Alvarez a prime breakout candidate for ‘24

January 26th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anthony DiComo's Mets Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

This is the first in a five-part Around the Horn series looking at how the Mets stack up around the diamond. First up: Catchers.

Not since Mike Piazza have the Mets employed a reliable long-term everyday catcher. Piazza’s successor, Paul Lo Duca, was perhaps the closest thing to it, submitting two reasonably productive seasons from 2006-07. Travis d’Arnaud and Wilson Ramos are the only other Mets catchers to provide at least two Wins Above Replacement in a season since Piazza, taking into account both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs' calculations of that statistic.

Perhaps now, finally, the Mets’ nearly two-decade search for consistency behind the plate is at an end.  debuted late in 2022, returned to the Majors early in ’23 and will enter ’24 as the organization’s unquestioned starting catcher. Plenty of questions still surround Alvarez’s game -- most of them surprisingly at the plate, rather than behind it. But he did enough as a rookie, bashing 25 home runs in 423 plate appearances, to signal to the Mets that this is his time.

Alvarez leads a Mets catching contingent with plenty of potential, but also heaps of uncertainty heading into 2024.

The starter: Alvarez

First, the bad: Alvarez did not exactly take the starting catcher’s job and run with it after  suffered a left calf strain in early April. He hit just .209 over the balance of the season, often looking anxious at the plate and several times -- including much of April, June and August -- falling into deep slumps. Alvarez’s flailing strikeout against Josh Hader in an April 11 loss to the Padres typified the flaws in his game.

But it’s easy to forget that Alvarez played the season at 21 years old, as one of the youngest players in the Majors and, largely, succeeded. His 25 homers were the most by a Mets rookie catcher and the highest in baseball history among primary catchers aged 21 or younger. His game-tying three-run homer with two outs in the ninth against the Rays on May 17 was one of the highlights of the entire season. And his skills behind the plate, a source of consternation from opposing scouts and team officials in Spring Training, proved more than adequate.

At a time when many future big leaguers are still in college or hanging around the lower rungs of the Minors, Alvarez held his own in the Major Leagues. As such, he’ll receive every chance to improve heading into what technically will be his first full season. Few players around baseball boast the type of breakout potential that Alvarez does at age 22, giving the Mets reason to see if he can make good on it.

The backup: Narváez

A perplexing signing when Billy Eppler inked him to a two-year, $15 million contract before last season, Narváez wound up fitting on the roster about as well as his critics thought he would. On Opening Day, he blocked Alvarez from making the team. Narváez subsequently missed nine weeks nursing his calf strain, and his return created an awkward playing-time jam between himself and the rookie.

But Narváez will return in 2024, because his contract included a $7 million player option that was obvious for him to pick up. This time, he’ll serve as the clear backup to Alvarez, starting once or twice per week against right-handed pitchers. The Mets reportedly shopped Narváez this winter but found little market for a catcher who has produced one above-average offensive season over the last four years. Barring injury, he’s going to be Alvarez’s primary caddie.

Also in the picture: ,

Narváez’s signing last year completely marginalized Nido, despite the fact that the Mets had signed the latter to a two-year, $3.7 million deal before the season. The Opening Day backup, Nido battled an eyesight issue and was designated for assignment in June, but his salary stopped other teams from claiming him. He remained in the Minors for the rest of the season.

With Alvarez the clear starter and Narváez the backup, Nido enters 2024 without an obvious role. Even if the Mets decide to carry three catchers -- a long shot, given their weaknesses elsewhere on the diamond -- Nido enters camp at a major disadvantage given the fact that he’s no longer on the 40-man roster. Not far removed from being one of the game’s better defensive backup catchers, Nido looks like he’s probably headed back to Triple-A.

Also complicating things is the presence of Heineman, a waiver claim from the Blue Jays earlier this offseason. A veteran of parts of four Major League seasons, the 32-year-old Heineman enters camp ranked above Nido on the depth chart. He combines a patient batting eye with solid defensive numbers.

The future: Kevin Parada?

Given the fickleness of the MLB Draft, teams almost always select whom they consider the best player available in a given year, rather than account for positional need. That’s why the Mets took Parada in the first round in the 2022 Draft despite the presence of Alvarez, who was already in the upper Minors at that time.

Now at Double-A, Parada features significant power potential, just like Alvarez. If he develops as the organization hopes, the Mets will consider that a good problem to have -- one they can deal with in future seasons. For now, Parada will keep developing in the upper Minors in hopes of debuting in 2025.