Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets ready to take batting practice. (Feb....

Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets ready to take batting practice. (Feb. 11, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

LAKELAND, Fla. -- In 23 days, when they jog onto the field for the season opener, the Mets hope to have completed the task of patching together their shaky outfield. But through the first nine games of spring training, plenty of work remains to be done on a project that might never be completed.

At least this season, anyway.

"Still searching," manager Terry Collins said after Friday's 3-2 loss to the Tigers.

Spring training statistics are notoriously deceptive, especially in the earliest days of the Grapefruit League schedule, when hitters often focus on regaining their timing. But with question marks hovering over the outfield, even early impressions might factor into decisions made near Opening Day.

This week, a team official acknowledged that in the early part of camp, not one of the outfield candidates has separated himself. "There have been several guys that have done a nice job so far," Collins said, though when asked to name them, he declined.

Collin Cowgill, who started in center against the Tigers, ended the day hitting .429 in Grapefruit League play after going 0-for-1 with a pair of walks. Jordany Valdespin (.333) and Marlon Byrd (.412) also have started quickly, though both also benefited from playing winter ball.

The returners from last year's outfield have struggled to slow starts, including Lucas Duda (.158), Mike Baxter (.105) and Kirk Nieuwenhuis (.056), who has been hobbled by a bone bruise in a knee. Non-roster players Jamie Hoffmann (.125), Andrew Brown (.143) and Matt den Dekker haven't applied much pressure.

The Mets already appear to be veering somewhat from their initial plans, yet another indication that the outfield picture remains fuzzy.

Though Collins intended to use him primarily as an infielder, Valdespin made two outfield appearances this week, including his first start Friday, when he homered against the Tigers.

After it seemed he had penciled in Byrd as the starter in rightfield, Collins indicated Friday that it's too early to commit to roster spots. "It's [March] 8," he said. "I'll wait."

Notes & quotes: Catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud left the game in the fifth inning with tightness in his right forearm after he was plunked just below the elbow. Collins said he expects no lingering issues. "It got enough meat to where I'll be fine, just let it heal and relax for today," d'Arnaud said . . . Mets starter Dillon Gee battled with his command, throwing only 26 of his 57 pitches for strikes. But despite three walks in his four innings, he allowed only one run. "I'm really close to clicking," said Gee, who has a 1.29 ERA in three spring training appearances . . . Mets relievers have started making back-to-back appearances. Lefty Josh Edgin allowed a run and walked two in one inning, his second appearance in as many days. Closer Bobby Parnell will pitch Saturday against the Astros after tossing one scoreless inning Friday. LaTroy Hawkins eventually will work on consecutive days. He allowed two hits but recorded a scoreless inning Friday . . . Jenrry Mejia (thyroid condition) was cleared to resume baseball activities, though doctors told him to cut down on his seafood consumption.