PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In the morning, Francisco Álvarez walked through the Major League clubhouse at Clover Park to begin a day that seemed like any other. It wasn’t.
By early afternoon, Álvarez was on a back field, crouched on one knee while a few dozen people, mostly team employees, looked on from nearby vantage points. Beyond the outfield fence, noise from the Mets’ Grapefruit League game against the Astros -- a 5-2 loss -- was clearly audible.
The actual distance was several hundred feet. For Álvarez, it might have felt like a gulf.
The team optioned Álvarez -- its top-rated prospect and MLB Pipeline’s third-ranked prospect in baseball -- to Triple-A Syracuse on Wednesday, effectively ending his long-shot bid to make the Opening Day roster. Álvarez will return, possibly soon. In the interim, the team wants him to continue improving everything necessary to make good on his generational prospect status.
“Everybody that comes in my office that you’re sending down … thought that they would make the club in the offseason,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I don’t care who it is, whether it’s a sixth or seventh catcher from the Minor Leagues, they all think they’re going to come in here and be hot -- get hot early and change the narrative. So I’m sensitive of that. But he’s in a good place. He’s where he needs to be, and he’ll be an option for us if needed.”
The most highly touted catching prospect in franchise history, Álvarez spent much of the spring focusing on his defense, which has always been the shakiest aspect of his development. In that regard, Álvarez has clearly improved; he spent countless hours working on those skills with catching instructor Glenn Sherlock and starting backstops Omar Narváez and Tomás Nido, who will both make the Opening Day roster over him.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Álvarez’s bat that lagged in Grapefruit League play: He hit .107/.194/.107 with no extra-base hits in 31 plate appearances. Perhaps that was a product of focusing so much of his attention on catching. Perhaps it was a reality check that Álvarez remains just 21 years old, having spent much of last season as the youngest player at Triple-A. Perhaps it was a garden-variety slump.
Whatever the reason, Mets officials want Álvarez to go to Syracuse and work on his contact skills, his strikeout rate, his receiving and his framing. When Álvarez returns -- be that in April, May, September or October -- they hope he will be a more complete player. Ideally, they want him to become the type of catcher who can start behind the plate nearly every day.
“That’s our hope and that’s our plan,” Showalter said. “He’s not a guy you’d like sitting around as a backup catcher. ... We feel good that he’s going to be able to carry the load if and when he comes up.”
Multiple times, Showalter referred to Álvarez’s return not as an inevitability but as a conditional -- an acknowledgement that the Mets’ most efficient path to success involves Narváez and Nido thriving in their catching platoon and staying healthy all season. But even if that happens, Álvarez could force the Mets to consider him as a DH option, much as he did down the stretch last season. He simply must hit like he did in 2022, when he produced a .260/.374/.511 slash line with 27 homers over 112 games in the upper Minors.
On Wednesday, after having a difficult conversation with Álvarez, Showalter was uninterested in those sorts of hypotheticals. Things happen over the course of a six-month season. The Mets may need Álvarez. They may not. He may immediately prove too good for the Minors. He may not.
In any case, Álvarez aims to improve to such an extent that the Mets won’t have a choice regarding his future.
“The first thing that came to mind was that I needed to go back down there and work hard and prove myself, so that they can call me back up eventually,” Álvarez said through an interpreter. “I think going down there, it’s going to help me get the reps that I really need, and just get that experience to eventually come back up and succeed.”