Manuel mulling Castillo leading off, Reyes 2nd

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - In Jerry Manuel's new unselfish vision for the Mets, there is no "I" in team. And apparently no Jose Reyes in the leadoff spot, either.

That was perhaps the most radical adjustment Manuel suggested during his 41-minute opening address to reporters yesterday morning from behind his desk at Tradition Field.

Coming off consecutive late-season meltdowns, the Mets got themselves the best available closer in Francisco Rodriguez, bolstered their bullpen with J.J. Putz and solidified the rotation by re-signing Oliver Perez.

But when pressed on how to fix the Mets, or at least prevent another September collapse, Manuel talked about implementing a more unselfish attitude in spring training, and part of that could involve dropping down Reyes for the benefit of Luis Castillo.

Manuel repeatedly stressed how important it is for Castillo to get off to a quick start - both for the Mets and to keep fans off his back. Letting him bat leadoff could help, and Manuel plans to experiment with Reyes hitting in the second or third spots before Opening Day.

Reyes is not scheduled to arrive at Tradition Field until today, but it's safe to assume this might not go over well with the All-Star shortstop, who happens to be one of the most explosive leadoff men in the game. When that thought was floated to Manuel, he didn't back down.

"The one thing we have to be careful of is this is not about statistical success," Manuel said. "It's about winning as a team and you have to put people in positions that you feel is best to win as a team - whether that means Jose batting second, third or whatever. That's a big part of the message throughout spring training, is that the game takes precedence over the individual statistics."

Reyes has put up some impressive numbers at the top of the order, and it's unclear how or if such a move would adversely affect a player who is fueled by his emotions.

In his four full seasons, Reyes has grabbed no fewer than 56 stolen bases, with a career-high 78 in 2007. From the leadoff spot, he's a career .286 hitter with a .338 on-base percentage in 676 games. In a much smaller sample, Reyes has a total of 190 plate appearances at No. 2, with a .322 batting average and .365 on-base percentage.

Castillo definitely is a more patient hitter, with a career .367 OBP, and that's part of Manuel's motivation for trying him ahead of Reyes.

That's the idea, anyway. With general manager Omar Minaya unable to jettison Castillo, who has three years and $18 million left on his contract, Manuel needs to find a way to make him productive again.

"That's going to be critical for us," Manuel said. "Of all our players, I think he's probably the one guy you would want to get off to a good start and have a hot early feeling. You would want it to be him, and hopefully, we can do everything we can to help him do that."

When asked what that might be, Manuel brought up moving Reyes in the batting order, and he never blinked at the potential consequences.

Minaya seemed a little uneasy with the plan when the topic was broached later on, but ultimately, he deferred to the manager - publicly at least.

"First of all, Jerry has not made a decision on that," Minaya said. "At the end of the day, it's the manager that makes out the lineup. If he decides to do that, it's in the best interests of the team. It's not about where a guy likes to hit. It's about the best interests of the team."

Manuel actually floated the idea of hitting Castillo in the leadoff spot back in December at the winter meetings, but it wasn't taken as seriously then two months before the start of spring training.

One thing that works to Manuel's advantage is that Reyes will be gone for three weeks anyway because of the World Baseball Classic, and that will give Manuel ample time to replace Reyes with Castillo at the top of the order.

It doesn't sound as if he's talked to his shortstop about it.

"No, I was hoping that y'all would put that out there for me to ease it in there to him," Manuel said. "I've talked to him about a number of different things. I think the thing with Jose for me is to continue to give him responsibility, and I think the maturation process depends on how responsible you can be. The more responsibility we continue to give him, the better the player he will become overall.

"The thing, hopefully, the player understands is that not only is this beneficial for you but it's beneficial for the team. It takes your gifts and talents to another level. We have to win it all. And then you can tell me 'I don't need this' or 'I don't need that,' regardless of who you are. Everybody needs to improve in some area because we haven't won it all." PROJECTED BATTING ORDER VS. RH PITCHING

Luis Castillo............. 2B

Jose Reyes ............ SS

David Wright ............... 3B

Carlos Beltran ............CF

Carlos Delgado ........... 1B

Ryan Church ............ RF

Daniel Murphy ................ LF

Brian Schneider ............... C

VS. LH PITCHING

Luis Castillo .................. 2B

Jose Reyes ..................SS

David Wright ................. 3B

Carlos Delgado ................. 1B

Carlos Beltran .................. CF

Ryan Church .................RF

Fernando Tatis .................. LF

Ramon Castro ................. C

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