Juan Lagares finds home in center field

As a shortstop turned center fielder, Juan Lagares is following a path previously traveled by the likes of Eric Davis, Reggie Sanders, Melvin Upton Jr. and Billy Hamilton -- not to mention Hall of Famer Robin Yount. The New York Mets were fortunate to recognize his potential and salvage his career before it was too late. But it's a stretch to think that anyone inside or outside the Mets' organization believed he would become a defensive force of the highest order.

During his journey through the minors, Lagares was less heralded than Fernando Martinez, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker. The Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau gave him a middling 50 on the 20-to-80 scouts' scale as a defender, and a 2012 Baseball America analysis included the following snippet:

"He moves well in the outfield, though his speed is fringy and not ideal for anything but a corner. His below-average arm plays best in left."

"I guess he's improved," said Mets left fielder Michael Cuddyer, laughing as he contemplated that assessment.

In hindsight, the early takes on Lagares seem as dated as scouting reports on Tony Stark before he donned that Iron Man getup.

It takes a lot to stand out on the current outfield scene. Any discussion of MLB's best defensive center fielders includes Kansas City's Lorenzo Cain, the Angels' Mike Trout and Baltimore's Adam Jones, who chases down balls in the gap with a healthy dose of bubble gum blowing on the side. Arizona's A.J. Pollock is underappreciated, and Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier, Boston's Mookie Betts and Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson rank high on the list of up-and-comers.

Lagares, 26, has attained elite status because he passes the eye test and -- for the bulk of his young career -- has dominated the new metrics at his position. He's enough of a defensive weapon that he logged a nondescript .669 OPS through his first two seasons, and the Mets still rewarded him with a four-year, $23 million contract extension in April. And he's enough of an acrobat that teammate Matt Harvey paused in the middle of a recent pitcher's duel with Washington's Max Scherzer to applaud a Lagares catch on Ian Desmond.

Talent evaluators, opponents and teammates grope for comparisons. A veteran National League scout says Lagares is "not quite Andruw Jones," then raves about his willingness to play shallow and convert bloopers into outs. Cuddyer compares Lagares favorably with two former Minnesota teammates who turned the Metrodome outfield turf into a perpetual hit-free zone.

"He positions himself like Torii Hunter,'' Cuddyer said, "and he covers ground like Carlos Gomez."

Mets manager Terry Collins travels back to his tenure as Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen coach in the early 1990s for a frame of reference.

"I would compare him to Andy Van Slyke," Collins said. "Andy got great jumps on balls, and he had a great throwing arm. In Pittsburgh, Barry Bonds covered straight left field to the line, and Bobby Bonilla covered straight right field to the line, and the rest was Andy's.

"That's kind of what we do here. When balls are hit, our pitchers just walk off the mound, because they know it's gonna get caught."

Seamless transition

Lagares grew up in the Dominican Republic town of Constanza in a region known for its breathtaking waterfalls and sumptuous strawberries. He went to high school in San Pedro de Macoris -- the famed "cradle of shortstops'' -- and aspired to become the next Derek Jeter or Hanley Ramirez.

Lagares signed with the Mets as a shortstop at age 17, and the early results were less than inspiring. In 2007, he hit .210 with 40 errors in 83 games with Savannah in the Class A South Atlantic League, and an organizational intervention was in order.

Part of the challenge of player development is recognizing when a player is pressing, or stalled, and some creativity and good faith might help jump-start his career without cutting the cord. People overseeing the Mets' farm system could see the pressure of Lagares' failures weighing on his emotions, and his travails at shortstop leaking into the rest of his game.

"When you're playing a position, even in the Dominican Summer League, and you're not catching the ball and you're making errors and your team is losing, that's tough," Collins said. "You can tell a player, 'Hang with it,' but it's all a learning process. Nobody on earth wants to be embarrassed."

Rafael Landestoy, the Mets' international field coordinator, was first to suggest that Lagares might benefit from a move to the outfield. The Mets started Lagares out in left, and the results were instantaneous. He recognized angles and spins off the bat, took direct, efficient routes to the ball and displayed the requisite instincts to make for an expedited learning curve.

