PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Carlos Beltran, no stranger to surgery, actually convinced Jonathon Niese to have a nose job by offering to pay for the procedure before Beltran was traded to San Francisco last season.
Beltran's proposal was motivated more by looks than by function. The preoperative Niese had a nose befitting a journeyman boxer, and evidently took some ribbing from teammates about it. But when Niese, 25, decided to take Beltran up on the offer, a doctor discovered that the issues were more than skin deep.
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"It was all messed up," said Niese, who arrived Monday at Digital Domain Park. "If you saw the CAT scan, you'd be grossed out."
In more descriptive terms, Niese said the doctor told him that a "normal" nose should be like a "doorway with a door that's open a little bit." His was like "somebody ripped the hinges off the door and smashed it sideways into the wall."
"I grew up with it like that," Niese said, "so I didn't know the difference."
The procedure, known as a rhinoplasty reconstruction, opened up his airways but didn't drastically alter Niese's appearance. "The doctor didn't want to make me too much different," he said.
As for the bill, Niese sounded as though he wasn't holding his breath about having Beltran pay it. The Mets found the doctor for him, and Beltran signed with the Cardinals in the offseason.
Beltran certainly could afford to pick up the tab. He earned $119 million from the Mets, and his new deal with St. Louis is a two-year contract worth $26 million.
"If he pays, he pays," Niese said. "If not . . . "
Whatever the motivation for the surgery, Beltran probably did his former team another favor. The Mets not only got Zack Wheeler, now the team's top-rated pitching prospect, in the Beltran swap with San Francisco, but it looks as though they have a new and improved Niese.
Since Niese's arrival as a full-time starter in 2010, the knock on the highly regarded lefthander has been a lack of conditioning, something that team officials believed was holding him back. He even became the subject of short-lived trade conversations during the offseason despite being the perfect fit for the cash-strapped Mets: a young pitcher with an inexpensive contract and a high upside.
Niese showed up Monday about 10 pounds lighter, and credited the October surgery as part of the reason.
"It's so much easier to breathe now," Niese said. "It really helped me. After he fixed it, I feel 100 percent better."
Niese, who made his major-league debut in 2008, is 22-23 with a 4.39 ERA in 64 starts and one relief appearance. If Johan Santana is able to begin the season on time, Niese likely will be slotted at No. 3 in the rotation.
Given Santana's shaky health and the "capricious" nature of the knuckleball -- R.A. Dickey's word -- Niese could wind up being the true ace of the rotation. As of now, he has the locker between Dickey and Mike Pelfrey.
"This guy to my right," Dickey said, gesturing toward Niese, "he's going to be a big factor."
And to think Beltran could be indirectly responsible for what could be a breakthrough season for Niese. "I didn't finish the way I wanted to last year," he said, "but I'm very anxious to get back."