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The Mets have a Dom/Pete conundrum heading into 2021

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The Mets have two of the five best first basemen in the majors but only one first base to put them at

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Over the last two seasons, Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso have put up a 149 and 137 wRC+, respectively, good for the second- and third-best marks among first basemen in the majors over that period. They have hit better than stars like José Abreu, Anthony Rizzo, Max Muncy, and Paul Goldschmidt, all without the security of a future at their position on their team. At this point, one could reasonably argue that the only first basemen in the league better than Smith and Alonso are Abreu and Freddie Freeman, who both happened to win their respective league’s MVP award last season. Basically, the Mets have two MVP-caliber first basemen—and only one first base to play them at.

To be clear, this is a good problem to have. It was less of a problem at the end of last season when it was assumed that the National League would adopt the designated hitter full-time, giving Smith and Alonso an opportunity for full-time plate appearances in 2021. But if the NL returns to their conventional model next season, Dom and Pete’s place on the team becomes foggier. It’s probably the team’s best problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

Let’s take a look at some reasonable ways the Mets could approach their best problem.

Start Pete, sit Dom

This is the situation the Mets have employed the most over the last two seasons, and it worked very well in 2019. Alonso broke out with one of the greatest opening acts of all time, setting the rookie home run record and establishing himself as the franchise first baseman, while Smith overcame an inauspicious start to his career by putting up a 133 wRC+ in 197 plate appearances. But then things complicated in 2020, with Pete’s power numbers regressing significantly and Dom putting up the team’s best offensive season. So why should they start Pete full-time?

Though Pete has played a full season while Dom has not, it should be acknowledged that the narrative surrounding Pete as the franchise first baseman has at least a little bit to do with marketing. His magical 2019 season came not only with incredible buzz and fanfare, but also an expectation about how he was to become the face of the franchise, both from the media and the team itself. Alonso also ranked 14th on MLB’s list of most popular jersey sales in 2019, five spots ahead of his vastly more accomplished teammate Jacob deGrom.

And his marketability makes sense. Pete is goofy and fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Pete also mashes taters, which is both very cool and literally the most valuable thing a hitter can do. He even has a nickname! He’s big and jolly and very good at baseball, making him an incredibly valuable marketing asset in the media capital of the world.

But that doesn’t mean that Dom isn’t marketable. Much like Pete, he is goofy and fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He also socks dingers, though not as consistently as does Pete. But Dom doesn’t have a nickname, nor the same marketing presence as Pete, mostly because he hasn’t seen much playing time as the starting first baseman, and also somewhat because of how poorly MLB has marketed its Black players over the years.

If the Mets decide to sit Dom in favor of Pete full-time, it’ll be because Pete’s full season of dominance in 2019 outranks Dom’s partial seasons of success in 2019 and 2020. It might also work if Dom shows the incredible patience and support for his teammate he did in 2019. Putting a player who got MVP votes in 2020 on the bench for 2021 is not optimal, but if the NL adopts the DH for 2022, it may be the best way to keep two franchise first basemen on the roster for many years to come.

Start Dom, sit Pete

The argument that Smith was a better option at first base than Alonso was limited to niche online conversations that didn’t hold much weight before the 2020 season began. But now the argument looks a lot more convincing, and it’s not crazy to think that the 2019 NL Rookie of the Year may see a lot of the bench in 2021.

The book on both players heading into 2019 was that Smith was an above-average defender and Alonso needed to work on his glove. Smith held up his end of the bargain posting a respectable 6.7 UZR/150, and Alonso surprised many by posting a not-bad 1.4 UZR/150 in 2019, a positive defensive contribution to pair with his otherworldly bat. But both players regressed defensively last season, with Smith posting a -2.9 UZR/150 and Alonso posting a -4.3 UZR/150. While Smith’s numbers at first look better, they’re not so different from Alonso’s to declare him an obviously superior defender. And at first base, where good defense matters less than at more premium positions like center field and shortstop, it’s beneficial to take the defensive hit to give more plate appearances to the obviously superior hitter.

But it’s no longer obvious that Pete is the superior hitter. Though by no means was Pete’s 119 wRC+ in 2020 indicative of a bad season, it is telling that Pete showed significant regression from 2019 in many meaningful offensive stats, including OBP (-32 percentage points), SLG (-93), wOBA (-42), and ISO (-63). Meanwhile, Dom showed significant improvements not just from 2019 to 2020, but in every season he’s played since his rookie season in 2017.

Though Dom hit home runs less consistently than Pete in 2020 (in 5% of Dom’s PAs as opposed to 6.7% of Pete’s PAs), his power numbers were much stronger due to him hitting just a whole bunch of doubles. He led the team with 21 doubles in just 199 plate appearances, whereas Pete only hit 6 in 239 plate appearances. This contributed to Dom having more RBI (+7), more hits (+8), and a much higher slugging percentage (+.126) than Pete in 40 fewer plate appearances.

