With the Hot Stove season in full swing and rumors flying around about what the New York Mets will do in free agency, the 2014 roster is far from set.
While moves in free agency and the trade market need to be made before the Mets can be considered a potential playoff team, there is one player already on the roster whose development can push the Mets to a 2014 playoff berth: Travis d’Arnaud.
The young catcher who was the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade has long been considered one of the elite prospects in baseball. D’Arnaud’s 2013 season was far from ideal, as much of it was lost to injury. Once he was healthy and called up to the majors, he underperformed, batting just .202 with one home run in 99 at-bats.
The excitement fans once had for d'Arnaud has shifted away from him to Noah Syndergaard, the other top prospect acquired for R.A. Dickey.
Fans of the team need to step back and realize what they have in Travis d’Arnaud. Prospects do not always pan out, but scouts believe that the only thing that could hold his career back is injuries, not talent. He plays a premium position in catcher (and plays it very well), and if d’Arnaud blossoms and remains healthy in 2014, the Mets could have a top-flight catcher that would be the envy of much of the league.
D’Arnaud has the potential to be special because of both the potential of his bat and his glove.
With catcher being a position where less offense is expected, the fact that d’Arnaud has potential to be a plus hitter alone makes him a stud of a prospect.
He has some weaknesses as a hitter, including his long swing and poor patience at the plate evidenced by his strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minor leagues. In 2012 for the Blue Jays Double-A affiliate, d'Arnaud had a walk rate of just 6.3 percent compared to a strikeout rate of 19.5 percent.
D’Arnaud struggled in his time in the majors in 2013, but he actually quelled the fears of many talent evaluators with his patience at the plate, posting a walk-rate of 10.9 percent. He also has many strengths as a hitter, exhibited by his consistently high performance in the upper levels of the minors.
Jason Parks, the head prospect writer for Baseball Prospectus, prior to the 2013 season ranked Travis d’Arnaud as the 15th best prospect in baseball. In Parks' evaluation, he noted d’Arnaud’s above-average bat speed and good contact ability as strengths, and that he had “swing characteristics for power production.”
Scouts also rave about d’Arnaud’s approach at the plate, as he focuses on hitting the ball up the middle allowing him to drive the ball to all parts of the field. In the video to the right, while d’Arnaud was playing for the Blue Jays Double-A affiliate he made t-shirts that said “oppo-taco,” something he would yell in the dugout after hitting an opposite field home run.
Opposite field power is a rare attribute that d'Arnaud has, and it is a trait that helps David Wright be the balanced hitter he is today.
Because of d'Arnaud's historically balanced approach towards hitting, his struggles in August and September can be attributed to pressure to perform early on that can lead to a tendency to pull and get off balance while hitting.
Jason Parks noted this as a weakness in d’Arnaud’s game, saying how his aggressive approach led to a tendency to pull off balls. Parks also predicted d’Arnaud’s early struggles, stating that, “His biggest hurdle will be the adjustment against major league quality pitching, as his approach and setup both show signs of vulnerability.”
While fans witnessed this adjustment period, they should be patient and understand that this young man has the tools and makeup to work through these problems and become an offensive force.
While d’Arnaud’s performance at the plate in the majors was underwhelming, the combination of his increased walk rate and his track record as an impact hitter gives reason to be optimistic about his future offense.
If d’Arnaud becomes an impact hitter, it could help propel the Mets to the playoffs by lengthening their lineup and giving them production from a position that is generally lacking in the majors.
Even if d’Arnaud’s offense never pans out, his defense should make him a staple in the Mets' lineup for years to come. D’Arnaud has been lauded for a variety of his defensive traits, including his pitch framing ability and how he builds relationships with pitchers.
D’Arnaud’s pitch framing was one of the characteristics of his game that first caught the eye of teammates. Via Anthony DiComo of MLB.com, Matt Harvey said after just a few starts throwing to him that he felt d’Arnaud had Molina-like qualities behind the plate, while Zack Wheeler said, “When the balls are down, he does something that makes them look like they're strikes. It's ridiculous.”
In Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus’ analysis of catcher framing, scout Jason Cole told him a pitcher “had raved about d’Arnaud having the strongest wrists he’d seen, enabling him to throw sinkers below the zone for strikes throughout the game.”
Pitch framing ability is becoming seen as an integral component when evaluating catcher defense, and d’Arnaud excels at it.
With Matt Harvey out for the season, d’Arnaud’s ability to work with young hurlers Zack Wheeler and (at some point) Noah Syndergaard is integral both for the Mets competing in 2014 as well as the future development of the team’s young arms.
The pitching staff has openly stated how comfortable they are throwing to d’Arnaud. Via Chris Iseman of MLB.com, Dillon Gee said how d’Arnaud “comes to me and starts talking about how I like to pitch guys, what I like to go to, just trying to figure me out.” Jon Niese agreed, saying how “going forward, it’s going to be good for us to learn the hitters together.”
With his baseball intellect and willingness to figure out his pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses, d’Arnaud makes himself that much more valuable to the 2014 Mets.
Outside of catchers such as Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Matt Wieters, the position is generally weak throughout baseball. Due to the nature of the position, catchers often decline rapidly as they age and are forced off of the position (like Joe Mauer recently).
While there are solid catchers in the league like Kansas City’s Salvador Perez and Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, d’Arnaud’s ceiling as a prospect indicates he could be among the best in the league. If d’Arnaud develops into the player that most scouts expect him to become, having an elite catcher is an asset that could propel the Mets into the 2014 playoff picture.
A 2014 playoff run is still far from reality as the Mets have many holes. With Matt Harvey out and many vacancies to be filled in free agency, a number of things need to happen before the team can be competitive.
But if Travis d’Arnaud can overcome his injury-ridden past and fulfill his potential as one of the best catchers in the league, he could be the difference between the 2014 Mets remaining in mediocrity or rising to relevancy once again.
You can follow me on Twitter at @S_CunninghamBR