‘I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet’: Lindor asking more of himself this season

March 16th, 2022

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- About two weeks before Francisco Lindor’s trade to the Mets, his daughter was born. Then came the January 2021 trade, followed by months of speculation about a contract extension and, on the eve of the season, a $341 million deal. What followed was a career-worst slump, a dispute with teammate Jeff McNeil, a surreal “rat or raccoon” explanatory press conference and a spat with fans over his “thumbs-down” celebration.

“Life,” Lindor said, “was a little faster for me last year.”

Now in Season 2 of his 11-year commitment to the Mets, Lindor is not looking to make excuses for anything that previously happened.

“I’m not blaming,” he said. “It’s me, I didn’t have success. It’s my fault.”

Still, Lindor acknowledges that a restart in 2022 could be exactly what he needs. Coming off a year in which he found himself batting below .200 as late as June 1, Lindor believes his familiarity with the Mets, their facilities and their fans should help him be more consistent offensively this season. For some early evidence, the switch-hitting shortstop hit 17 homers over his final 82 games last year despite a right oblique strain that cost him almost six weeks.

“I can play, man,” Lindor said. “I don’t think I’ve hit my peak yet.”

In general, Mets officials are not worried about Lindor’s on-field production. Before the pandemic, Lindor established himself as one of baseball’s most consistent middle infielders, averaging 34 homers per season from 2017-19 with a .278/.342/.514 slash line. His fielding and baserunning were likewise excellent, leading the Mets to consider their trade for Lindor -- and his subsequent extension -- a coup.

For some around the organization, more concerning cracks formed off the field, where Lindor sparred with McNeil, went rogue in a press conference and provoked fans with his response to their booing. Although Lindor was hardly the only source of turmoil within the clubhouse, he was a rather visible one given his contract status and the resulting expectations of leadership. So it was noteworthy that Mets officials have talked openly this spring about their desire to acquire high-character leaders such as Max Scherzer, Eduardo Escobar, Mark Canha and others. If nothing else, the presence of those players will ease pressure off Lindor.

Then again, as manager Buck Showalter noted during a preseason meeting with his shortstop, Lindor controls his own popularity with the fan base. Showalter told Lindor about players he’s managed in the past who endured rocky initial relationships with fans only to win them over with improved play in the end.

“I mean, really, you control it -- play better,” Showalter said. “No place can turn the page on that better than where we play. But you control it.”

If nothing else, throughout the tumult, Lindor has managed to maintain the attitude that long ago earned him the nickname “Mr. Smile.”

Despite tackling a series of heavy topics during an 18-minute press conference, including his slump, his regrets (or lack of regrets) and his relationship with McNeil, Lindor grinned widely while delivering optimistic responses.

“The fans, they want something to embrace you,” Lindor said. “The fans want to cheer for you. If we don’t give them that, you’re going to hear it. So do whatever it takes to focus on the process, play the game right do every single little thing right, and good things will happen.”