In calling up Brett Baty, Mets get a taste of the obstacles they must navigate to emulate the Dodgers

The New York Mets are summoning top third-base prospect Brett Baty for Monday’s series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers after his scorching start at Triple-A and incumbent veteran Eduardo Escobar’s slow takeoff. In doing so, the Mets are quickly flipping the switch on a spring decision that raised eyebrows across the game.

Baty made his MLB debut last season, logging 11 games and two homers before a thumb injury sidelined him. Ranked the No. 17 overall prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus this winter, Baty racked up strong numbers in spring training, yet found himself on the outside of the roster picture looking in when the Mets broke camp. Pushed to explain that decision as younger prospects such as Anthony Volpe and Jordan Walker landed in contendersOpening Day lineups, GM Billy Eppler offered a line reminiscent of the old service-time games — which wouldn’t apply in Baty’s case unless the team kept him down until June.

“You learn by playing a lot, and while he had a great camp, we’re really excited about his future. There’s just some more development markers left for him to reach,” Eppler told reporters in March.

Those markers, apparently, were met in Baty’s nine minor-league games batting .400 with five homers. Or in Escobar’s 14 major-league games limping to a .125/.173/.229 slash line even as the Mets managed a 10-6 start. The jovial Escobar, beloved in clubhouses around the league, is guaranteed $10 million more from the Mets — technically $9.5 million for this season and a $500,000 buyout of next year’s club option — on a deal he signed prior to last season.

He made the immediate ripple effects of the move easier by accepting the implications gracefully.

“[Baty] deserves everything he’s getting right now, now that he’s getting called up,” Escobar told Newsday Sunday. “He’s put in the work. He deserves to come up here and play and do what he does because he’s that good of a player. He’s the future of this team.”

But the Baty hesitation, combined with manager Buck Showalter’s tentative approach to playing catcher Francisco Alvarez, has Steve Cohen’s very expensive ball club under a very hot spotlight as it tries to balance Nouveau Riche World Series contender status with the goal of becoming a well-oiled baseball winning machine. It’s a fascinating, novel moment in Mets history, yet it might feel familiar to the executives and coaches who’ll be just across the way at Dodger Stadium this week.

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, made the leap from the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2015 season, two-and-a-half years after the Mark Walter-led Guggenheim Partners purchased the Dodgers from Frank McCourt. With the budget-strapped Rays, Friedman showed how much constraints can enhance creativity. His old club, run by his former lieutenants, is still amazing the baseball world by defying the supposed gravity of finances. Friedman, though, has had to figure out life without gravity, with almost limitless funds and similarly untethered expectations.

These days, everyone recognizes that outside of cracking the nonexistent code to winning multiple World Series titles, Friedman has overseen the building of a behemoth. That’s why Cohen has mentioned “East Coast Dodgers” as a guiding light, a mandate for Eppler, Showalter and the rest of the Mets organization.

Friedman’s operation wasn’t perfect from day one, though. In his first few years shepherding the Dodgers, he executed a maximalist Rays-with-resources approach to augmenting the pitching staff, first divvying short-term deals to health risks in Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson, Brandon Beachy and the like, then making some more successful bets on Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill as the homegrown talent started to appear.

And while the Dodgers offer a point of contrast to the Mets in 2023 — they put faith in rookies Miguel Vargas and James Outman to begin the season in the lineup — that confidence didn’t arrive overnight. When they were in the Mets’ current phase, manager Dave Roberts & Co. dealt with some similar quandaries. Ross Stripling, L.A.’s equivalent of David Peterson or Tylor Megill, outpitched many of the veteran free-agent additions but was often relegated to the bullpen. Accomplished first baseman Adrian Gonzalez saw his role evaporate as Cody Bellinger charged to the majors. Clayton Kershaw and other big-name pitchers teetered on a razor’s edge between alarming injury scares and overly cautious absences.

Googling Roberts’ name will prove that navigating all these considerations isn’t always smooth sailing, even as the rest of the league looks at the Dodgers as a model franchise for team owners with means (beyond even the normal team owner level of means).

But what happened after those initial steps is what made the Dodgers the Dodgers. They started nailing those veteran starter bets. They got so good at developing and improving hitters — including no-cost acquisitions Max Muncy and Chris Taylor — that tidy position battles gave way to a sprawling game of positional Tetris. They brought up prospects with similar pedigrees to Baty, such as Gavin Lux, and wedged them in where they could, despite not having full-time spots to hand out. They traded others for stars, including a half-season of Max Scherzer.

The surplus is the point. The challenge is distinguishing surplus from excess and, ideally, having processes that sometimes convert one into the other.

It remains to be seen if the Mets can do that. Certainly Eppler — who oversaw the top-heavy Angels in his only previous GM gig — doesn’t have the same track record as Friedman, but these early days in the promotions of Baty and Alvarez, as well as the delicate dance of managing Scherzer and Justin Verlander, are not going to be decisive, no matter how worrisome they might appear. These are just the first hurdles in the ambitious, far-from-guaranteed transition from financial superpower to baseball superpower.

The real battle is helping those young players succeed when the list of alternatives has almost no restrictions. It’s scoring the competition for those 26 roster spots with long-term interests in mind while recognizing the short-term pressures of a record-setting payroll.

No one wants to hear complaints from a baseball team with a massive budget and some stellar prospects, but these are the Mets’ problems now. They were the Dodgers’ problems a few years ago. They are the problems only money can buy.

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