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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Mets' outfield is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope

Mets right fielder Marlon Byrd smiles during batting

Mets right fielder Marlon Byrd smiles during batting practice. (April 4, 2013) Credit: AP

Who will be in the outfield for the Mets Sunday? Your guess is as good as Terry Collins'.

Will Collin Cowgill be in centerfield? Jordany Valdespin? How about Kirk Nieuwenhuis?

Could be Mike Baxter. Or he could be in right. And don't forget about Marlon Byrd.

The only certainty is that Lucas Duda will be in left. Unless he gets a day off.

Five games into the season, Collins has started six different players in the outfield. Three centerfielders, two rightfielders and Duda.

Nieuwenhuis and Baxter got their first starts of the season Saturday in the Mets' 7-3 victory over the Marlins at Citi Field. Nieuwenhuis went hitless in four at-bats but Baxter was a demon in the leadoff spot.

Baxter got on base three times with a single and two walks and contributed a key steal before scoring the go-ahead run in the Mets' three-run seventh inning.

"Gosh," Collins said, "if he was a genuine base-stealer, he'd be dangerous, because you look up [and] it seems like he's at first base all the time."

Will that performance earn the Mets' top lefty pinch hitter a spot in the lineup Sunday when they face righthander Jose Fernandez, who will be making his major-league debut?

Collins said he didn't know yet.

"The way Mike's played . . . certainly got to get him in there," Collins said.

But he didn't necessarily mean Sunday. (The manager did mention that he plans to "try" to start Baxter against the Phillies' Roy Halladay on Monday.)

"We're going to mix-and-match our outfield to try to keep everybody as sharp as we possibly can," Collins said.

That has been his mantra in the season's first week. It's a change from what he said at the end of spring training, when Collins named Cowgill his everyday centerfielder and committed to the 35-year-old Byrd in right.

After hitting a grand slam on Opening Day, Cowgill saw his reign end Friday after three games and a .167 average.

Valdespin started in center Friday and had two hits and a walk out of the leadoff spot. Typical of the erratic Valdespin, he had a stolen base and also got picked off first base.

He didn't mess anything up in center, but Valdespin has proven to be a questionable defensive player at five different positions. With Duda lumbering around in left, the Mets know they can't have substandard defense in center.

So in came Nieuwenhuis on Saturday with Baxter in right. Nieuwenhuis can run the ball down, but his offense is lagging. He had 98 strikeouts in 282 major-league at-bats last season.

Then there's Baxter, the 28-year-old Queens product. It's easy to focus on what he doesn't do. By his own admission, he's "not a burner by any means," and he doesn't have the power you'd want from a corner outfielder. The tools just don't jump out at you and scream everyday player.

What he does have is the ability to get on base. A .365 on-base percentage last season. Two hits and four walks in 10 plate appearances this season.

Baxter's big moment Saturday came when he walked with one out in the seventh and stole second base in a 3-3 game. Baxter went to third when the throw sailed into center and scored moments later when Daniel Murphy ripped a triple to center.

Did his big day earn Baxter a chance to be the lefthanded-hitting half of a platoon with Byrd? Doesn't seem like it. It's not even certain if it earned him a spot in Sunday's lineup.

Baxter -- and all the other Mets outfielders -- will just have to check the lineup card in the morning.

"I get excited when I get a chance to play, whether it's off the bench or starting," Baxter said. "I think with the group we have, we all bring unique skill-sets to the table. I think TC does a good job mixing-and-matching that."

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