Yesterday afternoon, John Buck continued his early-season offensive prowess, smashing a solo home run off Huston Street in the 9th inning that proved to be the Mets’ only run in a 2-1 loss to San Diego. In the first series of 2013, Buck hit .500 with two home runs, five RBIs, and even some hustle to score the team’s inaugural run.
Buck’s history at the plate indicates that he will eventually cool off in a big way. A career .236 hitter, he batted just .192 in 106 games for Miami last year, and the consensus around Flushing is that a whole season with Buck won’t be any better than last year’s less-than-fearsome foursome of Josh Thole, Mike Nickeas, Rob Johnson, and Kelly Shoppach.
But while Buck is far from a great hitter, his skill and experience as a catcher trump every one of last year’s backstops, and right now they even trump those of the centerpiece of the deal that sent Thole and Nickeas to Toronto along with R.A. Dickey. Even though John Buck rode into New York on the coattails of Travis d’Arnaud, he remains the best option for the Mets at catcher for at least the first half of the 2013 season, if not longer.
Buck’s intimate knowledge of opposing hitters is well-documented; he’s already a major hit with New York’s starting staff because he calls a game with the best of them. Buck’s flair for getting pitchers out of tough spots will be especially helpful for developing arms like Matt Harvey and Dillon Gee. Whereas last year they were getting their signs from Josh Thole, who was as young and inexperienced as they were, this year they’re getting their marching orders from a true field general. Buck is exactly the kind of catcher Harvey, Gee, and eventually Zack Wheeler need to develop into cornerstones of the Mets’ rotation. He’s just what the doctor ordered for the talented but inconsistent Bobby Parnell, Jenrry Mejia, and Jeurys Familia as well; don’t expect many more repeats of yesterday’s shakiness from Familia with Buck behind the plate.
He may be just a placeholder, but as far as placeholders go, John Buck will make his place look awfully good. So what happens when d’Arnaud, the anointed one, comes up from Vegas to move into that place? Mets fans may be eager to scrap the 32-year-old Buck in favor of the 24-year-old probable superstar-to-be. New is always better, right?
Not in a situation where you’ve got a majority of pitchers who are just as major-league raw as the guy sending them the signals. While d’Arnaud and his young colleagues will be keys to the future of the franchise, they’ll all still be learning to turn the locks at the same time. Even when Travis d’Arnaud makes the jump to the big show, assumedly sometime around Memorial Day, it would be wise for Terry Collins to split playing time between him and Buck based on who’s on that hill that particular day. To be clear, opposing pitching matchups should not be taken into account; as the everyday catcher of tomorrow, d’Arnaud will need to know how to hit both righties and lefties. No, this platoon will be determined by his team’s own pitcher. On days when the young guns are starting, have the steady hand of Buck leading the way. When more experienced starters Jonathon Niese and Shaun Marcum are up, let the youngster d’Arnaud out to give it a spin.
As anxious as fans are to see tomorrow’s team today, the Mets will want to make sure Travis d’Arnaud is up to full speed after missing half of last season with injury. Sandy Alderson may also be looking to keep him in Las Vegas for as long as possible in order to hold off impending Super-2 free agency. What John Buck’s presence means is that d’Arnaud can take his sweet time in the minors. If 2013 truly is a lost season for the New York Mets, if the true feast doesn’t start until next year, why rush the meat into the oven? The best thing to do is to let it thoroughly marinate in the seasoning of a Buck.