PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Peter Alonso, a primary candidate for the Mets’ first-base job, reported to spring training this past week with strong words and a simple goal.
“I want to force someone’s hand,” Alonso said Saturday. “I want to come in here and be the best option. That’s it.”
The Mets have other options: Todd Frazier, who could move over from third base; Dominic Smith, who was in Alonso’s situation at this time last year, and J.D. Davis, acquired from the Astros in an offseason trade.
But none of them has the impact-bat potential of Alonso, 24, who last year broke out with 36 home runs, 119 RBIs and a .285/.395/.579 slash line against Double-A and Triple-A pitching.
The Mets say Alonso will get every chance to earn the Opening Day first-base assignment, and Alonso expects to take advantage of that opportunity.
“Competition is really healthy. It brings the best out of every player,” said Alonso, who is locker neighbors with Frazier and near veteran infielders Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie.
Working out in recent months in Tampa, his hometown, Alonso said he lost 12 pounds — he’s about 240 now — and got stronger. Trimming down was an offseason goal agreed upon by him and the Mets. “I wanted to show up looking good, looking like I’m ready to go,” Alonso said.
Perhaps most significantly, he also worked extensively on his defense, a weakness in his game and a potential reason for him to not make the team out of camp.
The Mets were complimentary about Alonso’s improvement by the end of last season, and manager Mickey Callaway maintained that tone Saturday.
“I’ve elevated my game tremendously at first base, and I’ve worked at every aspect of it,” Alonso said. “I’m really excited for games to start.”
Said Callaway: “The eyes that we had on him, scouting and player development-wise, all agreed on the same thing: that he was probably the most improved defensive guy they’ve seen in a long time in one season. So hats off to him.’’
How can Alonso win the job?
“Play well,” Alonso said. “It’s as simple as that.”
It is not as simple as that, unfortunately for Alonso and select other prospects. By keeping a deserving player in the minors for a couple of extra weeks to begin the season, clubs in the past have manipulated service time to gain an extra year of team control, making it seven years instead of six.
For example, the Blue Jays have announced that 19-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — generally considered the top prospect in baseball, having mashed in Double-A and Triple-A last year — likely will open the year in Triple-A. “We want to make sure he’s the best possible third baseman and the best possible hitter he can be,” general manager Ross Atkins told reporters.
“He deserves to be up there,” said Alonso, who like many others was impressed by Guerrero when they played against each other in the Eastern League last year. “The kid is a phenom. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Like Guerrero, Alonso did not get called up to the majors last September despite a big year. Opening the year in the majors is no guarantee.
“I can only control what I can control. That’s all I can do,” Alonso said. “The only thing I can control is with my own two hands, playing well in the field. That’s really it. Hitting the ball, playing good defense. That’s all I can do. Whatever happens happens.”
An unusual dynamic in the Mets’ case: General manager Brodie Van Wagenen is a former agent, and agents rail against service-time manipulation, a practice that teams never acknowledge publicly.
Callaway, who noted that exhibition-game statistics matter when it comes to a young player trying to win a job, repeatedly has said, “We’re going to take the best 25 guys.”
“Brodie’s made it clear that he’s a players’ guy,” Callaway said. “And if he deserves it, he’s going to be on the team.”