Mets center fielder Matt den Dekker is greeted by manager...

Mets center fielder Matt den Dekker is greeted by manager Terry Collins after scoring a run in the seventh inning of a spring training game against the Houston Astros. (March 22, 2012) Credit: AP

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Mets started a prospect in centerfield Thursday who went to the University of Florida at the same time as Tim Tebow and had a few classes with him.

But if Matt den Dekker makes the Mets' Opening Day roster, it won't be because of his fleeting Tebow connection. It'll be because the banged-up Mets are almost out of options in centerfield less than two weeks before the April 5 opener against the Braves.

Den Dekker, 24, went 0-for-3 with two runs scored in the Mets' 8-2 win over the Astros at Digital Domain Park. The Fort Lauderdale native, whose father was born in the Netherlands, is one of five players the Mets are considering as emergency centerfielders in the event that injured Andres Torres and Scott Hairston are not ready to open the season.

Torres, the 34-year-old starter, strained his left calf Tuesday and has been shut down, although he hopes it won't be for too much longer. Hairston, the 31-year-old backup, has been out all spring training with a strained oblique and has not been cleared to take batting practice. He's close, but so is the need to get at-bats before the season starts.

The outfield injuries have the Mets scrambling. Their options include den Dekker, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who hit a combined .265 with 17 home runs last season in Class A and Double-A; converted first baseman Mike Baxter; converted pitcher Adam Loewen; middle infielder Jordany Valdespin, who made his first career appearance in center Thursday when he replaced den Dekker; and Jason Bay, who volunteered to play centerfield "in a pinch" if the Mets need him.

They hope not to need him. The best-case scenario has Torres returning soon and staying healthy the rest of spring training.

"I feel better," Torres said. "I'm hoping in a few more days I can get back to the field. At least I'm better. Day-to-day. See how it feels. But I don't want to rush it."

The Mets would consider playing top prospect Kirk Nieuwenhuis, but he has a strained oblique, too. So they are giving a look to den Dekker after reassigning him to the minor-league camp March 15. He had a postgame meeting with Terry Collins and general manager Sandy Alderson Thursday and is on the travel roster for Friday's game against the Braves in Lake Buena Vista.

Den Dekker is considered major league-ready as a defender. Of the group being considered as possible fill-ins down here, he is the only true centerfielder.

"I've played there my whole life, since middle school," den Dekker said. "I'm comfortable there. Whatever they ask me to do, I'm ready for that."

As for the Tebow connection, den Dekker played baseball at Florida and overlapped for three years (2007-09) there with the Jets' new backup quarterback.

"I like Tebow, but I don't like getting caught up in so much Tebowmania," he said. "Plus, I'm a Dolphins fan, too. I was kind of hoping Peyton Manning would go to the Dolphins."

Den Dekker was described on Thursday's SNY Mets broadcast as "buddies" with Tebow, but he said, "That's probably a little bit of a stretch. I've had classes with him and stuff. He's a good guy, a good person."


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