More important, he seemed almost liberated by the move. The tentativeness that had plagued him at shortstop gave way to a more confident and daring mindset in the outfield. As time passed, Lagares began seeing less time in left field and more in right and center.

"The first couple weeks, I felt a little weird," Lagares said. "After that, with hard work and talking to the outfield coaches, I felt more comfortable. And here we are."

It's easy to overlook Lagares in sporadic viewings because he has more of a functional, utilitarian skill set than a flat-out "wow'' package. He's an above-average runner but not a burner in the classic sense. And while his arm is above average, he relies more on accuracy and a quick release than a cannon.

In 2013, Lagares made an impression by recording 15 outfield assists in 116 games. The highlight came in a 20-inning loss to the Marlins, when he threw out Adeiny Hechavarria at home plate and cut down Rob Brantly at third base. Lagares' assist total dipped to six past season, in part because the word spread and opposing teams became more circumspect about challenging him.

Lagares shut it down with an elbow sprain in September, and his early reluctance to cut it loose emboldened a few opponents to take an extra base in April. But his reputation still precedes him. Collins made a mental note during a recent Mets-Marlins game when a Miami baserunner declined to tag at second base on a fly ball to deep center field. It's a scenario Lagares has seen unfold with other baserunners throughout the majors.

"I think they've learned their lesson," Lagares said.

Solid-gold defender

Lagares experienced the thrill of his young career in November when he joined Tommie Agee and Carlos Beltran as the third Mets outfielder to win a Gold Glove. Two days later, he visited a public school in East Harlem for a baseball clinic and brought along a replica Gold Glove trophy for show-and-tell.

Along with the standard hardware collection, Lagares reigned supreme in the new-school defensive metrics. He accounted for 6.9 Defensive Wins Above Replacement during the 2013-14 seasons, recording a staggering 56 Defensive Runs Saved in that span. For sake of comparison, Cain was next in line with a plus-48 DRS in center and right field over those two seasons.

The first five weeks of 2015 haven't been as kind to Lagares. Baseball Info Solutions gives him a Defensive Runs Saved of zero, which is league average and tied for 26th among MLB center fielders. Lagares routinely stations himself in shallow center and dares opponents to drive the ball over his head, and he paid the price early when a couple of hitters obliged with extra-base hits to the fence.

But history suggests this is just a short-term blip -- and a reminder that advanced defensive metrics are best viewed through a three-year prism.

"Certainly, defensive metrics have value," said Adam Fisher, the Mets' director of baseball operations. "Everyone in baseball has come around to that. But they do have their inconsistencies, particularly in a small sample. It's the type of thing you would expect to normalize over an entire season.

"In Juan's case, I don't think you'll get any argument that he's the best or among the best in baseball at his position. He catches anything that's catchable, and balls that shouldn't be catchable. You watch him every night and it's really hard to believe."

In the big picture, quantitative analysis has to be balanced with the pulse-quickening sensation of watching Lagares racing after a ball with the tunnel vision of a wide receiver going over the middle. He is fearless by nature and immune to the dreaded "alligator arms'' around outfield walls. And his glove is a leather vise; just about anything he gets his hands on, he catches.

"You never see him get to a ball and say, 'He should have had that,'" said an NL talent evaluator. "If he gets to the ball, you're out."

Amid the graceful catches in the gap and head-first sprawls behind shortstop and second base, Lagares is working diligently to become a better-rounded player. He has shown enough batting practice power that the Mets think he can become a 15-homer, 20-steal, .750 OPS staple, provided he becomes more selective at the plate. If Lagares can maintain his value as a run-preventer, he'll be in the conversation for some All-Star teams with that type of production.

Between the slumps and hot stretches, Lagares has only one rule for catching a fly ball: It must be airborne. So in the name of self-preservation, Cuddyer and Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson have learned to stay vigilant.

"There are times when I'll be camped or move a little bit to my left and think, 'I don't even need to yell for it,'" Cuddyer said. "I just assume that I've got it. Then all of a sudden he's right there with me and I end up having to call it."

As captain of the Citi Field neighborhood watch, Lagares is taking it upon himself to cover lots of ground and pocket everything within reach this summer. He plays center field with nonstop energy, a spring in his step and the comfort level befitting a player who has found a home.