For Mickey Callaway, the hardest part of filling out the lineup card this season might be whose name to write first. The Mets don't have a prototypical lead off hitter, but they have options. Let’s speculate as to who will get that first plate appearance for the Mets in 2018.
Nimmo absolutely dominated righties in 2017, albeit in a small sample size, as he slashed .281/.404/.474 in 166 plate appearances. Even a pretty significant regression in OBP back to the .370-to-.380 range would make Nimmo arguably the Mets' best candidate. He has batted there twice already this spring.
The issue for Nimmo will be playing time. The Mets currently have a lot invested in Juan Lagares (he’s due $6.5 million in 2018), and early indications from management are that he’ll start against both lefties and righties. With that said, Lagares has yet to play in a Spring Training game due to a hamstring injury, so if Lagares continues to be banged up, the door for Nimmo at lead off could start to creak open.
Prior to the start of Spring Training, Callaway indicated that he would consider the idea of batting Frazier at lead off. On the surface, it makes sense. Frazier posted a career-high in on-base percentage (.344) and walks (83) last year, and if he can continue to improve on that with the new approach he’s adopted over the last few years, he would be a suitable candidate.
However, to me, Frazier’s ability to hit for power fits better as protection for Yoenis Céspedes and Jay Bruce, so he'll likely be either the fourth or fifth spot (depending on where Yo ends up) . It’s also worth noting that Frazier has zero experience in the Majors as a leadoff hitter, and has yet to do so in Spring Training, so the idea of him hitting there is probably a long shot.
In his first Major League opportunity, Rosario struggled to control the strike zone (.271 OBP in 170 plate appearances with a 45.5 percent chase rate), but the Mets' starting shortstop possesses a skill that’s otherwise absent in the lineup: speed.
Rosario stole seven bases with the Mets in games last year, which was actually tied for second on the team behind Jose Reyes. Rosario has also shown an ability to get on base in the Mets minor league system, and prior to his call-up in 2017, he had a .367 OBP in Las Vegas. However, Rosario desperately needs to improve his pitch selection, since he only walked three times with the Mets last year. I don’t envision a team with playoff aspirations slotting a relatively inexperienced player at the top of the order, at least not until he proves he’s willing to take an occasional walk.
Cabrera is the least sexy pick of the bunch (unless you ask Lismar Cabrera, Cabby's wife), but what he provides is a stable and reliable veteran bat at the top of the order.
Since coming to the Mets in 2016, Cabrera has earned a .343 On-Base Percentage, well above last year’s league average .324, and he seems to be the favorite at the moment. Cabrera been slotted at the top of the lineup three times already in Spring Training, including Thursday afternoon.
Against righties, the switch-hitting infielder possesses a .328 OBP for his career, which is second-best among players that are presumably in contention for the Opening Day leadoff spot (this excludes players like Adrian González and Jose Reyes). That on-base percentage won’t inspire a great deal of excitement, but the Mets can rely on Cabrera to be right around that number again this year, eliminating the unknown as a variable. And since the Mets have made it clear that speed at the top of the order (or frankly, anywhere in the order, for that matter) is not a priority, it makes Cabrera a solid, albeit boring lead off candidate.
Over his career, Cabrera has proven he can get on base against both lefties and righties (.339 and .328 OBP, respectively). He has a career 344 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter, and he can be trusted to be a steady Major League contributor.
Nimmo and Rosario will likely receive the occasional opportunity at the top of the order, with Nimmo there against righties and Rosario against lefties. Cabrera at the top of the order isn’t exciting, but it is safe and consistent, and the Mets won’t be able to afford experimentation with the potential for failure at such an important spot.