Kirk Nieuwenhuis comes up big for the Mets, who should return the favor
Of all the surprises embedded in the 11-8 start of the New York Mets, none has been more welcome or more significant than the play of Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
Pressed into duty when starting center fielder Andres Torres injured his calf on Opening Day, Nieuwenhuis had just 358 at-bats above Double-A, and no major league time, when the Mets brought him up to play center field. He'd also missed the second half of 2011 with a shoulder injury that required surgery, and missed most of spring training with an oblique strain.
This is not to suggest he wasn't a solid prospect—his Triple-A OPS was .908 at the time of the injury—but the Mets promoted him mostly because they had no other viable option. Merely hoping he'd hold his own was the only reasonable expectation for Nieuwenhuis.
The reality so far has been very different. Nieuwenhuis posted an .860 OPS in his first 62 plate appearances entering Thursday afternoon's game against the Marlins, and added another three hits, including the game-winner, in New York's 3-2 win to sweep the series against Jose Reyes's new team. His defense has also been superb, with several highlight catches.
In short, it appears the Mets are not paying the price for rushing a prospect, and might have their long-term answer in center field.
He's played so well, in fact, that it's mystifying that the Mets intend to play Torres every day in center field if he returns, as expected, on Monday, while moving Nieuwenhuis to left.
Start with the obvious: You have a young, cheap player under team control excelling at his primary position, one more valuable than left field. You're really going to ask him to move to a position he has not one inning of experience at as a professional ballplayer, at the same time he continues to adjust to the adjustments major league pitchers will surely make on him?
And Torres, 33, signed to a one-year deal, is no one's idea of the long-term answer in center field. It is highly debatable whether he's a particularly good bet to outperform Nieuwenhuis in 2012. Better still, Torres has played left field, so putting him there until Jason Bay returns isn't even a defensive stretch.
The Mets, by virtue of their paper-thin roster, have no shortage of holes and the high likelihood of future problems. So when something like Kirk Nieuwenhuis happens, they need to take the good fortune in stride and show the wisdom not to screw it up.