Mets catch a rising star in d'Arnaud

New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson insisted he needed "difference-makers" in return for NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.

Judging by praise from executives around baseball for catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, Alderson was wildly successful.

The Mets and Toronto Blue Jays announced the swap of Dickey as well as catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas for catcher John Buck and prospects Noah Syndergaard, Wuilmer Becerra and d'Arnaud on Monday.

"We viewed d'Arnaud, and I believe the industry views Travis, as the top catching prospect in the game," Alderson said. "And not just the top catching prospect, but the one who is closest to major league ready, if not now major league ready. In addition, we think his upside is such that he could be a significant player for us over the next many years.

"Understand he's only a prospect. Understand he has not done anything at the major league level. But given his ceiling, given his position and given what we think he can do not just long term for the Mets -- near term, medium term -- we think he can be a difference-maker."

Pacific Coast League hitters' statistics get inflated because of high altitude and dry conditions. The 23-year-old d'Arnaud's 2012 numbers in Triple-A -- .333 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 279 at-bats -- nonetheless look gaudy.

Of course, the gold standard for power-hitting catchers in Flushing is Mike Piazza, who averaged 37 homers per season from 1999-2002. D'Arnaud (pronounced Dar-no) may never reach that level, but he has power and a comparable approach.

"I think he can be a 20-home-run guy and be an average defender," said Phillies national crosschecker Jim Fregosi Jr., who watched d'Arnaud extensively before Philadelphia drafted him 37th overall in 2007 out of high school in Lakewood, Calif., and who also watched d'Arnaud in Double-A.

"I think he's going to be more of an offensive catcher. This kid has a chance to be a very good major league player. I wouldn't say that he's going to be Mike Piazza. That's a lot to put on anyone's shoulders."

Said former Yankees catcher Sal Fasano, who managed d'Arnaud in 2011: "Mike could drive the ball better to right field than anybody I've ever seen in my life. Travis has that same capability. I don't know if he's going to be as extravagant as Mike was. But I think 20 to 25 home runs is something that would be extremely reachable."

D'Arnaud actually is a fan of Piazza's. "Growing up as a catcher, I used him as my role model and tried to play like him and catch like him and hit like him," d'Arnaud said on a Tuesday conference call with New York media. "I'm really honored to be a part of the New York Mets, where he played as well."

Experts widely label the trade a no-brainer for Alderson -- similar to Carlos Beltran for right-hander Zack Wheeler in July 2011. The Mets are likely to finish in fourth or fifth place with or without Dickey next season. And they obtained d'Arnaud and the Class A right-hander Syndergaard -- both highly regarded prospects, whom the organization will control for six full years apiece in the majors.

"If you polled the 30 current GMs and asked them if they would trade Carlos Beltran and R.A. Dickey for the three players the Mets received, it's safe to say all 30 would agree with the Mets' strategy," an NL executive said.

Solely offering d'Arnaud -- whose brother Chase is an infielder who has appeared in 56 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- would not have completed the deal, Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos said. Syndergaard's inclusion cemented the trade. Indisputably, though, d'Arnaud is the centerpiece.

"Coming out of high school he was touted as a defensive-type catcher," Fregosi said. "He had arm strength. He was a baseball rat. As I saw him more, I started seeing the bat. This kid, as a young player, he could drive the ball the other way. And as he's matured as a player, he's become a very good offensive player. He's gained strength and the bat has come on. That's what made him a special prospect."

Marty Brown, who managed d'Arnaud in Triple-A, and Fasano raved about d'Arnaud's development behind the plate, including receiving pitches.

"He started out and he could receive OK," Fasano said about 2011, when d'Arnaud hit .311 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs in Double-A. "About the halfway point, something triggered in me where I thought he could be a really good defender. His hands are really strong. A lot of scouts you'll hear talk about 'soft hands.' Well, I really don't believe in soft hands. I believe in strong hands. And he learned how to control the ball into the strike zone. So basically his framing [pitches] got a whole lot better and he was able to manipulate the strike zone more and get more strikes, which I was happy about.

"He's really got a knack of blocking the plate. Just like any young kid, he just needs more time to hone those skills so he can become the good defender that I think he can be. Because we all know he can hit. Everybody [with Toronto] was always worried about his defense."

Said Brown: "I think he made more strides in Triple-A -- how to deal with older pitchers and how to call a good game for them. He did not necessarily follow a game plan. He was a little bit stubborn in what he thought needed to be done. But he always had an answer. He improved his hands in Triple-A. There were a lot of things he did that were not sound for upper levels and he made those adjustments, blocked very well. If you asked him a question -- 'Why'd you do this?' -- he always had an answer, which is very mature."

D'Arnaud's 2012 season ended June 25 with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. No surgery was required. Fasano believes d'Arnaud otherwise would have been promoted to the majors within two weeks. At the very least, a September call-up loomed.

"He went knee on knee with the second baseman, trying to break up a double play," Brown recalled. "That's kind of Travis' M.O. He plays hard. And, really, he probably did too much on that play -- a little bit of a sign of immaturity. He'll learn from it."

D'Arnaud does have an injury history. He a suffered a torn left thumb ligament playing with Team USA in the IBAF Baseball World Cup, which required October 2011 surgery. A bulging disc caused missed time in 2010.

By coincidence, d'Arnaud appears likely to open 2013 where he finished last season. The Mets and Jays have flipped Triple-A affiliates, with the Mets now in Las Vegas. D'Arnaud may serve as the batterymate for Wheeler on Opening Day. He needs to spend at least the season's first 20 days in the minors to delay free-agency eligibility from after the 2018 season to after '19.

Brown noted another reason to justify a conservative pace with d'Arnaud: a tendency for slow starts, including sitting at .188 two weeks into last season.

"He's always been an infamous slow starter," Brown said. "I mean, people have to be patient with him. I don't know what it is. The last two, three seasons, April has never been a good month for him. But he never panics."

How will d'Arnaud ultimately handle New York?

"I don't think he's a very boisterous guy," Fasano said. "And I don't think he's a David Wright. That's really tough to compare anybody to, because David is such a friendly face and he always looks so good in the media. Travis is a California kid, and sometimes he looks like he might not …"

Fasano paused, then addressed d'Arnaud's seemingly laid-back approach.

Fasano resumed: "He cares a lot. I think he won't back off from anything and I think he'll be up to challenges. As for the media, I don't know. I think he really impressed some people over the years with his work ethic, because it's a lot better than people thought. Because he's one of those California kids, they weren't sure how he worked. But with me, we set a routine. We worked every day."

D'Arnaud now has been traded for two Cy Young winners. The Phillies sent him to Toronto with fellow prospects Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor for Roy Halladay on Dec. 16, 2009.

Fregosi views the trades similarly.

"Any time you're giving up a prospect that you like in your system, it's agonizing," Fregosi said. "The bottom line is when you have a team that has a chance to go to the playoffs and possibly the World Series, it's less agonizing because you know you're doing something for now, and the other team sometimes it's for the future.

"Hopefully trades like that, and this trade, work out for both teams. One team is in a little bit of a rebuilding mode and the other team is trying to win next year. Those are good baseball trades, and you can feel good about that."