Declaring Dom a better hitter than Pete requires one to acknowledge the 2020 season as a worthwhile valuation of production instead of the Frankenstein’s monster of a season it truly was. But it shouldn’t be ignored that Pete regressed and demonstrated frustration in the batter's box in 2020, while Dom was the best hitter on a league-best offense and has improved tremendously in each of his last four seasons. If the Mets choose to make Dom their full-time first baseman, it won’t be because of his glove like many once suspected, but because his leaps in productivity have been too great not to reward.

Start Pete at first base, start Dom in left field

This is the only solution that gets Dom and Pete full-time plate appearances in 2021. With Pete unable to play any other position effectively, the Mets have endeavored the last few years to turn Dom into a serviceable left fielder. Though he’s improved quite a bit over the last two seasons, and though he’s not quite as atrocious a left fielder as their other project J.D. Davis, he still put up a pretty miserable -11.7 UZR/150 in left field in 2020.

As it stands right now, Smith might be the team’s best option in left. Jeff McNeil is arguably the team’s best option in left field overall, but with Robinson Cano’s suspension for the upcoming season, McNeil will be more needed at second base, slotting Smith in left. But if the Mets acquire a center fielder like George Springer or Jackie Bradley Jr. in the offseason, this likely pushes Brandon Nimmo and his career-positive UZR/150 at that position to left field, leaving Dom without a place in the outfield.

If the Mets choose this route, it’ll be because the Mets didn’t acquire a serviceable center fielder in the offseason, or because Nimmo got traded, leaving the team without an option in left field. Left field Dom means the team’s below-average outfield defense from the last few seasons would remain, but having Pete and Dom in the lineup full-time just might make up for it.

First base by committee

Logic loves this answer. If Pete struggles or gets injured, the Mets should play Dom. If Dom struggles or gets injured, the Mets should play Pete. It’s perfectly rational and symbiotic.

Of course, Alonso and Smith are human beings and not robots, so conventional wisdom avoids this possibility entirely. When teams have two elite options at one position, like the Padres have with Fernando Tatís Jr. and Manny Machado, or the Dodgers have with Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger, they usually opt for a strong decision by either displacing one of their players on the field or trading one of them and committing to the other. What they don’t do is leave the position up to an open competition.

Teams usually opt to a position by committee when they don’t have a solid option at that position, giving lesser options motivation to win the role. The Mets kind of did this last year with Amed Rosario and Andrés Gimenez, giving Rosario the starting job at shortstop at the start of the season and then handing it to Gimenez when he played better. This worked because Rosario and Gimenez are fringe everyday players, but there isn’t much precedent to two elite options competing for the same position. Pete and Dom play best when they play loose, and nothing would tighten them up more than knowing they’re only a few bad games away from being replaced by a very-good backup.

This is likely not the solution we’ll see, but if it happens it’ll be because Dom and Pete accept the challenge without ego, and because the team rolls the dice with something bold and unprecedented.

Platoon

Dom bats left-handed, Pete bats right-handed. That alone merits a discussion about whether the Mets should start Alonso against lefties and start Smith against righties, since lefty/rightly platoons remain common in baseball. But a closer look at the numbers shows this strategy not making much sense.

Dom doesn’t have significant lefty/righty splits. In 2020, he recorded a monstrous 173 wRC+ against righties, and also recorded a still-monstrous 147 wRC+ against lefties, demonstrating all-star level production against both sides. Pete actually has reverse splits for his career, putting up a 126 wRC+ against lefties and a 141 wRC+ against righties. An equitable solution would be to start Dom against lefties and something like 25% of righties, and to start Pete against the rest. And while this splits the playing time evenly and is slightly more of a dedicated decision than a full-out-competition, it doesn’t hand the role full-time to either player the way a benching or a trade might. Speaking of which:

Trade one of them

The advantage of keeping two MVP-caliber hitters instead of trading one should be apparent: Having two MVP-caliber hitters is better than having one. And especially if the NL decides to adopt the DH in 2022, the 2021 Dom/Pete conundrum suddenly becomes moot.

But it should be acknowledged that the Mets have a Jacob deGrom-sized contention window and a new owner who expressed a desire to win the World Series at some point in the next 3-5 years. It should also be acknowledged that both Dom and Pete are under team control until 2025 and could both bring back valuable players in a trade. If the Mets can find a trade partner that can provide a valuable player to fill a needed role in center field or in the starting rotation, it should definitely be considered, especially if the Mets fancy themselves title contenders in 2021.

Considering both Dom and Pete are essentially the same age and are both under team control for the next four seasons, the arguments for trading one over the other are the same as starting one full-time over the other. Whoever they may trade, they have a potential superstar to replace him. But trading either player likely only makes sense for this year. If the NL adopts the DH for 2022, a spot in the lineup opens up and both players have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Since the Mets have more pressing needs in the outfield and the starting rotation, we likely won’t know what they decide to do with Dom and Pete anytime soon. But whatever they decide, having two first basemen already at this level so early in their careers gives the Mets the most enviable first base situation in the majors. It’s truly surreal to think an organization that hasn’t had a franchise first baseman in over thirty years might suddenly have two on the roster.