If you’ve made it this far, you are very aware that it’s Day 9 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series! Yesterday I dived into the Jekyll and Hyde splits put up by Jean Segura in 2013, and what Milwaukee can expect from their young shortstop this season. Today, it’s another young player under the spotlight – New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who having overcome a succession of injuries to make his majors debut last year, is slated to begin the season in the big leagues. Now he’s finally made it, he has some high expectations to live up to.
Finishing 74-88 and 3rd in the NL East, the New York Mets were by no means bad last year – they just weren’t particularly good either. Worse still – aside from every fifth day when Matt Harvey took to the mound – they were largely uninspiring, as reflected by their 14th place finish in the NL’s attendance standings. Hampered by injuries and general poor play, their offense was especially bland, ranking just 11th in the NL in runs per game (3.82), while besting only Miami in OPS (.672) – this despite having moved Citi Field’s fences in an attempt to promote power hitting. Finally free from Johan Santana‘s albatross contract however (the club bought out his $25 million 2014 option for $5.5 million), the Mets spent big this offseason in an attempt to spark some power production, gambling on Chris Young, and luring former Yankee Curtis Granderson across town in order to bolster their outfield. Their biggest hope for a much-needed injection of energy to their offense though, will hopefully be behind the plate; Travis d’Arnaud – the league’s best catching prospect per MLB.com – will begin the season as the Mets’ everyday backstop.
Despite hitting. 286 with a .476 slugging percentage and .823 OPS during his time in the minors, d’Arnaud’s path to the big leagues hasn’t been the smooth road usually traveled by top prospects. Now aged 25 (it was his birthday yesterday – Happy Belated Travis!), d’Arnaud has already changed organizations twice as the prize return in trades for NL Cy Young winners, and has had his progress slowed by a litany of injuries; In 2010, it was back issues that limited him to just 292 plate appearances. In 2011, it was a thumb injury that ended his season early. Then a torn PCL cost him the majority of 2012. Even in 2013, d’Arnaud was limited to just 131 PAs by a broken foot before being called up by the Mets. In total, he appeared in just 515 games over seven years in the minors, yet still d’Arnaud has retained his blue-chip prospect status, indicative of the high esteem to which scouts hold his vast potential.
Possessing “above-average bat speed; good contact ability; ability to drive to all fields; swing characteristics for power production” according to Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus in his 2013 ranking of the Mets’ top 10 prospects, d’Arnaud’s bat projected to be what set him apart from his weak-hitting positional peers upon his graduation to the majors. However, when his opportunity arose, d’Arnaud faltered – making Parks’ observation “his biggest hurdle will be the adjustment against major league quality pitching” look downright prophetic – hitting just .202/.286/.263 in his 112 PAs, while striking out 21 times. Gone were the shouts of ‘Oppo-Taco’, as d’Arnaud’s famed 17-25 HR potential evaporated; in fact, the noted power hitter only registered 4 extra base hits (1 HR and 3 doubles) in his brief introduction to the bigs. Even the man himself recognized his collapse – speaking of his 2013 experience with Kristie Ackhert of New York Daily News, d’Arnaud admitted “I was just trying to impress everyone. Every time I went up there, I was trying to hit a home run. I was trying to throw my hardest and hit my hardest to prove myself every time I got a chance. I was trying to prove myself and I just wasn’t myself.”
d’Arnaud’s defense though, met the elevated expectations of those who had seen him catch in the minors, as his defense still provided value despite his lack of offensive production. After suffering two passed balls in his debut against Atlanta, d’Arnaud quickly settled down, establishing himself as not only an excellent pitch framer – Zack Wheeler commenting of his ability “When the balls are down, he does something that makes them look like they’re strikes. It’s ridiculous” – but also a willing learner in regard to his pitcher’s tendencies. Even if d’Arnauds bat never plays above average in the majors then, his talent for defense should ensure a prolonged career.
d’Arnaud however, seems set on making the next step after last year’s jitters, and proving himself to be a star on both sides of the ball in 2014 – something Mets fans have been dreaming on all winter. Having got his taste of the majors, and with a healthy offseason of training, d’Arnaud will enter 2014 as the undisputed regular behind the plate. Whether he will meet the All-Star potential the scouts project – or even the ultra-conservative estimations of PECOTA (.250, 16 HR, 58 RBIs, 489 PA) – will largely depend on his staying healthy for the first time since 2010. Should d’Arnaud stay off the DL long enough to realize his full potential however, the Mets will have a star on their hands. Maybe then some people will come and watch.