Scouts, analysts, and fans are pretty much unanimous that Mets prospect Amed Rosario is a star in waiting at shortstop. But what about his teammate, first baseman Dominic Smith?
Smith continues to hit well for his age in Triple-A, but the Mets, a team expected to contend this year and next year, no longer have the luxury of time to wait and see how Smith will develop. Do the Mets re-sign Duda, or hand first base to Smith in 2018? Smith has been promoted like a top prospect, but is he?
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Smith was taken by the Mets with the 11th overall pick of the 2013 draft as a high schooler from Gardena, California. The Daily News did a nice profile on Smith and his background this past spring. He’s a lefty hitter and thrower currently listed at 6’0″ and 250 pounds, and received a slightly under-slot bonus of $2.6 million.
Hopes were high for Smith at the time he was drafted — as you might expect for an 11th overall selection. Amazin Avenue projected that Smith could eventually become a .300 hitter with 25 home run power. MLB.com ranked Smith the 2nd best first base prospect in the minors after the 2013 season. The Mets passed up on a few other exciting guys to take Smith (D.J. Peterson, Tim Anderson, and J.P Crawford come to mind), but overall, the pick was well received.
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The Mets have challenged Smith throughout the minors. He was assigned to Single-A Savannah in 2014 before his 18th birthday, and advanced an entire level each year. He spent all of 2015 in High-A St Lucie, all of 2016 in Double-A Binghamton, and has spent all of 2017 thus far in Triple-A Las Vegas.
Smith has hit well in the high minors — it’s not easy to hit .300 in Binghamton, in particular. But he has failed to slug higher than .464 at any level, with his isolated power hovering at .150 or below. For a player locked into first base, Smith has not yet shown enough power.
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Smith turned 22 on June 15th, so the fact that he’s hitting well in Triple-A is impressive all on its own. Smith’s current line of .315/.368/.464 is good for a 116 wRC+, a decent amount above league average. His average ranks 18th in the Pacific Coast League and his on-base percentage ranks 32nd. However, the lack of power from a traditionally power-producing position is concerning. After all, Eric Campbell had a .322/.431/.488 line in Las Vegas, and Ty Kelly had a .328/.413/.435 line there.
I did a study for the Hardball Times last year regarding the “Las Vegas Effect” and determined that not all Vegas batting lines are created equal. As it turns out, Vegas is a BABIP-inflating paradise, but it doesn’t do as much for power as people think it does. In fact, isolated power is hardly affected by being in Vegas at all.
Smith’s BABIP at Vegas currently sits at .367; although high, it’s not far out of line from his career minor league total of .341. This is good news for Smith, because his current batting line does not appear to be particularly inflated due to the environment.
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What you think of Smith depends greatly on what you think about age versus level. Fangraphs released a chart a few years ago with information on the average age of players at each minor league stop:
The bolded path is the path that elite prospects follow, and which Smith is technically on. This is where certain notable Mets prospects were on the day they turned 22 years old:
David Wright: Major Leagues.
Michael Conforto: Double-A, called up months later.
Travis d’Arnaud: Double-A.
Wilmer Flores: Major Leagues.
Lucas Duda: High-A.
Daniel Murphy: High-A, called up next year.
If you’d like to compare Smith to other high school position players drafted in the early-to-middle part of the first round, this is where they were at age 22:
Addison Russell (11th pick, 2012): Major Leagues
Francisco Lindor (8th pick, 2011): Major Leagues
Javier Baez (9th pick, 2011): Major Leagues
Brandon Nimmo (13th pick, 2011): Double-A
Aaron Hicks (14th pick, 2008): Double-A
As you can see, players drafted early in the first round or who end up being stars are typically knocking down the door to the majors by the time they are 22 years old. Smith, although he is in Triple-A currently, looks like he is more on pace to repeat Triple-A than he is to force his way into the Mets’ lineup.
I have always been somewhat bearish on Smith compared to the crowd, but it is still likely that he will develop as a hitter as he matures. But it is not a guarantee, and it is impossible to say when that might happen.
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The other concern is that Dominic Smith is a big man, and he’s had some high-profile issues in keeping the weight down. You hate to speculate about the effect of this, but the Mets are faced with the question of whether or not to put all their eggs in the Dominic Smith basket for 2018 or whether they’ll need to extend Lucas Duda, or something else.
You can definitely be big and still be a valuable first baseman (e.g. Ryan Howard, David Ortiz, Prince Fielder). If you are curious, the heaviest first basemen of the 2000s, in order, are: Dmitri Young, Kennys Vargas, Adam Dunn, Calvin Pickering, Prince Fielder, Justin Bour and Billy Butler, all of whom are 265+. Smith is currently listed at 250, although he is not quite as tall as many of those players (Dunn is 6’6″ and Vargas is 6’5″, while Butler 6’0″ and is Fielder is 5’11”).
But here’s the thing: these guys are human beings and you should never bet against a young player who is responding to challenges. Baseball is as much a test of how you handle adversity as it is about anything else, and Smith was proud of the work he did last offseason. Scouting the stat line is fun, but it can only tell you so much.
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Dominic Smith is a hard worker, and eminently likeable. He’s also holding his own in Triple-A as a 22 year old. But the question of whether Smith will be a good major leaguer someday is actually separate from the question of whether he will be ready to take over first base in 2018.
Even if you think Smith will develop to his best-case outcome, giving him first base on a team that should have designs on the playoffs in 2018 is risky. Steamer projects that Smith would hit .249/.300/.368 if promoted to the majors this year. I think that’s a little low, but even if he were to hit .270/.310/.380 or so, that’s barely replacement-level at first base even if you credit him with good defense.
I asked Keith Hernandez in the spring if he thought Smith would be a “three hitter” like him and, even though he didn’t think so, he did see Smith as a regular someday soon. Fangraphs prospect writer Eric Longenhagen thinks that Dom Smith can hit .290/.350/.460 in his prime.
The Mets only have a few months left to find out how long that future will take to get here.