Matt den Dekker's defensive prowess and pure speed -- the biggest attributes keeping him in Mets camp -- were on full display Monday against the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
In the fifth inning, the speedy center fielder dazzled the road crowd by ranging deep into the left-center-field gap and robbing Detroit outfielder Austin Jackson of an extra-base hit. The impressive grab was just the latest in a series of highlight-reel catches made this spring by the 25-year-old prospect.
This particular catch marked the final out of starter Jon Niese's 4 2/3-inning scoreless outing, earning high praise from the southpaw.
"It was amazing. He plays a great outfield," Niese said. "It's great to have that defense behind you. It's really important. Obviously, he saves a lot of pitchers a lot of runs with those kinds of catches. Not too many people in the game can make those kinds of catches. It's real important to have guys like that."
Added manager Terry Collins: "Defensively, I'm not sure we've got anybody better."
While all that may be true, den Dekker also put on display Monday the one glaring weakness that may keep him from nabbing one of the Mets' final roster spots out of Spring Training. New York isn't in any position to sacrifice anything offensively in its lineup -- and that's where the problem lies with den Dekker.
Prior to his sensational catch, den Dekker struck out twice against Tigers starter Justin Verlander, including once after being ahead in the count, 3-0, with a runner at third base and only one out. Though he later added a run-scoring single, den Dekker finished the day 1-for-4 and is hitting just .222 this spring, with 10 strikeouts in 27 at-bats.
"He's working on some things," Collins said. "He's really trying to be a little more selective at the plate. The one situation [Monday] where he had the guy at third and less than two outs and he got 3-0 on the best pitcher in the game, you've got to be ready to attack. You can't let him get back in the count like he did. But he's trying to get something he can handle."
Naturally, when a young player struggles in one facet of the game while excelling in another, the thought of a possible platoon situation arises. Yet with the Mets needing pinch-hitting options on the bench late in games, reserving a roster spot for a defensive specialist of sorts isn't exactly ideal.
"Everybody talks about platooning," Collins said. "But if you're going to be a platoon player, you've got to be able to do something off the bench in the National League -- not just play defense."
However, den Dekker doesn't consider himself simply a defensive replacement-type player. After all, he hit a blistering .340 with eight homers in 58 games at Double-A Binghamton last year to earn a midseason promotion to Triple-A Buffalo. He couldn't find the same stroke with the Bisons, though, hitting just .220 with nine homers, while striking out 90 times in 77 games.
"I was squaring everything up [at Binghamton]," den Dekker said. "Early in the count, if I was getting a pitch to hit, I wasn't missing it. That's the key for me -- I've got to hit those pitches that are mistakes in the middle of the plate. And if I get two strikes, I've just got to try to put it in play and use my legs."
All of that is obviously easier said than done, but if he is able to find his groove at the plate, the door is wide open for den Dekker to break camp with the Mets. If not, he'll start the season treating fans at Las Vegas to a show in center field, while continuing to battle at the plate.
For now, den Dekker is focused on using the rest of Spring Training to prove he can be an everyday contributor -- and not just in the field -- at the Major League level.
"I think I can," den Dekker said. "I'm getting an opportunity to get some at-bats this spring and I'm trying to make the most out of it. I'm just trying to go out there and put together some good at-bats."