Beltran's knees will decide his position

New York Mets' Carlos Beltran (15) strikes out

New York Mets' Carlos Beltran (15) strikes out to end the game against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Sept. 12, 2010) (Credit: John Dunn)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Only two things can prevent Carlos Beltran from playing centerfield for the Mets this season, and no, they're not Angel Pagan and Terry Collins.

The biggest threat to Beltran's job security, and ultimately his career, is his surgically repaired knees, which have cost him big chunks of the past two seasons.

Beltran is not expected to arrive at Mets camp until Saturday, when Collins plans to talk with him about the centerfield situation. But Pagan said Friday that he will be no obstacle to Beltran's return to center, and the manager reiterated his hope that the five-time All-Star will be capable of playing there.

"If Carlos is healthy, he'll be the centerfielder, no doubt about that," Pagan said. "I'm just looking forward to see him healthy because if Carlos is 100 percent, we know what kind of damage he can do out there."

The Mets' biggest worry, however, is the damaging effect that playing every day could have on Beltran's knees.

He has been running without the protective brace he wore last season after missing the first 3 ½ months because of January surgery, and that's a positive development. But Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner, clearly was not himself defensively last year and struggled to field the position.

And Collins can't sacrifice the best interests of his team for a star player, even one who is in the final season of a $119-million contract.

Collins figures to make a decision on centerfield by the "middle of camp," which is when he believes it should become evident to everyone involved.

"His body will tell him how it's going to be," Collins said. "I'm telling you, Carlos Beltran has done nothing but say all the right things - what do you want, where do you want me to be, what do you think?"

Fortunately for Collins, he has an excellent Plan B in Pagan, who started 139 games in centerfield for the Mets last season.

Given the relationship between the two players - Pagan viewed Beltran as a role model during his days as a Mets minor-leaguer - it's not as though there's a battle looming for the job. Pagan is uncomfortable with the idea that Beltran has to fend him off to keep his job.

"A little bit, because sometimes people see this as a competition, as a rivalry," Pagan said. "This is not a rivalry. This is for the benefit of the team. I see it as a great problem to have because we're going to have two centerfielders playing right next to each other. In Jason Bay, you've got great defense, too. If you see that, you're going to see pretty much the best defensive outfield in the National League."

That would help, considering the expansive ground to cover at Citi Field. Almost as important is the way Collins handles the delicate issue, and he understands the need to keep the communication open with Beltran.

"I want to make sure that he's 100 percent with whatever decision it's going to be," Collins said. "Because the minute your heart's not in it is when you're going to have some failure, and I don't want failure here. I want success, so I want to make sure that Carlos knows I'm willing to do what he thinks is going to make him the best player.

"I know that there's been talk about contracts and about the end of the year. We can't worry about the end of the year. Because if we win and we have success, it will speak volumes."

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