Monday, April 10, 2023

Catch-22 For Francisco Alvarez?

Buck Showalter's comments about Francisco Álvarez are a little disconcerting for those of us who want to see the young catcher get a chance to contribute to the New York Mets.

Buck Showalter is a veteran manager who prefers to coach veteran players — particularly when he is managing a club with the goal of winning a title. Francisco Álvarez is an inexperienced youngster who plays a defensive position that is, perhaps, the most demanding on a baseball diamond. A good catcher has to perform complex athletic skills while spending 3 hours crouching and making the right mental choices supporting his pitcher. Those demands are why offensive production is often a secondary consideration when teams choose their catchers.

Tomás Nido has a lifetime OPS+ of 59, only a single point better than Doug Flynn, possibly the biggest Automatic Out in my years of watching the Mets. (In fairness to Flynn, there were undoubtedly worse hitters who wore the orange and blue for a time, but none, in my judgment, who were given over 2,200 PA by the Mets.) Nido reportedly has made some swing changes hoping to provide more offense. Of course, we've heard that before, and it never seems to bear fruit. Tomás will most likely always be a below-average hitter. But, for all of that, Nido is a fine defensive catcher who is adept at handling veteran pitchers.

The Mets undoubtedly would benefit greatly from more offense from the catching position. In the long term, Álvarez offers a lot of hope and promise for providing that punch to the lineup. Francisco gave Mets fans a taste of his raw power last season when he crushed a homer at Citi Field last September during his limited cameo with the Mets. There is no question that Álvarez's power could potentially help the Mets. The key is unlocking this potential by handling Francsico in a manner that eases his transition to the Majors.

The idea behind sending Francisco back to Syracuse to begin the season was that he would catch the majority of games and continue to improve his defense. It's clear that won't happen with the Mets. No one expects Álvarez to jump over Nido and become the number one catcher. On the other hand, I can't see how it's in Francisco's best interest — or the long-term best interest of the Mets — to fill the traditional backup catcher's role of spelling the starting catcher once or twice a week.

You can make an argument that Álvarez would benefit from professional coaching even on days he doesn't start. But, given that the Mets think that Omar Narváez will miss 8-9 weeks with his calf injury, Álvarez spending most of his time on the bench for that prolonged period would be a detriment to his development.

As reported by Dan Martin in the New York Post, Buck Showalter's comments regarding Francisco Álvarez's usage during his time in New York greatly disappointed fans who were hoping to see a lot of their team's top prospect over the next couple of months:

Asked about Alvarez's role while Narvaez is out, likely for the next eight-to-nine weeks, Showalter said: "We'll see how that evolves. We were lucky to have a guy like Tomas [Nido] that we're very comfortable with. We'll see what the needs of the club are. Francisco will get some playing time."

Showalter said he didn't expect Alvarez to get many starts at DH, preferring instead to use the spot for more experienced hitters. 

"It's a consideration," Showalter said of Alvarez potentially being in the lineup as a DH. "I'll look at it each day. Right now I don't see that happening, but it might."

...Showalter said his lineup decisions regarding Alvarez will be "heavily weighted toward winning games" over developing Alvarez as a hitter. "We're hoping both can happen," Showalter said. "Pitching is really good [in the majors]. A lot better than where he came from. We like his chances offensively when he settles into a career."

I've seen quite a bit of freaking out over Showalter's statements, particularly on Twitter. They bothered me a bit, too. While I understand the concept of tamping down expectations to help the youngster have some time to settle in, Buck seemed to go further than that. But I'm just going to see how this develops, rather than obsessively parsing every statement about Álvarez from Buck Showalter and Billy Eppler.

The Mets have gotten off to a tough start this season. The bottom of the order, in particular, has been dreadful. Nido has slashed .125/.118/.125 over his first 17 PA. His OPS+ is -35. You don't see a negative OPS+ very often. Nido might want to consider going back to his old swing. Eduardo Escobar is .125/.152/.250 with an OPS+ of 5. It's hard to win with two starters sucking that badly.

On the other hand, the early-season offensive woes go beyond Nido and Escobar. Jeff McNeilFrancisco Lindor, and Brandon Nimmo have yet to produce much. On the bench, Luis Guillorme (.188/.235/.188) and Tim Locastro (.000/.375/.000) have contributed OPS+ of 15 and 12, respectively. If you add the OPS+ of Nido, Escobar, Guillorme, Locastro, and Nimmo together, you still fall short of 100 — league average for a single player. Even if you're pessimistic about the Mets in 2023, you have to believe it will all get much better than we've seen in the first week and a half. 

I do believe the Mets have to upgrade their offense, which I why I believe that Francisco Álvarez will get more chances to contribute than Showalter's comments would suggest. But, while questions persist about Francisco's defense (although I believe the SBs in Sunday's game were more Carrasco's fault), there is some question about what Álvarez can do offensively. While the power is real, Francisco can be pitched to. In 411 ABs last season, split between Double-A and Triple-A, Álvarez struck out 123 times. That's a strikeout in almost 30% of his ABs. That's a lot of swing and miss, which MLB pitchers will likely exploit. On the positive side, Francisco walked 70 times in the minors last season, which would indicate that he wasn't just a clueless free swinger, ripe to be picked apart by MLB hurlers. In Sunday's game, Álvarez went 1-4 with a big RBI but also struck out twice.

I'm not being down on the kid, who I like a lot. But I accept that he may not be an instant star like some fans seem to be hoping for. But, if he stays up with the Mets, Francisco Álvarez needs to play. If the Mets don't deem him worthy of at least splitting time with Nido, they would be far better off sending him back to Syracuse and bringing up Michael Pérez. It doesn't matter if Pérez only gets into a game or two a week. The 30-year-old is what he is: a competent Quad-A type backup catcher, solid defensively but a lifetime .174/.244/.301 hitter in MLB. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather roll the dice with Álvarez — but only if he plays.

I was a little surprised when the Mets went with Álvarez over Pérez when Narváez went down. The veteran would have been by far the safer choice. It showed me something that the club was willing to gamble for more upside. A lot of fans think Billy Eppler is too conservative. I think it still remains to be seen over the long haul. But risking a bit on an upside play with Álvarez is one thing. Handling this properly to give the kid a chance to succeed and help the Mets will require making correct decisions on an ongoing basis. I'm genuinely curious to see how well the Mets handle this. It will give us a sense of how well they might eventually integrate Brett Baty and some of the other prospects onto their Major League roster.

The Mets got off to a nice start last season, using that start to propel themselves to 101 wins and a playoff appearance. Things are quite obviously not going as well this season. The starting rotation was a real strength for the 2022 Mets early on. That's not the case this year. Max Scherzer has given us cause to worry. We're still waiting for Justin Verlander to throw his first pitch for the Mets. José Quintana is months away from doing that. Carlos Carrasco has been bad enough in his first two outings to cause us to legitimately doubt if he can help the Mets at all this season. And, of course, Edwin Díaz will spend 2023 rehabbing his knee, not entering Mets games to the sound of trumpets blaring.

Last season, excellent pitching from the starters and Díaz gave the Mets a margin for error that won't be there in 2023. Already some in the media are questioning whether the Mets can compete this season. While I believe that's almost ridiculously premature, I think it's fair to say that the Mets will need to find success this year in different places than they did last year. Being better offensively would take some of the pressure off as the club tries to figure out their pitching questions. Figuring out how to successfully inject some of Francisco Álvarez's indisputable power and overall talent into the equation could be a difference-maker over these next couple of months. Hopefully, Showalter, Eppler, and the supporting cast are equal to the task.

Be well and take care. I'm rooting for you, Francisco! LGM!

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