JUPITER, Fla. — Committing to an injury-prone middle-of-the-diamond player through his age-37 season is not a great strategy, as the Mets know.
But as “now” teams go, the 2023 record-payroll Mets are about the now-iest. And they viewed both center fielders and leadoff hitters in such short supply. Thus, having it tied into one person, Brandon Nimmo, made a long-term deal more palatable. They knew without doubt that he worked in the field, batter’s box and their clubhouse.
Yet, all you had to do was listen to Buck Showalter discuss who on his likely 2023 roster would give Nimmo a day off his feet in center to know which of the two roles would be tougher to fill. The candidates mentioned by Showalter were:
1. Mark Canha, who is 34 and has started 35 games in center over the last three seasons.
2. Tommy Pham, who turns 35 next week and has started nine games in center over the last four years.
3. Jeff McNeil, who last played center for six in innings in 2015 — at Single-A.
4. Starling Marte, who is 34 and has a ton of center field experience, but is coming off of double-hernia surgery and is more hesitant about playing center.
If Nimmo needs an IL stint, it isn’t as if the Mets are well positioned at Triple-A, where a Quadruple-A type such as Tim Locastro or minor league free-agent addition Lorenzo Cedrola would likely get the call.
Meanwhile, the Mets could hit Marte or Francisco Lindor leadoff and feel comfortable. It feeds an element the Mets like about their lineup — having three players with on-base skill, speed and some pop batting ahead of cleanup hitter Pete Alonso.
Which is why a recent Showalter comment stopped me and moved me into research mode: “I guarantee you [Nimmo] is in the top three [among MLB leadoff hitters].”
In reality, while well-rounded center fielders are in short supply, this is a strong age for leadoff men.
First, though, what do you ideally want from that spot? On-base skills, including deftness in drawing walks and limiting strikeouts. The ability to run deep counts to show teammates what the opposing pitcher is featuring. Some pop to gain a lead if a pitcher makes a mistake. Speed, including the ability to steal a base (probably more important this year with new rules designed to accentuate the running game).
The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts and Houston’s Jose Altuve are arguably the most well-rounded. Trea Turner hit third for the Dodgers last year, but will probably return to being an elite leadoff man for the Phillies? Which is a reminder that the historic profile for this role — the pesky speedster — has changed. Kyle Schwarber led off most frequently for the NL champ Phillies last year — and led the league in homers. Aaron Judge, who hit the most homers in Yankee history, was a regularly used leadoff man, especially down the stretch. Is DJ LeMahieu healthy enough to return to the top of the lineup — if so would you take him over Nimmo?
How about healthy versions of Minnesota’s Byron Buxton and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr.? Where would you rank Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins? Texas’ Marcus Semien? Toronto’s George Springer? Will AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez stay at leadoff for the Mariners? NL Rookie of the Year favorite, Arizona’s Corbin Carroll, had such an impressive 2022 cameo that he looks as if he will be part of this conversation.
How about Fernando Tatis Jr. if he returns to the top of San Diego’s order when his PED suspension ends? Would you take the on-base excellence of Tampa Bay’s Yandy Diaz, the discipline/speed combo of Cleveland’s Steven Kwan, the batting average of Miami’s Luis Arraez and the White Sox’s Tim Anderson?
Nimmo certainly would have trouble breaking into the overall top five, perhaps even the top 10. Yet, the Mets love him in the role.
“He really helps link the whole lineup together,” GM Billy Eppler said. “We use the analogy of glue guys; people in the clubhouse who drive the culture. He drives the culture of our lineup.”
Both Eppler and Showalter believe there is a leadoff-hitter skill set. As Eppler said, “He’s up for the fight. He is not afraid to hit with two strikes.”
Showalter said he thought there were games last season the Mets won because of long, feisty at-bats Nimmo had in the first inning. Nimmo said, “Setting the tone,” is important.
Nimmo’s 669 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot led the majors. He excels at drawing walks and limiting whiffs. He has some pop (16 homers), but Altuve, for example, hit 12 homers leading off the first inning among his 28 homers. Schwarber hit 38 homers hitting leadoff, Betts 35. Nimmo is fast and a good base runner, but not a base stealer.
What he brings daily is an energy and pitch-to-pitch feistiness that serves as fuel for the Mets’ lineup.
“The more time he spends in the batter’s box, the more comfortable he gets within the at-bat,” Eppler said. “He will stay up there all day. He’s not going to let that starter off the hook early or easily.”
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