PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Beyond the rightfield fence of Field 7, the Citi replica where the Mets take batting practice, fans scurried for cover Wednesday afternoon.
Mothers shielded kids. Passersby covered heads with their hands. The blue-and-orange blur in the cage was too distant to make out, other than a wicked righthanded swing, so people asked who it could be.
Yoenis Cespedes? Todd Frazier? Juan Lagares?
All were logical guesses. All of them wrong.
This was Amed Rosario, launching shot after shot deep into the brilliant sunshine, and still being mistaken for someone else. Rosario, you may have heard, was the Mets’ top prospect a year ago, the can’t-miss shortstop primed to rescue the franchise.
And now? He rarely comes up in conversation, skating happily beneath the radar, concerned merely with preparing for the season ahead rather than saving it. The Mets couldn’t have scripted a more ideal situation for Rosario, who at 22 still can be considered in the development stage — but may be ready to rocket up the learning curve.
New manager Mickey Callaway dared to compare Rosario’s athleticism to the Indians’ shortstop prodigy Francisco Lindor, having watched the latter play close up in Cleveland, but also acknowledged the Mets’ prospect has an extra layer of scrutiny to cope with in New York. So far this spring, Rosario gets to hang those clingy expectations in his locker, free to take his position as just another Met, working to get better.
“It’s been good because I don’t try to put more pressure on myself,” Rosario said Wednesday through an interpreter. “So I can try to focus what’s going on the field rather than what’s outside of it.”
Rosario still is visible on social media, with an active Instagram account, but there’s a cozy level of obscurity that can be enjoyed in Port St. Lucie, a place filled up with practices and exhibition games. Last season, all Rosario could hear in Las Vegas was the giant clock ticking, and the public drumbeat for his arrival in Flushing. Playing in the Futures Game during All-Star Week only fueled that anxiety, and getting to the majors felt like it overshadowed staying there.
Once Rosario finally was promoted, on Aug. 1, he was inserted into a Mets’ lineup that had been unraveling for months, on a team headed nowhere, with a lame duck manager. He finished with a slash line of .248/.271/.394 and four home runs during his 46-game intro, an awkward period where people picked at his flaws instead of imagining the potential.
Months later, that all feels washed away, with Rosario enjoying what seems like a fresh start. The Mets underwent significant renovations during the offseason, changing the on-field staff and adding veterans like Todd Frazier, Adrian Gonzalez and — perhaps most important to Rosario — his mentor Jose Reyes.
Watching Rosario is like having Reyes deja vu, and no one knows better what he’s going through than the prodigal Met, another homegrown shortstop who had to wear the label of franchise player days short of his 20th birthday. The mental strain of dealing with those demands are real, as Rosario experienced last season. Reyes has noticed the difference in him already this spring, a time when Rosario can blend in more easily, and concentrate again on the education process.
“That’s good for him,” Reyes said. “Coming in to play in New York, you don’t want people to put you way up there (Reyes raises both hands high). You want to be normal. For him, he’s going to be fine. The sky is the limit for this kid. He can do everything he wants to do.”
For now, that includes mastery of his improved swing mechanics, a smaller leg kick and shorter stride that hitting coach Pat Roessler (along with Kevin Long) implemented toward the end of last season to help him see the ball longer — in order to combat chasing bad pitches. After a winter to perfect those adjustments, Rosario should be reaping the rewards, as well as getting more familiar to the hyper-speed at the major-league level.
“The problem is guys from Triple-A going to to the bigs, one there’s more velocity, and two, better movement, so they’re not used to seeing that all the time,” Roessler said. “They see it once in a while. They don’t see it day in and day out. They’ve just got to get at-bats under their belt.”
Looking back, Rosario can appreciate the growth from last season to now, and is intent on graduating from high-ceiling prospect to impact player. The spotlight turns back on soon, and when it does, Rosario will never be more ready.