NEW YORK -- Dillon Gee recently joked that his Opening Day pitching assignment came about by default, and that may well be true. Gee started Monday against the Nationals -- and performed relatively well, despite his no-decision and self-deprecating postgame comments -- only because Jon Niese and Matt Harvey were both injured.
In a way, Juan Lagares' start in center field came about in similar fashion. Though Lagares may have played center for the Mets regardless of external factors, Chris Young's injury and Daniel Murphy's paternity leave left the Mets with no other options.
Don't mistake that for a lack of confidence in Lagares. Like Gee, he earned his spot. But the Mets do have alternatives, meaning Lagares must continue working to earn it.
"I'm trying to do what I did last year, just play hard and see what happens," Lagares said. "That's all I can do."
So far, so good. Had the Mets hung on to win Monday's season opener, Lagares would have been crowned a hero. His eighth-inning homer off Tyler Clippard snapped a late tie, giving the Mets a one-run lead that closer Bobby Parnell ultimately relinquished. But that did not dim the contributions of Lagares, who finished 2-for-4 with a home run, three runs and -- of course -- spotless outfield defense.
Juxtaposed with Eric Young Jr.'s 0-for-4 day with four strikeouts, Lagares' contributions stood even taller. So given all that, and given Washington's plan to start left-hander Gio Gonzalez in the season's second game on Wednesday, the right-handed Lagares will certainly be back in the lineup again.
As long as Lagares continues seizing these opportunities, he will continue receiving them.
"First of all, I thank God that I made the team and played well," Lagares said. "I just want to keep doing what I've been doing."
The Mets never actually told Lagares that he won his Spring Training competition with Young, because in reality, he didn't. Though Lagares may have outperformed Young defensively despite slightly inferior offensive numbers, the Mets leaned all along toward a four-man outfield rotation. Given Curtis Granderson's platoon splits against left-handed pitchers, Chris Young's lifetime struggles against righties and Eric Young's value off the bench, the Mets knew they would be able to manufacture playing time for everyone.
But all playing time is not created equal, and Lagares walked into the clubhouse on Opening Day not knowing if he would start. Terry Collins finally confirmed it when Lagares arrived at the ballpark, telling him, "Good luck" and to "play hard like you always do." Beyond that, the manager offered no guarantees.
And so the outfield competition continues -- into this weekend, well into April, perhaps even beyond. Most advanced metrics indicate that the Mets are better with Lagares in the lineup. His defense saved 28 runs last season, according to the aptly-named metric Defensive Runs Saved, while his offensive value was comparable to Young's. Even with some defensive regression, Lagares' status as one of the game's best outfielders should not change.
The front office knows that and so does the manager. But Collins also values Young's speed a great deal, believing the reigning National League stolen-base king's leadoff skills allow for a neater, more old-fashioned lineup.
Still, Young's on-base percentage leaves much to be desired, leaving the window wide open for Lagares to claim plenty of playing time with a hot start. Monday was the beginning of all that.
"This is Day 1 of a long, long haul," Collins said. "I think as we get into it, guys are going to start getting comfortable in their roles, in their spots, and I think we'll score more runs."
Whether that involves Lagares more than Young, or vice versa, or an even split remains to be seen. The Mets' top four outfielders should all see significant time, provided Lagares does not claim the starting center-field job for good. The Mets do love Lagares' youth and upside. The front office values his skill set. So the opportunity lies before him.
All Lagares has to do is seize it.
"Everybody wants to be out there," he said. "That's up the manager and the general manager. I want to be ready for every opportunity, and let's see what happens."