With today’s announcement that Juan Lagares has been named National League “Defensive Player of the Month” for August, it’s timely to ask the question, “Will Juan Lagares turn out to be the best Mets centerfielder ever?”
Thanks to his acrobatic catches, great range, pinpoint and powerful throws and his steadily improving offensive game, veteran Mets watchers are beginning to ponder the question. Lagares comes from the epi-center of the baseball universe in the Dominican Republic, San Pedro de Macoris, a city that boasts 76 MLB players including Robinson Cano, Sammy Sosa, Luis Castillo and Pedro Guerrero.
Before we return to it, however, let’s take a walk through the 52-year history of Mets centerfielders to see just who Lagares will have to surpass to earn the title.
Looking back we see several very good, and some great ballplayers have played for the Mets in one of baseball’s true glamour positions. The first Mets centerfielder was Richie Ashburn, whose career earned him a trip to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ashburn was closing out his career with one last season for the new expansion Mets of 1962. He led the team that year with a .300 batting average, but his lack of longevity disqualifies him from any claim to be the Mets best.
Let’s look at five players with the most games patrolling centerfield. Number one is Mookie Wilson who played with the Mets the entire decade of the 1980s, appearing in over 1000 games, 907 in center. Forever a Mets legend for hitting the ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series and always a fan favorite, a case could be made for Wilson as the Mets best at the post.
Next in playing time is Carlos Beltran, who logged 723 games between 2005 and 2011. Though not quite living up to the high expectations the Mets had when they signed him to a monster free agent contract, Beltran had some good years including 2006 when he tied Randy Hundley for the Mets single season home run record with 41. Ironically, one of his greatest contributions to the Mets might be that he was traded in 2011 to the Giants for Mets ace Zack Wheeler.
Third place in games played belongs to Tommie Agee who made a name for himself as a star of the 1969 World Series. His two highlight-reel catches and a home run immortalized him in Mets history. Agee checks in with 591 games over a five-season Mets career.
Next is the popular Lee Mazilli with 572 games over a ten-year Mets career spanning 1976 to 1981 and then a part-time stint from 1986 to 1989. He played a small but valuable role in the Mets drive to the 1986 World Series and banged out a pair of hits in the Fall Classic.
Lenny Dykstra rounds out our top six centerfielders with 493 games in a five-year span from 1985 to 1989. Though he only had three 100 game seasons, his heroics in post-season play makes him a contender. He hit a dramatic game-winning home run in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, followed up with a home run in the World Series, then hit another in the 1988 NLCS. Some might disqualify him on a “character clause” as Dykstra’s post-playing career has been marked by multiple felony convictions, bankruptcies and mention in the Mitchell Report for steroid use during his playing career.
That rounds out the top six Mets centerfielders in terms of games played. Take your pick as to which is best of all.
We mustn’t close out our trip down Mets memory lane without a nod to two men in addition to Ashburn who are in the Hall of Fame and who also played a few games in center. An aging Willie Mays played 95 games there, and opened the 1973 World Series in center for the Mets. Duke Snider logged 11 games at the post in a late-career stop with the Mets in 1963.
So we return to the question, “Will Juan Lagares turn out to be the best Mets centerfielder ever?”
At 26, Lagares is just coming into his prime. His first few years in the lower minors were marked by a series of injuries that limited his playing time, but he’s been steadily getting stronger and played in at least 100 games in each of the last five seasons including 2014. Last year he hit only .242 as a rookie, but he’s up to .274 late in 2014.
There is no question that Lagares has the talent with his glove and arm to win the title of all-time best centerfielder for the team. Now his bat is coming alive and beginning to convince as well.