10:11 am Apr. 20, 2012
At first glance, New York Mets manager Terry Collins would seem to be having a hard time deciding what to do with rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
Nieuwenhuis, called up after center fielder Andres Torres hurt his calf in New York's Opening Day win, was going to hit eighth, so there wouldn't be too much pressure on him as he made his first major league appearances. But Wednesday, Nieuwenhuis hit leadoff, and reached base four times.
Nieuwenhuis was also going to remain in a platoon with Scott Hairston, with the rookie facing righties and Hairston facing lefties. But that, too, went by the wayside this weekend against Cole Hamels. And Collins indicated that Nieuwenhuis could get the start on Friday, against the Giants and lefty Barry Zito.
Don't be fooled: Terry Collins and the Mets know precisely what they're trying to do with Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
Nieuwenhuis has a 176 OPS+ through his first 36 plate appearances while playing excellent defense in center field. (His remarkable catch last Saturday against the Phillies will be on season-highlight films.)
His combination of power, speed and defense gives New York something it simply doesn't have from any other outfielder. If he continues to produce at anywhere close to this level, Nieuwenhuis will be the best outfielder the Mets have.
This prospect is all the more compelling from a long-term perspective. Nieuwenhuis is 24. His best days are likely ahead of him. Meanwhile, Andres Torres, once he returns, is 34. Jason Bay, currently patrolling left field, is 33. In other words, Nieuwenhuis is the only one of the three outfielders in a potential logjam who is a good bet to help the Mets for years to come.
From a financial perspective, the clock has just started winding down for Nieuwenhuis, with several low-cost seasons ahead of him before he even qualifies for arbitration, let alone free agency. Meanwhile, a strong performance from Nieuwenhuis, and continued struggles from Bay, could allow the Mets to either platoon Bay or release him for baseball reasons.
That will be key. Bay is owed $16 million in 2012 and $16 million in 2013. There's no getting around that. But Bay has a vesting option of $17 million in 2014, and it kicks in if he either collects 600 plate appearances in 2013, or 500 apiece in 2012 and 2013.
So if Nieuwenhuis can give the Mets a baseball pretext to bench Jason Bay, they can make it much harder for Bay to cost them dearly in two years.
As Torres comes closer and closer to returning, Terry Collins will talk about the luxury of having too many good players, believing in Jason Bay, not wanting to rush Nieuwenhuis, and so on.
But really, everyone in the Mets organization knows what their priority is going to be. It is Kirk Nieuwenhuis.