David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Carlos Beltran struck out three straight times Saturday against Sean West, a 24-year-old lefthander who started for the Marlins' Triple-A affiliate.
West has 22 major-league starts to his credit, with a 5.03 ERA, so he was a considerable upgrade from the low Class A pitchers served up this past week to Beltran, who dipped his toe into the whole playing experience Saturday with five innings in rightfield.
But if West was able to frustrate Beltran, what happens when he has to face Marlins ace Josh Johnson for real Friday night at Sun Life Stadium?
With most of the attention fixated on Beltran's arthritic knees, the Mets can't lose sight of the simple truth that he might not be ready to contribute at the major-league level. That problem, unlike his chronic knee issues, is fixable: tell Beltran you'll see him on April 5 in Philadelphia.
During the past couple of days, the Mets have flirted with the idea of using Beltran in Grapefruit League games as a lead-in to putting him on the Opening Day roster. But the risk is not worth that gamble. It's the difference between losing Beltran for only the first three games and losing him for two weeks if the Mets blow the chance to backdate him for the disabled list.
It's the type of mistake the Mets often made under the former regime. Rather than acting decisively, the front office would waffle on DL situations, delaying the inevitable and hurting the player's recovery in the process.
Despite ramping up Beltran's program this past week, manager Terry Collins hinted Saturday that the team might hold him out of Grapefruit League games as a safety net for the backdated DL. Beltran said he intends to play in another minor-league game Sunday and face the Nationals on Tuesday in Viera, but Collins wouldn't fully commit to that plan.
"I know he probably doesn't want to play back there [in the minors], but it protects us," Collins said, "and I've explained that to him. He's on board with it, so we'll see how he is tomorrow after chasing those balls down today. He'll do it one more time."
Beltran made it through five innings in rightfield Saturday without any serious slip-ups. But the speed he once displayed in center has been compromised by his balky knees, and Beltran moved deliberately while making the only two plays in his area of the Citi Field replica. He sounded almost relieved that he was not playing centerfield.
"That's what happens when you play in the corners -- there's going to be days where you don't have fly balls, not even a ground ball," Beltran said. "That's the way it is. Good for me."
The first play was a long fly ball hit over his head that Beltran had to grab at the base of the rightfield fence, and he went down to one knee after delivering a throw to the cutoff man. It resulted in a triple.
The second play was a line- drive double that Beltran hustled over to backhand in the right-centerfield gap. Beltran got to the spot, but he displayed a lumbering gait, nothing like his smooth strides of the past. He looked as if he were being cautious, but he denied that was the case.
"No, I'm going full speed," Beltran said. "Once you play in the games, you have to go after the ball."
If that is what a full-speed Beltran looks like, it's hard to believe there ever was any serious consideration to have him audition for the centerfielder's job in spring training. Beltran's decelerated program was further slowed by the tendinitis that surfaced in his left, non-surgical knee. Maybe managing the health of both legs is going to be more difficult than anyone expected.
That's not to say Beltran can't be a productive player for the Mets this season. It's just that the extra week could help with his timing at the plate while allow him to get some more reps in rightfield. There's no telling how many more games Beltran has left in those knees, so why not maximize those opportunities?
"Sometimes these guys get lost in [thinking] I just want to feel good, but there's still something to seeing live pitching," Collins said. "The ultimate thing is that his knees are feeling better."
On the whole, Beltran would be a better player with the backdated time on the DL. That should make Opening Day a closed case at this point.