Smith had finally started to show his potential, following a strong spring with a solid performance in a reserve role behind first-base phenom Pete Alonso. His .333/.459/.400 slash line -- mostly in pinch-hitting duties -- was a sign that Smith was comfortable with his role, providing the Mets with a valuable left-handed bat off the bench.
There were other candidates to be demoted before Smith, namely Keon Broxton, who has underwhelmed with a .402 OPS and 21 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances. However, he is out of options, and the Mets traded three players for him this offseason, which might make them hesitant to designate him for assignment -- a move that would almost certainly land Broxton on another team. J.D. Davis has played well (.821 OPS in 84 plate appearances), but with Todd Frazier back from the injured list and Jed Lowrie on his way back soon, Davis’ playing time will take a big hit, leaving him as a right-handed bench option. Smith’s lefty bat seemed like a better fit on manager Mickey Callaway’s bench. Davis, like Smith, has Minor League options.
Instead, Smith is back in Triple-A, which some executives believe could be little more than a temporary stop. The question is, will Smith’s next trip to the Majors be as a member of the Mets or with another club?
“He is certainly a player other teams will target,” one talent evaluator said. “There will be a substantial market for Smith. I think it’s a timing issue and a question of depth.”
Smith played 13 games, making 10 starts, in left field last year, and although the 23-year-old is willing to continue working there to make himself more versatile, the Mets have had little interest in seeing more of him in the outfield.
Given his hot start, Alonso appears to be locked in at first base for the foreseeable future. Should the Mets not deal Smith, his value to the club would seem to be on the bench, not at Triple-A. Two executives believe the only reason to send Smith down was to give him regular at-bats and let him show his stuff at Syracuse to bolster his trade value, giving the Mets a chance to use an area of depth to bring in a much-needed arm.
The Mets rank in the lower third of the National League in team ERA, so while they would likely welcome the opportunity to deal from their first-base depth to add an arm, most other teams aren’t exactly itching to part with a quality pitcher this early in the season.
“They could trade him for pitching later,” an American League general manager said. “Let him build value by playing and hitting. There’s not much of a trade market now.”
Given Smith’s limited playing time this season, one executive said that in order to sacrifice a viable pitcher in a trade, a team would have to believe that he can be an everyday starter right now.
“It takes time for trades to develop, and someone has to view him as an everyday first baseman,” an NL GM said. “It’s hard to trade for a bench bat that plays first base.”
“It all comes down to what you think of the bat,” an NL executive added.
Since the start of Spring Training, Smith has shown the promise many have been waiting for since the Mets drafted him in the first round in 2013, but the emergence of Alonso has thrust him into the background. Scouts like what they have seen from Smith, but with the season not even six weeks old, it might take some creative thinking on the part of Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen to find a trade partner.
“He has upside and power and is still relatively young,” another NL exec said. “I think he has some trade value; I just don’t think anyone is really looking to move good pitching right now. Teams just aren’t typically willing to move good pitching in early May, unless it’s a big overpay or money dump.”
For example, would a rebuilding team like the Royals without an obvious “first baseman of the future” on hand take a look at Smith? Would the Mets be willing to gamble on a veteran arm such as Ian Kennedy, who has pitched well in a relief role this season but is owed roughly $30 million through the 2020 season? The Royals would likely need to pay down some of Kennedy’s salary in such a scenario, but how much would it take?
“That’s the type of deal you might be looking at,” the first NL executive said.
For now, Smith will report to Triple-A waiting for his next chance, while the Mets will continue their search for more pitching.