LOS ANGELES — Mets All-Star outfielder Starling Marte looked like he was on a recruiting mission. He cheered Juan Soto throughout the Home Run Derby. He coached Soto. He cajoled Soto. And ultimately, when Soto won the Derby with a flourish, topping fellow wunderkind Julio Rodriguez in the final, Marte was there to hold the Home Run Derby trophy while Soto did the winners interview.
Marte and the Mets can do all the recruiting they like, but ultimately, of course, the call where Soto goes is in the hands of the Nationals’ honchos. They will decide the question on everyone’s mind in baseball: Where is Soto going (if he’s going)?
Marte’s efforts surely were appreciated by Soto, but Nats people probably didn’t even notice. They are intent on trying to find the team that will pay the enormous price for one baseball’s greatest assets – a 23-year-old superstar with two-and-a-half years to go before free agency.
They will seek out whoever makes the best offer, with one caveat. And that is where the Mets come in. The Nats aren’t going to want to constantly see Soto in the other dugout for the next two-and-a-half years. As much as anyone, they understand the power of Soto, and aren’t going to want to face him up close going forward.
Teams hoping to land Soto will have to send four or more worthwhile pieces back, but realistically, the Mets (or Braves or Phillies or Marlins) would surely have to pay an enormous premium. And the Mets probably have even less chance than the other divisional long shots as the Nats can only imagine that if Soto goes to Queens, as Joel Sherman pointed out to me, Mets owner Steve Cohen, a billionaire a reported 17 times over, has two-and-a-half years to figure out how to pay him and keep him those 15 years the Nats wanted.
So while Marte’s kindness is nice, and Cohen’s largesse is always a plus, the reality is the Mets will almost surely have to survey all the second choices to find the hitter they covet. And they do need a hitter. Mets president Sandy Alderson made that clear last on The Post podcast “The Show,” and things have only disintegrated from there.
While there is only one Soto — a generational type talent, the kind of which is almost never traded — there are some pretty fair second choices.
Without further ado, here’s how the Mets should order the best of the next best (after Soto):
1. Josh Bell
Bell should be here in LA. He’s had that good of a first half. He’s a productive switch hitter who’d fit nicely behind Mets All-Star Pete Alonso. And while he’s Soto’s teammate, he’s a free agent — which means the Nats would more seriously consider sending him to the Mets. While Bell is an improving first baseman, he also isn’t that good that you’d have to move Alonso off first base, which might crush Alonso’s spirit. And you don’t want to do anything to affect Alonso, the RBI leader with 78.
2. CJ Cron
Mets people seem to love him. He’d also fit beautifully behind Alonso, and also fit nicely into the DH slot. Cron said here that he loves playing in Colorado (what hitter doesn’t?). Of course it’s up to the Rockies, who don’t love to trade their better players. The Rockies didn’t deal Trevor Story or Jon Gray last year, and they were free agents to be. Cron has another year to go.
3. Trey Mancini
He may be No. 3 on this list (like his name suggests) but he’s the sentimental choice for a couple reasons. He overcame colon cancer, and he did it with as much courage and grace as possible. Second, he is a mensch. The Orioles moved the left-field wall back almost to the Babe Ruth Museum – 26 ½ feet – to attract pitchers to come to Camden, and Mancini hasn’t complained once. He can also hit.
4. Willson Contreras
The Cubs All-Star wants to stay (who wouldn’t want to stay a Cub?) even though the North Siders have shown no interest in keeping him long-term. There are some questions about his catching, but the Mets aren’t desperate to replace the defensively strong James McCann despite his surprising offensive outage. Anyway, Contreras can hit enough to DH. The suspicion here is that there are teams with more intense catching needs (San Francisco?) that will play here.
5. Nelson Cruz
He isn’t quite the hitter he was but he’d still represent an upgrade, and like Bell, he’s another player the Nats would presumably be willing to send to their rival.
6. Andrew Benintendi
The Royals All-Star outfielder wouldn’t answer the question about the vaccination again here but the Mets don’t have any trips to Toronto and will consider. He’s a fine contact hitter but isn’t showing the type of power the four above him are. As a bonus, he’s a Gold Glove left fielder, which would round out an excellent group, with Brandon Nimmo, who should be here, plus Marte, who will almost surely have to settle for his second choice.
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