GM Billy Eppler says Mets top prospects need to prove themselves defensively

PORT ST. LUCIE — Three of the Mets’ top prospects are nearly ready for the Major Leagues, but being nearly ready isn’t good enough to crack the Opening Day roster.

Gone are the days when the club might have given a talented young prospect a shot after a good showing at camp. The Mets don’t have any holes to plug anymore with depth at nearly every position in 2023. This edition of spring training features maybe one or two position battles. There’s a spot or two up for grabs in the bullpen and some configuring of the starting lineup.

That doesn’t leave much room for third basemen Brett Baty and Mark Vientos and catcher Francisco Alvarez. There was some speculation that Alvarez would be carried on the Major League roster this season as a DH to give the Mets some pop against left-handed pitching, but the Mets have quietly tamped down on that narrative in recent weeks, stressing that his play behind the plate needs to be at a certain level before calling him up again.

The idea of Alvarez DH’ing was put to rest Saturday by general manager Billy Eppler.

“We want to wait for the complete package to be there,” Eppler said after the Mets’ workout at Clover Field. “If Francisco is on our club, if he makes our team, or if he shows up, we want to make sure he can catch because the long-term trajectory for this young man is to be able to catch. We have to be able to satisfy that up here, so it would not be a pure DH situation.”

There are extenuating circumstances, such as injuries to catchers like Tomas Nido or Omar Narvaez, or if there is an injury later in the season that doesn’t allow the 21-year-old Alvarez to catch but still allows him to hit.

It’s the same situation with Baty and Vientos as well — the two need to show certain defensive improvements. All three spent time in the Major Leagues last season and while the sample sizes were small, there were elements they lacked defensively.

“You’ve got to play defense here. Got to play defense. We have a big ballpark,” Eppler said. “I think that was probably demonstrated last year by some of the personnel decisions that we made. Defense is important —  it’s critical. I think, if we’re going to play championship-caliber baseball, we have to be great in all areas.”

The reports that manager Buck Showalter has gotten from infield coach Joey Cora, infield coordinator Miguel Cairo and catching coordinator Glenn Sherlock have been positive. Baty has shown “improved agility” that Eppler attributes to the offseason conditioning program.

Showalter said all three seem to understand the urgency and importance of exhibiting a high level of defensive awareness and ability.

“Everyone is impressed with the way they’re moving around and their sense of purpose,” Showalter said. “It’s a sense of, ‘OK, yeah, now I get it. I’ve got to be good. Some people don’t like working at something that they need to be better at. Some guys are like, ‘Let me go hit. I’m going to go hit.’

“I’ve said many times, the ability to defend allows me to keep you in the lineup when you’re having those scuffling moments that everybody has offensively. You can’t have the double negative. If you’re scuffling with a bat and we’re not sure if you can defend, that doesn’t play in the big leagues. That doesn’t work.”

Vientos is expected to get significant time at first base this spring, but Baty will be primarily at third, as well as shortstop Ronny Mauricio. The latter infielder is blocked at the big league level by Francisco Lindor so the Mets may have to trade him at some point and his trade value will be higher as a shortstop. However, Eppler said he’ll listen to his scouts and development directors if and when there comes a time to move Mauricio to another position.

Baty and Alvarez have a clearer path to the big leagues with third baseman Eduardo Escobar only signed through 2023 and Narvaez through 2024 (player option). However, starting Alvarez in Triple-A means using Darin Ruf at DH against left-handers. Ruf hit just .152 with a .413 OPS in 28 games last season after being traded from the San Francisco Giants at the deadline. Eppler said he’s always monitoring the marketplace for upgrades up and down the roster when asked about Ruf, but trades will be made with the long-term goal in focus. The Mets felt that the pitching side was where more attention and upgrades were needed over the winter.

Previous Mets’ regimes rushed prospects to the big leagues and at times it was detrimental for all involved. It’s a luxury to not have to rely on minor league talent and a big market club like the Mets should not have to, in the first place.

Baty, Vientos, Alvarez, Mauricio and others will have their time to shine in the Major Leagues, but it probably won’t be March 30 in Miami.