John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Dominic Smith is the feel-good story in Mets' camp, hitting ropes to all fields and so far making the case the Sandy Alderson regime gave up on him too quickly, sticking him in the outfield mostly so Wilmer Flores could play first base.
Meanwhile, Pete Alonso -- not Peter -- is the guy whose at-bats are must-watch moments in Port St. Lucie. He hits the highest, most majestic home runs since Darryl Strawberry was launching moon-scrapers (or hitting the roof in Montreal on occasion) as anticipation builds for the rookie's arrival in New York.
And, just like that, there is unexpected intrigue in the first-base derby for the Mets, with Smith refusing to step aside for the organization's hottest prospect.
Remarkably, there is similar intrigue in Yankee camp surrounding first base, as Luke Voit, last year's postseason darling, tries to prove his hot finish to the season was no fluke, while Greg Bird tries to reclaim the can't-miss label that was attached to him when he landed in the Bronx with a bang, filling in nicely for the injured Mark Teixeira late in the 2015 season.
Like their Mets' counterparts, both Voit and Bird have been impressive early in camp, setting up some position-battle drama to make watching spring training games a little more interesting.
So who wins these battles?
If I had to bet, I'd go with Alonso and Bird, at least partly because each fills a lineup void -- Alonso's right-handed power for the Mets, Bird's lefty pop for the Yankees.
Actually, it's not hard to see both situations turning into something resembling platoon situations.
However, the Mets' focus on youth would leave Todd Frazier as a man without a position, at least in the long run, depending how quickly Jed Lowrie recovers from his knee injury.
And for the Yankees, there is something of an unexpected X-factor, in that Aaron Boone more than once has said he could see newly-acquired D.J. LeMahieu playing some first base as well, as a way of making sure he's in the lineup several times each week.
In that scenario, the righthanded-hitting LeMahieu figures to take more at-bats away from Voit, if Bird continues to hit and manages to avoid more of the injuries that have stunted his career.
In truth, the various injuries, especially to his feet and ankles the last two years, have raised questions about whether Bird will ever be the rising star who hit 11 home runs in 46 games in 2015, and had scouts drooling over what they called "easy power."
He can't be a fluke, right? When Bird was still in the minors Brian Cashman called him "the best hitter in the organization," and the Yankees GM recently said he still has faith the left-handed hitter will "make good" on those early projections.
But at least some major-league scouts seem to wonder.
"His timing was all out of whack after those injuries to his feet," one scout told me in Florida last week. "He was late a lot on the fastball, usually because he wasn't getting his foot down in time as he swung the bat.
"You don't know if something changed because of the injuries, but he didn't look like the same hitter. His timing looks better this spring, and he looks stronger in his legs -- he's put on some weight -- but I need to see more."
Indeed, Bird said he added some 15 pounds in an effort to get stronger, and noted last week he could feel the difference in how he was driving the ball.
"And I'm moving well with the added weight," he said. "As long as I'm doing that, I think it will help me at the plate."
As for Voit, who wowed the Yankees with 14 home runs in 39 games late last season, the aforementioned scout said he would reserve his opinion until he saw whether the young slugger could make adjustments in 2019.
"I think pitchers are going to bust him inside with hard stuff and see if he can handle it," the scout said. "I like his approach, especially at Yankee Stadium, because he looks away, he stays inside the ball and he drives it to the opposite field. But can he do that if pitchers start making him more inside-conscious? I need to see that."
Timing issues aside, the consensus seems to be that Bird is more of a pure hitter where Voit is a self-made slugger who has learned how to use his bench-press muscle to best advantage.
The comparison is similar in Queens, where Smith was selected with the 11th pick of the 2013 draft because he was considered the best pure high school hitter in that draft class. And he hit .300 throughout the minors, but got seduced into trying to hit for more power when he was called up by the late in 2017, and paid a price that carried into last season as well.
"I'm back to trusting my ability and trying to use the whole field," he said in Port St. Lucie last week. "I've felt more like my old self this spring."
He's hitting a smooth .500 ( 10-for-20) after getting two more hits on Monday, but Alonso is keeping pace, hitting .411 (7-for-17) with two doubles and two home runs.
"The power makes (Alonso) the better prospect," a National League scout said recently. "He's a big guy who can launch with anybody when he gets those arms extended. The trick in evaluating him in spring training is that he'll get more pitches to hit down here.
"When the season starts they'll crowd him and see if he can handle the fastball in, and then they'll go away with soft stuff. They tried pitching him that way in the minors, and he had a good approach, waiting for pitches he could handle, but it's harder to do that in the big leagues."
It will be fascinating to watch on both sides of town. The Yankees are hoping Bird can give them the lefty power to complement Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton & Co., and the Mets are hoping Alonso can take their offense to another level with the righthanded pop they desperately need.
So far, so good. Just don't count out the competition quite yet.