During the summer of 2017, Mets 1B Dominic Smith was considered the top first base prospect in the minors. He was promoted to the Mets a few weeks later, at which point he was widely considered to be their long-term, future first baseman.
He struggled at the plate and in the field and was later called out in public for his preparation and eating habits by then-GM Sandy Alderson. In response, Smith changed his diet, trimmed down, and returned to Triple-A in hopes of regaining the trust of the organization.
Thanks to Alderson's remarks, Smith, 23, entered 2019 much like he entered 2018, questioning whether he had any sort of future in the big leagues.
It didn't help that as he struggled to find his way, Pete Alonso emerged in Double-A to be a dominant power hitter and an increasing threat to Smith's questionable future. Before long, Smith was joined in Triple-A by Alonso, who quickly took his position.
In response, the Mets returned Smith to the 25-man roster, but threw him in left field to see if he could handle playing a different position. Unfortunately for him, Smith looked awkward and hesitant, which further stunted his development in the batter's box -- where he hit just .224 with 16 extra base hits in 56 games, while striking out an alarming 32 percent of the time.
As a result, Alonso, who is actually one year older than Smith, has become the team's Golden Boy, talk of spring training, elite first base prospect and obvious choice to take hold of the position at some point this season -- if not as soon as Opening Day. It also doesn't help Smith that as he's projected by FanGraphs to have another down season at the plate, Alonso is projected to hit at least 20 home runs and contend for the NL's Rookie of the Year...
However, despite all of the above, according to Tim Healey of Newsday, Van Wagenen met this past winter with Smith to tell him the team still believes in him and that he should leave his outfield glove at home. Because, with or without Alonso on the field, Smith would only need his first baseman's mitt this spring.
"That's all I needed to hear," Smith told Healey, who reports other members from the front office have extended to him a similar vote of confidence. "They don't have to let you know that, but for them to be open with me was awesome."
Smith has responded by looking much better in the field, while hitting an eye-opening .349 with a .404 OBP, though it's worth noting he has just two hits during his most recent 13 at-bats.
He credits his productive spring to a sleep mask he was prescribed to combat chronic sleep apnea, as well as a change in his workout routine, which is based more on yoga than weights.
"I felt healthy and really athletic last spring, but I wasn't used to being so light on my feet," he told me during a quick conversation in February. "I feel more balanced and more alert and more prepared for the ups and down of a long season."
Of course, just as Smith is feeling better and showing signs of returning to being the top prospect he was, Alonso leads the team this spring in, doubles and RBI, is second on the team with four homers, and has an OPS of 1.034.
The big-league door is still slightly open for Smith, though.
In his talk with reporters Wednesday, Callaway suggested it's increasingly likely that both Smith and Alonso will be on the Opening Day roster. Jeff McNeil, who was slated to start the season in left field, will instead be needed at third base in place of injured infielders Todd Frazier and Jed Lowrie.
If that happens, though, Callaway said Smith and Alonso will not be in a straight platoon.
What will the other do? My hunch is Alonso will get first base, while Smith is returned the outfield because McNeil will be at third. By doing it this way, it allows the more powerful Alonso the chance to permanently plant his flag at first, while giving Smith a unique opportunity to prove his value as an infield-outfield utility guy and defensive replacement at first base.
Then, when Frazier and Lowrie are ready to be activated, which is assumed to be mid-to-late April, Van Wagenen and Callaway will have plot points on Smith, McNeil and Alonso and can make an informed decision about what's best for everyone involved.
The thing is, if Alonso sticks and Smith is demoted, which I believe will be the likely conclusion to the above, then what? Does Smith go back to playing first base in Triple-A, while knowing Alonso is mashing at Citi Field and locking himself in for the long haul? Or, is Smith forced to keep working in left field, a position he is clearly not meant to play?
In left field he'd be getting a chance to increase his value to the Mets, but at first base he can increase his value in a trade for later this summer. Of course, if no one wants him, he will have wasted development time in left field, while adding yet another digit to his age.
The point is, there is currently no clear path for Dominic Smith, who less than 18 months ago was being praised for his patience at the plate, slick fielding and infectious personality. He's down, but not out, though. Smith grew up with separated parents and six siblings in a southwestern section of Los Angeles with a failing school system and high unemployment and crime rates. Yet he all the while stayed straight, focused on and excelled at baseball, got himself into USC and drafted by the Mets, who gave him a $2.6 million signing bonus.
The day after he was drafted, I talked with his former high school coach, Wil Aaron, who compared Smith to a cougar, which is a big cat known for its quiet aggressiveness, ability to adapt and attack any type of prey. This is how Aaron viewed Smith, who he predicted would always adjust and succeed despite first struggling with any new challenge.
"He may seem slick and look careless with that smile and natural talent. But don't be fooled, the boy is tough, he's a fighter. Give the young man time, he'll figure it out because that's who he is and it's who he'll always be," Aaron said with a confidence and enthusiasm.
Aaron had been right up until the moment Smith elevated to the major leagues, after which he was shamed by his GM, lost his swing, lost his slickness in the field, struggled at the plate, made drastic changes to his diet and sleep habits and, most devastatingly, lost his position.
The way I see it, though, given his history, it's only a matter of time before the still-just 23-year-old Smith reads the field in front of him, adapts and finds his way back to being the player most all of baseball believed he could be.
"Smith continues to show outstanding defensive ability at first, with very good footwork and excellent hands," MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo wrote just before Smith made his big-league debut.
MLB.com, ESPN.com's Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus similarly praised Smith at the time, ranking him at the top of their respective list of promising infield prospects.
"He is an extraordinarily disciplined, calm hitter, showing an advanced two-strike approach and willingness to use the whole field," Law said.
I don't know where he'll be playing in 2019 or beyond, be it his position or team, but I truly believe the young man is still capable of finding success. He may not become Rafeal Palmeiro or Will Clark, which is who Mets executives compared him the night he was drafted in 2013. But, I see and hear a now very self aware 23-year-old, who better understands his strengths and weaknesses and has learned from his experiences.
Smith has a history of slow starts followed by forward progress and proving people wrong, which is why I still believe in him. And, when all is said and done, I think he'll find a way to help the Mets win in 2019, regardless of what Alonso does or doesn't do in the big leagues.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!