Carlos Beltran will be back this week, but will he...

Carlos Beltran will be back this week, but will he be the five-tool force the Mets need him to be? Credit: AP, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - Carlos Beltran returns Thursday night to a much better Mets team than the battered club he left last October. But will Beltran, after missing the first 31/2 months because of knee surgery, immediately be a game-changing addition? Or will the next few weeks serve as an extension of his lengthy rehabilitation process?

It's a fascinating question, and one that truly can't be answered until the Mets kick off the second half with Beltran in centerfield against the Giants at AT&T Park. Beltran insists that he's ready - and has been ready since telling the Mets he wanted to come back in the week leading up to the All-Star break.

That would have been fine with Jerry Manuel, who has been pleading for Beltran since joking about using him as a DH at Yankee Stadium last month. But the front office chose to give him the extra rest, a decision Omar Minaya probably regretted after the Mets batted .137 (7-for-51) with runners in scoring position on a 2-4 homestand against the Reds and Braves.

Now, Beltran will take the place of Ike Davis in the cleanup spot. Manuel said he intends to leave David Wright at No. 3, with Davis behind the switch-hitting Beltran and the struggling Jason Bay to follow the rookie first baseman. The Mets are in the middle of the National League in runs, ranked ninth of 16 teams, and they expect a boost from Beltran to some degree.

"It's obviously going to be good to get him back in the lineup," Wright said. "Carlos is one of those prototypical five-tool players that can really do it all, put a team on his shoulders and carry them."

Although Beltran has done that in the past, it may be more difficult shouldering all that weight now that he's wearing a brace to protect an arthritic right knee. Here's what the Mets do know about Beltran: He batted .367 (18-for-49) with five doubles and five RBIs in 14 games for Class A St. Lucie.

Those numbers suggest that Beltran is going to need a little time to look like a five-time All-Star again. Going from facing no-names in Class A to the Giants' staff, whose 3.50 ERA ranks third in the NL, is a sizable challenge and an indicator that Beltran's return may not be an overnight success. His first look Thursday night will be at back-to-back Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.

"The way I played in Port St. Lucie, I think I swung the bat well," Beltran said. "But at the big-league level, it's a different story, you know? I do feel like I need to make adjustments. I don't expect to come here and rake. I just expect to come here and do my part, being able to contribute any way I can, and I believe in that."

Defensively, Beltran is likely to be a step down from Angel Pagan, who has been a standout in centerfield after shedding his reckless behavior of previous years. Beltran admitted Sunday that the knee brace restricts his flexibility and for that reason makes him appear to be limping.

The Mets were content to have him play back-to-back games in Port St. Lucie, but that was a minimum requirement for his promotion. Manuel hasn't determined how often he can start Beltran, and the manager will need to see how he responds to games before settling on a schedule for him. The other three outfielders will be watching with keen interest as well, especially Jeff Francoeur, who will be bumped to the bench by Pagan for Thursday night.

"He's one of the best centerfielders in baseball when he's healthy," Francoeur said of Beltran. "It sounded like he was running well and healthy, and if that's the case, he's going to fit in this lineup and be a huge boost and that's something that we need moving forward. I played against him for four years and saw the damage that he can do, so I'm pretty aware of what a healthy guy can do."

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