Ranking the best Mets defenders at each position
NEW YORK -- The breathtaking catch made in center field by Gold Glove Award winner Juan Lagares on Wednesday night was, as some Mets players said, inspirational.
Well, it inspired this -- a position-by-position "best of" for Mets defenders, covering 53-plus seasons. Offense has no place in this evaluation. Lagares stands as the second-best defensive player, regardless of position, behind only 11-time Gold Glove first baseman Keith Hernandez.
C -- Jerry Grote (1966-77)
The first man ever identified as "a Met" was catcher Hobie Landrith, selected in the 1961 Expansion Draft. Not many Mets who followed Landrith at that position distinguished themselves defensively. Grote certainly did. He was an extraordinary receiver -- ask Seaver -- with a strong arm and a most competitive nature. Grote did anything he could to undermine the competition. If the final out of any inning were a strikeout or a ball he handled, he would roll the ball to the side of the mound farthest from the opposing dugout to force the opposing pitcher to take extra steps to retrieve it. Grote enjoyed contact at the plate and commanded the respect of his pitchers. Runners-up: Alex Trevino (1978-81, '90); Charlie O'Brien (1990-93). Antithesis: Mackey Sasser (1988-92)
1B -- Hernandez (1983-89)
What made Hernandez's defensive genius so valuable wasn't merely what he did, though how he operated at first base was beyond brilliant. It also was what he allowed his fellow defenders to do. Hernandez played so far off the line that the other infielders could cheat to their right and narrow the holes. He saved scores of throwing errors. Hernandez's execution on double plays he initiated was most often flawless, and he routinely forced opponents to abandon their sacrifice-bunt strategy or he turned would-be sacrifices into force outs at second or third. And he had a strong, accurate arm. Six of Hernandez's 11 consecutive Gold Gloves he won came while he played with the Mets. Runners-up: John Olerud (1997-99); Rico Brogna (1994-96). Antitheses: Dick Stuart, Dr. Strangeglove (1966); Marvelous Marv Throneberry (1962-63).
2B -- Doug Flynn (1977-81)
Flynn won the National League Gold Glove Award at second in 1980. He had a Bill Mazeroski-like exchange on double plays and above-average range. And he hung in even against the meanest sliders. Flynn should have won the Gold Glove in 1981 as well. Runners-up: Edgardo Alfonzo (1995-2002); Felix Millan (1973-77). Antithesis: Gregg Jefferies (1987-91).
3B -- Robin Ventura (1999-2001)
Ventura won five Gold Glove Awards in the American League. His one in the NL came after his first season with the Mets when he teamed with Olerud, Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez to create an airtight infield. Right-handed hitters in the NL cursed the Mets' left side as much as the Mets' left-handed pitchers praised it. Runners-up: Alfonzo (1995-2002); David Wright (2004-present); Roy Staiger (1975-77). Antithesis: Bobby Bonilla (1992-95, '99).
SS -- Ordonez (1996-2002)
An absolute wonder, every bit worth the price of admission if you could be assured he'd handle the ball five times. Earl the Pearl and Pistol Pete would have envied Ordonez's playmaking skills. He was so inventive and spontaneous. Draw a circle with a 10-foot diameter around second base, and within that circle, no shortstop, not even the Wizard of Oz, was more spectacular and entertaining. Ordonez saved Mike Piazza dozens of throwing errors and won Gold Gloves from 1997-99. He ranks third behind Hernandez and Lagares as the Mets' best defenders, regardless of position. Runners-up: Jose Reyes (2003-11); Bud Harrelson (1965-77). Antitheses: Kazuo Matsui (2004-06); Frank Taveras (1979-81).
LF -- Kevin McReynolds (1987-91, '94)
Such a reliable defender. A beat reporter who had not covered the Mets in 1987 approached Bobby Ojeda -- the left-handed, no-smoking section of the Mets' rotation -- early in Spring Training in 1988 and asked what he had missed in his season away. Ojeda pointed to McReynolds' locker and said, "That SOB never let a ball get to the wall." McReynolds did everything properly in the field, albeit with zero flare. Barry Bonds won two Gold Gloves as a left fielder during McReynolds' first tour with the Mets. McReynolds had a much stronger arm. Runners-up: Endy Chavez (2006-08) for that catch and other fine plays; Jason Bay (2010-12); Carlos Gomez (2007). Antitheses: Daniel Murphy (2008-present); Todd Hundley (1990-98) for 34 games in 1998; Frank Thomas (1962-64).
CF -- Lagares (2013-present)
He moves the foul lines closer together every inning he plays. Lagares unquestionably is the finest defensive outfielder in Mets history. He plays shallow, and next to nothing carries over his head. Lagares' arm is accurate and strong enough. Pray for fly balls. Runners-up: Chavez (2006-08); Mike Cameron (2004-05); Carlos Beltran (2005-11); he played too shallow; Del Unser (1975-76). Antithesis: Timo Perez (2000-03).
RF -- Jeff Francoeur (2009-10)
Right field is the weakest position in Mets history, though Francoeur had -- and still has -- a remarkably powerful arm. You hoped runners would challenge his arm or forget not to take a long turn at first base. Francoeur started merely 183 games in right during his Mets tenure. That's enough. Lagares has played only 236 games in center. It's quality, not quantity that matters most in this undertaking. Runners-up: Cameron; Chavez; Ryan Church (2008-09); Elliott Maddox (1978-80); Rusty Staub (1972-75, 1981-85). George Kissell, the Cardinals' defensive guru, said Staub and Andy Van Slyke were the only two outfielders who played their positions properly in his 70 years in the game. Antithesis: Dave Kingman (1975-77, 1981-83).
P -- Roger McDowell (1985-89)
Runner-up Ron Darling won a Gold Glove in 1989. But McDowell is the choice. A reliever almost exclusively with the Mets, he was Russell Westbrook-quick and fearless as a defender. Bunts with McDowell pitching and Hernandez charging were doomed. And McDowell covered first without exception or difficulty. Runners-up: Darling (1983-91), Mike Hampton (2000). Antitheses: Ken Sanders (1975-76); he once misplayed the return throw from the catcher and was struck in the eye. Sid Fernandez (1984-93); he was a fly-ball pitcher for a reason.