Sorting Out the Mets’ First Base Logjam

Who’s on first? This spring, it’s a question that both New York teams are figuring out through compelling job battles. While the Yankees attempt to decide between homegrown Greg Bird and mid-2018 trade acquisition Luke Voit — the latter of whom was the AL’s hottest hitter from August 1 onward, with a 194 wRC+ — the Mets are sorting out whether Dominic Smith or Peter Alonso will be their starter. I wrote enough about the Yankees’ pair late last season, when Voit seized the job from the struggling, oft-injured Bird, so today, it’s worth considering the Mets’ dilemma.

Of the two combatants, the 24-year-old Alonso, who currently lists at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, is fresher in mind because he bopped 36 homers for the Mets’ Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas affiliates last year but didn’t receive a September call-up, a move that looked far more like a garden-variety attempt to manipulate his service time than it did a sound baseball decision. Taking a page from the playbook used by the Cubs for Kris Bryant and by the Blue Jays for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Mets even cited Alonso’s defense as one reason they were holding off. “His bat is his calling card and his defense is something he’s going to have to work at,” said director of player development Ian Levin last August, shortly after Alonso was named the Las Vegas 51s’ defensive player of the month for July.

To be fair, scouts did and do have concerns about Alonso’s defense, as well as his conditioning. Our own Eric Longenhagen noted concerns about his glove last April while ranking him seventh overall among the Mets’ prospects and grading his defense for both present and future at 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale; for what it’s worth, while Baseball America and MLB Pipeline don’t distinguish between present and future in their grades, both concur with the 40. BA’s Prospect Handbook 2019 calling him “an American League player in a National League organization.” But after the 2016 second-round pick out of the University of Florida slashed .285/.395/.579 between the two upper levels last year, his overall Future Value grade improved from 45 to 50 thanks to massive jumps in both his raw power (from 60/60 to a maximum 80/80) and game power (from 40/55 to 55/70) and modest advancement in his hit tool (from 40/50 to 45/50).

“Right/right college first basemen don’t typically work out (this century’s list of guys who have done nothing but play first since day one on campus and done well in MLB is Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, Eric Karros, and that’s it),” wrote Longenhagen for last year’s Mets list. Compare that to this year’s model from our Top 100 Prospects list, where Alonso landed at number 48: “This is what top-of-the-scale, strength-driven raw power looks like, and it drives an excellent version of a profile we’re typically quite bearish on: the heavy-bodied, right/right first baseman.” Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel referenced some of Alonso’s greatest hits including a single Arizona Fall League game where his exit velocities reached 116.3 mph on a double and 113.6 on a homer, as well as this Futures Game homer which, holy smokes:

Spring stats don’t count for doodly squat, but with four doubles and three homers so far in Grapefruit League play, as well as a .406/.457/.813 line, Alonso is turning heads. After he hit one over the Green Monster-like wall at the Red Sox’s Jet Blue Park last week, Boston manager Alex Cora called him “Probably the best hitter in Florida right now.” Catching peoples’ attention in a much different way was Monday’s unintentional leveling of the Astros’ Josh Reddick at first base:

Then there’s the lefty-swinging Smith, who was chosen as the 11th overall pick out of a Gardena, California high school in 2013, cracked BA’s Top 100 list three times (in 2014, ’16 and ’17, peaking at number 71 in the last of those years) and is currently listed at 6 feet and 239 pounds, 54 pounds more than when he placed 73rd on our Top 100 Prospects list two years ago. He actually tipped the scales at as high as 260 pounds before cutting out wet burritos, a factoid no consumer of 21st century New York baseball coverage will ever forget. Though he’s receded into the background somewhat as Alonso’s star has risen, he’s actually six months younger (he doesn’t turn 24 until June 15), and has 332 plate appearances of major league experience under his belt from 2017-18, though his .210/.259/.406 line (79 wRC+) is abysmal outside of the 14 home runs.

Smith does not have Alonso’s natural power. It took him four years of pro ball to reach a double-digit home run total in a single season (16 at Binghamton in 2016), though he did hit 25 between Las Vegas and the majors in 2017. For that year’s lists, Longenhagen graded his raw power at 55/55, and his game power at 40/55, with his hit tool and glove both at 50/60. That profile has led to comparisons to James Loney — the young version that former Mets manager Terry Collins oversaw from 2002-06 as the Dodgers’ minor league field coordinator and then director of player development, not the end-stage version that Collins managed in 2016. “I thought he’d at minimum replicate James Loney’s best years,” said Longenhagen when I asked about the post-prospect version of Smith. “Never huge home run power but 40 doubles, tons of contact, plus glove at first base.”

