Coming out of the 2015 season, I never would’ve thought we’d still be sitting here in spring 2017 talking about why Michael Conforto can’t find full-time work with the Mets. It was obvious that they’d make room somewhere. Sure, Terry Collins kept finding silly excuses to play Michael Cuddyer, even into the playoffs, but talent shines through, right? The funny thing is, even though I thought I’d beaten the “Michael Conforto needs to play” drum raw here on BP Mets, it’s time to revisit it. Again. (It’s come up a few times in passing, and we’ve certainly talked about it on the podcast enough, but I’ve only written about it once, last June. And a lot has changed since June!) Let’s drop back in on the amalgam of talent that Terry Collins has jamming up the outfield and first base situation.
Only one outfield position is truly clear entering 2017: Yoenis Cespedes will be this team’s left fielder. You can argue he should be in right because of his arm, or you can lament this his spell in center didn’t work out. But Cespedes prefers left and believes he’ll stay healthiest and most productive playing in that spot. He’s the team’s best player with the $110 million contract, so he gets what he wants. As long as he’s healthy, nobody is else is playing that spot more than once or twice a month.
Center field appears to be a mixed offense/defense and lefty/righty platoon with Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares, the two most experienced center fielders on the roster. Before last fall, Granderson’s last run as a semi-regular in center was in 2013. He turns 36 next week, and was never more than an average CF by defensive metrics even in his prime, so if you were trying to make Granderson work as your strong-side option in center, you’d want to compliment him with a lefty-crushing defensive specialist. Enter Juan Lagares, who is exactly that player when healthy. Let’s assume for now that Conforto probably isn’t picking up much playing time in center … although the Mets did experiment with it at times last season.
That leaves the RF/1B quagmire. Given that the Mets have chosen to work Jay Bruce out at first, the Mets have the choice of the following alignments:
- Option 1: RF Michael Conforto / 1B Jay Bruce
- Option 2: RF Michael Conforto / 1B Lucas Duda
- Option 3: RF Jay Bruce / 1B Lucas Duda
Let’s take a quick look at what PECOTA projects for each of our three heroes in 2017:
I included WARP/600 to point out that the only thing keeping this even a remotely close competition is that Baseball Prospectus currently estimates that Michael Conforto will only be a part-time player. At full playing time, the choice is clear: Conforto is the best projected hitter, and the overall value from WARP (including defense, baserunning, and positioning) only further makes his case.
It’s not just enough, in my opinion, to look at a raw projection and call it a day, so let’s run through why PECOTA sees Conforto as a vastly superior option to Bruce and Duda:
- The aging curves of baseball sway in Conforto’s favor. Bruce’s projection nearly exactly duplicates his last three years worth of playing time, which isn’t unreasonable for a corner outfielder entering his age-30 season. Duda gains back some of his 2016 losses, but not most of them, and that’s also a reasonable call for a 31-year-old slugger coming off a season lost to injuries and underperformance. Conforto, meanwhile, is expected to improve on his career numbers as he enters his age-24 season.
- PECOTA sees what Conforto did in Vegas. Conforto put up some truly excellent numbers in Vegas last year, hitting .422/.483/.727 over 144 plate appearances. It’s Vegas and Vegas is absolutely stupid offensively, but it’s stupid in the sense that guys hit over .320 sometimes, not over .420. Yes, 144 plate appearances isn’t a lot, but it’s also not an exceedingly small sample; it’s 29 percent of Conforto’s 2016 playing time. Heck, that Vegas annihilation accounts for 11 percent of his total professional plate appearances. PECOTA is absolutely regressing that performance for everything under the sun—run environment, Triple-A quality pitching, and the small sample—but it’s still a pretty decent piece of data propping up Conforto’s projection. Even accounting for all of those things, hitting like Ted Williams for a quarter of a Triple-A season is impressive.
- Conforto’s 2016 in the majors was not nearly as much of a failure as it probably feels like. It felt like a failure narratively, because he went from “emerging star” to “unable to find his way off the bench” in only about six weeks, and was repeatedly blocked and sent down. PECOTA couldn’t care less about the narrative; it saw a 23-year-old in a mild sophomore slump still hitting .220/.310/.414, which is only slightly below-average.
I trust that I need not go on a polemic about how Conforto has nothing more to prove in the minors, or how the Mets are screwing up unless he gets the next thousand at-bats at the MLB level. But here’s one more piece of data I’m going to throw out there: he’s is currently hitting .360 with a 1.025 OPS in the Grapefruit League. Given that Bruce is similarly hot this spring, probably not, but it’s another example of success. Since sending him down last summer, all Michael Conforto’s done is respond by hitting at an elite level everywhere the Mets have put him. At some point, you have to let the guy win a job.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement–USA TODAY Sports