Mets outfielder Michael Conforto looked like one of the brightest young stars in baseball last season, his age-24 campaign, when he slashed .279/.384/.555 with 27 home runs and racked up 4.3 fWAR. Conforto piled up those stellar numbers over just 440 plate appearances before undergoing season-ending left shoulder surgery in early September, and because of that injury, the Mets went into the winter unsure of what he’d provide in 2018.
To Conforto’s credit, he worked his way back to the Mets’ lineup a few weeks earlier than expected, making his season debut on April 5. At that point, New York was amid a red-hot start that would see the team collect 11 wins in its first 12 games. Two months later, the Mets are a lowly 27-34, owners of the third-worst record in the National League and the NL’s second-worst offense by runs scored (235).
Even though he owns the majors’ 11th-best walk percentage (15.1), Conforto hasn’t really been part of the solution, having hit an uninspiring .219/.340/.365 line with seven homers in 212 PAs. The Mets even pinch-hit for him in the ninth inning of a one-run loss to the Yankees on Saturday, electing to sit the left-handed Conforto in favor of the righty-swinging Devin Mesoraco with southpaw Aroldis Chapman on the mound.
Unfortunately for Conforto, there may be a more significant demotion on the way if he doesn’t turn his season around soon. The Mets have considered sending Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas to work through his issues, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports. The likelihood of that has decreased over the past day, Sherman notes, given that fellow outfielder Yoenis Cespedes suffered a setback in his injury rehab on Saturday. Had Cespedes remained on track, New York may well have optioned Conforto upon the veteran’s return. For his part, Conforto – whom the Mets previously sent to the minors during a disappointing 2016 – doesn’t believe he’d benefit from another trip to Vegas.
“Triple-A is not an answer. I’ve been through that,” he said. “I have done all I can do down there. I play at this level, that’s it.”
While Conforto understandably wants to remain in the majors, the Mets may have an outfield logjam on their hands when Cespedes does come back. He and the emergent Brandon Nimmo will be guaranteed starting jobs, manager Mickey Callaway informed Sherman, leaving one everyday spot for the struggling Jay Bruce (in the first season of a three-year, $39MM contract) and Conforto. Both players are lefty hitters, so the Mets wouldn’t be able to simply platoon them, and Conforto has options remaining. As such, the Mets may send him down so he’ll continue receiving consistent at-bats.
In another scenario, Sherman points out that Bruce and/or Cespedes could see time at first, which would perhaps spell the end of the Adrian Gonzalez era. The Mets brought Gonzalez in over the winter as a league-minimum free agent, but it hasn’t worked to this point. They’re mulling how much longer they want to go with Gonzalez, Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista – three mid-30-somethings whose best days appear long gone. Moving on from some or all of that group instead of demoting Conforto would seem to make more sense for a New York club that doesn’t look as if it’s going to contend this season, though it seems Conforto’s going to have to make a case for a roster spot as the team awaits Cespedes’ return.
While Conforto’s bottom-line production has declined this year, his underlying numbers have also worsened. After running up a .385 expected weighted on-base average a year ago, he’s at .332 this season. That’s still above the .321 league average, though it’s not the borderline elite figure he posted in 2017, when he averaged a 95.2 mph exit velocity on fly balls/line drives and made 95 mph-plus contact on 43.2 percent of batted balls. This season, Conforto has posted a 92.3 mph mean on flies/liners and seen his rate of 95 mph-plus contact drop to 32.8. Further, Conforto’s line drive rate has dropped off considerably since 2017 (from 24.4 percent to 17.7), while both his groundball percentage (37.8 to 41.9) and infield fly rate (10.1 percent to 14.0) have increased to discouraging degrees.
All of the above has helped add up to Conforto’s subpar start and may lead to a minor league demotion sometime soon. For now, he and his team, losers of eight straight (all at home), are left to dig out of a deep hole. Having scored just 10 runs this month, during which Conforto has batted .080/.207/.200 in 29 PAs, the Mets sit 8.5 games out in both their division and a crowded NL wild-card race.