Mets' outfield equation complicated by Nimmo

Conforto injury cleared way for leadoff man, but decision will come soon

March 30th, 2018

NEW YORK -- As attempted to force his way into the Mets' outfield rotation last season, team officials frequently predicted that the situation would "work itself out." It's a cliché, because it's true. Injuries happen. Events unfold. Playing time tends to materialize where once there was none.

To wit: strained his right hamstring and Conforto never sat on the bench again, going on to post All-Star numbers before undergoing left shoulder surgery in September. Now, the roles have changed. It is Conforto who is rehabbing in Port St. Lucie, Fla., nearly ready to reclaim a starting job that's earmarked for him.

Suddenly, Conforto is the one who could force a teammate out of a job. The Mets have two other full-time outfielders in Cespedes and , neither of whom are heading to the bench. , their leadoff man, hit well enough this spring to leapfrog on the depth chart, solidifying his status as an everyday player. Yet the Mets may not have any choice but to bench Nimmo until -- well, things work themselves out.

"It's the same mentality as last year when I got that opportunity is just have fun, go prepare the best that you can and work hard," Nimmo said. "And then when you get out there, just play. Have fun. Trust your instincts. Analyze the game. Know the situations."

Nimmo did all those things and more on Opening Day, reaching base in four of his five plate appearances. Finishing 2-for-3 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch and two runs scored, Nimmo made his only out on a 101.5-mph line drive to deep center field. He saw 19 total pitches, playing a key role in driving Cardinals starter out of the game.

It was an extension of how Nimmo fared this spring, batting .306 with a .371 on-base percentage to wrest the interim center-field job away from Lagares. It was also an extension of what he did down the stretch last season, batting .286 with a .412 on-base percentage as the leadoff man.

The skill set is nothing new for Nimmo, whose keen eye is what prompted general manager Sandy Alderson and former Draft boss Paul DePodesta to make him their first-round pick in 2011. Only recently, however, has Nimmo added enough aggression and power to make himself dangerous batting first.

"He just continues to get better at it," Bruce said. "He's a guy who continues to put together a quality at-bat over and over and over, and that's impressive. It takes focus. It takes trust in the strike zone. It takes strike-zone judgment and it's something he takes a lot of pride in. He's at the point now where he's ready to make an impact."

If the Mets can find a way to play both Nimmo and Conforto, they could drop the latter to the middle of the order, where many feel he fits best anyway. But there is no obvious way to make both pieces fit, outside of shifting Bruce to first base. And that's not happening anytime soon; the Mets are so committed to at first -- he went 2-for-3 with two walks on Opening Day -- that they told Bruce not to take any reps at the position this spring. While Bruce would tolerate first base if the Mets ask, clearing the way for an outfield of Cespedes, Nimmo and Conforto, it's not something the team is currently considering.

"Until it is [on my radar], it's not," Bruce said. "I will adjust accordingly if it does come up. But as of now, I'm not really focused on it at all."

Perhaps that will change if Conforto, who can return from the disabled list as early as Thursday, continues making rapid progress. More likely, as the cliché goes, things will simply work themselves out.

From a wider perspective, the Mets have struggled to find the right fit at the top of their lineup since became a free agent in 2011. Before Cespedes and Bruce came to town, they had difficulties constructing an outfield mix that worked.

They're not going to complain about a preponderance of options now.

"When Conforto comes back, we'll deal with that," Nimmo said. "But as far as right now, I'm just going to try to be me, and be the best me I can."