The New York Mets promoted top catching prospect Francisco Álvarez to the majors on Thursday, just in time for their three-game set against the Atlanta Braves. The Mets will enter Friday's opener in Atlanta with a one-game lead over the Braves in the National League East. Whichever team wins the division will, by virtue of having the NL's second-best record, gain a first-round bye. This would have been a big series regardless, but it's a critical one with less than a week to go in the regular season.
Álvarez's promotion, then, is an interesting wrinkle to the weekend series. He'll be making his debut at a time when most prospects are either wrapping up their years or are already enjoying the early days of their offseason. Why, precisely, did the Mets call him up for the waning days of the regular season -- and what can he provide them with? For answers to those questions and more, let's turn to a subhead format.
1. Why promote Álvarez now?
Álvarez's promotion is odd only in the sense that the Mets probably could (and should) have brought him up sooner. They are about to play their most pivotal series of the season to date, however, and that merits having the best possible roster at their disposal.
To wit, the Mets are going up against Max Fried on Friday night. Fried is a left-hander who is likely to garner Cy Young Award consideration this fall. Prior to Álvarez's promotion, manager Buck Showalter would have had to pick between Darin Ruf (.413 OPS with the Mets) and Mark Vientos (.559 since his promotion) for his right-handed DH. The Mets are banking on Álvarez being an immediate upgrade over either of them.
The Mets aren't scheduled to face another left-handed starter the rest of the way, but Álvarez could find himself taking important at-bats late in games, or whenever the Braves (or New York's subsequent opponent, the Washington Nationals) attempt to play the matchup game against Daniel Vogelbach or another left-handed hitter.
That seems like a lot to put on a rookie's shoulders -- is Álvarez up to the task?
2. What is Álvarez's game about?
Put simply, Álvarez is one of the best prospects in the game for a reason: he has big-time raw power and he's improved enough behind the plate to stay there.
Besides, Álvarez is a 20-year-old catcher who had split the season between Double- and Triple-A. In 112 contests, he had batted .260/.374/.511 with 27 home runs and 22 doubles. Those marks were impressive on their own, and fantastic when you consider his position and the fact he was more than three years younger than his average foe.
The Mets' catching combination of Tomás Nido and James McCann has struggled to produce at the plate this season. Nido has been, by far, the better of the two, and he's hit only .242/.279/.319 (72 OPS+) with two home runs in 302 plate appearances. Of course, Showalter might feel uneasy about plopping Álvarez behind the plate given his inexperience, both in the majors and with the Mets' pitching staff. Fair enough.
Álvarez may still provide value as a right-handed DH and pinch-hit option. In addition to his overall numbers listed above, he was particularly effective against left-handed pitchers. Indeed, in more than 130 plate appearances versus southpaws, he batted .315/.424/.595. Those marks are unlikely to translate 100 percent to The Show, but, to reiterate: Álvarez's slugging percentage versus lefties (.595) was almost equal to Nido's overall OPS (.598) and was well, well above McCann's (.519).
3. Could Álvarez play in the postseason?
Absolutely. Álvarez is still postseason-eligible despite not previously being on either the active or the 40-player roster.
Major League Baseball's postseason eligibility rules dictate that a "a player who doesn't meet said criteria for postseason eligibility can still be added to a team's roster in the postseason via petition to the Commissioner's Office," provided, that is, the player was already in the organization on Aug. 31 and is "replacing someone who is on the injured list and has served the minimum amount of time required for activation."
Álvarez was in the organization on Aug. 31, and the Mets have several players on the injured list, including young infielder Brett Baty who has been out with a torn thumb ligament since late August.
In other words, Álvarez's cameo could double as an audition for a chance at postseason glory.