By Brad Kallet
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On Dec. 16, 2012, the Mets traded Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays for a package that included top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud and a promising right-hander named Noah Syndergaard.
At the time, you might remember, Syndergaard was regarded as a very solid throw-in in that deal. The real prize was d’Arnaud, who, according to MLB.com, was billed as the 11th-best prospect in baseball.
Oh, how things change. Fast forward four quick years and Syndergaard is the undisputed ace of the Mets’ pitching staff, not to mention one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball. D’Arnaud, on the other hand, well, d’Arnaud has been nothing more than a borderline starter and below-average catcher.
Next season could end up being a make-or-break campaign for d’Arnaud, who will turn 28 during spring training. No longer a prospect and no longer a kid, the veteran catcher is entering what should be his prime, and all he has to show for it is a .245 lifetime average, 30 career home runs and a .230 caught-stealing percentage. He’s never played more than 108 games, never hit better than .268 and never belted more than 13 home runs in a season.
I don’t know about you, but I’m about to wave the white flag and officially call the Californian a bust.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, however, apparently isn’t.
According to the New York Daily News’ Kristie Ackert, the Mets don’t intend to make a significant upgrade at the position this offseason. D’Arnaud is expected to have an opportunity to win the job in spring training, Ackert reported, and he’ll likely even be given leeway during the season if he struggles out of the gate.
“We definitely need improvement in that area,” Alderson said in regard to the catcher position earlier this month, according to Newsday. “Can it come from what we have? We think so.”
So unless Alderson is bluffing, or a catcher falls into his lap at an incredible value, we’ll most likely see, at least initially, a platoon of d’Arnaud and Rene Rivera, with Kevin Plawecki backing them up, behind the plate.
We know that Alderson isn’t fully committed to d’Arnaud. After all, he dangled him at the trade deadline this past July, reportedly offering him to the Brewers in an attempted coup to get Jonathan Lucroy. No trade came to fruition, and d’Arnaud followed a .282 August with a homer-less .209 September.
Rivera, initially a bench player, became Syndergaard’s personal catcher before ultimately splitting time with d’Arnaud. The season couldn’t have ended much worse for the 27-year-old.
I can’t blame Alderson for giving d’Arnaud another chance. He showed plenty of promise in an injury-shortened 2015, there’s clearly still talent there and the majority of clubs get limited production from their catchers. Could he hit .270 with 25 home runs in a full season? I used to think so, but I’ve started to lose both patience and faith. (On top of his long swing, d’Arnaud also has serious trouble staying healthy, which remains a concern.)
With so few quality offensive catchers in the big leagues, and no slam-dunk free agents on the market — are Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters worth $40 million-$50 million? — it makes sense to give d’Arnaud another shot, especially considering he’s projected to make up to $2 million after arbitration in 2017. And, while I’m at it, kudos to Alderson for smartly resisting any temptation he might have had to trade for Brian McCann.
“For me, that belief comes from the inside,” d’Arnaud told Newsday of his desire to improve next season. “I just have to accept what happened last year. It happened. That year is over with. All I can do is work harder, train harder, study harder.”
Fair enough. He’s right. The past is in the past, and all he can do is move forward. But the cold, hard truth is that he’s lost the benefit of the doubt, and really can’t afford to take another mulligan.
D’Arnaud has to play a full season in 2017. He needs to hit for both power and average, keep baserunners honest and become more than just a platoon player who lives in the lower third of the lineup. He needs to show, once and for all, why he was a first-round pick, why he was a top prospect, why he was traded for two Cy Young Award winners (the other being Roy Halladay).
In short, he needs to be better. Period. The honeymoon period is entering its final stage, if it’s not already over.
If d’Arnaud doesn’t meet expectations in 2017, Alderson will have no choice but to rightfully move in a different direction.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet