Rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis a fan favorite, but may be odd man out
It hasn't taken Kirk Nieuwenhuis long to become a fan favorite at Citi Field. It doesn't matter that his name is tough to say -- and even tougher to spell. Fans and teammates instead just call him Captain Kirk. And everyone seems just giddy with the way the rookie centerfielder's presence has beamed them to an alternative universe, given them a glimpse of a baseball future that looks bright and promising.
Still, no matter how crazy the Mets faithful may be about Nieuwenhuis, he might not be in the lineup, or even at Citi Field, much longer. With Jason Bay at least two weeks away from returning, the Mets are getting ready to make some tough, and potentially unpopular, decisions about their outfield.
Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters last week that Bay will get his job back when he returns, meaning that both Andres Torres and Nieuwenhuis could lose playing time. What the Mets have to figure out then is how to get Nieuwenhuis enough at-bats so that the 24-year-old can continue his development. And, unfortunately for Mets fans, one of the solutions to that problem is to send him down to Triple-A Buffalo.
"If a guy is not going to get more than two or three at-bats a week, that's not a good thing," general manger Sandy Alderson said when asked if the club would feel comfortable keeping Nieuwenhuis in a diminished role.
Alderson stressed that no decision had been made on Nieuwenhuis. "You never know from day to day what new opportunities will arise," he said.
Nieuwenhuis certainly knows something about making the best of opportunities, which is why the Mets find themselves in the position of having to make a tough decision. Though he has cooled considerably over the past week, Nieuwenhuis is still delivering solid numbers. A week ago, he led all major-league rookies with a .302 batting average and was second with 35 hits. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI double and two walks in the Mets' 6-5 win Sunday and is now batting .277 with 38 hits, seven doubles, two home runs, 13 RBIs and 16 walks.
"This kid doesn't deserve to go back to Triple-A with the way he's swung the bat so far," Buffalo manager Wally Backman said. "But he needs to play. I think for his development, he needs to play every day."
Nieuwenhuis says he can't worry about what the future holds, other than to try to perform his best each day he plays. "It's been pretty cool playing up here with the guys," he said, "but whatever happens, happens. I don't make those decisions. I just have to take one day at a time and focus."
The 6-3, 215-pound lefthanded batter is a devout Christian and believes that things will work out the way they are supposed to. He said it worked that way earlier in his life as he was guided to concentrate on baseball over football when he was ready to choose a college, even though he was recruited to play wide receiver by several Division I schools, including the University of Colorado.
"I just felt like God was calling me more toward baseball," he said, "and I saw the size of some of the football players when I was on the recruiting trip."
Backman believes Nieuwenhuis has what it takes to be a big-league player for years to come.
"I love his makeup and the way he plays the game," Backman said. "He gives you 100 percent plus at every at-bat and playing the outfield. To me, you would want to have nine Kirk Nieuwenhuises on the field at the same time."
Figuring out how to get one Nieuwenhuis on the field may be enough of a problem for Collins, though he admits it is an enviable problem to have. The Mets obviously had big hopes for Nieuwenhuis when he was in their farm system, but Collins said it's fair to say they never expected him to make the impact he has this fast.
"He's off-the-charts makeupwise," Collins said. "Not afraid. Not intimidated. Knows himself. Great confidence. Don't mistake that for being overly confident. He knows he can play this game."
Nieuwenhuis just doesn't know where he's going to be playing it.