The Situation: The Mets are trying to sell that dealing top rental bats Lucas Duda and Jay Bruce off for marginal relief prospects was largely to create playing time for top first base prospect Dominic Smith. So here he is.
Background: The Mets drafted Smith with the 11th pick in the 2013 Draft out of a prep school near Los Angeles. A graduate of MLB’s Urban Youth Academy and RBI programs, Smith was taken five spots ahead of local rival and friend J.P. Crawford, also a top prospect in the Phillies system. Smith has progressed through the system a level at a time—the call to The Show is the first midseason promotion he’s received since entering full-season ball—putting up steady but generally unremarkable offensive performances along the way. He’s been ranked among the Mets top ten prospects since being drafted, peaking at fourth before the 2017 season.
Scouting: I described Smith in this year’s annual as a “square peg in a round hole,” by which I meant that the shape of his production is unlike what you’d expect from a late-2010s first baseman. Smith’s entire toolset is driven by his hit tool, and he very well could hit for a high enough average in the majors to make it all worthwhile. He has excellent barrel control and plate coverage, and he’s got good enough hands and bat speed to get it all going. His selectivity and feel for pitching has noticeably improved in the high-minors, and with it (and friendlier parks) has come greater offensive production despite the better quality of pitching. His power has always shown as plus in batting practice, and he’s started to pull the ball with authority more instead of poking it around to where they ain’t as he’s matured. He might never hit 20 homers in the majors, but with his advancements and the general power trends around the league, we aren’t as prepared to rule it out as we might’ve been when Smith was in the low-minors.
Smith does come with a quality basket of defensive skills for a first baseman, too. He’s an excellent defensive first baseman, with soft hands, an accurate and strong arm, and good instincts and footwork. If he wasn’t a lefty thrower and one of the slowest runners in the league, he’d probably be skilled enough to play elsewhere on the diamond. He could develop into one of the better natural first basemen in the league on the defensive side.
Smith is one of the most divisive prospects around in terms of rankings and rhetoric, but at the core I think everyone agrees broadly on what type of player he will be. What many disagree on is the value of such a player in the modern MLB game. One needn’t go further than how cheaply Tampa Bay was able to acquire Smith’s predecessor Duda to see how teams are valuing good but not elite superstar bats at the first base position these days, and it’s hard to not count that against Smith’s value as a prospect. As I discussed just yesterday with Rhys Hoskins, a first baseman that hits .270 with moderate power isn’t much of a starting first baseman even though he’d be a fine starter at most other positions, and that’s certainly within the window (albeit at the lower bound) of what you might expect Smith to do in the majors.
You will often hear euphemisms about Smith’s body being “high maintenance” or the like. I’m going to be a bit more blunt here: he’s struggled with his weight and conditioning in a way many young people in their early-20s do. Smith has the misfortune that you or I did not of playing a game where people focus on these things, and that sucks for him. Purely from a baseball perspective, his weight will probably continue to be a concern for the rest of his career, but he did report to camp this year lighter and in better overall shape after an offseason of hard training and better nutrition.
Immediate Big-League Future: There’s no reason for Smith not to get 95 percent of the first base playing time the rest of the way, except that Terry Collins is Terry Collins so you are never sure. This is a relatively sheltered two month look for the first baseman of the future, and a test to see whether he deserves to be the unchallenged first baseman of 2018. —Jarrett Seidler
Fantasy Impact: In some ways, it's strange that Smith is not the most interesting or talked about fantasy call-up among first base prospects in the NL East this week. In other ways, it makes a lot of sense. Over the last two seasons, Smith hasn't surprised us either in the positive or negative direction—he was supposed to be a hit-first cold corner occupant with some power, but not enough to get mixed leaguers too hyped, and he's been exactly that. How many times have you heard the James Loney comp since he was drafted? Twenty? Fifty? More? Fortunately for us, we actually do have a data point to compare them with, as Loney also spent a good portion of his age-22 season in Las Vegas (how fortuitous indeed). Here's how they line up against each other:
Smith (2017) – .330/.389/.513 with 16 homers, 39 walks and 87 strikeouts in 500 plate appearances
Loney (2006) – .380/.426/.546 with 8 homers, 32 walks and 34 strikeouts in 406 plate appearances
If you were trying to spin a more positive outlook for Smith, you'd say that a version of James Loney who traded some average for power would be a net positive in fantasy. Yet, even if that story is true, it's not the fantasy universe we live in these days. Power out of first basemen come at you fast and furious from the top names at the position to the waiver wire breakouts to Logan Morrison. If Smith isn't going to be a 30-homer hitter, which he's highly unlikely to be, he needs to hit .300 to be a bona fide mixed league play. And as a career .302 hitter in the minors, it's not a stretch.
With Jay Bruce and Lucas Duda ['s contracts] now shipped out of town, Smith appears to have first base to himself. Given how Terry Collins has said he would be using Amed Rosario (though he hasn't actually given him a day off since he arrived in Queens), Smith should be in line to start 5-6 games a week the rest of the way, which should set him up for around 175-200 plate appearances. If he catches the seemingly contagious first-wave power surge from other prospects, he could hit his way into a .270 average with 4-6 homers down the stretch. That's more or less what Danny Valencia has been doing, but unfortunately it's only been good enough to make Valencia the 30th best fantasy first baseman this year.
In dynasty and keeper leagues 12 teams and deeper, Smith is worth rostering because of the potential to grow into what could be 20-25 homer power if you squint. But the point is moot because he's almost assuredly owned already. In redraft formats, he's a worthy grab in 15-team leagues and (along with Rhys Hoskins) one of the last targets to use your FAAB on among call-ups during 2017. A bid of $5-8 should be enough to secure his services if you are one of the few teams with a big stack left. In NL-only formats, he's a lot more appetizing because he might be the last player to come into the league who is likely to approach 200 plate appearances the rest of the way, barring an unexpected last-minute crossover. If you've got the secondary hammer, you're probably going to want to use it. —Bret Sayre