total non-factor during spring training.
In his first 40 at-bats of the exhibition season, Lagares is batting just .175 (7-for-40) with no home runs and a single RBI while Nimmo has run away with the starting job.
The 24-year-old who the Mets refused to trade during the offseason will likely be the team’s lead-off man on Opening Day as he’s batting .286 with three home runs, nine RBI and a .368 on-base percentage.
With just nine days until the regular season starts, Lagares is running out of time to win some more playing time.
“At some point, [Lagares] is going to have to make sure he goes out there and competes,” manager Mickey Callaway said (h/t Puma). “I am not sure when that time is, it’s probably fast approaching. Sooner or later you have to go out there and not worry about what you have been working on and just put good swings on the baseball.”