It has been 10 years since Travis d'Arnaud first appeared on a top prospect list in baseball.
He'll enter this season 29 years old and, again, his team's starting catcher. However, despite 11 seasons in professional baseball, he has played just 393 big league games behind the plate.
In 2016, talking specifically about d'Arnaud, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza told me it is not always easy for a catcher to reach his potential during his early-to-mid 20s. More realistically, he said, catchers tend to need until their late 20s, early 30s before finding a successful routine and establishing their own game.
"It can be difficult for a young catcher to know how to manage everything on his plate, especially someone that is a top prospect with pressure coming to camp as the everyday guy," Piazza explained to me in the dugout at First Data Field. "He has so many new and different things being thrown at him each spring, he doesn't have a lot of time to focus on his own game."
Feb. 2016: Mike Piazza at Mets camp in St. Lucie. Credit: Matthew Cerrone, SNY
By comparison, Piazza said, other position players typically spend all of spring training focusing on their own needs, such as their batting stance, their fielding and their health and conditioning. On the other hand, the catcher has to re-learn everyone on his pitching staff, work on game calling, do oppositional research with the pitching coach, and do countless other unique tasks.
"I know how stressful it is to be a catcher," Mets manager Mickey Callaway explained this past weekend. "I sat next to catchers the last five years and constantly talked to them about what they need to do on a daily basis and it is a lot."
In Piazza's experience, it often takes a young catcher several spring trainings before the above becomes routine and automatic and a point of confidence, only after which can he put the needed time and energy in to improving his own game.
"I had a staff that would kick my butt if I went out there after I grounded into a double play and I wasn't focused on calling the game," Piazza said this past Saturday, when talking about game preparation.
In what was his fifth season, D'Arnaud, 28, hit just .244 with 35 extra base hits last year. However, during the team's final 32 games, he batted .293 with a .343 OBP, six HR, eight doubles and 20 RBI.
D'Arnaud being 29 years old creates a further sense of urgency for him to meet expectations. He has yet to play 100 games in back-to-back seasons with at least a 2.0 WAR.
For what it's worth, Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy, and Matt Wieters were all 26 and 27 years old when they attained that level of consistent, elite success.
D'Arnaud entered his age-27 season with just 206 big-league games played behind the plate, whereas Lucroy had already played more than 300 and Wieters and Molina were well over 500.
If anything has stunted d'Arnaud's timeline it is that he has missed hundreds of games due to three concussions, season-ending back surgery for a herniated disk, a torn ligament in his thumb, a torn ligament in his knee, a chipped a bone in his elbow, a hyperextended elbow, a strained rotator cuff, and a bone bruise on his wrist suffered from an opposing hitter's backswing.
This means, instead of developing a routine or even working on his swing, fielding, etc., he has also spent a disproportionate amount of time off field in rehab, exam rooms, and traveling between MRI machines.
As a result, the ship may have already sailed on d'Arnaud being a 100-game catcher with a 2.0 WAR. Because, according to his manager, as well as multiple off-season reports, he and backup Kevin Plawecki are expected to split time as the organization's everyday catchers this season instead of one person getting the bulk of starts and at-bats.
"The good part about our catchers is they both can hit," Callaway said last week. "That's going to allow us to use their strengths against whoever is pitching that day. Two very good catchers that can get the job done and our pitchers trust both of them."
The Mets reportedly talked with free-agent Jonathan Lucroy during December and January, but, from what I can gather, though they've continued to keep in contact with his representatives, it's unlikely a deal can or will be worked out before Opening Day.
According to projections from FanGraphs, d'Arnaud and Plawecki can be expected to be combine for 2.3 WAR across 160 games this season, which is exactly what they project for Lucroy. However, they put that number for Lucroy when playing just 99 games.
I'm sure if Sandy Alderson had a crystal ball and knew d'Arnaud could play a full, injury-free season, the Mets would hang up with Lucroy, make Plawecki the backup and be totally content going in to camp with Travis as their everyday guy. But, they don't have a crystal ball. And, the only safe bet is that someone will get hurt or slump, and so creating a backstop platoon is the best way to prepare for the grind of a pivotal season.
"I think we're very underestimated," Plawecki recently told SNY.TV contributor Anthony McCarron. "I know we're very confident with what we can do."
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!