Mets' top prospect thrilled to be back behind plate
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For the first time in six months on Friday, Francisco Álvarez strapped on his leg guards and chest protector and crouched behind home plate in a baseball game.
Álvarez had not caught in a formal game since late last September, after he completed rehabbing a right ankle injury. Upon making his big league debut later that month, the Mets' No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline found himself behind multiple catchers on the depth chart and limited to DH duties.
After the season, he underwent surgery on his ankle, which prompted the Mets to ease him into spring action. Given that he’s spent the early weeks of camp performing monotonous drills on the back fields, Álvarez beamed when asked about his enthusiasm to catch in an actual game.
“When I was in the cage, I couldn’t even concentrate on hitting because of how excited I was to go out there,” he said through an interpreter.
Álvarez added that he enjoys the control he has over a game when he catches. Throughout the final three innings of an 11-6 loss to the Nationals, he did his best to prove it, looking demonstrative behind the plate as he set up his mitt. On a routine double play in the eighth, Álvarez sprinted up the first-base line to back up the play.
“His 'want-to' is off the charts,” manager Buck Showalter said.
Mets officials have pointed to Álvarez’s pitch framing as the most important area in which he can grow; to that end, the rookie said he’s been taking notes from veterans Omar Narváez and Tomás Nido, who are two of the league’s best in that department. With Narváez heading to the World Baseball Classic on Monday, Álvarez -- a prospect best known for his power bat -- should receive ample opportunities to continue improving.
“There are so many aspects of being a good defensive catcher,” Showalter said. “He’s come a long way. Part one of that is having them understand how important it is.”
Over his first two Grapefruit League starts, Max Scherzer has experimented liberally with Major League Baseball’s new pitch timer rules. Generally, Scherzer has been able to use them to his advantage. But on Friday, he committed a quick-pitch balk and had a double play negated due to a clock violation, leading to an eight-run third inning for the Nats (including seven unearned runs for Scherzer).
“You’ve got to press the limit on what you can and can’t do,” Scherzer said. “I pressed it today."
As one of baseball’s most cerebral pitchers, Scherzer has been experimenting with different timing mechanisms to throw off hitters, including quick-pitching on occasion. He has had multiple conversations with umpires this spring in an effort to master the new rules.
“Everybody up here is looking for a competitive edge,” Showalter said. “It’s a good time to be testing those things.”
Fonzie and Straw
In addition to David Wright, who made a brief visit to camp, two franchise greats reported to Port St. Lucie this week as instructors: Edgardo Alfonzo and Darryl Strawberry. Those Mets Hall of Famers have begun imparting their wisdom to players, with others including Al Leiter, Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson due in later this month.
Alfonzo, whom the Mets did not renew as Class A Brooklyn manager after the 2019 season despite his New York-Penn League championship, has rejoined the Mets family since Steve Cohen purchased the team. Alfonzo showed up to Old-Timers’ Day last year and is now back in camp as an instructor. In the future, he said, he would welcome a chance to manage again.
“I would like to,” Alfonzo said. “I like to help guys play baseball. Teaching a little bit what you learn during my career, I think it’s going to help people. I always like to be in the field."
It’s like riding a bike
Earlier this week, Eduardo Escobar shifted from third base to left field during a Grapefruit League game, manning a position he hasn’t played since 2017. The idea was to prepare Escobar for the WBC, since Team Venezuela may have a need in the outfield.
“He’s very proactive instead of reactive,” Showalter said. “He tries to get ahead of things.”
Escobar, who has spent most of his career on the left side of the infield, does boast 45 career appearances in the outfield -- all but two of them in left. Most occurred in 2015 with the Twins.
Because Escobar does not have an outfielder’s glove in camp, he borrowed one from teammate Starling Marte.