Michael Conforto didn’t have to search much for his bat bag before spring training as Met outfielder spent most of offseason hitting, which shows in first days of spring training.
PORT ST. LUCIE — On Field 6, Matt Harvey was throwing live to hitters for the first time in this Mets’ camp, flashing a two-years-past-elbow-surgery-form that had Terry Collins all but predicting a spectacular 2016 season.
“I’m seeing stuff he didn’t have last year,” was the way the manager put it. “More late life on the fastball. More of that last giddy-up. More spin on the slider. I’m very excited.”
Pretty hard to top that so early in spring training, right? And yet if you were looking for the wow-factor of the day in this first full-squad workout for the Mets, it was on Field 7 some 30 minutes later, when Michael Conforto was taking batting practice.
Last year’s rookie sensation was hitting rockets to all fields, including several balls into the wind over a deep fence in right, with an ease that made people notice. Spring training batting practice rarely generates much buzz, but in this case word spread quickly.
“I was on another field but I heard he put on quite a show,” assistant general manager J.P. Ricciardi would say later.
Basically Conforto looked ready to start the season, perhaps because he spent the offseason at home in Seattle hitting about five days a week against college and pro pitchers in the area.
“Beginning in December I like to hit almost every day,” he said after the workout. “I like to have that feeling of swinging a lot. I don’t like to lose that swing.”
That swing is a thing of beauty, as Conforto proved last season, coming up in July from Double-A at the age of 22 and playing an integral part in the Mets’ World Series season, hitting .270 over 56 games with 14 doubles, nine home runs, and an impressive .841 OPS.
Yet the swing is only part of what made him stand out. The plate discipline, the on-field poise and off-field maturity add up to “a kid who plays well above his years,” as hitting coach Kevin Long put it on Friday.
Still, it’s the swing that turns the heads of even fellow major-leaguers.
“They can see he’s special,” Long said. “Guys like (Neil) Walker and even (Yoenis) Cespedes, when they come over and first see him, they’re like, ‘holy cow, this guy is really, really good.’ “
All of which sets up perhaps one of the few difficult decisions for Terry Collins this season: how much does Conforto play? That is, does the manager continue to sit him against lefthanded pitching, as he did last season, as a way of juggling four outfielders.
Juan Lagares has astonished the Mets by coming to camp 20 pounds lighter, re-committing himself after a disappointing 2015 season, and ideally Collins would like to give him a fair amount of games in center field, especially if he is back to playing the defense that won him a Gold Glove in 2014.
But doing so would mean moving Yoenis Cespedes to left and bumping Conforto. Cespedes apparently would rather not play right field, but perhaps the Mets will move Conforto to right at times to spell Curtis Granderson.
Yoenis Cespedes (r.) shows a bat to teammate Michael Conforto.
As important as Granderson was last season, he hit only .183 against lefthanded pitching with a .558 OPS, and he’ll turn 35 in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, Collins has said all along he believes Conforto can hit lefthanded pitching, and platooned him last year mainly out of a sense of loyalty to the now-retired Michael Cuddyer.
Long more than seconds that belief.
“Oh, he can hit lefties,” Long said with a chuckle. “I’ll put everything I’ve got on that one.”
Long says David Wright has been needling Conforto, asking him when the “training wheels” are going to come off and he’s going to face lefties as well as righties, which amounts to a sign of respect.
“Everyone knows how good he can be,” Long said.
Conforto is typically confident, in a low-key way, on the issue.
“I’ve always hit lefthanded pitching at every level I’ve played,” he said. “I want to be in there every day but I realize I have to earn it.”
That’s what Wright and everyone else around the Mets loved immediately about Conforto last season, recognizing the self-assurance that allowed him to adapt quickly to the big leagues but also the awareness to understand his place as a rookie in the clubhouse.
Having parents who were high-level athletes, his father a Penn State linebacker, his mother an Olympic synchronized swimmer, helped him in that regard, Conforto says.
His swing, however, is all his, and eventually it will force the Mets to put him in the No. 3 spot in the lineup every day and let him mash.
Will it be this season? Batting practice is hardly the way to judge, but on Day One of spring training Conforto’s sweet swing was even more impressive than Harvey unleashed from last year’s Tommy John hangover.
In itself that was no small feat.
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