Travis d’Arnaud was so good last year that it was a little hard to remember that that was basically exactly how good he was supposed to be.
It also may have been hard to remember that his nickname, according to baseball-reference, is “Lil D,” probably becauase of his big brother Chase d’Arnaud. I will refer to him exclusively by that moniker for the rest of this post.
Lil D was drafted by the Phillies with the 37th overall pick of the 2007 draft, when he was barely 17. He was then traded for two Cy Young Award winners before ever making the majors, going to Toronto in the 2009 Roy Halladay deal, and then to New York along with Noah Syndergaard in the 2012 R.A. Dickey deal. By that point he was pretty uniformly regarded as a top-20 prospect in all of baseball.
And then… well, actually, what happened next wasn’t completely surprising. As John Sickels wrote in 2013, shortly after his callup:
Back in February, I wrote a Prospect Smackdown article comparing d’Arnaud with Mike Zunino of the Seattle Mariners, who is d’Arnaud’s primary competition as the top catching prospect in baseball. I concluded that I preferred Zunino very slightly because he was two years younger. Zunino has had his own set of problems this year. Catchers get hurt a lot and they often don’t have linear development curves.
Exactly: Lil D got hurt frequently, and didn’t have a linear development curve.
After the 2013 cup of coffee, over his next five seasons from 2014 to 2018, when he was age 24 to 29, Lil D averaged 73 games a year with a .248/.307/.418 batting line. Offensively, that’s completely fine — it’s nearly indistinguishable from Matt Wieters’s career .249/.313/.409, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career .232/.306/.408 — and the advanced metrics liked his glove, but he was seldom on the field and his offensive performance appeared to stall.
By the time Lil D’s 2018 season was ended after just four games by a UCL tear requiring Tommy John surgery, the New York Post was calling him “injury-haunted” and criticizing the Mets for relying upon him.
Actually, it’s worth dwelling a bit more on that injury history, which NJ.com helpfully catalogued here in 2016, before the 2018 UCL tear:
- 2010, Single-A: Herniated disc and back surgery
- 2012, Triple-A: Torn PCL in his left knee
- 2013, Triple-A: Fractured foot
- 2014, MLB: Concussion and elbow bone chips
- 2015, MLB: Fractured hand after HBP and hyperextended elbow
- 2016, MLB: Rotator cuff strain
(Whenever you’re talking about injured Mets players, it’s pretty reasonable to assign some blame to the team, as the Mets360 blog does here and Metsdaddy does here. As Jay Jaffe recounts, the team has a shocking history of poor injury management going all the way up to the ex-owners, the Wilpons, who frequently publicly accused star players of malingering. New York Mets players get reinjured a lot.)
Again, Lil D had been productive when healthy, but that caveat had simply become too great for the Mets, and it was hard to blame them: he’s been in professional baseball for 14 years, and he’s had 400 plate appearances in three seasons: 2009 (Single-A), 2011 (Double-A), and 2014 (MLB).
And then he opened the 2019 season 2-for-23.
So, the Mutts cut bait and released him in May, remaining on the hook for nearly $3 million of Lil D’s $3.515M salary, where they’d settled to avoid arbitration with him just a few months prior. The Dodgers picked him up off the scrap heap for the major league minimum, then almost immediately sold him to Tampa Bay. (“Traded for cash considerations.”)
And that’s how Lil D found himself in Tampa Bay, just like Mike Zunino. But unlike Zunino, he finally discovered the offensive potential he’d displayed in the minors. In a new league, facing a new set of pitchers, he again started slowly — 1-for-21 — but then something clicked. He went 2-for-4 on May 24 against Cleveland, and he’s really never stopped hitting. From May 24 to September 29, he hit .278/.336/.487 with 16 homers and 67 RBI in just 84 games, which ain’t bad for the league minimum.
The Braves liked what they saw and gave him his first free agent contract, making him one of Anthopoulos’s first multiyear free agent signings, paying him $16 million for two years of work. All Lil D did was proceed to tear the cover off the ball, to the tune of a .321/.386/.533 batting line — arguably his best full season of work in pro ball, and nearly identical to the .311/.371/.542 line he’d posted in Double-A New Hampshire in 2011 with the Jays, which rocketed his prospect status to the top echelon of minor league baseball.
In early November of this year, he was recognized with a Silver Slugger Award, naming him the best-hitting backstop in the Senior Circuit just a mere 13 years after the Phillies drafted him out of high school.
What a long, painful trip it’s been. He’s come into his own as the man he always was supposed to be. Whatever happens in the rest of his career, he’s earned his moment in the sun.
My advice to Anthopoulos is the same as my advice with Minter: kid gloves. Get him a serious caddy. If they think that’s Flowers, great; if they think it’s Jackson or Contreras, fine. They just need to plan for Lil D to play no more than 70% of the games this season. (That’s about 115 out of 162.) They can’t treat the regular season the way they treated the 2020 postseason, where they asked him to strap on the tools of ignorance every single night. He clearly wore down.
Next year, let’s just take him for what he is: a great hitter who’s over 30 and needs a good amount of regular rest. Don’t push it.