The centerfield free agent market was already slim pickings, but even more so now that Starling Marte (4-year/$78 million with Mets) and Chris Taylor (4-year/$60 million with Dodgers) are no longer available.
The Marlins have already made some moves, but there’s still a glaring hole in centerfield. After trading Marte in late July, Magneuris Sierra, Lewis Brinson, and Bryan De La Cruz took turns manning the spot. 2021 would end up being the end of the road in Miami for Sierra and Brinson. De La Cruz, to his credit, exceeded expectations in his rookie season, but he shouldn’t be relied upon to take on the starting job in 2022. The young, internal outfield option who’s at the front of the line for MLB playing time, Jesús Sánchez, only plays passable defense in the corner spots, and even there, he’s had his misadventures.
That leaves us in a predicament, then. The Marlins said they believe Avisaíl García could take on the starting center fielder’s role, but he played all of nine innings there in 2021. Ely wrote about this earlier this month, saying he believed the proclamation to be a bluff, but admitted it might not be as bad as we’d initially thought. Still, he said, asking García to take on that role full-time with the hopes of contending is likely wishful thinking. So, it seems like we’ll keep searching.
Michael Conforto is a name that popped up last week, with Joe Frisaro of Man On 2nd Baseball saying the team touched base with Conforto pre-lockout. We’ll dive into him today, but I must note that Conforto doesn’t have a ton of experience in center field either. He played exclusively in right field for the Mets in 2020 and 2021, and has never logged more than 58 games there in a single season. While I don’t see him being a viable fit there, Conforto’s bat merits serious consideration.
Conforto at the Plate
A quick glance at Conforto’s 2021 line might send you into a bit of panic, but I urge you to take a breath and stick with me. Yes, his production over 125 games this past season was bad—.232/.344/.384 with 52 runs, 14 home runs, 55 RBIs—but I’ll explain why it’s not as concerning as you’d initially think.
First, let’s look at who Conforto has been over his seven years in the big leagues.
After a good showing against a steady dose of fastballs his rookie year, Conforto had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2016. He struck out more, made weaker contact, and struggled to adjust as he saw more breaking balls.
2017 was his breakout year, one that earned him an All-Star selection and gave Mets fans a glimpse of what to expect from him in the future. He hit the ball pretty evenly to all fields, making good contact that was often hard and in the air. His 12.2% barrel rate (batted balls with exceptionally high exit velocity and ideal launch angle) was in the league’s 91st percentile, earning him 27 home runs and a .555 slugging percentage. While he didn’t slug to that degree over the next few seasons, he still provided above-average power while maintaining exceptional plate discipline.
Conforto refrains from chasing pitches out of the strike zone at a better rate than league average, leading to an absurdly high 13.0% walk rate from 2017 to 2019. (League average during this time was 8.5%.) Over time Conforto has been pulling the ball more, with more of his home runs being to right field. This wouldn’t be a bad thing for a left-handed hitter at LoanDepot Park, though, as long as the approach remains the same.
He’s been one of the Mets’ best run producers over the past few seasons, proving his ability to be a consistent presence in the middle of the lineup. But what happened last year? It was…disappointing. He got off to a dismal start, landed on the injured list with a strained right hamstring in mid-May, then went 3-for-22 upon returning in June. July was more of the same and by the end of the month, Conforto was slashing .198/.322/.324 on the season.
Over the last two months, his production increased to a level Mets fans were more familiar with: .272/.372/.457 from August 1 through the end of the regular season. If we look beyond the overall production to the underlying numbers, there really wasn’t a huge discrepancy between his career numbers and those in 2021.
His plate discipline has always been good and that didn’t change; he walked at the same spectacular rate. He swung and missed less than he has recently, which translated to his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie year.
If we look at the quality of contact, that didn’t change much either. He hit the ball hard (95+ mph) at a rate nearly identical to what he’s shown he’s capable of, producing very similar expected stats in batting average and weighted on-base average. There was a small drop off in barrel rate which backs up a slightly lower expected slugging percentage. Barrels are what Statcast considers batted balls with the “perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle” which often lead to home runs. Again, this makes sense. Conforto hit more than 25 home runs each season from 2017 to 2019 while only hitting 14 in 2021, translating to a lower slugging percentage.
If there’s something we can point to, it’s that Conforto hit ground balls more often than he ever has. His ground ball rate from 2015 to 2020 was 39.0%; in 2021, it increased to 44.7%. When he did chase pitches out of the zone, he made contact at an alarmingly high rate. Not all contact is good contact though, especially when you’re swinging at bad pitches. This, however, is the one area I’ve found where Conforto strayed from his “normal” offensive self. So while the results show a down year in 2021, it might be due more to bad luck than anything else.
Conforto in the Field
I won’t dig too deep here since I mentioned this earlier. Whatever your defensive metric of choice, they all don’t love Conforto in center field. DRS and UZR both find issues with his range. Statcast logs Conforto as an outfielder who doesn’t get good jumps and takes inefficient routes to balls hit in the air. For a player who is already below-average defender, center field in LoanDepot Park would not be a fun place to play.
Is Conforto a realistic solution for the Marlins’ centerfield woes?
The bat isn’t the dilemma here, obviously. Conforto declined the Mets’ qualifying offer (1-year, $18.4 million). Despite a down year, he’ll presumably be looking for a multi-year deal with a big payday.
What’s Conforto’s price? On Frisaro’s Man On 2nd podcast last week, Mets beat writer Tim Healey expects him to command a contract worth upwards of $75 million. I won’t speculate on whether the Marlins can afford it, but I don’t see them splurging on a true corner outfielder who they’ll stick in center when they didn’t feel inclined to compete with the Mets’ 4-year/$78 million offer to Starling Marte.
A match between Conforto and the Marlins would be more plausible if he showed a willingness to take a “pillow contract” for his age-29 season and bet on himself (a la Marcell Ozuna’s 1-year/$18 million contract in 2020) with the intent to re-enter free agency next year. The Marlins would significantly deepen their 2022 lineup while biding their time for a true centerfield solution to present itself via trade, free agency or their own farm system. Even if Conforto had that possibility in mind, Miami is an unlikely destination for a player who’s seeking to demonstrate his offensive impact.