There was a time, just last season, when the Mets waited anxiously for one of their many injured players to emerge from the doctor's office. Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Oliver Perez, Johan Santana. The belief was that as soon as the Mets got healthy, they could resume their derailed quest for a playoff berth, or some sort of respectable finish.
Of course, that turned out to be a fantasy. All five of those players wound up having surgery and the Mets - or at least that's what it said on the front of their uniforms - stumbled to a 70-92 record.
This year, however, is a little different. Despite losing two-fifths of their rotation and the starting second baseman, and despite the continuing absence of Beltran, the Mets went 11 games over .500 (39-28) before dropping the last two games of the Subway Series.
Jerry Manuel still is besieged by questions about the handful of injured players, but with their apparent lack of progress, those updates have become more like running (or in the case of Beltran, sort of running) jokes.
John Maine is scheduled to be "re-evaluated" this week (a team spokesman said he was not examined Monday), but Manuel made it sound as if he didn't have room on the roster for him anyway. So the team certainly wasn't sweating his return - or anyone else's, for that matter.
"If you sit there and say we can't wait for this guy to come back, it's going to be a long season," Jeff Francoeur said. "I think with injuries, you never know. You just have to play with what you've got. It's the same thing in any sport. When teams suffer big losses to players, other guys step up.
"When you look at what we've done as a team, it's impressive. And I think when that happens, guys don't really worry about the other stuff. If you sit there like last year, when we weren't playing well, then I think it's real easy to say we need so-and-so back or we can't win."
Francoeur does have something more personal at stake. He could be looking at diminished playing time if Beltran ever makes it back, leaving Francoeur to perhaps battle Angel Pagan for starts in rightfield if the two continue to make big contributions. But it's not anything that either really has to worry about at the moment.
Beltran continues to plod through extended-spring games, basically scrimmages with other rehabbing players, and his return is not considered imminent. What may be more pressing for Manuel is re-inserting players such as Perez and Luis Castillo into regular roles.
Perez, who has been on the disabled list since June 5 with knee tendinitis, appears to be making progress after a 70-pitch outing Friday in Port St. Lucie, Fla. But with the surprising success of R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi, the Mets are in no hurry to get Perez back. The only thing really forcing their hand is the roughly $18 million left on his contract, which runs through 2011.
The same can be said for Castillo, who was placed on the DL June 4 with bruised feet. Unlike Perez, Castillo does have some value, even if it's significantly below the $9 million left on his deal. But with the success of Pagan in the No. 2 spot behind Reyes, Castillo would be an afterthought at the bottom of the lineup, and the 20-year-old Ruben Tejada is better defensively.
Pretty soon, forcing these overpriced players back into the lineup is going to be a sticky subject, one that Manuel won't be able to laugh off as he did in talking about it this past weekend.
"I think when you're playing well, it's easier to fit in," Manuel said. "It's easier to kind of accept a role versus trying to be something that you're not. When you're playing well, guys got to come in and be somewhat submitted to what's happening because that's winning baseball - rather than come in and say we need to do this or do that. I don't think it will be a problem because they're good players, too."
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