David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Three weeks ago, Michael Conforto was in leftfield for Double-A Binghamton and the Mets were trying to trade for reasons to keep him in the minors. On Monday, we were having an entirely different conversation, with the Mets explaining why Michael Cuddyer, their $21-million leftfielder, could be spending a good chunk of his time on the bench -- largely because of Conforto.
Here in mid-August, the Mets are in a place they haven't visited in what feels like forever -- a bona fide, honest-to-goodness division race -- and now they find themselves facing the hard choices that come with the territory.
Such as Collins sitting down with Cuddyer before Monday night's game against the Rockies and telling him the landscape has changed, that a 22-year-old rookie with 11 games of major-league experience would be cutting into his playing time.
And Cuddyer, the fifth-highest-paid Met, with another $12.5 million coming to him next season, could do nothing but listen.
"Obviously, we're winning,'' he said. "That's the bottom line. We have guys in this clubhouse that are on board with that, which is what you need to succeed and for a team to succeed. Not worrying about themselves or what their numbers are like.''
Still, Cuddyer never saw this coming, because no one did. At the All-Star break, Conforto was playing for Team USA in the Futures Game, sharing a lineup with Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, two of the Yankees' top prospects. At the time, that was the biggest thrill of his career.
Now Sandy Alderson talks about Conforto as if he's been here for months rather than weeks. And shipping Eric Campbell back to Triple-A Las Vegas was the no-brainer everyone assumed it would be.
"I'm never surprised when players do well,'' Alderson said. "I'm not surprised when players do poorly, because that's the nature of the business. But he's handled himself very well, and one of the things that gives us confidence about his continued playing time is the way he's played in leftfield. We're happy with what he's done.''
The Mets tiptoed around the leftfield question before Monday night's game. When Terry Collins was asked if Conforto now is the team's regular leftfielder, he paused a moment to think about the answer.
"Um, he's going to play as much as we can get him out there, as much as we think he's going to help us,'' Collins said. "But I wouldn't say he's the primary guy at the moment. He's a piece like everybody else is.''
Some pieces, however, are more important than others. On one hand, Collins has to consider Cuddyer, the veteran with the bruised ego and banged-up knee. On the other, how to rationalize using someone who was hitting .179 (14-for-78) with runners in scoring position and still might be bothered by the knee.
But Cuddyer is here and Collins will give him the chance to earn his at-bats, starting with a two-game audition during the next two nights. Remember, it was the day after Cuddyer was placed on the DL -- and the trades for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe -- that Collins delivered his "hit or sit'' mantra.
"We're going to play the best guys that can help us win on a nightly basis -- whoever that may be,'' Collins said. "We're just going to put together the lineup that we think is going to give us the best chance.''
With a more versatile roster than at any other point of this season, Collins should be equipped to field a dangerous squad down the stretch. The Mets have been bad against lefties, ranked 13th in the NL with a .647 OPS and next-to-last with a .222 batting average. But the additions of Uribe and Yoenis Cespedes and Cuddyer's return should produce an upgrade in production by possibly subbing for the worst offenders: Curtis Granderson (.159), Daniel Murphy (.200) and Conforto (.200).
"Nightly, it's going to be tough to decide who's in and who's out,'' Collins said.
But it's better to have choices, especially at this time of year.