What a catch: Everyone loves young Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud

Catcher Travis D'Arnaud does catching drills during a

Catcher Travis D'Arnaud does catching drills during a spring training workout at Tradition Field. (Feb. 15, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.

At the same time last week that Mike Piazza was making the rounds of TV talk shows to plug his new book, the player the Mets hope is the next Piazza was settling into his new spring training clubhouse.

Maybe that's too much to put on Travis d'Arnaud, the 24-year-old catcher the Mets acquired from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade.

Or maybe it isn't.

D'Arnaud, who grew up a Piazza fan in Lakewood, Calif. -- and tried and failed as a youngster to copy Piazza's batting stance -- already has had to live up to great expectations before playing a single major-league game.

D'Arnaud (pronounced Dar-NO) was traded before, from the Phillies to the Blue Jays, in a deal involving another Cy Young Award winner, Roy Halladay.

The Mets got four players from Toronto in the Dickey deal, but it's fair to say the success or failure of dealing away the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner rests on the shoulders of the 6-2, 195-pound d'Arnaud.

Maybe even the success or failure of this Mets front office regime, too.

"I've heard a lot of good things about him," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "You don't have people in the game tell you you've got a potential 15-year All-Star on your hands. Guys that have been in the game a long time, so they know what they are talking about. I'm anxious to see him play."

D'Arnaud probably is not going to start the season with the Mets. But he has a chance to stick, according to Collins, who already has thrown batting practice to d'Arnaud and been wowed by the righthanded hitter's ability.

"He's got great hands," Collins said. "Good bat speed. That's where he gets the power from. You throw him pitches inside and it's amazing how he can get his hands to them."

The hands are what you hear about when you ask about d'Arnaud, who last season hit .333 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs for Triple-A Las Vegas before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a slide at second base in June.

At the time of the trade, d'Arnaud was listed as the Blue Jays' top prospect and was ranked No. 11 overall by MLB.com. He is seen as a polished defensive catcher, and his bat has taken a big leap forward during the last two seasons.

"What separates Travis is his hands," said Sal Fasano, the Blue Jays' roving catching instructor. "They're so unique, both offensively and defensively. Catching, he's got great hands, and he can really hit. I don't like to compare people. But Mike Piazza was one of the strongest human beings with his hands that I've ever seen. Travis is quick with his hands. He's loose but he's powerful at contact. He was able to snap his wrists like not too many people can. That's why he has power to all fields."

A Blue Jays official told of a drill in which a batting-practice pitcher would stand in front of the mound and fire fastballs at hitters. (Collins said he used to see Charlie Manuel do a similar drill with Manny Ramirez in Cleveland; Ramirez would move up and end the drill halfway to the mound.)

Only a few players can get around on fastballs thrown from 50 feet or less instead of the standard 60 feet, 6 inches. D'Arnaud is one of them.

"It's so much faster when you're closer," d'Arnaud said. "When you went in the game, everything just slowed down because it was a lot longer. You had more time to react."

D'Arnaud, who was given uniform No. 15 in spring training, is "kind of a laid-back SoCal guy," according to catcher John Buck, who also came to the Mets in the Dickey deal.

Fasano, who played for nine teams (including the Yankees) in an 11-year career, said: "Traded for two Cy Young Award winners. You don't have to worry about that. He knows he's a good player, but he's still humble at the same time, which is a nice attribute to have. That's why I see him as a big-leaguer. Because I think all big-leaguers know they're good at their task, but they're humble enough to say they need work. Those are the guys that I think can achieve greatness."

The Mets probably will start d'Arnaud at Triple-A Las Vegas because they can keep him pre-arbitration eligible one more year if he doesn't begin the season in the majors. (D'Arnaud said he "understands it, a little bit.") But Collins said he told d'Arnaud not to get caught up in that.

"I wanted to let him know that it's not etched in stone that he's not going to make this team," Collins said. "There's a good possibility that he starts at Triple-A. But go hard like you're going to make this team. He's going to get playing time because we all want to see him play. We want to see what we've got."

Fasano said it wouldn't be the worst thing for d'Arnaud to get some more time in Triple-A, especially after his season-ending injury in 2012.

"He needs more reps," Fasano said. "That's why he needs time to develop -- because once he gets to the big leagues, he's never going to come back down."

D'Arnaud suffered a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament when he slid late while breaking up a double play. Surgery was not needed and he's 100 percent now.

"I've got a photographic memory of it in my head," d'Arnaud said. "It was first and third, one out, we had a lefty up, Travis Snyder. Hits a ground ball to short, I'm running, running, running, trying to break up the double play. There's one out, so the guy from third can score. Get the early lead, get the momentum. Slid a little late trying to, and right when I hit, it was just, 'Pop!' Broke up the double play, runner scored. It worked out, but I got hurt."

Asked what he'll do next time the same situation comes up, d'Arnaud said: "Probably not slide as late. But still try to break it up. It was devastating. Such a good stretch going there, I maybe had a chance of being called up soon. It killed my season. But right after it happened, kept my head up and started focusing on rehab so I can get back at it."

Health seems to be the only thing that can keep d'Arnaud from achieving stardom. He also struggled with a back injury in 2010.

D'Arnaud, whose brother Chase is an infielder in the Pirates' system, said catching already has robbed him of some of his athleticism.

Asked who the best athlete is in his family, d'Arnaud laughed and said: "C'mon, you're really going to ask that? I would have to give it to Chase. I can't believe I'm saying this. I mean he's so fast. Can jump really high. I used to be like that, but catching has taken a toll on me a little bit."

Still, d'Arnaud loves the position. He started catching at age 14 and has never regretted it.

"To be honest with you, I got thrown back there," he said. "I fell in love with it because I was in every play. I was doing something every play instead of when I used to play second base and it was: 'Nothing. Maybe. OK.' "

And, of course, there's the Piazza connection.

Piazza was a Dodger when d'Arnaud was growing up. He's realistic enough to laugh off suggestions that he could be the next Piazza, but he's also confident enough to see what other people see when they make the comparison.

"He did have some really fast hands," d'Arnaud said. "Maybe watching him growing up definitely influenced that. So I guess so. Could be."

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