We’re halfway through Spring Training and the 2021 New York Mets have mostly taken shape. Though there are a couple of contested roles still being fought for, the majority of the roster is set. Each Wednesday leading up to Opening Day, a new position will get its own preview. Check out the previous breakdowns in the links below. Today, the center fielders are up.
Despite discussions with George Springer and Jackie Bradley Jr., the Mets stood fast in center. For the time being, Sandy Alderson believes that Brandon Nimmo can continue being the team’s center fielder.
First, to address the elephant in the room, Nimmo’s defense in center isn’t exactly good. In more than 1000 innings since 2016, Nimmo owns -14 DRS, -9.6 UZR and 0 OAA. 2020 was particularly brutal as he put up -5 DRS, -4.1 UZR and -5 OAA. Likewise, his arm is similarly unspectacular as he has just five career assists in center. Nimmo’s above average speed could be his saving grace, but unfortunately he doesn’t get the best jumps. Hampered by subpar reaction time and route taking, he’s averaging around one less foot of ground covered vs. league average (around 33 feet).
Luckily, the Mets are aware of this as Nimmo is now starting deeper in order to get better reads and to cut down on the distance he needs to cover. While he won’t turn into a plus defender, if Nimmo can ditch the “worst center fielder in baseball” moniker and only be slightly below average, his bat should more than make up for his defensive deficiencies.
Slashing .258/.390/.448 with a career 130 OPS+, Nimmo is one of best leadoff hitters in baseball. An on-base machine, he owns two seasons with an OBP above .400 and a career walk rate of 15.1%. As Brad Pitt in Moneyball would say, “he gets on base.” While he still strikes out a lot (25.5 K%), Nimmo took a big step forward in 2020 by recording a career-best 19.1 K%.
Nimmo does more than walk and get hit by pitches, however, as he also boasts decent power. This was most evident in 2018 when he clubbed 17 home runs and 28 doubles. That year he peaked with a 90 mph average exit velocity and a 41.7% hard hit rate. Though he’s been unable to replicate these numbers, limited play time and injuries have kept him from getting a real chance to prove that he can hit like this consistently.
Another area Nimmo needs to improve in is hitting against lefties. He has a superb .864 OPS against RHPs, but a more pedestrian .758 OPS against LHPs. While this isn’t that bad, the drop off is significant enough that the Mets have tried to platoon Nimmo with right handed batters. This was especially necessary in 2020 when he produced a .650 OPS against LHPs. If Nimmo wants to be treated like a true everyday player, he needs to figure things out here. Even a minor improvement could elevate him into one of the all around best hitters in MLB.
The primary outfield signings by the Mets this offseason were for defensive specialists Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar. As mentioned in the right field preview, these two aren’t very good with a bat, with Almora sporting a career OPS+ of 84 and Pillar at 89. As righties, however, they are the model platoon partners for Nimmo in center. Whether the Mets actually want to go this route is unclear right now. At the very least, Almora and Pillar will be valuable as late-game defensive subs.
At 26 years old, Almora comes with more defensive upside. In 2600 innings in center, he owns 6 DRS, 1.1 UZR and an astounding 22 OAA. Though a below average 2019 season somewhat tanked the first two stats, for the most part he’s been elite in his career. On the other hand, the 32-year-old Pillar is starting to show some rust. From 2014-17, he was arguably the best center fielder in baseball, accumulating 53 DRS, 24.8 UZR and 16 OAA (started tracking in 2016). Since then, he’s put up -14 DRS, -0.4 UZR and only 6 OAA. Combine this with his solid numbers in right field and Pillar’s days in center field look numbered.
Probable minor leaguers Mallex Smith and Khalil Lee also have a chance at playing in the majors this year. Like Almora and Pillar, these two are natural center fielders with the potential to play each outfield position. Their bats may not be too impressive, but their athleticism and defensive abilities make them the top candidates to be called up in case of injury.
Smith, a veteran of five seasons, has 120 stolen bases, including a league-leading 46 in 2019. As one of the fastest guys in the majors, he also uses his speed to get elite jumps in center (1.8 feet above average in 2019). That said, his overall defense is a bit of a tossup, as seen by a 2019 season that produced -11 DRS and -8.5 UZR, but 7 OAA. As for Lee, he’s got plus speed and is a prolific base stealer as well (53 in 2019). The club’s top outfield prospect also has a cannon for an arm, as evidenced by his 22 assists in center. At just 22, the Kansas City Royals were planning on using Lee as a starter this year which bodes well for his perceived readiness.
That about does it for the center fielders. Check back next Wednesday when the left fielders get their preview.
Featured Image Courtesy of Harry How/Getty Images
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