Lagares could surprise as Mets' 4th outfielder

Former Gold Glover can lead off vs. lefties, be defensive sub late in games

Lagares could surprise as Mets' 4th outfielder

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Mets squad each day this week. Today's topic: Who might surprise?

NEW YORK -- Jay Bruce's return to the Mets means a crowded group of outfielders will spill into Port St. Lucie, Fla. this month. With Bruce in right field, questions surround Michael Conforto's opportunity to contribute to the Mets, particularly with Yoenis Cespedes and Curtis Granderson also entrenched in the club's outfield plans.

But what about Juan Lagares, the forgotten man in the Mets' mix? Despite so many other outfielders on the roster, Lagares has a chance to be one of the Mets' most pleasant surprises in 2017.

• Who might surprise for each club in 2017?

The argument for Lagares' breakout revolves around his opportunity. Even with Bruce, Cespedes, Granderson and possibly Conforto on the big league roster, Lagares has a niche that all but guarantees him playing time. When the Mets face a left-handed starting pitcher, Lagares will play, thanks to his career .276/.322/.412 slash line against lefties. Late in games that Lagares does not start, he will play nonetheless, given his status as the Mets' unquestioned best defensive center fielder.

So unlike Conforto, who will begin the season on the bench or perhaps even at Triple-A Las Vegas, Lagares will see a fair share of game action. If he thrives, he will see even more.

The question, as for so many Mets, is health. Heading into last season, Lagares possessed this same opportunity, but performed poorly as he tried to play through a partially torn thumb ligament. The year before, it was an elbow injury that undermined Lagares, transforming his otherworldly throwing arm into a pop gun. Even in his 2014 National League Gold Glove Award season, Lagares was not fully healthy, a testament in part to the aggressive style of defense that he plays.

But Lagares is still just 27 years old, smack in the middle of his physical prime, and committed to the Mets on a contract that guarantees him $20 million over the next three seasons. Considering Granderson's advanced age, Cespedes' injury concerns and Bruce's inconsistency, a productive Lagares would do wonders to solidify the Mets' crowded outfield.

Can he do it? The key for Lagares remains defense, with advanced metrics painting him as significantly better in 2016 than '15 -- not quite back to where he was during his Gold Glove summer, but close enough that the Mets can't afford to limit his playing time late in games. If that happens, then Lagares needs only to make good on his offensive potential, perhaps forcing the issue with the type of aggressive baserunning the Mets have recently preached to him.

Lagares' floor is another injury-plagued season in which he does not distinguish himself. But his ceiling is that of a dynamic role player, capable of starting in center field, leading off against left-handed pitchers and generally outperforming the league's expectations of him -- in short, a player capable of providing services that the Mets' other, more established outfielders cannot.

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.