The good news for some lucky Met: Center field is wide open
The 2012 New York Mets have many personnel needs, and the one in center field is particularly acute.
Starter Andres Torres left Tuesday night's spring-training game against the Washington Nationals with a calf injury. How long he'll be out is unknown, but calf injuries can linger, and injuries limited Torres to just 112 games last year.
The backup for Torres—indeed, the only real backup plan the Mets have at all three outfield positions—is Scott Hairston. But Hairston has been on the shelf for most of the spring with an oblique injury, the same one that ended his 2011 season. He's recently expressed optimism that he'll be ready to play Opening Day, but hasn't appeared in a spring game yet with two weeks until the start of the season.
The resulting vacuum has the Mets exploring some unorthodox solutions, the kind teams normally look into in the lare stages of an extra-inning game, not as a decision for any extended period of playing time.
Let's explore the contestants in New York's center field competition, from best to worst.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis: It should be telling that the leading contender for the center field spot is Nieuwenhuis, a player with exactly zero major league at-bats, and one who missed most of last season with surgery on his shoulder. But Nieuwenhuis has a pair of major advantages over his competitors: He's played the position, and he's already on the 40-man roster. In a perfect world, Nieuwenhuis would play at Triple-A to get more experience. But in a perfect world, Torres probably isn't your starting center fielder in the first place.
Adam Loewen: Don't mistake Loewen's position here on the list for Loewen being a good alternative. Loewen, a 6'6", 235 pound converted pitcher, would appear to be a far better fit as a lefty off the bench, with fill-ins at first base or a corner outfield spot. His solid Triple-A numbers last year were park-inflated, he's played just 18 career games in center field, and his career OPS in 39 career major league plate appearances is just .576. But Loewen, a work in progress thanks to his mid-career conversion, has displayed some power this spring, and if the Mets intend to keep him anyway, he's as good as anyone below him on the list to play in center field.
Mike Baxter: The argument for Baxter is roughly the same as for Loewen. He's about the same age as Loewen, possesses roughly the same defensive abilities (best as a corner outfielder or first baseman) and profiles as the team's final lefty bat off the bench. But instead of determining which of the two are best at filling this job, the team's lack of depth means the two will instead battle to fill a job neither should have.
Jason Bay: The always-eager Bay went to manager Terry Collins and volunteered to play center field, and Collins appears willing to take him up on it. But leave aside Bay's disappointing hitting, since he's going to be in the lineup regardless of position, thanks to his prohibitively large salary in 2012, 2013, and if he plays enough, 2014. Bay hasn't played center field since five games with the 2004 Pirates, and with good reason: Even his range in left field is pretty suspect. The idea of Bay in center field opens up left field as well, with Loewen or Baxter the two who would likely take Bay's place. I suppose if Bay outperforms those two in the field, he's the logical choice to play the position. But if the choice is between three men who don't play center field, the better option is probably to let Bay keep playing where he's been and let him concentrate on regaining the power that mysteriously left him the moment he signed with the Mets.
Jordany Valdespin: It appears Valdespin will also participate in this competition because he volunteered. Valdespin has no experience at the position, and he's not even a particularly strong hitter my middle-infielder standards. But Valdespin apparently sees a chance to stick with the team, Collins is desperate. And he's already on the 40-man roster, so that makes adding him easier. It's hard to conceive of a worse idea than asking a player with no major league experience to learn center field on the job while also figuring out major league pitchers with just two weeks of regular work at the position.
But if ever there were a time for the downsized Mets to experiment with potentially crazy ideas, it's now.