What we’re hearing about the Mets third-base battle and Francisco Alvarez extension talks

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — After Mark Vientos made a smooth play on a routine grounder during infield practice, Brett Baty took his turn at third base. On a hard-hit ball, Baty ranged toward his left, made a clean pickup, spun around and delivered a perfect throw to first base.

With a bat in hand from home plate, Mets third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh said loudly enough for anyone on the field to hear, “Oh, hell yeah!”

Over the first couple of days of full-squad, on-field workouts, Vientos and Baty have alternated at third base, often with Mets manager Carlos Mendoza behind them on the outfield grass, casting a watchful eye.

Things have appeared idyllic with both players making the majority of plays cleanly, but it’s way too early for any of that to matter.

Once Grapefruit League games begin this weekend, the results will create interesting questions: What if Baty and Vientos both perform poorly? What if one does better than the other? What if they both impress?

Though they are different players, the trajectories of Baty and Vientos have converged. Baty profiles as the better defender, but scouts suggest that neither grade out in a positive way. They each have much to prove offensively; Baty after failing to run with an opportunity as the starter last year, and Vientos after producing mixed results with uneven playing time. Both have also conquered minor-league pitching. More similarities: Both players are age 24 and have minor-league options remaining.

One industry source recently raised an incisive question: If one player wins the battle and the other winds up as mostly a designated hitter, how would that latter player ever improve defensively?

According to club officials, the perfect scenario involves both players seeing meaningful action on the field.

In the event both Baty and Vientos impress enough to be on the Opening Day roster, those with knowledge of the club’s plans offered one way things could break down: Baty, a left-handed batter, would start every day at third base against right-handed pitching while Vientos, a right-handed batter, would start at third base against lefties while also seeing time at designated hitter against right-handed pitchers and giving Pete Alonso an occasional day off in the field at first base.

That ideal scenario would equate to Baty racking up about 500 plate appearances and Vientos getting between 350-400 plate appearances.

Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns has stressed the importance of giving young, deserving players opportunities. But that doesn’t mean such players are locks for roster spots, regardless of circumstances. Stearns was careful to say once during the offseason that, “it’s important for us organizationally to learn about our younger players, to provide them opportunity at the major-league level. Again, that doesn’t have to be all on Opening Day. But over the course of the year, we’ve gotta learn about these guys.”

To that point, one thing the Mets wouldn’t want to do is have a player like Vientos or Baty linger on their roster in a role that results in something like just 250 plate appearances. The belief is that such a situation wouldn’t benefit the club (in terms of player value, especially) or the player’s development.

For depth at DH and coverage behind Alonso at first base, the Mets recently added veterans Ji-Man Choi and Luke Voit to minor-league deals (DJ Stewart looms as another option, and Mendoza said he will dabble in first base during the spring), creating other paths in the event things don’t line up for the perfect scenario involving Baty and Vientos. Joey Wendle profiles as a bench option capable of handling third base, but barring an external addition, the Mets need either Vientos and/or Baty to perform.

Why it may be best to wait on an extension for Francisco Alvarez

If the New York Mets were going to agree to any extension with catcher Francisco Alvarez soon, it would probably make the most sense after the season starts.

That’s because of the ramifications any such agreement ahead of the season would have on payroll. Since they are over the final luxury tax threshold, the Mets face stiff penalties, essentially paying a 110 percent hit on a player’s annual average value. So extending a player like Alvarez now would mean a higher salary number for the competitive balance tax and one that they’d be paying a 110 percent penalty on.

League sources said that the two sides haven’t had tangible discussions about a long-term deal. A report surfaced on Tuesday saying Alvarez was “close” to signing an extension, but multiple people familiar with such a matter said that was false. However, league sources said, there’s a sense that each side would at least carry an open-mindedness to a potential serious discussion.

“My agent hasn’t told me anything, so I am assuming that they haven’t had any types of conversations,” Alvarez said through an interpreter. “They haven’t approached me with any types of conversations. So as of right now, there is nothing.”

Spring training is the typical time for extensions to emerge for players in a similar situation as the 22-year-old Alvarez, who remains two seasons away from being eligible for arbitration and won’t be a free agent until after the 2028 season.

But for teams in a similar luxury-tax situation as the Mets, the idea of an extension isn’t as appealing as it would be for clubs not facing substantial penalties. A player can agree to a deal now that doesn’t kick in until the following season, but generally speaking, that can take away from a player’s incentive. If the Mets waited until after the season started, then the new number for the player would go into effect next season.

Alvarez emerged as the Mets’ starting catcher last year. He impressed with solid defense and eye-opening power. He has room to grow as an overall hitter, as evidenced by his strikeout rate (26 percent), but he managed to hit 25 home runs in 423 plate appearances.

“Right now, my only goals are to go out there, to go play, to go do what I need to do,” Alvarez said. “The idea of a contract, that’s really in the hands of my agent and the hands of the organization. If they think that’s the best course of action, then that’s a conversation that they need to have. But right now, I am just focused on winning games, working hard and doing my part for this team.”

(Top photo of Brett Baty: Rich Storry / Getty Images)

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