It’s a common cry when things start to go south for a team, meant to rally the segment of the fanbase that self-identifies as sensible, but it can be used in different ways. Sometimes it’s a sabermetric cudgel for bashing those whose reliance on “old” stats keep them from seeing an underutilized player’s true value. Other times it’s a call for a promising rookie to be unleashed from the minors, where he’s tethered by service-time considerations or the perception that he’s still light on seasoning. And it can be an all-purpose clamor for change — less a vote for Player A than a vote against Player B.
Nick Evans. Lastings Milledge. Heath Bell. Val Pascucci. Fernando Martinez. Matt Harvey. Mike Baxter. Andrew Brown. Josh Satin. That’s just a short list of recent Mets in bondage whom we beseeched the front office to bring forth.
Most of the time, the player we seek to free turns out to have been more desirable in the abstract than in reality, which can lead to the ironic campaign for them to once again be consigned to wherever they came from. But not all the time. We don’t know what we’ll ultimately decide about Juan Lagares, the Mets’ interestingly utilized center fielder. Perhaps it will be this — that would be very, very nice. Or perhaps it will be a collective shake of the head, with time having turned the disappointment into a dull ache — oh yeah, him.
But we can say two things with certainty:
1) The petition for Lagares’s freedom has circulated amid rather strange circumstances; and
2) few players have celebrated their freedom quite like Lagares did today in Washington.
First, the petition.
A converted second baseman, Lagares came out of nowhere last year to show off superlative skills in center, moving up the charts in our estimation from “as good as Kirk Nieuwenhuis” to “maybe Carlos Beltran‘s equal” and finally to “yes, Carlos Beltran’s equal.” The bat remained a question, however, and over the offseason the additions of high-priced free agent Curtis Granderson and roll-of-the-dice project Chris Young left us nervous about how much playing time Lagares would get.
These things sorted themselves out, as they tend to — Young got hurt and Granderson began the race to October in tortoise fashion. Lagares, meanwhile, whacked a home run on Opening Day and kept flying from there. His defense was routinely spectacular, and while cautions about small sample sizes abounded, in the early going he showed signs of having become more selective at the plate. The point is that he wasn’t competing to be the Mets’ center fielder — he was the Mets’ center fielder. At one point Terry Collins even said so.
Few things are more dangerous in Met Land than Terry declaring ownership of a position, though. Lagares came back from a DL stint, kept hitting, then began to slump a bit. It happens, and it wasn’t like Lagares was awful. But his woes were enough for Collins to park him on the bench, choosing instead to give starting assignments to Eric Young Jr. and Bobby Abreu.
You don’t need to be a sabermetrician to know this is insane: EY is a fourth outfielder/pinch-runner and Abreu is a pinch-hitter. Terry burbled that he needed offense (which he didn’t get from those other guys either) and that Lagares needed to clear his head. His pitchers probably muttered that they needed defenders who could catch the ball reliably. If there was any comfort for Lagares, it was that Terry was making strange decisions about other young players, too: Wilmer Flores was called up to play shortstop, then sat on the bench and watched Ruben Tejada do that, which seems like a curious way to learn. Josh Satin became the invisible half of a supposed platoon, failed to hit when given no opportunity to do so, and got shipped off to Las Vegas. His replacement, Eric Campbell, would be advised to rent rather than buy.
But it was the treatment of Lagares that caused Mets fans to rise up in indignation, which is to say that we struggled to lift our heads while in our default position of prone despair and wailed on Twitter, with the first rumblings of FIRE TERRY beginning to take hashtag form. That isn’t going to happen and isn’t worth discussing — Collins’ deal runs through next year, which is basically a job guarantee for a franchise that probably orders weekly searches of the office couches for nickels. What might be hoped instead is that Sandy Alderson gets tired of Terry’s infatuation with players who can only do one thing and either orders him to use those guys differently or goes full Moneyball and takes his favorite toys away. (“I don’t think you’re starting EY — he plays for the Cubs now.”)
But enough about why Juan Lagares needed to be freed. Because the good news is that today he was, and boy did he make the most of it. In the first inning he laced a 1-1 Gio Gonzalez offering the other way to make the score 3-0 Mets. (By the way, Gio behaves like the kind of guy you edge away from when encountered on the subway.) In the third he clubbed a two-run homer to left-center to make the score 5-0. But the best was yet to come: In the sixth, with the Nats having to drawn to within three, Jayson Werth cranked a Bartolo Colon fastball to dead center. Lagares turned and raced to the center-field fence, leapt, and came down with the ball. Werth stuck out his tongue and slowed to a trot near second, looking even more truculent than usual, while Colon applauded into his mitt.
And this doesn’t even count the plays that didn’t register because Lagares did what he nearly always does — read the ball properly, got an excellent first step, ran hard and made a potentially difficult play look routine.
If you’re scoring at home, Lagares’ ledger includes three runs contributed on offense and one subtracted from the other guys on defense. Which, a bit simplistically, meant the difference between a 5-2 Mets win and a 3-2 Mets loss.
It’s fine with me if Collins wants to frame recent events as Lagares clearing his head and returning to the diamond with renewed purpose, or some such folderol. As long as the outcome is the right one, I don’t particularly care. There was no need to make the case for Lagares a week ago, but there’s certainly no reason to do so now. What Lagares did today was a convincing demonstration to anyone sentient that he should never be kept away from center field again.