Mets’ Francisco Alvarez question comes with complex answers
The Mets — health permitting, of course — have a very much locked-in roster.
There are some questions about which optional relievers will fill the bullpen’s back end and if they might add a second lefty to join Brooks Raley. But the main pitchers and hitters are set, befitting a team that projects to have an MLB-smashing $365 million payroll (for luxury-tax purposes), before even calculating the tax.
The lone significant mystery is whether young catcher Francisco Alvarez can make an impact from the outset and, if so, in what role. In many ways, that revolves around this issue: Are the Mets just saying they believe in Alvarez as a defender despite loads of industry doubt, or do they really believe it?
Because it isn’t as if the Mets opened an unimpeded pathway for Alvarez to catch in 2023. Yes, they traded James McCann, who was under contract through next season — and paid nearly 80 percent of the $24 million he owed to facilitate the deal to Baltimore. But then they signed two catchers through next year. Free agent Omar Narvaez has a player option for 2024. Tomas Nido was signed for the last two years of Mets team control.
So do words and actions jibe? Billy Eppler insists they do.
“Yes, I believe he is a catcher,” the Mets general manager said by phone. “Because I have in-house data that shows improvement and strong receiving ability from Double-A, and that it was good from his limited time at Triple-A.”
Saying he “does not believe in absolutes,” Eppler would not dismiss Alvarez making the Mets out of spring training, with the club carrying three catchers. The balance would be to make sure Alvarez catches enough (say twice a week) to keep his progression going in that area while also using him a few times a week as the designated hitter. For that scenario to play out, Alvarez almost certainly would have to produce a spring training of loud at-bats while showing continuing catching maturity.
But what if it is just the bat? What is the balancing act for a contender between using that tool in the majors versus wanting to continue working on the defense?
“I’m not going to say one way or the other; I wouldn’t say if I thought his bat was ready,” Eppler said. “I’m going to let time and the process of evaluation organically allow that to happen.”
But because he runs baseball operations for the most all-in team of 2023, Eppler could not gamble on Alvarez’s overall readiness. So the Mets constructed a lefty-righty hitting tandem with strong catching skills in Narvaez and Nido. The industry is pitch-frame obsessed enough that the Mets know they can always trade the inexpensive Nido (two years at $3.7 million) if Alvarez earns a larger slice of the catching.
The biggest impediment to Alvarez might not be Naravez and Nido anyway. It might be an age-old issue. Alvarez will play the 2023 season at 21. Since 1937, just seven men 21 or younger have started at least 100 games in an MLB season at catcher: Joe Torre (1961), Tim McCarver (1963), Bob Didier (1969), Johnny Bench (1968-69), Ted Simmons (1971), Butch Wynegar (1976-77) and Ivan Rodriguez (1992-93). So three of the last four to do so are Hall of Famers (Bench, Simmons and Rodriguez), and it has not been done in three decades.
And that comes at a time when more has been put on catchers than ever — notably more individualized plans to attack each hitter and greater pitch velocity and movement to handle and present as strikes. Eppler began growing into a strong proponent of framing when he saw pitchers gravitate to Jose Molina over Jorge Posada from 2007-09 when he was with the Yankees. As an assistant GM to Brian Cashman after the 2010 season, Eppler pushed heavily for the Yankees to sign Russell Martin because of his catching savvy.
Perhaps the Mets could slow-play Alvarez into next year. The owners are likely to approve, during their meetings next month, installing the automated ball/strike system in all Triple-A venues. If that trial goes well, there will be a chance for robot umps in the majors in 2024. In that case, the importance of game calling and throwing would grow in magnitude, since framing would have no bearing on a robot ump. That would remove some weight from a young, growing catcher.
Or is Alvarez the rare catcher, like Bench or Rodriguez, who can handle at this age a position that Eppler said “has the most responsibility on the field” — and do it for the most expensive team ever?