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Grace in center has Lagares on short Mets list

Outfielder gaining supporters with ability to make tough catches look routine

NEW YORK -- Confession: I root for Juan Lagares. There, I've said it, admitted it. On a regular basis, I do that which is routinely discouraged -- even forbidden -- in the pressbox. I do not cheer for the Mets center fielder. Can't; long ago, Jerome Holtzman, the dean of baseball writers in Chicago, not only used "No cheering in the pressbox" as the title of his book, he also demanded it, not that writers' objectivity had necessarily been called into question. So I don't ever cheer -- for any player or any team. But I root like hell for Lagares any time he steps into the batter's box.

Now, it should be noted that a proviso exists in this seemingly partisan scenario, lest my own objectivity be questioned. My impartiality remains intact. It is uncompromised despite the "C'mon, Juans" that stop just short of my larynx when Lagares bats. I root for him for one reason, albeit a selfish one. I want him to hit so he will remain an everyday player and, as such, continue to play center field regularly. And play it as it hasn't been played for a National League franchise in New York City since, well, we'll get to that.

Lagares is a treasure in center field. He is a dynamic defender, the most gifted defender on the Mets' roster, even now that the roster includes Matt den Dekker, whose reputation also is branded in leather, not in white ash, maple or any other wood.

A year ago, den Dekker was highly touted as a prospect because, as the scouts say, he could go get 'em. He was quick and unafraid in the outfield. He took chances. He occasionally made the spectacular play and made the routine play as well.

den Dekker hasn't lost a step since then, but he had clearly lost standing on the organization's depth chart. Through no fault of his own, den Dekker has been passed. No. 12 now is No. 1 at the No. 8 position.

Whether Lagares is equally courageous in the outfield is difficult to say. His fly-ball tracking skills are so refined that he reaches most fly balls without putting his body in peril. He isn't opposed to diving; he's demonstrated that. But he rarely needs to fly.

Lagares isn't yet at the level of the extraordinary center fielders such as Andruw Jones and the late Paul Blair. And he may never be. But at this point, his defense prompts memories of what Earl Weaver once said of Blair: "My guy can't make a great catch, because if the ball's in the park, he'll be there, waiting for it."

So it was in the first inning of Tuesday night's 4-2 Mets win over the Pirates at Citi Field. The other center fielder, himself a Gold Glove Award winner in 2012, drove a ball to right-center field toward the same 390-foot sign that David Wright regularly laments. This was about to become the 13th double of Andrew McCutchen's season. But running at an almost leisurely gait, Lagares intercepted, and it became the third out of Jon Niese's first inning.

The catch probably didn't qualify for repeated overnight replays. It seemed too mundane. And, truth be told, McCutchen made a more dazzling play, one more suitable for a highlight package, in right-center two innings later, diving for a ball hit by Lagares. Take that, kid.

"It's fair play," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle would say later. "Once their guy made his catch, you know our guy wanted to pay him back."

McCutchen is as dynamic as any player in the game. But his offense, speed and -- yes -- his hair are factors in his dynamic image. And the National League MVP Award he won last year also has impact in that regard. He was probably the best defensive center fielder playing in Flushing on Tuesday night. But the margin of superiority was scant.

Lagares is that skilled. His defense and the offense of Wright are the most compelling components of the Mets' game. Until Matt Harvey's return or Zack Wheeler's emergence happens, Wright's defense at third base ranks third.

McCutchen has a more powerful arm than Lagares. And his throws are accurate. Lagares makes intelligent and accurate throws. He thinks his position and affords the Mets at least one superior defender up the middle.

Watching him play center is a treat, so I hope he continues hitting. Incidentally, he contributed two run-scoring hits on Tuesday night.


* * * *

Now, about that "best since" business left unfinished 13 paragraphs back: The Mets have had a number of competent and reliable center fielders, beginning with Richie Ashburn and including that German guy, Schneck-Hahn, Lee Mazzilli, Elliott Maddox, Brian McRae and, reaching into this century, with Darryl Hamilton, Mike Cameron and Carlos Beltran. Of course, there were Agee, Mookie, Lenny from the World Series champion teams. And, for blinks of the eye, Patrick Howell, Endy Chavez and Carlos Gomez sparkled. Long-forgotten Del Unser played the position quite effectively.

But of those who played most -- Agee, Mazzilli, Wilson, Dykstra, McRae and Beltran -- none was on the Blair-Jones level.

Agee's two catches in the 1969 World Series still are hailed, but Blair, who hit one of the flies Agee caught in Game 3, said, "He should have caught mine standing up and made both of them without any trouble."

Neither Wilson nor Mazzilli threw well. Dykstra was a reckless chance taker, having practiced running into walls in the Angels' park as a kid. McRae had no glaring deficiencies, but he wasn't special. Maddox was, but he didn't play even 300 innings in center for the Mets. Beltran came with a reputation, but he played so deep and too often made ill-conceived throws to third base that allowed batters to reach second base.

Cameron had been a consistently superior center fielder before he joined the Mets in 2004. But he had a down season -- for him -- that year and was transferred to right in 2005 to accommodate Beltran.

Chavez was as good a defender as any of them, but he played merely 360 2/3 innings in center field in his three seasons at Shea Stadium. Howell, also gifted, played only 176 2/3 innings in 1992 and was gone, and Gomez, now making weekly catches at the wall for the Brewers, played 12 center-field innings for the Mets in 2007 before he was traded to the Twins.

That takes us back to before Ashburn and the '62 Mets, to 1957 and, of course, to wonderful Willie Mays. To compare any center fielder other than Cameron, Blair, Jones or Ken Berry to Mays is borderline unlawful. Lagares isn't there. But he's pretty special in center field. The best the Mets have ever had, regardless of innings. And he's batting .294.

Marty Noble is a columnist for
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