Michael Conforto returned a month earlier than anticipated from shoulder surgery, immediately immersed himself into the Mets’ early-season success, and that combination was seen as symbolic of where the team and the player were heading this season.
Except it wasn’t. Conforto, in fact, might have returned too soon, and now the Mets are at least considering if he would benefit from a minor-league stint to try to get his swing right.
The Mets even had been contemplating sending Conforto down when Yoenis Cespedes returned from the DL, which they had hoped would be Tuesday in Atlanta. But the Mets announced Cespedes had to be removed from a rehab game at Double-A Saturday night with tightness in his right quad.
One team source had described flipping Cespedes for Conforto as the most likely scenario, another called it a consideration and a third said sending Conforto to the minors has been a steady internal discussion and that doing it when Cespedes returns had been among the options.
Nothing was cemented. The Mets have a lot of moving pieces and a lot of issues on their menu. Conforto was in the lineup Saturday night and was expected to be Sunday against Luis Severino as well, and the Mets are in such desperate need of offense that they would happily reverse their thinking should Conforto put together a few games reminiscent of his starry 2017.
The Mets continue to believe that their best 2018 team – and beyond – has Conforto as a central figure. But not this version. Conforto went into Saturday hitting .223 with just one extra-base hit in his past 11 games. His groundball rate was significantly up from last season and his line-drive rate down.
Met officials have come to believe an abbreviated spring training and/or the lingering impact from shoulder surgery have caused the downslide and that Conforto might benefit from a few weeks of steady Triple-A at-bats away from the Met struggles.
Conforto, though, said, “Triple-A is not an answer. I’ve been through that. I have done all I can do down there. I play at this level, that’s it.”
Conforto dislocated his left shoulder and tore his posterior capsule swinging last Aug. 24. The Mets initially were targeting May 1 for a return. But Conforto looked good when finally allowed into games late in spring and was leading off for the Mets on April 5, the fifth game of the season. He homered in that game. But the euphoria about his and the team’s start soon dissipated.
Conforto insists, “I feel healthy, strong, fine.” But he also said his injury/surgery on the back shoulder of a hitter is rather unique without a lot of comparisons possible. Like a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery who needs time to regain feel even while feeling great, Conforto might be lacking full command of his swing and need more time to get that back.
What all involved pretty much agree upon is that trying to make up for lost time in spring training, Conforto formed – in his words – “some bad habits.” Pitchers particularly challenged him with fastballs early in the season, and adaption to that style messed with Conforto’s timing, hitting coach Pat Roessler said. Conforto explained that recently he just has not controlled the strike zone nor let the ball travel enough before swinging.
Would 75-100 at-bats for Las Vegas help with that? The Mets are searching for alternatives that might defibrillate their offense. Mickey Callaway restructured the lineup Saturday with Brandon Nimmo moved to third because the Mets manager wanted more RBI chances for the player on the team hitting best.
The rise of Nimmo has imperiled, at minimum, playing time for Conforto and possibly his roster spot. Callaway told me a few days ago that when Cespedes returns, Cespedes and Nimmo are going to play daily. That means one outfield spot remains for Jay Bruce and Conforto. Bruce is struggling as much as Conforto (maybe more), but has a three-year, $39 million contract and no minor-league options.
The Mets also are mulling how long they want to go with Adrian Gonzalez – yet another struggling lefty hitter. Bruce or perhaps at some point even Cespedes could move to first to alleviate the outfield logjam. Plus, they have to figure how to get Wilmer Flores back on the roster with Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista facing roster jeopardy, plus the Mets were still carrying three catchers.
But, in the short term, the Mets are simply looking for any way to score more runs. Conforto was the best hitter on a poor offensive team last year before incurring his injury. The Mets badly want to recapture that guy and are at least open to the idea that the best route is to get Conforto going at Triple-A.
“I feel good things are coming,” Conforto said. “There is plenty of time left (in the season).”
Will it all be spent with the Mets?
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