With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., by Feb. 15, it's time to continue dissecting the Mets' 2014 roster. This is the third of a seven-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the Mets' projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: outfielders.
NEW YORK -- Fifteen months ago, in response to a question regarding his outfield, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson introduced the phrase "What outfield?" into the New York media lexicon.
Six months ago, in response to his team's strong play, Alderson called his outfield alignment "maybe the most productive in baseball."
Realistically, Mets outfielders fell somewhere in between those two extremes in 2013. They started out dreadfully, but -- fueled by Marlon Byrd's offensive resurgence and Juan Lagares' historic defensive season -- transformed into a productive unit around midsummer.
Now the Mets have changed things up yet again, trading away Byrd late last season while signing Curtis Granderson and Chris Young to fill in the gaps. On paper, they are a defensive juggernaut capable of saving runs on a regular basis. But their success -- the difference between "what outfield?" and "the most productive outfield" -- depends upon how much this unit can produce at the plate.
"The big thing," Granderson said, "is you've got to go out there and win."
For the Mets, that task falls largely to Granderson, the man earning $60 million to inject some thump into the offense. Though Granderson hit a combined 84 home runs from 2011-12, his production came largely at Yankee Stadium, a left-handed slugger's paradise. A Citi Field drop-off would shift Granderson closer to the 21 homers Byrd hit in two-thirds of a season with the Mets, making him an effective replacement -- but probably not much more than that. (That's no slight on Granderson, but simply a nod to how sensational Byrd's year was in 2013).
The Mets hope another pocket of outfield power comes from Young, who hit 28 homers combined the past two seasons after averaging 23.2 per year from 2007-11. Now fully healthy, Young believes he can return to the All-Star form he flashed as an up-and-coming player with the D-backs last decade.
"Any time I've had a significant amount of at-bats, I feel like my production has been there," Young said. "With all of those things taken into account, I'm feeling really positive about the season coming up."
Where Young and Granderson play will depend in large part upon what the Mets do with their other two outfielders in the hunt for starting spots, Lagares and Eric Young Jr. The team feels it improved immeasurably last season when Lagares took over the starting center-field job, compiling a rookie-record 15 outfield assists and making flashy catches with regularity. But Lagares must prove that he can hit with enough authority to hold his own in the lineup, even if that means the No. 8 hole.
If Lagares can do so in Spring Training, he is a decent bet to remain the center fielder alongside Granderson in left and Chris Young in right. But if Lagares can't, Young will likely shift to center, with Eric Young -- a speed-first type who was nominated for a Gold Glove Award and won the National League stolen-base title last season -- flanking him in left field and Granderson in right. Lacking a leadoff man, the Mets could even choose to go with Eric Young from the start, as manager Terry Collins has indicated.
In any case, they should be able to construct a dynamic defensive outfield -- it's just a matter of snapping those puzzle pieces together.
"I don't really have it in place yet," Collins said at the Winter Meetings in December. "Until we get to Spring Training and we see what the final pieces are ... I really don't know."
Beyond the top four players on the Mets' outfield depth chart, questions loom. Andrew Brown performed well in a backup role for the Mets last season, and could reprise it if Lagares wins the center-field job, pushing Eric Young to the bench. If not, the Mets may be so heavily right-handed on their bench that they would look elsewhere. Matt den Dekker swings left-handed and is a premium defensive player, though the Mets ideally would like him to play every day in the Minors.
Another option is Lucas Duda, who could see some outfield innings if he does not win the everyday first-base job over Ike Davis. Then there is Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who will compete for a backup role in Spring Training, and Cesar Puello, a top prospect who is also likely to begin the year in the Minors.
But if the Mets have their way, no member of that group will see much playing time in Flushing. The Mets consider their starting outfield alignment a strength, and they plan to ride it as far as it will take them.