Nothing has really come together for Smith at the major league level, perhaps in part because the Mets have convinced him to try to pull the ball and hit for more power. Promoted from Triple-A on August 11, 2017, he played first base regularly over the final two months of the season following Lucas Duda’s trade to Tampa Bay but hit just .198/.262/.395 with nine homers in 183 PA, striking out 26.8% of the time. Last year, after showing up late for his first Grapefruit League game and getting scratched from the lineup, he suffered a right quad strain in his spring debut, an injury that sidelined him until mid-April. He slipped behind what was left of Adrian Gonzalez on the depth chart, then bounced between Las Vegas and New York all season, serving four stints with the big club.

Between the shuttling, an experiment in left field — the results of which were brutally Duda-esque (-3.1 UZR and -5 DRS in 90 innings) — and semi-regular play in September while Alonso went home, Smith didn’t hit, either in the majors (.224/.255/.420) or at hitter-friendly Vegas (.258/.328/.380). In the bigs, he walked in just 2.7% of his plate appearances while striking out in 31.5%. When he did make contact, his average launch angle rose from 9.7 degrees to 17.2, with his groundball rate dropping from 50.4% to 34.4%, but the approach didn’t pay off. What’s more, within the small sample of playing time across both seasons, his defensive metrics at first base have been unfavorable (-2.4 UZR, -8 DRS in 74 games).

Like Alonso, Smith has hit well this spring (.433/.500/.600, for what it’s worth). As bad as he was last year in the outfield, he’s expressed a willingness to continue the experiment. But with Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo slated for the outfield corners (manager Mickey Callaway recently said that Conforto would exclusively play right, but we’ll see), and infielder Jeff McNeil somehow squeezed into the picture, it’s difficult to see where outfield playing time for Smith would come from even if Conforto or Nimmo does log time in center instead of Juan Lagares. The pair combined for 81 starts there last year, with dreadful defensive metrics (-6.8 UZR, -10 DRS). Mets pitchers have to shudder at the thought of such an alignment that includes Smith.

Lately, McNeil — who made 52 of his 53 big league starts last at second base — has been seeing playing time at third base because both Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier have been slowed by injuries (a capsule sprain in the left knee for the former, an oblique strain for the latter). Even that situation has spillover into the first base picture, as Lowrie’s arrival in free agency displaced Frazier, who, after struggling (.213/.303/.390, 90 wRC+) in his first season with the Mets, was slated to get more playing time at first base, where he’s started 82 major league games (but just eight since 2014). With a crowd that includes newly acquired second baseman Robinson Cano, the Mets were supposed to have enough bodies on hand to push at least one of the two first basemen (likely Alonso) back to the minors to open the season, conveniently obscuring the service time issues that have loomed since last year.

In contrast to Guerrero’s situation in Toronto and the way Alonso was handled by the Mets last fall, Callaway and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen are saying the right things. Last December, the new GM said that his intent was for Alonso to be the Opening Day first baseman, and the continued refrain in Florida has been “We’re taking the best 25 guys up north with us,” which would be a refreshing departure from the industry-wide trend towards service time manipulation. Until Opening Day, however, it’s all talk.

At some point, the Mets will have to choose a first baseman. For what it’s worth, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections gives a clear preference for Alonso, mainly because of Smith’s struggles in recent years. The numbers don’t jump off the page, however:

Peter Alonso via ZiPS
2019 .239 .324 .450 24 110 2.2
2020 .239 .329 .452 23 111 2.2
2021 .238 .330 .448 23 111 2.2
2022 .236 .331 .456 24 113 2.3
2023 .235 .332 .453 23 113 2.2
2024 .236 .333 .451 22 112 2.1
Total 13.1

Lest you think that ZiPS is particularly low on Alonso, note that his Steamer projection for 2019 is nearly the same (.241/.319/.458). Last year, he tore up the Eastern League (.314/.440/.573, 180 wRC+) but relative to his league, saw a substantial drop-off at Las Vegas (.260/.355/.585, 139 wRC+). It’s worth noting that his slash numbers within that projection are held down by a low BABIP (.281 for 2019) that owes something to his 30-grade speed. It’s still a much more playable profile than the projections for Smith:

Dominic Smith via ZiPS
2019 .244 .296 .380 14 84 0.7
2020 .245 .300 .395 15 89 1.0
2021 .243 .299 .393 15 88 1.0
2022 .241 .299 .392 15 88 0.9
2023 .242 .301 .396 10 89 0.7
2024 .240 .302 .386 9 87 0.5
Total 4.9

Woof. Again, it’s worth remembering that these are the result of heavy weighting of the player’s recent performances, which in Smith’s case have largely been struggle after struggle, though he did hit well at Vegas in 2017 (.330/.386/.519, 134 wRC+). Note that the gap between Alonso and Smith may be larger than shown above, as the former was projected for just 524 PA this year, the latter 587.

Ultimately, even with potential season-opening stints on the Injury List for Lowrie and/or Frazier, and so many other job battles among the team’s position players, it seems quite possible that the Mets will trade Smith, who has youth on his side and may be best served by a change of scenery anyway. One way or another, it should be very interesting to see how this all unfolds.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Cave Dameron
3 years ago

Very cool Jay, thank you!