After an impressive showing in the 2019 season and a true breakout performance in the 2020 season, 2021 was not the year anyone wanted it to be for Dominic Smith. He regressed mightily from the previous two seasons, and went from clear starter to riding the bench for the last few weeks. And while there may have been some extenuating circumstances that led to his decline in 2021, it did cause him to become the subject of trade rumors following the season. With his future with the Mets less than certain, Smith looks to prove himself this season to be the good starter that emerged in 2019 and 2020, and not the mediocre bench player that reappeared in 2021.
Smith was the first round draft pick for the Mets in 2013 out of high school, and after climbing his way through the minors, he debuted in the majors in August of 2017. Over 105 games between 2017 and 2018, Smith looked like a possible bust, hitting just .210/.259/.407 in 332 plate appearances, good for a 79 wRC+ and an abysmal -1.1 fWAR. Then in 2019, after properly treating his sleep apnea and losing some weight, Smith had the makings of a breakout season, with a batting line of .282/.355/.525 with a 134 wRC+ and 0.9 fWAR, though he only played in 89 games due to a stress fracture in his foot that caused him to miss almost the entirety of the second half of the season. 2020 was Smith’s best season, hitting .316/.377/.616, with an incredible 166 wRC+ and racking up 1.8 fWAR in just 50 games of the COVID-shortened season.
After all this, 2021 looked to be a true test of Smith’s ability, being made the starting left fielder and guaranteed consistent playing time. And Smith disappointed in this season-long look, his batting line of .244/.304/.363 somewhat masking how bad he looked a lot of the time. The slugging percentage shows that he had almost no power in 2021, hitting just 11 home runs in 145 games after hitting 10 in 50 the year before. He had an awful 86 wRC+ and was worth -0.5 fWAR. He didn’t play well enough to justify putting him in left field, where he had an abysmal -10 Outs Above Average. There was no designated hitter in 2021, and first base was obviously occupied by Pete Alonso, so when the Mets traded for Javier Baez, Smith often found himself on the bench.
Now, Smith also had some continual injury issues over the course of the 2021 season that almost certainly affected his play. In August of 2021, then-hitting coach Hugh Quattlebaum let it slip that Smith was dealing with lingering wrist and groin injuries, with his wrist discomfort sometimes getting so bad that he couldn’t take batting practice, however he stayed in the lineup most of the time. And during Spring Training this season Smith revealed that he had sustained a partially torn labrum around the end of May that forced him to change his swing but he continued to play through the injuries. All these issues probably hurt his hitting ability, at least in part.
It’s difficult to try and project what kind of player Smith will be in the future. Every season, with the exception of 2021, has been a small sample size. He has less than a full season of being good, but also less than a full season of being horrible. His one full season was bad, but also was marred by several injury issues. And going into 2022, Smith doesn’t have a clearly defined role on the Mets. The outfield is pretty full with the signings of Starling Marte and Mark Canha, and the designated hitter spot looks like it will be handed to Robinson Canó to start. So Smith looks to start the season on the bench. But there’s not guarantee Canó will be a good starting DH with his age and not playing at all in 2021, and both Brandon Nimmo and Canha have been injury prone over their careers, Nimmo especially so, so Dom could find himself getting pretty consistent playing time should Canó not play well or if there’s injuries early in the season.
Dominic Smith’s projected stats for 2022 are very much in line with his 2021 stats, albeit with some improvement. ZiPS has Smith with a projected batting line of .255/.312/.410 with a breakeven 100 wRC+ and 0.3 fWAR. Some of the other projection systems on Fangraphs have his wRC+ and fWAR a little higher, but no more than 107wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR. He’s projected to be a pretty average major leaguer, which is definitely an improvement over 2021 but not the kind of player the Mets can give consistent playing time if there are other players excelling.
Clearly, the Mets also don’t know how much playing time they can afford to give Smith, as he’s been in the middle of trade rumors and discussions over the past few months, as well as being the subject of a trade discussion with the Padres that was nearly completed that would’ve seen the Mets get three players, including Chris Paddack and Eric Hosmer. And Smith has reportedly made it clear that he’d like to be an everyday player, although there’s no perfectly clear path to that with the Mets as currently constructed. So Smith will probably continue to be a part of these discussions over the next few months, and come the end of 2022 there’s no guarantee Smith will be wearing a Mets uniform.
Dominic Smith is a big question mark for the Mets in 2022. There’s no clear idea of the kind of player Smith will be, whether his injuries last year prevented him to continue on his success from 2019 and 2020 or if those seasons were an anomaly, helped by a juiced ball and a small sample size and really Smith isn’t an everyday player on a playoff team. Whether Smith will find a way to become an everyday player or whether he will find himself on the bench more often than not. Or whether Smith will even be on the Mets come the end of the 2022 season. There’s arguments to be made on each side of all these arguments, what the Mets or Smith will or should do. But there’s only one way to find out the answers, and that’s to watch Dominic Smith play in the 2022 season, and let the questions answer themselves.