As Brett Baty turns heads at spring training, the case for him winning Mets' third base job grows
As Brett Baty turns heads at Mets spring training, his case for not only making the Opening Day roster but being the main option at third base from the jump is getting stronger.
Entering play on Friday -- we'll add an asterisk here for a small-sample size and spring training stats don't really matter much alert -- Baty was hitting .500 in 12 at-bats with a homer and 1.288 OPS.
The 23-year-old added two more hits on Thursday on well-struck balls to right field.
With Eduardo Escobar leaving soon to join team Venezuela for the World Baseball Classic, Baty will likely get the bulk of the starts at third base. But will he have a legitimate chance to win the job?
Baty does not have the swagger or electrifying power potential of catching prospect Francisco Alvarez, but he's a damn good player in his own right, which is why he's viewed by most minor league experts as one of the 25 or so best prospects in baseball.
When it comes to Alvarez, at least as it pertains to his potential presence on the big league roster on Opening Day, there are some questions. And in listening to Billy Eppler and Buck Showalter speak recently, it seems highly unlikely that Alvarez will make the club out of spring training.
While there are impediments to Alvarez making the roster, no such hurdles should exist for Baty.
Here's how I see it...
If Baty is ready, he's ready. There's no need for him to cool his heels in Triple-A unnecessarily. His bat certainly looks like it's there, and he's been working hard on his defense -- including is agility -- at third base.
Escobar, who is entering his age-34 season, is coming off a year where he hit just .240/.205/.430. Aside from the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, that .430 slugging percentage was Escobar's lowest since the 2016 season with the Minnesota Twins.
He came on late in the 2022 season to bring his overall numbers to a respectable level, erupting in September and winning the National League Player of the Month in the process, so Escobar is not a bad option to play third base. But is he a better option than Baty?
As Escobar was struggling for much of 2022, he was at his least effective against right-handers, slashing just .231/.294/.387 in 368 plate appearances. In 2021, Escobar was better against righties -- slugging .448 -- but his OPS against them was just .752.
There's also Escobar's third base defense to consider.
Escobar was worth -11 DRS in 130 games at the hot corner in 2022, and his defensive metrics via Baseball Savant were near the bottom of the league -- in the eighth percentile in Outs Above Average.
When he arrived at spring training, Escobar -- a good teammate, someone who is accountable, and a player who wants to teach the younger guys -- said teaching Mark Vientos and Baty would be one of the most important things he does in his career.
Because of a thumb injury last August that ended Baty's brief taste of the majors and resulted in him missing the remainder of the season, it's hard to say whether or not he's 100 percent ready for the bigs.
Prospect guru Keith Law of The Athletic thinks he is, opining that Baty has nothing left to learn in the minors and that the Mets should give him 500 at-bats this season. As far as Baty's defense, Law said it's "more than just playable" at third.
And how Baty looked in the majors last year in what was an incredibly small sample size was impressive.
He did not go on an offensive tear, but his at-bats were competitive, he showed a good idea at the plate, he did not look overmatched, and the ball exploded off his bat at times as he flashed some seriously eye-popping exit velocities.
If your response to the above is to cite his triple slash (which, again, was compiled over a tiny sample size), save your breath. What matters the most is how Baty looked.
Also of serious importance here is the Mets' need for more power that simply wasn't addressed this offseason as they had an otherwise fantastic winter. With the Carlos Correa deal falling apart over concerns regarding his ankle, Baty is again the heir apparent at third base. Can he provide the power jolt the Mets need?
In 95 games last season with Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Syracuse, Baty hit .315/.410/.533 with 19 homers and 22 doubles.
Baty is also a strong hitter against both righties and lefties, though he's fared a bit better against right-handers.
Unless the Mets' plan is to have Baty spend at least a decent chunk of this season in the minors (and that shouldn't be the plan), it can be argued that the smart play would be to have him as the regular third baseman in the majors from the jump.
That would mean starting Baty against right-handers and using Escobar against lefties.
If Baty, who will not be a platoon player in the long run, hits the ground running, it would be wise to simply play him every day.
This does not mean Escobar can't be productive. But when you combine his overall struggles in 2022 (September being the exception), his difficulty hitting right-handed pitching, his subpar defense, and his contract status -- 2023 is the final guaranteed year of his deal -- turning to Baty early feels like the proper move.
To be clear, giving Baty the bulk of the playing time at third base is not something the Mets should be doing for the sake of it, or because the Atlanta Braves have benefited from being aggressive with their prospects.
No, this is something the Mets should be doing because it's in their best interest this season and going forward.