Smith achieves goal of returning to play in 2019

September 26th, 2019

NEW YORK -- Mets first baseman Dominic Smith returned from the injured list Thursday, fulfilling a goal that he set the moment doctors diagnosed him with a stress fracture in his left foot in late July. Smith wanted to appear in another game before the end of the season, and he will.

More intriguing is what comes next for Smith, a former first-round Draft pick who was enjoying a breakout season -- albeit largely off the bench -- before suffering his injury. Heading into the winter, Smith is blocked by presumptive National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso at first base. Smith has yet to distinguish himself as an outfielder, posting a Defensive Runs Saved total of -8 at the corner outfield spots over the past two seasons, per FanGraphs.

Still, Smith is the best left-handed pinch-hitter on a bench that the Mets, with a limited budget, may not have much latitude to upgrade this winter. He could become a trade option, with teams placing value on his 10 home runs and .858 OPS in 196 plate appearances. Or, as Smith sees it, he could be a valuable “utility guy” capable of filling in at both first base and all three outfield spots in New York.

To that end, Smith has hired a track coach to help him improve his running stride this offseason in Los Angeles.

“Why not get in great shape, man, and go out there and try to compete and do it?” Smith said. “I don’t sell myself short on anything. I feel like I can go out there and compete and do anything.”

A strong defensive first baseman, Smith began converting to outfield work in 2018, playing sporadically down the stretch that season. He reported to winter ball in the Dominican Republic aiming to amass reps in left field, but when his Dominican team decided that they only wanted to use him at first base, Smith flew home. He then reported to Spring Training and asked Mets officials to let him take reps in the outfield, but they told him they only wanted him to work at first base.

That lasted until late May, when the Mets changed their minds and installed Smith -- despite almost no reps at the position over the previous eight months -- as their regular left fielder.

Smith has always embraced the challenge of playing the outfield. Now, it may be his only path to playing time in 2020.

“First base might be a little tough,” Smith said. “But I’ll definitely show a little more versatility, moving around more.”

Even so, the Mets have two returning outfielders in Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo, plus two other players -- Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis -- who figure to start either in left field or at third base. For as long as the Mets’ roster remains crowded, trade rumors will swirl around Smith, who says he “can’t let the outside noise or any of that stuff … put a distraction on what I have in front of me.”

In short, uncertainty reigns for a player who is happy simply to be active. When Smith first learned of his stress fracture in July, doctors told him he would likely miss the rest of the season.

Smith’s response: “Absolutely not.”

“It goes to show the hard work I put in over the last two months,” Smith said. “It’s been tough. It’s been a long time coming, and something that I wanted to do. I’m just glad that everything worked out for me to come back.”

Under the knife

McNeil will undergo surgery next week to repair a distal ulnar fracture in his right wrist, which he suffered when Marlins reliever Josh Smith hit him with a pitch in Wednesday’s game. McNeil expects to have a plate inserted into his wrist to straighten the bone, with a recovery period of about six weeks.

That means no time on the links for McNeil, an avid golfer, though he should be back to 100 percent well in advance of Spring Training. McNeil considers that only a mild consolation after batting a team-high .318 with 23 home runs and 75 RBI.

“I wanted it to end in the playoffs,” McNeil said of his season. “That’s where you ultimately want to be. To end it with a broken bone right there, it’s tough.”

News and notes

• Mets manager Mickey Callaway said he will consider batting Alonso leadoff this weekend, with an eye toward maximizing Alonso’s at-bats as he pursues Aaron Judge’s rookie record of 52 home runs. Callaway plans to broach the topic with Alonso, who hit second in Thursday’s series finale against the Marlins.

• During a ceremony Tuesday at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan, Alonso will donate the custom cleats he wore during the Mets’ Sept. 11 game at Citi Field. Alonso had similar shoes made up as gifts for each of his teammates.

• Reliever Justin Wilson, who battled elbow problems throughout this season, will not pitch in any of the Mets’ final four games. Although Wilson is currently healthy, the Mets do not want to jeopardize that now that they are out of contention. They also plan to limit Seth Lugo’s workload to one-inning stints.