Why Francisco’s Lindor’s leadership is a big asset to the Mets

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Francisco Lindor scanned the room for another challenger. He looked about ready to give up, taking a few steps toward the exit of the New York Mets’ clubhouse, when he spotted catcher Austin Allen, a non-roster invitee to major-league spring training, quietly sitting alone. Lindor retreated, picked up a small basketball and looked at the small hoop on the wall near his locker.

“Austin, do you want to do a round?” Lindor asked. “Come on, let’s do a round.”

After a few minutes of banked shots and step-back jumpers, Lindor won the quick mid-range shooting contest. Of course he did. “He’s good at everything,” Allen explained. But there was another victory below the surface: the strengthened connection between a team’s star player and a far less heralded newcomer.

“The fact that he’s here, around the guys, this early is important for all of us with what we are trying to do here,” Mets manager Carlos Mendoza said.

Before shooting hoops, Lindor held court with reporters. He explained Thursday how five days into spring training last year he realized something was wrong. He swung and missed at a pitch, and immediately felt pain. The swelling never came down, he said. He didn’t tell anyone about the injury until the final day of the regular season.

Francisco Lindor communicates often with teammates, passing along the wisdom veterans taught him as a young player. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

Lindor played 160 games of a 162-game season, delivered exquisite defense, stole 31 bases and hit 31 home runs with a bone spur in his throwing elbow that required surgery. On Thursday, Lindor said he never thought about telling the Mets’ medical staff of his issue earlier because “it’s part of being a professional athlete. You have your aches and pains and you manage it.”

“That’s just who he is,” Allen said.

Allen would know. The two players share the same agency (SportsMeter) and have worked out together along with others from the agency who live near each other in Florida since late 2015. Allen said that for years he has wanted an opportunity to play with Lindor.

One reason why?

“He’s a great leader,” Allen said.

For the Mets, Lindor’s brand of leadership — playing hurt, playing every day, being approachable to everyone, buying into the organization’s direction and mentoring young players all while producing — warrants acknowledgment as an asset to a club in transition with a first-year manager.

When all the position players report to camp, the Mets will have their full group of veterans that they relied on last year for leadership during a trying season. Last summer, players named Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso, Adam Ottavino and Lindor (along with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, who have since been traded) were part of a group that shared leadership responsibilities. On that list, Lindor ranks as the highest-paid player, the first major acquisition of owner Steve Cohen’s big-spending tenure.

After setting a record for the highest payroll in the sport’s history and then failing on a disappointing level, the Mets spent the winter in seemingly recalibration mode. They didn’t chase every top free agent and instead handed out a batch of one- and two-year deals after missing out on Yoshinobu Yamamoto, their lone big target. If things go right for the Mets in 2024, it will probably be because they received a mix of production from their veteran, well-known players and their unproven young ones.

That’s what makes Lindor’s words and — more importantly — his actions so important.

Late last season, Lindor mentioned something to Mark Vientos and Brett Baty about working out together in Florida at some point in the winter. During parts of spring training and the regular season last year, it wasn’t unusual to see Lindor offering a hands-on demonstration to Baty or Vientos about footwork or glovework. In the clubhouse, he’d make it a point to ask how they were doing. So Vientos — twice — and Baty — once, separate from Vientos’ stops — both took Lindor up on the offer.

In mid-December, shortly after his hiring with the Mets, third base coach Mike Sarbaugh smiled from one end of a phone call as Lindor, on the other end, told him about the plans. Sarbaugh previously worked for over 30 years with the Cleveland Guardians, Lindor’s former team. He remembered how veterans like Michael Brantley helped Lindor way back when. From Sarbaugh’s perspective as Lindor’s former infield coach, Lindor as a young player always loved the game, wanted to have fun and cared about working hard. Sarbaugh wasn’t at all surprised to hear of Lindor, now 31 years old, paying things forward.

“I thought that was awesome, especially for a player with what he has done in the game,” Sarbaugh said. “Just to show those younger players what he does to prepare for a season, and that this isn’t an easy game, that it takes work, not only during the season but in the offseason. For him to bring them and show them what he does, that can only help build their confidence on what they need to do. That was really good of him to do that. He didn’t need to. But it just showed he wants to help and it means a lot.”

The messaging from Lindor may be helping. Vientos showed up extra early to spring training. And Baty talked about how one big thing he learned from last year’s struggles was how quickly veterans turn the page. Baty admitted that there were times when he took his offensive struggles with him mentally to the field, which didn’t help. By comparison, even at the height of an early slump last year, Lindor always impressed defensively. There’s no guarantee that epiphanies from young players will lead to better results. But they can’t hurt.

By the looks of the Mets, they’ll need more from Baty and Vientos — they project to see a lot of time at third base and designated hitter — as they try to develop young players while looking to make the playoffs. The expectations around the Mets sound more muted than last year’s World Series-or-bust vibe. Despite all the spending, last year’s team failed. Now, new president of baseball operations David Stearns has stressed the importance of giving young players chances while still trying to compete. Lindor seemed to grasp that balance when he talked Thursday about the expectations.

“Every year you climb the stairs,” Lindor said. “For some people it might seem we’re going backwards, but I bought into the concept of a long-term deal. I am not here for one or two years. I keep on seeing that we are moving in the right direction. We have changed people along the way, but that is part of the process. I’m fully on board. I respect what they are doing and I am here to win and I keep on seeing good things that we’re headed in the right direction.”

The cynical response to Lindor’s words would be: Well, what would you want him to say, and what does it matter to the guy always rocking the best clothes, appearing in so many commercials and under contract for eight more years at around another $270 million? By that same line of thinking, though, Lindor didn’t have to keep playing last season, especially after the Mets became irrelevant by the trade deadline. He could’ve told the Mets he had enough; the injury gave him a legitimate reason to do so, anyway. But Lindor didn’t quit. He kept playing. He kept leading. Clearly, it didn’t matter much to the fate of the Mets in 2023, but it may end up helping them in the long run.

“From the outside, you think that he is like a flashy type of guy but that’s not really how he is at his core; he is more steady than anything else,” Ottavino said. “The way he talks to the team, it’s always positive. It’s not very overly emotional. That’s one aspect of his personality that really lends itself well to a quiet leadership style.”

(Photo of Francisco Lindor: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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