If the season needed to start today, it would be hard to argue against Mickey Callaway using Brandon Nimmo in center field more than Juan Lagares, especially since Nimmo is showing himself to be an ideal leadoff hitter this spring.
"He definitely fits a mold of what you'd be looking for in that leadoff spot," Mets manager Mickey Callaway recently said when asked if Nimmo was in line for such a role this season.
Frankly, this isn't new for Nimmo. In the 68 at-bats he's had during his career when leading off an inning, Nimmo is hitting .350 with a .426 OBP, including seven extra-base hits. Even better, he's been the first batter of a game 11 times, during which he reached base six times.
Clearly, this is a super, super small sample size, but it doesn't feel wrong.
Based on his approach at the plate, how he talks about his job, and his career numbers since becoming a professional hitter -- and based on what scouts from other teams say about him -- Nimmo is clearly capable of reaching base 35 percent of his plate appearances (regardless of where he's batting in the lineup).
However, when hitting leadoff (be it to start the game some other inning), he has the ability to become ever more selective than he already is, and more likely to at least reach first base, while also making the opposing pitcher work and show his arsenal to Nimmo's teammates on the bench.
Nimmo also profiles well as a leadoff hitter because he doesn't get a lot of lift out of his swing, but he also isn't a slap or ground ball hitter. In time, as he gains experience and strength, I bet he puts more balls in the air, which hopefully sail over heads and walls. But, for now, he registers as a traditional, legit line-drive hitter, which is more than fine for today's game.
His greatest skill is his masterful ability to keep from swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. The crazy thing is that he's always been this way. I remember everyone watching, marveling at his restraint as far back as his first at-bat during his first intra-squad game. He's so selective I think it actually limits his potential to drive the ball.
It's a Catch-22, because if he allowed himself to be more aggressive on pitches on the inner half of the plate (like Kevin Long pushed Daniel Murphy to do in 2015), he could find himself a 20-homer, 20-doubles guy. But, it would also run him the risk of less walks, a lower OBP, and more swings and misses, which, right now, is his bread and butter...
In spring training, I had one scout predict to me that Nimmo will always be a fourth outfielder, occasional starter, because what Nimmo lacks in power, he doesn't make up for with his glove. On the other hand, a totally different scout said Nimmo - at just 24 years old - is fully capable of one day producing a Michael Brantley-like 2015 season across 140 games, i.e., 15 homers, 30 doubles, .280 average with a .380 OBP, and 3-4 WAR playing corner outfield.
Meanwhile, in 20 at-bats since returning from a tight hamstring, Lagares has four hits and a .273 OBP. It's concerning, because Lagares has missed nearly 50 percent of the team's games in the two years since winning a Gold Glove, and signing a contract extension. To say he has lost momentum in his career would be an understatement. In September 2014, there was a legit debate being had about whether Lagares should have been considered for an MVP award.
Three years later, the debate centered around whether to trade him to free up salary, so the Mets could afford acquiring an average infielder. As a result, Lagares spent time working this past winter with Craig Wallenbrock, who is the hitting instructor credited with reinventing J.D. Martinez's swing, according to NY Times reporter James Wagner.
Towards the end of this past season, Keith Hernandez told SNY's Mets Insider that, with his fielding, Lagares only needs to hit .260 to be a viable, everyday centerfielder.
Keith is right, as usual. Lagares does not need to be Martinez, though that would be amazing. Instead, Lagares simply needs to pick up roughly 20 to 30 more hits, half of which need to be doubles. That's it, that's all he has to do to be a .260 hitter, plus play his standard Gold Glove defense.
The thing is, to do that, he has to remain healthy enough to be on field and in the batter's box, which he's already struggled to do in 2018...
Because of Lagares' sensational fielding, Callaway will always be compelled to use a platoon in center field, regardless of how the two perform during spring training.
In games when a righty is on the mound, I assume Nimmo will get the bulk of starts in center field, and hit leadoff. Lagares will probably start against lefties, but hit lower in the order. Who should bat leadoff when Lagares starts in center? I have no idea...
In either case, I don't think either of the above situations is a rule, though. Frankly, I bet we see it all switch up from time to time depending on the starting pitcher, individual matchups, and other players needing rest. Also, eventually Michael Conforto will return from the disabled list, and again be an everyday player. And, at that point, I have no idea what will happen.
In the meantime, Nimmo is ready.
"I definitely am comfortable in the leadoff spot," he said last week. "They're testing it out right now. It's been going well so far. I think that they're just looking for someone who is going to try to find good pitches to hit and set a tone for the game, and I hope to be that person."
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!