PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The Mets’ offseason solution to Travis d’Arnaud’s defensive issues was to hire Glenn Sherlock, a catching instructor, rather than pursue an upgrade at the position. But now, after that leap of faith, they find themselves working without a net as the regular season looms.
Relying on Sherlock to fix d’Arnaud’s defense and hitting coach Kevin Long to repair his swing sounded like a great plan in mid-February. There was plenty of talk about the offseason meetings between d’Arnaud and those two coaches, the video sessions, and we bought in. At 28, d’Arnaud isn’t really a kid anymore, but he had shown enough promise, in small batches, to make him seem worth the risk.
With Opening Day in sight, however, d’Arnaud’s Grapefruit League performance has not exactly calmed the Mets’ fears about their catching situation, which looms as the most glaring weakness on the roster. Friday didn’t help. The Astros ran wild on the doomed pairing of d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, swiping four bases to drop d’Arnaud to 0-for-12 in his attempts to throw runners out. The one he is credited with on the stat sheet actually should go to Steven Matz, who picked off the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham headed for second.
Don’t worry. You won’t be seeing Syndergaard and d’Arnaud together again anytime soon. With Syndergaard being a few ticks slow to the plate and d’Arnaud’s ball-transfer troubles, they go together about as well as Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly at a cocktail party. Even Terry Collins, in the process of defending d’Arnaud on Friday, basically said Rene Rivera will be behind the plate for Syndergaard on Opening Day.
There’s no use pretending. That combo doesn’t work. But the Mets still need d’Arnaud to get up to speed for the other four guys, and the jury’s still out on what they can count on from him.
The company line remains how the Mets are willing to overlook the defensive shortcomings as long as d’Arnaud can resemble the catcher who hit 12 homers with an .825 OPS in 67 games in 2015. He is hitting .325 (13-for-40) with two homers and a .550 slugging percentage in 17 Grapefruit League games.
“That’s the big factor,” Collins said. “If he’s hitting homers and driving in runs, we’ll forget all about that other stuff. Right now, [defense] is the focus, and I understand that. But if he gets it going offensively, he’s going to play a lot of games.”
And if not, the Mets don’t have much in the way of alternatives. Last season, they signed Rivera to a minor-league deal in April after the Rays released him. He hit .222 for the Mets but saved them by being a capable backstop. Kevin Plawecki, a former first-round pick in 2012, hasn’t exactly panned out. And the Mets don’t have their own Gary Sanchez waiting somewhere in the system. Sandy Alderson, who digs the long ball, doesn’t want the equivalent of another pitcher batting in the Mets’ lineup, so it seems like d’Arnaud or Bust for now.
Alderson could have gone another route. Despite nursing a surgically repaired knee that will keep him out until June, Wilson Ramos signed a reasonable two-year contract with the Rays in December that guarantees him $12 million. A month ago, Matt Wieters got a two-year, $21-million deal from the Nationals. And Friday, as the Astros were dashing around First Data Field like golden retrievers, the Rays grabbed the last of the free-agent catchers, Derek Norris, on a one-year deal worth $1 million.
Those were options, but the Mets didn’t earmark any money for the catching position in the offseason. They made a $110-million investment in Yoenis Cespedes, reached into their pockets to bring back Jerry Blevins and Fernando Salas, then figured they’d roll the dice on d’Arnaud by making him a project for Sherlock and Long.
To be fair, there has been incremental progress. We’re not about to label the d’Arnaud gambit a failure before the Mets even reach Opening Day. That’s an overreaction. As for how long the leash should be if d’Arnaud stumbles, that’s difficult to determine, because the Mets want to give him every chance to succeed.
“It’s about doing the work,” d’Arnaud said. “Whatever needs to be done.”
The Mets would prefer he accomplishes that.