PORT ST. LUCIE — Adrian Gonzalez arrived to spring training expecting something of a competition for the Mets first-base job, but may have already won it by default.
As Dominic Smith remains sidelined by a quadriceps injury that has limited him to one appearance this spring, with fewer than two weeks of exhibition games remaining, the 35-year-old Gonzalez is preparing to begin the season at first base to resurrect a career that was in peril last year because of back problems.
Though Gonzalez is hardly reinforcing the idea he can be a productive piece in the Mets lineup — he is hitting .192 in 26 at-bats in the Grapefruit League — he remains confident his career will have a second act.
“As a veteran guy I am not going into spring training to try to impress people, I am trying to work on things,” said Gonzalez, who was signed by the Mets as a free agent this offseason following his release from the Braves, who acquired him in a trade with the Dodgers.
Revisiting the series of transactions that brought him to the Mets, the former All-Star told The Post he only agreed to waive his no-trade clause with the Dodgers after the team offered him additional compensation. Gonzalez indicated he said no to the trade five times before agreeing to the deal, with the promise he would be released by the Braves.
So what changed his mind?
“We had some internal discussions, let’s put it that way,” Gonzalez said smiling. “The Dodgers sweetened the deal every single time.”
Gonzalez is receiving $22.3 million for the final year of his contract — in addition to the buyout of his no-trade clause — but the Mets’ contribution is just $549,000. It’s similar to the low-risk gamble the club took with Jose Reyes in 2016, following his release by the Rockies.
Gonzalez insists he is fine physically, and his offensive production will increase. He cited his previous five springs, in which he struggled at the plate before rebounding at the start of the season.
“I think he’s just not totally comfortable at the plate yet,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “The good part is he is probably going to get another 30 at-bats before the end of spring and he’s a professional hitter. I think his approach is good.”
Gonzalez’s defense has been another story.
“He looks amazing,” Callaway said. “He slows it down, great fielder, picks balls at first. You saw the [Amed] Rosario throw early in camp where it was kind of up and [Gonzalez] just made it look easy.”
Gonzalez became expendable to the Dodgers with the arrival last season of Cody Bellinger, who emerged as the National League Rookie of the Year. And Gonzalez, who played only 71 games because of three bulging disks in his back, says he helped with the transition at first base.
“I went on the DL so [Bellinger] could stay in the big leagues, they were going to send him down,” Gonzalez said. “You want what is best for the team.”
Just the idea that Gonzalez can possibly replicate the level of his last full season — he posted a respectable .784 OPS in 2016 — is enough to grab the attention of the veterans in the Mets clubhouse.
“This guy is a marquee offensive player and he’s got Gold Gloves at first base,” Jay Bruce said. “He is a guy who has been through a lot, learned how to take care of himself. He’s had some injuries, he’s a pro.
“He’s bilingual, which maybe sounds funny, but it means a lot. We have one of the best young prospects in the game [Rosario] playing shortstop every day and to have someone like Adrian Gonzalez there to kind of assist him along the way is really important.”
As the Mets continued to show interest throughout the offseason, Gonzalez said he consulted with his former Dodgers teammate Justin Turner to get an idea about the organization. Turner, who spent four seasons with the Mets before he was non-tendered and subsequently blossomed into a star in Los Angeles, gave his former employers a glowing recommendation, according to Gonzalez.
“He said everything was great about the organization and that made the decision easier for me,” Gonzalez said.
Now Gonzalez will attempt to show the Mets they made a good pickup.
“The first five games I went up there and took a strike every at-bat, unless I got to 2-0, and that is not something I would normally do in the regular season,” Gonzalez said. “You do things that you are doing to get right for the season that might not play in the box score.
“Being on a new team you do want to impress, you do want to put up good numbers so there is security especially, there is no articles being written about it. People are going to write things like that, so I know what I can do. I hope the internal people or the people that are here on an everyday basis understand that and take that into consideration.”