Reality is he will probably end up something between those two. For sake of fun, let's look at the possibilities for either extreme and what could lead someone to believe he will end up a superstar in baseball or, conversely, a complete bust.
For those unfamiliar, Dominic Smith is a first base prospect in the Mets system. He was drafted out of high school in Southern California as a pure 1st baseman in 2013 and after a short stint in short season ball, got a 2014 assignment to Savannah. This year he has played for St. Lucie and has done well, especially after a slow start. You can see his player stats below:
Statistically, Dominic Smith has the profile of a good average/contact hitter with gap/doubles power and a good eye. Recently, Dominic Smith has gotten some attention from prospect experts doing their top mid-season lists.
John Sickels reported that Smith would rank somewhere around the 100-120 top prospect range and Keith Law, in a bit of a surprise, ranked Smith the 40th best prospect in all of baseball at this point, noting that the HR power will come and he already owns an elite glove and a plus hit tool. While Law warns about his weight (in his prospect chat you can read here), he asserts that "the power is there".
Other gurus are split on him. Bloggers are split on him. Here is the main debate:
Pro: Dominic Smith is an elite defender with a plus hit tool. The HR power will come and he will be an All-Star first baseman.
Con: First baseman need to hit homers. Smith does not hit homers.
If we take these viewpoints to the extreme, you could see how one path leads you to penciling Smith in as a middle-order star hitter who complements his prowess at the plate with Rico Brogna level defense at first with the best 1B arm in baseball.
You can also see how the other would look at eight career home runs in 1000+ minor league plate appearances and opine that a team already starved for offense and home run power cannot survive with a first baseman who hits home runs at the same rate as Juan Lagares.
I see both viewpoints. Simply put, Dominic Smith needs to hit more homers if he wants to be the first baseman of the future for the Mets ball club. In the past ten years, 240 first baseman seasons or part time first baseman seasons (qualified PA) have been logged. Only 16 of those seasons saw home run totals in the single digits and the peak WAR of those seasons was a meddling 1.7 by Joe Mauer last year:
It is not a very pretty list. Many of these seasons are split with other positions (DH, OF) but it does not change the poor value these players accumulated while logging major time at first base. A whopping 6 out of 16 of these seasons were below replacement level, five were between replacement level and 1.0 WAR and only five were above 1.0 WAR. None reached the 2 WAR mark.
Yes, defensive metrics for first baseman are still fickle but first base is also an offensive position. Home runs do not have nearly the same correlation to offensive value as other important statistics like on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or weighted stats like wRC+ or wOBA but there is correlation between value for a first baseman and how many home runs they hit. For contrast, the worst WAR mark for the top 16 home run seasons by a 1B in the past 10 years is 2.9 by Ryan Howard in 2008. Second worst is also Howard's at 3.1 in 2007 and after that, each of the other 14 in the top 16 accumulated more than 4.3 WAR.
The question with Dominic Smith is, "Will the power come"?
Some believe it is already there. Consider these points:
- Smith has hit an absurd number of doubles. 66 in 255 games, to be precise. That comes out to 52 over 162 games. The Mets all time record is 44 by Bernard Gilkey in 1996.
- Smith played half of his professional games in Savannah and the SALLY, a stadium and league notorious for sucking power away from mashers, especially left-handed hitters (humidity, big parks, tough wind patterns. Talk to anyone who has played or watched games regularly in Savannah and they will tell you how difficult it is hitting there and especially so as a LHH). Smith hit one home runs there. In the 129 games outside that league and stadium, he has hit seven. No, that is still not a lot, but his Savannah numbers drag everything down.
- St. Lucie is also a pitcher's league. Keith Law suggested that a promotion to double-A would result in more homers by Dominic Smith. Despite the better competition, Law might be right. It is easier to hit home runs in the Eastern League than the Florida State League.
- Dominic Smith is very young and power is typically the last tool to develop. We forget that Dominic Smith is still just 20 years old. He is the age of a college junior and he is gunning for a promotion to Double-A already. He could make the big leagues by the time he is 21 when most college draftees are still adjusting to wood bats. Power takes time to get there. Adrian Gonzalez, the player I think best represents Dominic Smith's absolute ceiling as a player, hit zero home runs in his first 265 plate appearances as a professional. Gonzalez, also a teenager drafted out of high school in California, followed that up with back-to-back solid but unspectacular 17 homer seasons then regressed to five total home runs as a 21-year-old in double-A and triple-A. No, Smith has not had that 17 home run season yet but the point is that power takes time to develop, especially for young hitters. Adrian Gonzalez had a swing scouts drooled over. So does Smith. Watch his swing and tell me he won't develop some serious home run power.
To conclude, I am on the "wait and see" camp when it comes to Dominic Smith. I love his defense, I love his swing and I love his advanced approach at the plate for such a young player. The Mets also have the luxury of time with him. While they may want to extend Lucas Duda, they do not have to just yet. They still have a couple years of arbitration with Lucas to figure out what Smith is as a hitter (and what Lucas Duda is as a hitter for that matter). Personally, I think Smith has a chance to be a special player. However, if he never grows into that home run power, he will not be able to survive as a major league first baseman, even if the glove is elite. Some people think he could become an outfielder but given his size and recent weight gain, I am not sure that is an experiment worth taking, even though he does possess a 70 throwing arm.
If I had to choose one of the above, give me "Future star" 10 out of 10 times. I see much more of that in Smith than I do a bust. The swing is just too good and the rest of his game too polished already for a young player for him not to be good. Don't let the park/league numbers fool you into thinking Smith doesn't have power. He does. It is only a matter of time before his doubles start going over the wall for home runs.