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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Memo to Mets manager Luis Rojas: Robinson Cano doesn't have to bat third, and why is Brandon Nimmo in 8 spot?

Mets manager Luis Rojas shags fly balls in

Mets manager Luis Rojas shags fly balls in the outfield during batting practice at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.  Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Good news, Luis. There still are several days left before you have to write out a Mets lineup for a game that actually counts in the standings. And this year, each game counts almost three times as much as it used to in past years. No pressure, right?

We’re bullish on your abilities as a manager, but eight years doing that job at the minor-league level doesn’t make you bulletproof in Flushing (there are some benefits to having cardboard fans). And because you’re new at this Mets gig, maybe it’s worth asking while there’s some time to reconsider before Friday’s opener at Citi Field:

Is Robinson Cano really the guy you want in the No. 3 spot?

Just thinking out loud here. But isn’t it kind of refreshing to engage in some actual baseball conversation, like debating lineups rather than COVID-19 protocols and the aesthetic value of Citi’s cardboard fans?

This weekend’s Subway Series was only practice, but Cano hitting third in both games and dropping Brandon Nimmo to eighth(!) for Sunday night’s finale definitely grabbed our attention.

Rojas said that was partly because Cano needed as many at-bats as possible after missing eight days for an undisclosed reason. But the manager also likes Cano hitting there, and that could be a dubious leap of faith with some of the other options to choose from.

(For the record, Cano went 1-for-3 Sunday night with a ground-ball single through the right side of the infield and a strikeout swinging in the Mets’ 6-0 loss to the Yankees.)

If this were the younger, top-five MVP ballot, early thirty-ish, pre-PED suspension Cano, batting third would be a no-brainer. But he turns 38 this October and is coming off an injury-shortened 2019 season, and Rojas should be concerned about the career-low .736 OPS Cano potentially making another appearance.

The Mets can’t afford to have that happen during this 60-game sprint, even at the heavily discounted rate of $8.9 million (the prorated portion of his $24M salary). Still, the Mets’ best lineup likely should have Nimmo leading off, followed by Jeff McNeil, then Pete Alonso, maybe Michael Conforto, and whatever Rojas & Co. want to do with Cano and Cespedes as that elder duo grinds to get ready during this countdown to Opening Day.

“The profile is there to hit in the middle, having done it so much before,” Rojas said of Cano. “He’s shown up in great shape and his bat is where I think we’ll all feel comfortable that he’s gonna deliver for us.”

Like Mickey Callaway before him, Rojas is in a tough spot. Callaway was trapped between general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and Cano, Van Wagenen’s former client, so he had virtually zero authority over the player. The same holds true for Rojas, except he does hold one advantage on Callaway — he was hired by Van Wagenen.

Even so, Rojas is only a year older than Cano, and he’s going to defer to an eight-time All-Star, especially one with the clubhouse presence of a 15-year veteran.

Maybe in past years, keeping Cano in his happy place wouldn’t have been such a big issue. But the Mets now have a solid stable of dangerous hitters, and if Cano isn’t productive right away, it’s only logical to move some young guns ahead of him.

Speaking of which, Rojas also raised some eyebrows Sunday night by having Nimmo — Saturday’s leadoff hitter — down at No. 8, with only Rene Rivera behind him. Twice during his pregame Zoom call, Rojas mistakenly referred to Nimmo batting ninth, but we’ll assume eighth is as low as he’s meant to go.

Obviously, McNeil is capable of leading off, as he did Sunday in the Bronx. But that should be Nimmo’s role, and sinking an on-base machine like him to the bottom of the lineup and minimizing his at-bats doesn’t really make sense.

Again, these were only exhibitions, and Rojas suggested that his Opening Day lineup has yet to be decided. But when you get only two of these practice games to audition batting orders, it helps to see how the real thing might perform under the bright lights. Rojas does have a number of good choices, but figuring out how to best deploy them isn’t a layup, and he also doesn’t have a six-month season to test-drive various configurations.

“We’ve got a lot of length to our lineup and not one guy is going to be easy to face,” Nimmo said. “And then to be able to fill in for a guy who needs a day and whatnot. If he’s feeling hot, then he can just keep on going. To have that many weapons is really special. And something that I think is our biggest strength.”

We agree with Nimmo. It’s a deep, versatile group that really is the engine for these Mets, overtaking a rotation that now has plenty to prove after Jacob deGrom.

Rojas (along with his front-office collaborators) just has to push the right buttons, and be prepared to quickly adjust if he tries the wrong ones first.

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