By Ernie Palladino
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If you’re Noah Syndergaard or Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom, or anyone on the Mets’ pitching staff for that matter, you probably couldn’t wait to report to Port St. Lucie on Sunday.
Just getting there means an official start to what the Mets’ strength hopes will end with baseball deep into October. The pitchers have good reason to look to Tuesday’s first workouts with great anticipation.
For one veteran at the other end of the battery, however, there’s all that and an added case of caution. When Travis d’Arnaud straps up for Tuesday’s first workout, he’ll do so knowing he has begun his last chance at becoming Terry Collins’ permanent backstop.
To say he needs a breakout season is an understatement.
He’s still No. 1 on the depth chart, ahead of Rene Rivera and Kevin Plawecki. But the question hanging over d’Arnaud involves how long the Mets can wait for the erratic-hitting and injury-plagued 28-year-old to become a legitimate, consistent hitting force for a team historically short on run production.
Not that they need him to be the home run machine Gary Sanchez was to the Yankees over the last 53 games of 2016. But they need far more from d’Arnaud than the easy out and shaky defense they’ve gotten from him over the past couple of years.
The preference, of course, is that he has a breakout season and cements himself in the lineup ahead of Rivera, if only because Rivera is 33 years old. Still, Rivera compiled better stats than d’Arnaud last year, as a shoulder injury limited the younger player to 75 games. d’Arnaud struck out 50 times in 251 at-bats, hit just four homers, knocked in 15 runs, and threw out only 22 percent of base runners.
The starting pitchers also became quite comfortable with how Rivera called their games. So, in a season where Harvey’s confidence and production needs a critical rebuild after a rocky and surgery-curtailed 2016, and the rest of what was a banged-up rotation needs a wise handler behind the plate, d’Arnaud has plenty of groundwork to lay the next couple of months.
To his credit, he started the process early in the offseason. Working with new catching coach Glenn Sherlock in both Scottsdale and Los Angeles, d’Arnaud addressed the mechanical problems with his throw. He also spent time with hitting coach Kevin Long to shorten up what had been an unwieldy long swing that resulted in a multitude of key strikeouts.
According to The Post, the Mets hired Sherlock away from the Diamondbacks specifically to help d’Arnaud. That’s how much the Mets want d’Arnaud to succeed. After all, he was one of the two star prospects — Syndergaard was the other — in the 2012 trade that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto.
So far, they have only seen glimpses of the power d’Arnaud’s potential promised. He hit 25 homers and drove in 82 runs in 175 games between 2014 and a 2015 shortened by a broken hand and sprained elbow. But Sandy Alderson apparently had enough faith in d’Arnaud this offseason to pass up a run at Orioles free agent Matt Wieters.
If he has indeed fixed his swing problems, he should find it easier to make better pitch decisions behind the plate. The pitchers preferred how Rivera and Plawecki called games. Even d’Arnaud admitted that his hitting problems played into his thinking behind the plate. His reluctance to have his pitchers work inside left them vulnerable because batters knew they would pitch away.
The Mets don’t need d’Arnaud to turn into a Silver Slugger catcher. But they do need him to become a solid presence offensively and defensively. Production similar to his 2014 numbers — .242, 13 homers, 41 RBI — would be fine.
If he can’t do that, Rivera is poised to take his place.
And d’Arnaud could well find himself on the trading block next year as Alderson searches for a permanent backstop.
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