PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The Mets were clear throughout the offseason that they preferred not to play Dominic Smith in leftfield, and that continues to be the case. But they don’t have much of a choice.
The National League does not have the designated hitter rule for 2021, though the Mets remain hopeful that it will be added before Opening Day. Without the DH, in order to get the bats of Smith and Pete Alonso in the lineup at the same time, Smith will have to play his secondary position regularly.
In that version of the Mets’ lineup, they are willing to sacrifice something defensively for the sake of extra offensive punch. They hope Smith — after an offseason that included a focus on agility and general athleticism — can improve enough to hold his own.
"Obviously, my leftfield play hasn’t been great," Smith said Thursday. "But people forget that I got thrown in leftfield in the big leagues, which is the highest level of baseball, the hardest level. I didn’t realize how hard guys hit the ball until I started playing outfield in the big leagues. It’s a learning curve, it’s a learning process."
The Smith outfield saga has gone on for so long that the depth of discourse outweighs the sample size. In the past three seasons, he has played only 474 1⁄3 innings there — equal to about one-third of a full season.
In the opening days of spring training, Smith has split time between the outfield and first base, where he is considered an above-average fielder and superior to Alonso. The Mets plan for that to shift more toward the outfield.
"We are having him spend more time in the outfield in camp because that’s the position he’s played the least in his career," manager Luis Rojas said. "With [outfield coach] Tony Tarasco coming on the staff, we want Tony to work with him closely and see some of the things that he can add to Dom’s repertoire to make him better in that position."
What Smith lacks in experience, he makes up for, in part, with confidence.
"I feel like I’m taking that challenge and I’m getting better and better at it," he said, noting that game experience is most valuable but reading fly balls during batting practice counts for something. "I’m getting comfortable out there and I know I can do it. I know. I know I can play leftfield, rightfield. I’m competitive and I believe in my ability."
For now, the Mets are doing the best with what they have, even if that means square pegs in round holes. Team president Sandy Alderson — with his words and his actions — made it clear that this is not Plan A.
The Mets seriously pursued George Springer, who signed with the Blue Jays. His addition would have meant centerfielder Brandon Nimmo shifting to left, a defensive upgrade in both positions.
The Mets also considered Jackie Bradley Jr., who remains a free agent. They wound up signing Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr.
"Putting Dominic Smith in leftfield is not ideal," Alderson said on Jan. 7. "He can play there, and to get his bat in the lineup he probably will end up playing quite a bit there, but that’s not ideal for us regardless of what we do at another position."
The next day, during an appearance on WFAN, Alderson said: "Our outfield, which requires three, only has two at this point . . . Do we consider Dominic Smith an outfielder? No, Dominic Smith is a first baseman. But so is Alonso."
So here the Mets are.
"I know I’m way more capable than what I’ve shown," Smith said. "It just takes time, it takes a little bit of reps. I’m just excited because I haven’t played much out there, so when I do get more opportunity, more reps, and start making more plays, then I guess that skepticism will kind of dissolve."
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