Really, we're not going to try to talk fans out of that perception, not after the way Cespedes lit up the summer. But with it seeming more and more likely that he's not coming back, isn't it time to take a moment and realize that, hey, the outfield the Mets have right now is perfectly fine, even without him?
The counter-argument to that tends to be that Lagares was an unacceptable hitter last year, and that his elite defense took a step back in 2015, perhaps due to a lingering right elbow injury, to the point that it no longer overcome his offensive shortcomings. Both charges are true: Lagares was worth just one Win Above Replacement, hitting only .259/.289/.358 with adequate defense, a year after being worth 4 WAR thanks to being a league-average hitter (.281/.321/.382) with an excellent glove.
To put that into numbers, Lagares hit .251/.280/.331 (70 wRC+) through July 31, and .287/.326/.471 (121 wRC+) from Aug. 1 on. His exit velocity jumped from 91.5 mph to 94.5 mph, a large increase. In part that's because he faced fewer righties, but that's a situation that might stick, as the lefty-swinging De Aza is an ideal platoon partner, bringing a career 106 wRC+ mark against righties. Lagares will never be an offensive star, but after a solid 2014 and a hot finish to 2015, there's reason to believe he can be good enough.
But what about that defense? There's motivation enough to want a plus defender in center given the below-average defense the Mets look to roll out at most other spots, but if he's not a star with the glove, there's little reason to give the bat a chance. Yet while all the focus was on the state of that right arm, the truth is, Lagares' seeming step back was because he didn't get to as many balls as he did in 2014. For example, if we look at the "range" component of UZR, we get Lagares going from 9.5 runs above average in 2013, to 15.1 in '14, to just 3.9 in '15.
Looking at FanGraphs' spray charts, we can see that when Lagares missed balls in 2014, they were generally in front of him. In 2015, they were almost universally behind him, and that makes a big difference: An advanced stat like DRS penalizes the player more harshly for missing extra-base hits than singles.
(Why aren't we using Statcast™ for this comparison, you ask? Because we need to compare two seasons and have just one year of Statcast™ data, for now. Soon enough, we'll be able to do this with better data.)
While that doesn't excuse the balls Lagares didn't get to, it does open up the question of whether a simple matter of positioning is a big part of his seeming step back -- and either way, we know that a single year's worth of defensive metrics are usually not enough to put complete faith in, particularly when a player has seen different results before.
In the unlikely scenario where the Mets can get Cespedes on a short contract, or with a likely-to-be-used opt-out, then obviously they ought to. But if he returns, it'd be an odd fit, forcing him to be a center fielder when he's clearly not one, and it's a better outfield than people think. Conforto is a star in the making, after having hit .270/.335/.506 and with average exit velocity and launch angles that mirror those of Paul Goldschmidt. Granderson, perpetually unloved because he no longer hits 40-plus homers, just had a five-win season and was a more valuable hitter than Jose Abreu or Prince Fielder. De Aza is a decent enough platoon piece.
And Lagares? Well, a year ago, he was seen as a building block, enough so that he was given an extension through the 2020 season. A few rough months to start the season shouldn't have changed that. Lagares is not Cespedes; what he is is a perfectly capable starting Major League center fielder, anchoring a perfectly solid Major League outfield. Those are harder to find than you might think.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.