Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran catches fly ball hit by Marlins'...

Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran catches fly ball hit by Marlins' Cody Ross in the fourth inning. (Sept. 9, 2009) Credit: Kathy Kmonicek

As long as Carlos Beltran was in Port St. Lucie, battling Class A teams such as the Jupiter Hammerheads and Brevard County Manatees, Jerry Manuel made it sound as if he had all these carefully mapped-out plans to soften the blow of his impending arrival.

Manuel talked about calling the Mets' four outfielders into his office, sitting everyone down and letting them know how Beltran's return would affect each one's playing time during the second half of the season. By addressing the problem head on, the manager figured he could massage their egos and avoid hurt feelings.

But when Beltran finally did show up yesterday at Citi Field, Manuel's strategy abruptly changed. Maybe, in all the excitement of seeing Beltran, the manager forgot about everyone else, because he revealed his starting lineup for Thursday's second-half opener in San Francisco without discussing it with the parties involved first.

Beltran will be in centerfield, batting cleanup, with Angel Pagan switching over to right and remaining in the No. 2 spot behind Jose Reyes. As expected, Jeff Francoeur is the odd man out, and after the pregame briefing, Manuel hustled down the hall to the clubhouse to grab Francoeur for that long-awaited meeting - but not before a few reporters had broken the news to him.

The two talked for roughly 30 minutes, and Francoeur, who is likely to be forced to the bench more often than he imagines, put on his best face for the media afterward.

"Obviously, I'm not dumb," Francoeur said. "I see how Angel is playing. I'm a big boy. It's not like I didn't see this coming. There was going to be some time where I was going to have to sit some, and that's fine. I've gone through some stuff before, from being sent down to getting traded last year, so I'll fight back."

That's what complicates Beltran's return for the Mets. Manuel already is clearing space in the outfield without anyone having a good idea of what Beltran will contribute as he plays with a surgically repaired knee after facing only Class A pitching for the past month.

"Who knows?" Beltran said.

The only certainty is that Pagan, arguably one of the Mets' MVPs during the first half, has to remain in the lineup as often as possible. As if to drive home that point, Pagan had three more hits in yesterday's 3-0 victory over the Braves.

In the third inning, he smacked his sixth triple and scored the only run Johan Santana needed, raising his batting average to .315, the best on the Mets. The speedy Pagan also made a handful of catches on balls that might have ended up dropping for hits if Beltran, who must play with a knee brace, had been out there.

As for what happens with the outfield rotation, Pagan shrugged off the question.

"That's not my decision," he said. "My job is to go out there, give 100 percent every day and help the team win."

Manuel didn't feel the need Sunday to talk to Pagan. Or Beltran. Or even Jason Bay, who was kept out of the starting lineup on his own bobblehead day at Citi Field.

The only player singled out by Manuel was Francoeur, who was told that he will get two of the four games in San Francisco - presumably against lefthanders Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito. Beyond that, the manager made no promises.

"I'm going to take these three days and figure out what I'm going to do with that," Manuel said. "I'll come up with something. I'm going to try to give them all as much time as possible and then I'm going to do what's best to win the game - who's playing the best. We're in a pennant race and whatever pieces fit, we have to put them out there."

It's going to take some time for Manuel to figure out this puzzle. The difficult part might be keeping the Mets in contention during that process. As much as the players talked about the "boost" Beltran will provide, that's still a guess at this point. But as a manager who joked Sunday about still having a job at the All-Star break, Manuel isn't going to lose any sleep over juggling outfielders.