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Why Mets won't run Robinson Cano back into lineup right away

Mets second baseman Robinson Cano participates in batting

Mets second baseman Robinson Cano participates in batting practice after being activated from the injured list before the MLB baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, USA, 03 September 2019.  Credit: ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto/ERIK S LESSER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON -- Robinson Cano was able to return from a torn left hamstring in such a remarkably short period of time that his case should be written up in the New England Journal of Medicine.  

Cano healed up in a month, despite an injury that could take twice that, and the Mets seemed as surprised as anyone. To the extent they weren’t prepared to immediately give him his old job back, and provided a hazy description of what Cano’s role would be going forward.

His welcome greeting before Tuesday’s game at Nationals Park?

“He’s knows he’s active and that’s it,” Mickey Callaway said. “We haven’t promised anybody anything, just like the rest of the players on the team. Right now, it’s all hands on deck. That’s the way we have to play this at this point.”

With Cano watching from the dugout Tuesday, his signed replacement Joe Panik walloped a two-run homer off Max Scherzer, the day after drilling an RBI double in the series-opening victory. Cano may be an eight-time All-Star, but the Mets are in no hurry to mess with the current Panik/Jeff McNeil dynamic at second base.    

We’ll see how long the manager can hold out. Tuesday’s comments suggest no 24-and-1 treatment for Cano, among Brodie Van Wagenen’s favorite former clients, but we’re not entirely buying the manager’s sales pitch. Cano is a potential Hall of Famer, and according to him, 100% healthy after a third stint on the IL this season.

He’s also not a guy accustomed to riding the bench. And as far as promises go, the Mets have committed roughly $100 million to Cano through 2023, so let’s not forget that money often has a voice in these discussions.   

For Cano’s part, he didn’t arrive making any public demands. The Mets ran him through a series of intense on-field drills Tuesday afternoon to prove his readiness -- coming off playing in Brooklyn the previous night -- and the back-to-back workouts factored in to not starting him right away against the Nationals.

Beyond that, however, Cano didn’t sound like someone who expects to be entrenched at second base for the remainder of this season. Maybe it was the month away, or the caution born of three leg injuries, but Cano didn’t openly pressure the Mets to stick him in the lineup.

“Whenever they want me in there, whatever it is, I’m just happy to be back,” Cano said.

The Mets have been thrilled with Panik and Cano’s absence has given them more flexibility at a few positions, so Callaway shouldn’t feel obligated to surrender that. Van Wagenen paid a huge sum -- in both dollars and talent -- to get Cano from the Mariners in the first mic drop move of his early GM tenure. But it hasn’t worked out so great this season, with Cano only appearing in 86 games, and hitting .252 with 10 homers, 32 RBIs and a .710 OPS.

The assumption is that Cano will be the Mets’ starting second baseman as long as he’s physically capable of doing so -- or until the NL adopts the DH, which won’t happen any earlier than 2021. But when Callaway was asked directly Tuesday who the team’s starter is at the position, he declined to give a name.

“I think we need to figure that out,” Callaway said. “There’s going to be a lot of different reasons, like who plays the outfield, things like that. So it’s really tough just to say, it’s this guy or that guy at this point.”

That’s the right strategy. I just didn’t expect to hear it, given Cano’s stature and remarkable recovery. But the Mets don’t know what they have in Cano, who played only two rehab games at Class Brooklyn -- one at second base, one at DH -- and hasn’t faced major-league pitching since he was hurt on Aug. 4.

Cano was on a bit of a roll then. After snapping a career-worst 0-for-23 slump, Cano was riding a 10-for-17 wave, and on his way to a third double that day against the Pirates when the hamstring blew out rounding first base. From what we saw during his workouts at Citi Field, Cano looked strong in the batter’s box, and moved as well as ever on the basepaths.

“I didn’t want to come if I’m not 100 percent,” Cano said. “But I feel 100 percent. I’ve been running hard.”

No need to push things. Cano makes for a nice pinch-hitting threat, if not a few selective starts this month. Having him back is an unexpected bonus for the Mets, but they need to be smart about his return, too.

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