CHICAGO — On Sunday, before the Las Vegas 51s’ scheduled game, Michael Conforto was summoned to the office of Wally Backman, who asked a fairly straightforward question.
“When was the last time you played centerfield?” the Triple-A manager said.
“I can’t remember,” Conforto said a day before being summoned back to the Mets — for whom he might see time in centerfield.
Manager Terry Collins left open some wiggle room. He has not committed fully to the idea of using Conforto in center. But he is committed to playing him every day, and centerfield appears to be the only opening.
Yoenis Cespedes has expressed his preference to stay in leftfield, where he is a Gold Glover (he threw out a runner at home and made an error in the Mets’ 5-1 loss to the Cubs on Monday night). He would be able to cover less ground, thus easing some of the stress on his strained right quadriceps. Collins also said he wants Cespedes primarily in left.
Collins said it would be “asking too much” to shift rightfielder Curtis Granderson to centerfield, where he spent the early part of his career.
That leaves Juan Lagares and Conforto, who has played only leftfield, aside from four games in rightfield during his three-week demotion.
Conforto, 23, has long been regarded as a strong hitter — he batted for Lagares in the ninth, singled the other way and later said, “It feels good to start on that note’’ — but his defensive abilities have drawn scrutiny. He’s had trouble with his routes in the field during his brief time in the big leagues and he lacks the speed typically required to play center.
Nevertheless, with few options, Collins is willing to experiment with Conforto in center. “Why not?” he said.
“I think he’s a better outfielder than people give him credit for,” Collins said. “I think the other thing you’ve got [is] two veteran guys that are alongside him. I think they can help him. If that’s where we decide he’s going to play, I think we’ve got two guys who certainly can pick up and help him with the movement, and the placement, and where he needs to position himself.”
Later, Conforto said he recalled having played some centerfield for Oregon State. Collins said making a transition from leftfield to center is less of a challenge than moving to first base. Either way, Conforto is willing to embrace the challenge.
“I’ll be an athlete,” he said. “I’ll go make plays and do whatever I can if they need me out there.”
Of course, Conforto’s defensive experiment will be worthwhile only if he can show that he has restored his confidence at the plate. After his demotion, he hit .344 with three homers and 15 RBIs for Las Vegas. He credited work to adjust the lower half in his swing and his ability to eliminate a tendency to be too pull-happy.
“It was a very productive couple of weeks,” Conforto said. “There was a period of obviously being upset, and you’ve got to go through that. But as soon as I turned it into an opportunity to work on some things, to get some things done, to take a look at what happened over the course of the prior couple of months, I think I really took a couple of big steps forward.”
Sign up for Newsday’s Mets Messages for updates directly to your phone via text, free with a Newsday digital subscription. Learn more at newsday.com/metstext.