In midst of bleak season, the Mets' future has arrived

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 16, 2017

After 2,263 minor league plate appearances and some idle moments fantasizing about his MLB debut, Dominic Smith walked into the New York Mets' clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Friday and located his locker stall near the entrance to the showers. He glanced at the No. 22 name plate at the top, changed from his street clothes into his uniform and settled in for what he hopes will be the rest of his baseball life.

There will be successes and failures, good days and bad, but no day quite compares to the first.

"It's still pretty surreal right now," Smith said. "In a few weeks when I can sit back and look at what I just went through, that's when it's really going to sink in and hit me. I feel accomplished, because this is a big goal and a big dream for a lot of kids and a lot of people. It's just the beginning."

Smith went 1-for-3 with a single in his debut at first base and enjoyed his biggest thrill as a spectator, when rookie teammate Amed Rosario homered in the ninth inning to give the Mets a 7-6 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.In a Subway Series game Tuesday night, Smith and Rosario both got into the act with two-run homers in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

After a season filled with injuries, awkward news conferences, mascot high jinks and other indignities, Mets fans might actually have to brace themselves for some positive news.

A disappointing summer in Flushing is winding down with a roster revamp and a series of housekeeping chores. With six weeks to go, Curtis Granderson and Asdrubal Cabrera can only wonder if they'll be following Lucas Duda, Jay Bruce, Addison Reed and Neil Walker out the door in trades before the end of August. The Mets also have a decision to make on manager Terry Collins, whose contract expires at the end of the season.

Amid the uncertainty and roster flux, two new players with disparate styles and skills are energizing the clubhouse. If Rosario and Smith warm to the big leagues as quickly as outfielder Michael Conforto, who is slugging .568 with 26 home runsand recently made his first All-Star team at age 24, the new wave has a chance to be dangerous.

"They're the best two prospects in the organization, so everybody is counting on them to be successful,'' veteran infielder Jose Reyessaid. "They're the future of this organization."

Rosario, who grew up in the Dominican Republic playing alongside future Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara, signed with the Mets for $1.75 million at age 16 in 2012 and rose quickly through the system. A scout who watched him extensively with Double-A Binghamton in 2016 referred to him as a "quick-twitch player with an excellent game clock." In July, ESPN's Keith Law ranked Rosario as MLB's top prospect and wondered why the Mets were taking so long to promote him to the majors. The Mets put the mystery to rest when they summoned Rosario from Triple-A Las Vegas on July 31.

Smith, 22, arrived in pro ball with a reputation as an advanced hitter after being selected with the 11th pick in the 2013 draft, and he didn't disappoint. He hit .302 with a .366 on-base percentage in the minors, gradually showed more power on his way up the chain and struck out only 15.5 percent of the time.

Smith is nimble around the first-base bag, but he'll need to show some commitment over time to retain that flexibility. After receiving an organizational directive to lose weight last winter, he revamped his diet and dropped from 258 to 234 pounds during the offseason. Smith and the Mets know he'll have to continue monitoring his weight as he ages.

"We have a lot of people here to help him," Collins said. "We have trainers and nutritionists and two cooks who can make him whatever he wants in every clubhouse. He'll see other guys who are very careful with their diets and watch what they eat, and I think he'll really benefit from seeing the way some of these guys prepare for a game. It's not going to be easy, but I think he can handle it."

From a technical perspective, both Mets rookies have skills that are hard to teach. Kevin Long, the Mets' hitting coach, took note of Rosario's quick bat and Smith's discerning approach to hitting in spring training.

"Dom Smith, with his ability to get the bat head to the ball and swing at good pitches, that's something you just don't see in a 22-year-old," Long said. "And we have another guy who is a good role model for him in Michael Conforto, who swings at strikes and has a lot of discipline at the plate.

"Rosario reminds me more of a [Robinson] Cano, where he just could hit, but the strike zone is probably going to be one of the last things that comes. It's electric. There's a looseness to his swing, and he's got good fire from his lower half. That's what you're always looking for in hitters."

Expectations for prospects can be stifling -- particularly with a losing team in a demanding media market such as New York -- but Smith and Rosario have both been forewarned. Smith routinely sought out older teammates and coaches in the minors, and he said several told him to "be a sponge.'' Until he's established, he plans to keep his mouth shut and impress the veterans with his work ethic and listening skills.

Rosario has a personal mentor of sorts in Reyes, who arrived in New York as a hotshot prospect in 2003 and has endured a slew of injuries and off-field controversy on his way to 2,057 career hits.Despite a 12-year age gap, the two players bonded instantly when Reyes spent time in Binghamton last summer. They texted almost daily after Reyes returned to the majors.

"He's helped me a lot -- more than a friend," Rosario said in Spanish through interpreter Edwin Gonzalez. "He's like a brother. He gives me a lot of advice on a daily basis."

Among the pieces of wisdom that Reyes has passed along to Rosario: Don't get caught up in the static. He tells Rosario to come to the park each day hungry to play, to hustle and give everything he has. Given Rosario's all-around talent, the rest will take care of itself.

"He can do everything," Reyes said. "The thing that's impressed me the most is how relaxed he is on the field as a young player. He's 21 years old, and he seems like he already has five years under his belt."

Those flashes of brilliance validate the high prospect rankings. In the fourth inning of Saturday's game, Philadelphia's Rhys Hoskins hit a ball deep in the shortstop hole. Rosario ranged far to his right, backhanded the ball and made a jump throw to beat Hoskins by a step. Hello, Derek Jeter references.

"I was teasing Amed," Long said. "I told him, 'If you play well here, do you have another level to go to?' He was like, 'No, this is it.' It's not like this is Double-A or Triple-A. These guys have to figure out this level, and once they do, the game will be a lot easier.

"They're great kids, both of them. We've had a veteran team, but it's really exciting to have these guys here. I'm looking forward to the new blood."