The Mets went into spring training last season with veteran Adrian Gonzalez and former first-round draft pick Dominic Smith fighting for the starting first baseman role, and there was every reason to be optimistic about the latter’s potential to win the job. He hadn’t impressed too much in his limited major league action in 2017, but he was still a young player with a lot of upside, and he impressed many by coming into camp in noticeably improved physical shape. There was a clear opening for Smith to establish himself as a player who would hold down the first baseman job for the Mets not just in 2018, but for years to come.
Alas, that is not how things played out. Smith immediately got off on the wrong foot by being late to a team meeting which resulted in him being benched, and he suffered another major blow when he suffered a quad injury which incapacitated him for the majority of the spring. These factors essentially ended the competition between him and Gonzalez before it even began, as the latter wound up being the starting first baseman on opening day. Smith did eventually get the chance to play in the major leagues once the Gonzalez experiment ended, but he once again failed to establish himself as a credible And now, just one year after he had the opportunity to earn an everyday role on the big league club, Smith finds himself in no man’s land, as he is fairly low on the organizational depth chart and it is hard to envision the path to him getting an extended opportunity to prove that he is capable of more than what he’s demonstrated up to this point.
The concern with Smith has always been about his ability to hit for the kind of power that one would typically expect from a starting first baseman; scouts were generally more confident about his potential to get on base on a decent rate and to play above-average defense. Yet in both 2017 and 2018, his power production in his major league stints was actually pretty solid, as he produced a well above-average .197 ISO and 14 homers in 332 plate appearances between the two seasons. But his overall offensive numbers in the majors are still below-average (84 wRC+), as he has struggled to get on base (.259 OBP and a 5.4 BB%) and make contact with the ball (28.9 K%). All of those stats deviate sharply from the kind of numbers he has put up in the minor leagues over the past few years, though it is worth noting that his 2018 season was just as unimpressive in Las Vegas as it was in Queens, as he only managed an 87 wRC+ in Triple A. Given all of these factors, it certainly would not have made sense for the Mets to build their team with the mindset that Smith would be a contributor to it, as he has yet to do anything to give them any confidence in his ability to be an adequate major league player.
The biggest roadblock to Smith getting another opportunity may not be his own uninspiring past performance, though, but rather the performances of those around him. Pete Alonso’s monster 2018 season pretty decisively leapfrogged him over Smith on the organizational depth chart at first base, and while he’ll still need to prove that he can handle major league pitching, there is every indication that the Mets are eager to give him that chance this year. And even if Alonso were to play poorly or get injured, the team arguably has a greater level of positional versatility this season which could make it harder for Smith to get an opportunity. They could conceivably move Todd Frazier, Robinson Cano, or Jed Lowrie to first base—all three have experience, limited as it may be, at playing the position in their major league careers—and then have Jeff McNeil replace any of those guys in their regular spots in the infield. So it may take a number of injuries before the teams would turn to Smith, and even then it may not be a sure thing that Smith would get the chance to start over other options that the Mets could cobble together, whether that be going with an iffy bench option like J.D. Davis or T.J. Rivera or signing whatever mediocre but established player may be on the free agent market. Smith still has enough potential that it would make more sense to just give him the opportunity if we get to that point, but it remains to be seen if the new front office feels highly enough about him to feel the same way.
If he isn’t starting in Queens, then Smith may just be stuck in Syracuse for the majority of the season. If we wanted to come up with a scenario where he could have a role with the big league team, one could perhaps make the argument that he could provide value to the team as a pinch hitter—as currently constructed, the team doesn’t seem to have any appealing left-handed options to turn to—but the limited positional versatility that he offers (in case you were wondering: yes, we’re just going to pretend that the ill-advised outfield experiment with him never happened) makes him a less than ideal bench player. And either way, such a role would be a disappointing outcome for a former first-round pick who just one year ago was believed to have the potential to become a perennial staple in the team’s starting lineup. It seems more likely, then, that a change of scenery will be in order for Smith at some point or another. It’s not that hard to envision the Mets dealing him at the trading deadline in a package for a major league piece, assuming they are in contention. But then the question becomes how much value a player like Smith—someone who was a good but not great prospect who has been decidedly unimpressive in multiple major league stints up to this point in his career—will have on the trade market. The likely answer: some, but not a ton.
Things can always change in a hurry. Smith has once again impressed a lot of people by coming into camp in excellent shape, and he has also made some adjustments to his swing over the offseason. And in spite of all the doom and gloom here, he’s performed well in spring training so far, and injuries to both Lowrie and Frazier have perhaps cracked the door open just slightly enough that this kind of well-timed performance could give him the opening he needs. However, Alonso has looked incredibly impressive as well, so that hot start may be all for naught; Smith may either start the season at first base just long enough for the team to secure an extra year of control on Alonso, or they may just give Alonso the job outright and send Smith to Syracuse. And at that point, his ability to get another chance will essentially be doomed if Alonso performs the way he is expected to. Indeed, the best that Smith may be able to hope for is that he performs well enough both for the remainder of this spring and in Syracuse to draw another team’s interest, because it appears for all intents and purposes that his best chance to earn a major role with the organization that drafted him has passed him by.