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How the Mets are preparing for life with no designated hitter

The Mets' Pete Alonso hits a grand slam

The Mets' Pete Alonso hits a grand slam in the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Nationals at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — All offseason and into spring training, the Mets have made it clear: They really, really would prefer to be able to use a designated hitter this year.

But with Opening Day less than four weeks away, that is looking like a longer long shot every day, even as manager Luis Rojas said, again, on Thursday: "I still think it’ll be ideal to have the DH." The National League adding the DH rule for 2021 would require MLB and the players’ union to agree to do so, which has not come close to happening.

And so the Mets are preparing for all that that will entail: Pete Alonso resuming his role as the regular first baseman, the coaching staff deploying a suboptimal defensive arrangement and, yes, pitchers stepping to the plate.

Alonso, for his part, is happy to be back in the field. Late last season, he split time between first base and DH, which did not align with his identity.

"I’m not a DH," he said recently. "I don’t want to be labeled as that, because I’ve worked too hard and I feel like I have played well. In 2019, I played really well at first base. In 2020, I didn’t have my best year, whether it be offensively or defensively. This year, I feel like I have a great opportunity and I want to continue to grow as a person and as a player. I will never think of myself as a DH. I will always think of myself as a first baseman."

The questions surrounding Alonso as a defender are not the result of a lack of effort on his part. As recently as Thursday, between a regular workout with that day’s starting lineup and a game in which he hit a grand slam, he took extra infield practice with infield coach Gary DiSarcina.

That has been a frequent occurrence during spring training in recent years.

"Everybody questioned his defense a little bit throughout the minor leagues, and he had that kind of demeanor like, ‘Let me show you,’ " Rojas said. "And he feeds off of it. He’s in a good place right now, he’s ready to go, very positive, full of energy. Looks great out there."

The DH-less environment has a domino effect on the Mets’ defensive alignment. Under these circumstances, they are looking at using Brandon Nimmo in centerfield, Dominic Smith in leftfield and Alonso at first. If they had the hitting-only slot, they could put Alonso there, switch Smith to first, slide Nimmo to left and put, say, Kevin Pillar in center — which would upgrade all three spots defensively.

The Mets know fielding is not a team strength. They know it hasn’t been for years. During an in-game interview with ESPN this week, team president Sandy Alderson remarked, "Some of our players are not defensive geniuses," a blunter version of a sentiment he has expressed periodically in recent months.

"I totally agree with Sandy," Rojas said. "It’s one of our main focuses in camp for sure."

And then there is the matter of pitchers hitting — or trying to.

"Our guys want to hit," Rojas said. "I know that. They talk about it all the time."

Then he broke into a smile.

"And probably I’m talking more about Jake [deGrom] there," he continued. "But they want to swing the bat."

DeGrom is a career .189 hitter, which is terrible by any standard except for the one applied to pitchers. Since his rookie year, major-league pitchers have combined for a .126 batting average.

Rojas said Mets pitchers likely will begin batting — for the first time in more than a year — in Grapefruit League games around March 15, giving them two weeks to get ready. They have practiced bunting. They have not practiced actual hitting. They have talked about baserunning.

"We’re getting ready for them to hit," Rojas said. "We’ll get them ready [for] any of those actions that are going to put them in a position where they can get hurt."

Time change. The Mets’ game Saturday against the Astros at West Palm Beach was moved up to 1 p.m. because of rain forecast for later in the day. (It had been set for 6 p.m.) The teams plan to play seven innings. DeGrom is slated to make his Grapefruit League debut opposite Houston ace Zack Greinke.

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