PORT ST. LUCIE — The Mets were connected to big names in center field this offseason, from George Springer to Jackie Bradley Jr.
As much as he tried to not pay attention to it, Brandon Nimmo heard the talk. But the Mets’ incumbent starting center fielder, who stayed in touch with manager Luis Rojas and the front office throughout the offseason about their plans at his position, has arrived at spring training trying to defend his spot.
“Their message hasn’t changed from, ‘You’re our center fielder until otherwise,’ ” Nimmo said Thursday of his conversations with Rojas, team president Sandy Alderson and acting GM Zack Scott. “So as far as that goes, I tried to keep preparing for center field. But there definitely was a lot of talk going on. I always welcome the thought of another great player. … If someone pushed me out of center field, they’re a pretty dang good center fielder.
“I tried to not take it as a shot to me, but just tried to highlight this is somewhere I can improve on, so if I get the opportunity again, here’s the things we’ll highlight to be better at.”
That area of improvement would largely be Nimmo’s defense.
In five seasons with the Mets, Nimmo has hit .258 with a 130 OPS-plus, fueled by his ability to get on base. But his defense in center field has lagged behind, registering minus-14 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, including minus-5 in 44 games at the position last season.
Nimmo believes he may have an answer for some of his struggles — he was playing too shallow, he said, which was keeping him from catching balls that the analytics deemed catchable — but admitted there were other balls that “I just screwed up on.” He said he altered his positioning in September last season and noticed the difference. Nimmo is hoping a new offseason program centered around agility and fast-twitch explosion also pays dividends.
“The first step, ball off the bat, those are some of the things he knows he needs to work on to get into a good running form the [earliest] he can,” Rojas said.
While Springer signed with the Blue Jays and Bradley remains a free agent, the Mets entered camp with Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar as new options in center field alongside Nimmo. A late addition of the DH in the National League could change their plans, perhaps moving Nimmo to left field, where he has been better defensively. Until then, he wants to prove himself in center.
“I’m trying to convey to everyone and everyone here, and we’ve had mutual conversations, that I play center field. I can do it well,” Nimmo said. “If there is one person that can make adjustments, I think it’s me.”