MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Mets

Dom Smith’s Last Best Shot

The Adrian Gonzalez experiment officially reached its conclusion Sunday night when the Mets released the veteran following their 2-0 series finale win over the Yankees.

At 36 years old, Gonzalez was unlikely to revert back to his prime following an injury riddled 2017 season in Los Angeles, but at a league minimum salary, New York felt there was little to no risk in bringing him in over the winter. The five-time All-Star had a few moments as a Met, most notably an early season grand slam in D.C. and a five-RBI game in San Diego, but his .237/.299/.373 slash line left more to be desired than his six homers and 26 RBIs could make up for.

Coming up to inherit the first base job will be not-that-young-anymore Dom Smith, and while he’s not exactly a savior, this is a move that will at least add some intrigue to a Mets season that is already on the brink.

Smith was New York’s first round pick in 2013, and it didn’t take him long to shoot up the team’s prospect list. The California native signed quickly after being drafted which allowed him to play in 51 rookie league games as an 18-year old that summer, in which he did make an impression, hitting .301 and getting on base at a strong .398 clip. He spent the next two seasons climbing the A-ball ladder, playing full seasons in Single-A Savannah and High-A St. Lucie, where he continued to display good knowledge of the strike zone while hitting for a high average, but the power you’d expect from a prototypical first baseman was largely absent.

That changed significantly in 2016 while Smith suited up for Double-A Binghamton. Playing in all but 10 of the B-Mets’ contests, Smith enjoyed easily the best season in his professional career, hitting .302 with 14 home runs, 91 RBIs and 29 doubles, to go along with a .367 on-base percentage and a personal best .457 slugging percentage. He was selected to play in his first Futures Game, and continued to raise eyebrows with his defensive prowess at first base, something that has always been a calling card for him.

Entering spring training in 2017, the big man and his teammate and good friend Amed Rosario were firmly entrenched as the top two prospects in the Mets system, and he continued his positive momentum when he got to Triple A-Vegas last April. Offensive numbers in the Pacific Coast League can understandably be skewed due to the altitudes, but Smith’s production was nonetheless very impressive: in 457 at-bats for the 51’s, he hit .330 with 16 homers and 76 RBI’s, while doubling a career high 34 times, reaching base at a .386 clip and slugging over .500 for the first time.

Unfortunately for Smith, this is about where the positivity runs out, although that wasn’t the way this story was supposed to unfold.

During New York’s miserable lost season last year, it became obvious several of their veteran players who were due to become free agents at year’s end would be moved at the trade deadline in July. One such player was longtime first baseman Lucas Duda, a perpetually underappreciated Met whose powerful left-handed bat had been a staple in New York’s offensive attack for years. Given the state of Duda’s contract, the Mets’ place in the standings, and Smith’s age and performance in Las Vegas, it was easily discernible where this was headed.

Duda was traded to Tampa Bay in late July to help the Rays try to make a run at a Wild Card berth, paving the way for the youngster to take over at the corner for the rest of 2017 and beyond. In theory.

Smith, though, didn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

In 49 games with the big club, Smith hit a paltry .198, and while his power numbers of nine homers and 26 RBIs were actually pretty good, he had very little else going for him. He struck out 49 times in 167 at-bats, reached base at an awful .262 pace, and was completely overmatched by lefties, going just 4-31 against southpaws.

Smith’s performance (or lack thereof) last September is what prompted New York to bring in Gonzalez to begin with, hoping a spring training competition would bring out the best in them both. Internally, I’m sure club brass hoped the younger player would take the job and run with it in March, but that couldn’t have been further from what actually transpired.

To say Smith failed to make a positive impression on the Mets’ new coaching staff is an understatement. He showed up late to literally the very first spring training game, causing rookie manager Mickey Callaway to remove him from the lineup before the game even began to send a message. Just a few days later, he strained his right quad and was forced to miss several weeks of action, essentially handing the opening day job to Gonzalez by default.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of all this though is what has happened since Smith got to Vegas this time around. After dominating the Pacific Coast League last year en route to earning his call-up, the lefty swinger has been a shell of his former self at the worst possible time for his professional career: in 56 games for the 51’s in 2018 Smith has hit just .260 with two home runs in 219 at-bats. And he’s seen his role in the organization take a drastic hit.

Seemingly since the moment the Mets made him the 11th overall pick out of Junipero Serra high school in 2013, both the organization and their fans envisioned Smith becoming the franchise’s long term answer at first base. Throughout most of his minor league career, nothing had changed that vision. This season, however, has seen a different narrative begin to unfold, thanks to the breakout performance of Double-A Binghamton first baseman Peter Alonso.

New York took Alonso in the second round in the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida, and he arrived as a polished collegiate hitter who has shown from Day 1 that he can be a difference-making right-handed bat. Alonso hit well for Single-A-Short Season Brooklyn the summer after being drafted, had a great year for Single-A St. Lucie last season, and this year has been arguably the best hitter in the Eastern League not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In 62 games for Binghamton he’s hit .310 with 15 homers and 50 RBI’s, while turning in a dominant .441 OBP and slugging an impressive .567.

During the Mets’ recent stretch of offensive ineptitude, it was difficult to navigate through Twitter or listen to sports talk radio for any length of time without reading and hearing Alonso’s name mentioned ad nauseum as a potential solution. New York has been reluctant to skip levels with their young offensive players — although they did break that rule in relative recent history when they promoted Michael Conforto straight from Double-A to the majors three years ago — but it never appeared the club wanted to do that this time around.

It’s no secret the Mets needed to do something about first base as it had become increasingly obvious Gonzalez was in need of being replaced. And with Alonso leaving little to prove in Double-A, you have to believe the organization saw this as a chance to play a little musical chairs with their first basemen. With Gonzalez no longer here and Smith vacating Las Vegas to join the major league club, a promotion to Triple-A for Alonso is almost certainly imminent.

The story here is Smith, though, who has to understand he’s being passed on the organizational depth chart by Alonso and needs to take a hard look at himself and realize this is probably his last shot. During the WOR broadcast Sunday night, Howie Rose reported a high-ranking source within the Mets front office told him Alonso would not be promoted to the major leagues at any point in 2018. Which means for the next three and a half months, first base in Flushing will belong to Smith, in quite frankly a sink-or-swim situation. A repeat of last season’s Major League cup of coffee will assuredly push him out of the discussion for 2019, while a strong showing could potentially set up a fascinating spring training battle between Smith and Alonso next March.

Back to the present, Smith, who will turn 23 on Friday, will need to channel some of the pressure he must be feeling from the outside into showing not just the Mets but the rest of Major League Baseball that he belongs at this level. Being labeled as a quad-A player (too good for the minor leagues, but not really a Major Leaguer) is a tough thing to shake in your early 20s, and you’d have to hope he’ll arrive in Atlanta tonight eager to put himself back on the map. As a young player in baseball you’re either considered a prospect or not very good, and the clock is unquestionably running out on his prospect status.

Tick tock.

Photo credit: Andy Marlin – USA Today Sports

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