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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets making error not starting Dominic Smith at first

Repeatedly using Wilmer Flores at first, at the expense of Smith's continuing education, just doesn't compute.

Mets leftfielder Dominic Smith waits for a pitch

Mets leftfielder Dominic Smith waits for a pitch during the second inning against the Rays in a game at Citi Field on July 8. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Dominic Smith said he wasn’t surprised that his name was missing from Tuesday’s Mets lineup, but I was. The Giants were starting Chris Stratton, a righthanded pitcher, and after Smith’s game-losing collision the previous night with Amed Rosario -- while playing leftfield -- there seemed to be an obvious benefit to immediately returning him to first base, where the 23-year-old could maybe patch up his dented confidence.

Apparently not.

The Mets have led us to believe that we’ve entered the evaluation period of this lost season, to see who should stick for 2019 and beyond. Jeff McNeil, who sat (against Derek Holland) Monday in favor of Jose Reyes, returned with four hits in Tuesday’s 6-3 victory and delivered the tiebreaking double with two outs in the eighth -- off a lefty reliever, no less.

Despite all this supposed info-gathering, however, Wilmer Flores started at first base Tuesday rather than Smith, with Reyes camped at third. I’m not going to wade back into the Reyes swamp. There’s no point anymore.

 But repeatedly using Flores at first, at Smith’s expense, just doesn’t compute. The Mets have had Flores for six years, a total of 561 games, and that’s more than enough time to calculate that he’s a helpful bench bat with a very limited glove. Another 500 games at first base isn’t going to turn him into Keith Hernandez. Or so we thought.

“This is an opportune time to get him extended periods of playing time, because you never know what’s going to happen next year,” Mickey Callaway said. “We’re in a spot right now where he has to start every day, and we could be in that spot again next year.”

Seriously? As long as Smith is around, they don’t have to start Flores. And Flores as a potential everyday first baseman again in 2019 is not a scenario Callaway should be saying out loud. Flores is who he is. A career .263 hitter with a .770 OPS that has displayed a flair for the dramatic. 

But the jerking around of Smith in the name of “versatility” isn’t doing him or the Mets any good. In case you’ve forgotten, Smith was the 11th pick overall in the 2013 draft, and he’s still relatively young. It’s way too early to rubber-stamp him a failed prospect.

There have been issues, sure. Smith has struggled with his weight, and showing up late for the pregame meeting before this year’s Grapefruit League opener -- causing him to be benched -- was a major screw-up. The subsequent quad injury further derailed him, and he’s regressed this season at Triple-A Las Vegas, batting .255 with six homers and .718 OPS in 78 games. 

It probably didn’t help that the Mets bumped him to the outfield back in May, and Smith smiled uncomfortably Tuesday when asked if he carried the pressures of the new position switch to the plate with him. Everyone got to see how well that’s been going when he crashed into Rosario Monday night. 

“When you’re a young guy playing up here, you don’t want to mess up, you don’t want to make a mistake,” Smith said Tuesday. “They’ve heard what you can do, but they haven’t seen it yet. I want to show them that I can do this.”

The Mets don’t seem willing to give him the opportunity. Smith was displaced at first base in Vegas by the promotion of Peter Alonso, a prolific run-producer in the minors (30 HRs, .941 OPS) that  can’t really field the position. Up at Citi, where Smith is now the only real first baseman, he’s still getting passed over. 

“We’re going to find spots for him when it makes sense,” Callaway said. “Just being able to play in the outfield helps us out. It helps him out, and gives us a better chance to win, in my opinion.”

 Smith’s inexperience in leftfield nearly concussed Rosario Monday night and also cost the Mets the game, so the evidence suggests otherwise. It’s great to have the flexibility afforded by multi-purpose players, but the Mets have historically displayed a masochistic fascination of forcing square pegs into round holes.

 Callaway did say that Smith would get the start at first base Wednesday - to give Flores a blow -- so I relayed the info to him at the bat rack during BP. He hadn’t heard yet, but seemed relieved. “Guess I should take some ground balls then,” Smith said.

 Hard to imagine why things haven’t been working out.

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