While it is probably not a surprise that Mets catching prospect Kevin Plawecki's debut comes as a result of a Travis d'Arnaud injury, the timing is less than ideal. The Mets have the best record in the National League, and d'Arnaud appeared to be in the midst of a breakout season before taking a fastball of his hand on Sunday. Plawecki will be asked to step into a lineup down two of its better hitters and to handle a pitching staff he is mostly unfamiliar with. So what can Mets fans expect from Amazin' Avenue's #5 prospect?
Plawecki probably has the best hit tool in the Mets system right now, which is a nice feature to have in your catching prospect. He has a quick, compact swing and is strong enough to handle major-league-quality velocity without issue. While he is more aggressive at the plate than I've seen generally acknowledged, overall he controls the strike zone well.
Since a mediocre Penn League debut after a long college season, Plawecki hasn't hit under .280 at any of his full-season ball stops. Now, hitting .280 in the majors is no small feat anymore—only 48 qualified hitters bested that mark in 2014—so if Plawecki can manage that, the drop-off from d'Arnaud will be much less noticeable. That may be a lofty goal, but Plawecki should nevertheless be around an average hitter (.260) right away.
Power has always been a concern with Plawecki. He is a strong kid, but the swing plane is pretty flat. He should drive his fair share of doubles into the gap, and run into 10 home runs or so across a full season, but he doesn't have close to d'Arnaud's power. Still, you'll gladly take that power output from your everyday catcher.
I think there is a perception that Plawecki is going to be more of an on-base guy than he actually will be. There are likely a couple reasons for this. For starters, the Mets have recently focused on players that can control the strike zone with their early-round position-player picks. Plawecki posted excellent strikeout-to-walk numbers in college, but that was due as much or mostly to his strong contact ability than any sort of patient approach. He's not Brandon Nimmo, or even Michael Conforto up there; as I mentioned above, the dude likes to swing.
Also, Plawecki did post around average walk rates in his minor league stops, but I don't think that is indicative of a strong major league walk rate. Walk rates at lower levels are higher in general, since you see far more arms with below-average command/control profiles. He's not a free swinger in the Juan Lagares mold, but I don't see much more than an average on-base percentage guy.
The narrative around Plawecki's defense shifted this past offseason. When he was drafted out of Purdue in 2012, most of the reports had him as a bat-first catcher that would need to work on his defense. Even after the 2013 season, Baseball America mentioned sources that thought he might have to move off the position. But after last year, the consensus seemed to shift to his being an average defensive backstop, maybe even a tick above.
His receiving has improved since my first look at him in Brooklyn. He manages the game and his pitchers well. I have noticed that the pitch sequencing with him behind the plate has been better than his peers in the system, but it is difficult to assign credit for that without knowing who is really calling the game. Plawecki is a large-framed catcher and can be a bit stiff when blocking balls in the dirt, but that is less of a concern to me than his arm.
It's something of an adage that catcher throwing is the easiest skill to measure and the least important one in the defensive profile. That is true up to a point, but you do have to be able to dissuade the more marginal runners from taking off. The good basestealers are going to get their swipes, but if the league realizes you are Victor Martinez, you have a problem. Plawecki's arm isn't that bad, but it is below-average. I've noticed that he is too often slow to transfer and trigger on the throws, and he will miss high and into the runner, like a pitcher struggling to finish his delivery.
Plawecki is on the larger side for catchers, and it takes some time for him to get everything moving. In the low minors, this wasn't a huge issue, as teams do things like straight steal with Dominic Smith on occasion. But like any other baseball skill, the runners get better as you move up the ranks. In 2014, Plawecki allowed 62 steals in 94 games while throwing out only 23% of runners. A catcher's throwing reputation gets out fast in the majors, and I expect teams will force Plawecki to prove he can make his throws. The arm isn't so bad that I can't see him sticking at catcher, but it is a limiting factor for his defensive ceiling. And if you believe in the short-sample strides that d'Arnaud appears to have made in his defensive game, Plawecki becomes a noticeable downgrade with the glove.
What to expect
Outside of perhaps Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Plawecki is the most major-league-ready Mets prospect. As I wrote in his prospect list blurb from February, on many other teams he would have gone into spring training with a chance to win a job out of camp. Now he is tasked with replacing one of the lineup's better hitters.
Predicting a batting line for eight weeks is a bit foolhardy, especially given how batting-average dependent Plawecki's profile is, but hey, I can't miss worse than last year's Jacob deGrom projection. I expect close to league-average production with the bat out of the gate, something in the .260/.320/.380 range, and serviceable if below-average defense behind the plate.