By Brad Kallet
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With Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Mets clearly have a glaring hole at shortstop.
After a disastrous 2013 in which Ruben Tejada batted .202 with no homers, 10 RBIs and a .259 on-base percentage — and committed eight errors in 55 games, for good measure — the 24-year-old has been miserable this spring as he attempts to prove himself to the organization.
So far, no good.
Tejada has embarrassed himself in spring training, looking worse than ever. He’s 3-for-25 with six strikeouts and has made four errors in just nine games.
So yes, the Mets need a competent shortstop who can at least hit his weight and field his position. It’s a significant issue, and New York won’t come close to sniffing 90 wins — ha, 90 wins — with Tejada up the middle.
But what’s far more irksome — big-picture wise — is the lack of productivity at first base. Yes, Ike Davis’ struggles are even more disappointing than Tejada’s.
Let’s face it: We never expected much from Tejada. Sure, he hit .284 and .289 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and was relatively sure-handed in the field. It appeared that he would grow into a serviceable major-league player, but you could see from a mile away that there was no great talent there. This was no Jose Reyes. He didn’t show great range, couldn’t run much, had no power and didn’t put many balls in the gaps. At his peak, he was a solid line-drive singles hitter.
Davis, on the other hand, now that’s a different story.
Selected in the first round –18th overall — by the Mets in the 2008 MLB Draft, Davis was a highly touted prospect from the get-go. At the time he was chosen, Baseball America listed him as the third-best college power hitter in the draft. The son of a former big leaguer, the tall lefty projected to be a fearsome slugger who complemented his offensive prowess with a Keith Hernandez-like glove at first base.
Ever since being called up to the big leagues in 2010, the 26-year-old has shown glimpses of superstardom, but he’s never been able to stay hot — or even lukewarm — consistently.
Davis’ freshman campaign was the best of his career, when he hit .264 with 19 home runs, 71 RBIs, 33 doubles and a .351 on-base percentage. He also shined in the field, making highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play and only committing nine errors in 146 games.
After that season, it appeared settled. It looked as if the Mets had a core piece, a slugging first baseman with Gold Glove ability who would be a middle-of-the-lineup presence and a terror for National League pitchers for years to come.
Davis’ momentum carried into 2011, but it only lasted so long. The Arizona State product started off the season scorching hot, batting .302 with seven home runs, 25 RBIs and a .383 OBP in 129 at-bats. But on May 10, in a freak accident, Davis collided with David Wright while attempting to catch a popup near the pitcher’s mound. Davis rolled his ankle, but the injury didn’t appear to be serious.
It turns out it was. Davis never played another game after the collision, as his season shockingly ended prematurely.
From there, it was all downhill. Davis never got his groove back. He started off 2012 miserably, to the point where he consistently killed rallies batting in the middle of the lineup and you almost expected him to strike out every at-bat. He found his power stroke in the second half of the season — belting 20 homers after the All-Star break to finish with 32 — but ended up hitting just .227 with 141 strikeouts and a .308 on-base percentage in 156 games.
Davis was expected to rebound from his subpar campaign in 2013 — after all, he was coming off an injury-plagued season in 2012 — but he continued to look lost at the plate.
Davis struggled mightily yet again in the first half of 2013. The difference? He never turned it around. His poor play earned him a demotion to Triple-A Las Vegas, and his final stat line was an ugly .205 batting average with just nine home runs and 33 RBIs in 103 games. He continued to swing and miss at an alarming rate, striking out 101 times in 317 at-bats.
Fast forward to the present.
General manager Sandy Alderson attempted to deal the Minnesota native throughout the offseason — and is reportedly still trying to do so — and Davis complained when a reporter revealed that he concealed an injury last year. Meanwhile, his father called out the Mets for the public trade speculation surrounding his son.
Because of Davis’ slow starts the past two seasons, the Mets wanted to get him a ton of at-bats in camp to get the kinks out ahead of March 31.
How’d that work out? Davis, nursing a calf injury, has had just six — SIX — at-bats down in Florida. He’s struck out in three of those at-bats. Projected to be the Opening Day starter, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be ready to go for the start of the season.
So there you have it. Instead of having a young slugger to complement Wright for years to come, the Mets have a contact-challenged, undependable liability who is fragile — both mentally and physically. He’s cost New York countless games in the past, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue costing them games moving forward. At one point you could argue that Davis had the potential to be a combination of Joey Votto and Hernandez. If you said that now, you’d deservedly get laughed out of the room.
At this point, it’s debatable whether or not he’s good enough to start for any of the 30 major-league clubs.
Oh, and for a cash-strapped franchise like the Mets, his contract should be a bargain. Instead, it’s a burden. The Mets have had the unenviable task of having to fill many holes over the years — and they still have many to fill — but first base wasn’t supposed to be one of them, and that’s debilitating for this franchise.
What’s the solution now? Unless Davis miraculously returns to form, Alderson has four options, none of which is optimal. He can trade Davis for virtually nothing just to get rid of him — and get something, anything in return — he can trade one of the Mets’ coveted young arms for a promising bat or he can spend big bucks on a free agent next offseason. The least realistic choice is to mix and match until 18-year-old Dominic Smith gets the call to Queens. That will be a long, long time from now.
Davis wasn’t supposed to be the problem. He was supposed to be part of the solution. And the fact that he hasn’t been — and likely never will be — is nothing short of crippling.
Brad Kallet is an editor and columnist for CBSNewYork.com. He has written for TENNIS.com, MLB.com and SMASH Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet.
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