Smith continues raking as Deadline looms

July 5th, 2022

CINCINNATI -- Given general manager Billy Eppler’s recent assessment of the slow pace of trade negotiations across baseball, it’s reasonable to believe the Mets -- as aggressive as they may ultimately prove by the end of the month -- won’t upgrade their offense within the next week or two. That means opportunities for players already in the organization.

Don’t take that to mean imminent call-ups for prospects Francisco Álvarez or Mark Vientos, however -- not when a more ready-made plug-and-play option exists in the form of . Mired in such a deep slump in May that the Mets demoted him to Triple-A Syracuse, Smith returned to New York late last month with a revamped swing and a now-or-never reality: if he doesn’t produce for the Mets, he might not have another chance.

And so Smith is producing -- in a small sample, at least -- at a rate he hasn’t enjoyed since his breakout 2020 season. His RBI double off left-handed reliever Reiver Sanmartin on Monday broke open the Mets’ 7-4 win over the Reds, allowing Taijuan Walker’s latest quality start to stand tall. Of the seven balls Smith has put in play since the calendar flipped to July, four have rocketed off his bat at velocities of 102.9 mph or greater.

“He’s hitting with some malice,” manager Buck Showalter said.

In two of his four plate appearances on Monday, Smith hit line drives that were caught. His other batted ball was the double -- a deep fly that boomed 385 feet over center fielder Nick Senzel’s head, immediately after the Reds made a pitching change to bring in Sanmartin.

“Anytime you can come up in any big moment, it’s a great sign,” Smith said. “That’s something that has happened pretty much my whole career -- you get in that situation, they’re calling for the lefty. So to be able to come through like that, it’s definitely a good feeling.”

It’s impossible to tell if this is another false start for Smith, who has enjoyed fleeting moments of success before -- remember that 4-for-4 game that seemingly forced the Mets to cut Robinson Canó instead of him? -- or the beginning of something more sustainable. Coaches and team officials know there is a consistently productive baseball player somewhere inside of Smith, a former first-round pick who finished 13th in National League MVP voting following a 2020 season that saw him post a .316/.377/.616 slash line with 10 home runs in 50 games.

They have simply been unable to unlock it. Since that breakout stat line in a pandemic-shortened season, Smith’s power has disappeared. He hit 11 home runs over 145 games last season as his slugging percentage was down 253 points. He hasn’t homered since July 21, 2021 -- almost a full year ago -- which is worth noting on a night when Brandon Nimmo (three-run homer) and Francisco Lindor (solo homer) went deep.

But Smith’s power may be returning. When he went to Syracuse, Smith worked on his mechanics, opening his stance so that his right foot points more toward right field. It’s a better facsimile of how Smith had set up for most of his career; he didn’t realize how much he had drifted away from it until he began watching video to compare.

“When I went really well, that’s what I did,” Smith said. “When I’m starting closed, my first movement is flying open. So I think that’s what’s helping me stay on pitches, stay through curveballs, stay through breaking balls and hit the ball hard consistently.”

If Smith can parlay this recent run of success into even a mini breakout, it will create a compelling situation for the Mets, who must decide whether he’s a realistic answer as their most-days designated hitter in the second half. If the Mets instead attempt to improve at the Deadline, Smith could become a trade chip, much as he was when the team nearly sent him to San Diego in a deal for Chris Paddack and Eric Hosmer this spring.

Ultimately, the Mets believed Smith held more value to them than the Padres were offering, which has yet to prove true.

That doesn’t mean it still can’t.

“We’re so deep that it’s hard to find a spot for everyone every single day,” Nimmo said. “That’s the tough part. But it’s surely not because of him being a lack of a hitter or a player or a first baseman. He’s unbelievable at all those things. So we’re really glad to have him back.”