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How Important Is A Fourth Outfielder Like Juan Lagares?

A great fourth outfielder is one of those things that a team may see as a “nice-to-have” piece, but hardly a necessity. After all, how often do you see a team make a big splash with a fourth outfielder signing or big trade? Of course, this very thing happened probably twice this offseason. The Chicago Cubs shocked baseball by signing Dexter Fowler away from the Orioles at the last minute, bringing him back to a team that already shelled out big money for Jason Heyward and had Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler on hand. And, as you may have heard, the Mets had a complete outfield of Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares, and Michael Conforto before shocking baseball and re-signing Yoenis Cespedes to a three-year one-year deal.

As a result, the Mets have a new, old starting center fielder and cleanup hitter–and Juan Lagares becomes a fairly-expensive fourth outfielder. It’s almost funny. Lagares was a questionable center fielder who needed his bat to play up to handle a corner as a prospect, but in his 2013 and 2014 seasons, he was a plus defensive center fielder with just enough bat to matter. After posting 2.4 and 3.4 WARP in those two years, the Mets shelled out a four-year, $40 million contract just to watch Juan’s defense (-1.0 FRAA) and offense (.245 True Average) nosedive on the way to the World Series. He dealt with injuries, sure, but it was poor performance that has pushed him into a short-side platoon and late-game-defensive replacement role.

Despite that iffy 2015, Lagares is now something of a luxury item for the NL East’s most recent champions: a very good fourth outfielder. After all, he’d be the second- or third-best outfielder on several teams–perhaps the best overall on the Phillies or Brantley-free Indians! At the same time, we should probably consider just how much of a luxury it really is to have Lagares in the fold. To do that, we can quickly look back at the Mets’ “fourth outfielders” from the last decade.

Here’re the Mets five most-used outfielders (in terms of innings played in the outfield) from the last decade. I’ve marked with an asterisk the players who I thought were “supposed to be” starters at the outset of the season.

Year 1st OF Innings 2nd OF Innings 3rd OF Innings 4th OF Innings 5th OF Innings
2015 Curtis Granderson* 1291.7 Juan Lagares* 1003.7 Michael Cuddyer* 606.7 Yoenis Cespedes 469 Michael Conforto 389.7
2014 Curtis Granderson* 1328.3 Juan Lagares* 945 Eric Young Jr.* 580.3 Chris Young 580 Matt den Dekker 360
2013 Marlon Byrd* 953 Juan Lagares 904 Eric Young Jr. 793.3 Lucas Duda* 494 Mike Baxter 268.7
2012 Andres Torres* 904.7 Lucas Duda* 846.3 Scott Hairston 772.7 Kirk Nieuwenhuis 613.7 Jason Bay* 457.3
2011 Jason Bay* 1053.3 Angel Pagan* 1045 Carlos Beltran* 790.3 Jason Pridie 464.3 Lucas Duda 364.3
2010 Angel Pagan* 1256.3 Jeff Francoeur 982 Jason Bay* 820.7 Carlos Beltran* 517.7 Jesus Feliciano 218.3
2009 Angel Pagan 697 Carlos Beltran* 676 Jeff Francoeur 637.3 Ryan Church* 518 Gary Sheffield 502
2008 Carlos Beltran* 1407.3 Ryan Church* 724 Endy Chavez 635.7 Fernando Tatis 576.7 Daniel Murphy 249
2007 Carlos Beltran* 1240.3 Shawn Green* 919.7 Moises Alou* 703 Lastings Milledge 418 Endy Chavez 353
2006 Carlos Beltran* 1184 Endy Chavez 814.3 Cliff Floyd* 768.3 Xavier Nady* 620.7 Lastings Milledge 399.3

Last year, the Mets opened the season with Lagares, Michael Cuddyer, and Curtis Granderson as the team’s designated starting outfield, and they got the most playing time over the course of the season. But the team’s “fourth outfielder” wound up being Yoenis Cespedes, a move that wasn’t exactly in the cards before the season began. He fits a pattern, though … each of the Mets’ fourth most-used outfielders over the past played between 464 and 621 innings per season, or roughly somewhere between a third and a half a season worth of playing time.

My biggest takeaway here is that in only four of the past 10 seasons did the Mets’ three intended starting outfielders all play the most innings in the outfield. According to this small sample, there’s about a 60 percent chance that one of the team’s three regulars this season (Cespedes, Granderson, or Conforto), won’t earn the most innings among the guys on the grass. Sometimes this can be due to ineffectiveness–though that seems unlikely with that crowd–but just as likely is either a middling or catastrophic injury that limits playing time. I mentioned Kyle Schwarber at the beginning of this piece … how smart do the Cubs look for acquiring Fowler now that Schwarber is due to miss all of 2016 with ligament tears in his knee?

It’s a great thing that the Mets have a young, talented fourth outfielder in Juan Lagares. Even if he weren’t pseudo-platooning with Conforto and the designated defensive replacement for Cespedes late in games, we should still expect him to get significant playing time. Mets fourth outfielders have a history of playing often, and this is the type of necessary depth that helps separate real contending teams (the Cubs, perhaps) from the ones who endure massive injuries and then flounder (the Diamondbacks, perhaps). Fourth outfielders matter more than I initially thought.

Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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