By Brad Kallet
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The Mets have played just four games so far this spring, but the early story has been the way Michael Conforto has been swinging the bat.READ MORE: NYC Business Owners Worry Vaccine Mandate Will Keep Tourists With Young Children Away: 'Just Hugely Problematic'
In three games this past weekend, the 23-year-old outfielder went 5-for-7 with two homers, three RBIs and three runs scored.
I know, I know. It’s just spring training. The numbers don’t mean anything, right? Don’t tell that to Conforto, who came into camp as the odd man out and is desperately fighting for a spot on Terry Collins’ opening day roster.
After an impressive rookie campaign in 2015 in which he got 30 at-bats in the playoffs and belted three home runs, Conforto took a massive step back last season. In 109 games sandwiched around a stint at Triple-A, the former first-round pick hit just .220.
Now, with Jay Bruce firmly entrenched as the starting right fielder after general manager Sandy Alderson failed to deal him in the offseason, Conforto simply doesn’t have a spot. The outfield is full, and the organization hasn’t shown much of a desire to trot Conforto out at first.
So do the Mets have a Michael Conforto problem? Not yet. But if he continues to rake over the next four weeks, they will. And it will be a good problem to have.
According to WFAN baseball insider Jon Heyman, before Yoenis Cespedes re-signed for four years in the fall, New York considered shipping Conforto to Detroit for right fielder J.D. Martinez. Alderson ultimately thought better of it, and Conforto remained in the awkward position he was still in on the Mets’ depth chart.
So how will this situation untangle itself? It could go in a number of directions.
If the entire outfield, plus Lucas Duda, stays healthy throughout camp, Conforto will likely begin the season with Triple-A Las Vegas, regardless of how well he performs in Port St. Lucie. If he tears the cover off the ball and a healthy Bruce slumps in Florida, Collins could decide to give Conforto the opening day nod. But that’s unlikely considering Bruce’s track record and $13 million salary.READ MORE: Biden And Putin Speak Amid Warnings Of A Possible Second Russian Invasion Of Ukraine
Could Conforto make the team as a fourth outfielder? Doubtful. New York smartly wants him to play every day and get consistent plate appearances, so a bench role doesn’t quite fit into the organization’s long-term plan.
What nobody wants to talk about, especially after last season’s traumatic epidemic, is how injuries can impact the roster. A team can never have enough depth, and should Bruce, Cespedes or Curtis Granderson land on the disabled list, Conforto, who can play all three outfield positions, would immediately slot in as the replacement.
Conforto’s fate is also tied to Duda. The slugger is penciled in as the starting first baseman right now, but a stress fracture in his lower back cost him 115 games in 2016. In the 47 games he appeared in, he hit just .229 with a .302 OBP. Duda needs to stay on the field and prove that he’s still the 30-homer guy that he was in 2014. If he doesn’t, his hold on the job could become tenuous by May.
Duda hasn’t gotten off on the right foot this spring. The 31-year-old received cortisone shots in his hips this past Friday, and he isn’t swinging a bat right now. The veteran expects to be ready to go in a matter of days, but we’ve heard that one before.
Collins isn’t wasting any time preparing for another absence from Duda. Bruce has begun taking grounders at first, and if Duda’s injury lingers, he could see time there in games. Bruce has made it clear that his preference is to stay in right, mainly because it’s his natural position, but also because he wants Duda in the lineup. But he might be forced to make the switch. If Duda struggles mightily, or his back spasms end up more serious than he’s letting on, Bruce’s move to first would open the door for Conforto in the outfield.
If Bruce couldn’t handle the position, or was very reluctant to move to the right side of the infield, David Wright or even Neil Walker would be candidates to replace Duda. In that case, Conforto would again be without a position. There has previously been talk of Conforto seeing reps at first, but neither Alderson nor Collins seem inclined to move him there.
Conforto can’t worry about any of this, of course. All he can do is keep hitting the ball with authority. If he does that, he’ll find his way onto the team, one way or another.
From the Mets’ standpoint, there will be some difficult decisions that need to be made. But make no mistake: The Michael Conforto problem is one that all other 29 teams would like to have.MORE NEWS: 2 Tigers At Pittsburgh Zoo Test Positive For COVID-19
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet