PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Each year, the evolution of Dom Smith continues. He shows up for spring training a little stronger, a little leaner, a little wiser than the previous one.
And in some parallel universe, one without a Pete Alonso, maybe we’d be talking about Smith as the Mets’ star first baseman rather than his role as the team’s increasingly versatile backup.
But Wednesday, at the complex behind Clover Park, Smith was camped in leftfield, tracking the flights of windblown balls, and preparing for a position that the Mets begrudgingly allowed him to play last season. When they finally did green-light Smith, he was put under the tutelage of Luis Rojas -- the team’s quality control coach at the time -- and that’s when the transformation truly began.
“As far as the outfield, he was the guy that instilled a lot of confidence in me,” Smith said after Wednesday’s workout. “He was very influential in my development out there. He kept me calm. It’s tough, and you’re nervous at first. But he definitely keeps your mind at peace.”
You can see Smith is in a good place right now, even if it’s not at first base, where Alonso (knock on wood) could be for the next decade. And it’s easy to forget that Smith is still just 24 years old -- more than seven months younger than Alonso. Smith was the No. 11 pick overall in the 2013 draft, but his journey from first-rounder to major-leaguer went sideways more than once. There were health issues before a breakthrough in treating his previously undiagnosed sleep apnea, and Smith went nearly toe-to-toe with Alonso last spring in the first-base competition, hitting .321 (18-for-56) over 19 games.
It always feels like Smith will be traded at some point, but a stress fracture of his left foot limited him to 89 games last year (11 HRs, .282 BA). And while that was supposed to finish him, Smith returned just in time to smack a walk-off homer to beat the Braves in the season finale at Citi Field -- his first plate appearance in more than two months.
I figured bringing that highlight up again Wednesday with Smith would get him to reminisce a bit about his mic-drop moment. But he wasn’t really interested in looking backward. Smith spoke more about the Mets’ disappointment in not reaching the playoffs, and his own efforts trying to get better during the winter.
Those efforts were extensive, too. Back home in Los Angeles, Smith relentlessly worked on his speed and agility, including consulting a physical therapist that helped him strengthen his feet and toes, an existing weakness that he was told led to the stress fracture a year ago. After Smith explained the ladder drills, and other methods of becoming more “explosive,” I mentioned that it sounds like he’s fast now.
“Yeah, I feel fast,” Smith said, smiling. “I mean, I feel fast-er. Let’s just say that.”
Even if the Mets don’t have an everyday plan for Smith, he intends to be as ready as possible as long he wears this uniform. It was Smith who had to prod them to give him outfield reps last season, and Rojas knows it’s good to have another asset that can fill in at multiple positions, like Jeff McNeil, J.D. Davis and Jed Lowrie. The wild card in the Dom equation is the rehab of Yoenis Cespedes, whose availability would then make it even more of a roster crunch.
“Dom’s versatility is so valuable,” Rojas said.
At the very least, it will be interesting to see what the 2020 edition of Dom Smith is capable of doing once the Grapefruit League kicks off. He described so many adjustments and upgrades to his physiology over the previous three months that Smith truly is the best version of himself right now. Between the comfort level in the outfield, a more efficient running stride and a quicker hip turn at the plate, Smith is going to help some team this summer. He prefers it to be the one in Flushing.
“I love the Mets,” Smith said. “I want to be a Met. I love New York. This is all I know. But at the end of the day, you know it’s a business. I just don’t put much thought into it because I can’t control it. If I’m focusing on that, then I can’t put more work into being ready for the season, or being ready for any situation that I’m put into in the future.”
Smith, who once famously overslept the morning of the Grapefruit League opener, has had his wakeup calls. He knows what time it is now.