Mets outfield has more questions than answers
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even now, with the Braves' Spring Training camp in its second day of operation, the firm of Schuerholz, Wren and Gonzalez can see the foul lines moving closer together on the Orlando field where the team's realigned outfield will patrol during exhibition games. The identical process is under way in Turner Field because the firm of Upton, Upton and Heyward will be operating there regularly come April.
The Braves anticipate the definition of the word "gap" to be applied to a significantly narrower tract anywhere B.J., Justin and Jason play this summer. And manager Fredi Gonzalez went so far as to suggest that the coverage of his revamped outfield may reach into the stands.
The same sort of expectations exist in the Indians' camp. In his return to a big league dugout, Terry Francona not only will be free from the clutches of the Green Monster and the odd configuration of Fenway Park's outfield in general, but he also will have three could-be center fielders -- Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Michael Brantley -- at his disposal to help his tissue-paper thin pitching.
And the Angels in the outfield include Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Peter Bourjos. Nice.
The outfield dynamic in Port St. Lucie is decidedly different, and it will be in Flushing as well. The Braves, Indians and Angels are have-lots; the Mets are have-nots. The newly designed clubhouse has one vacant locker -- between those of David Wright and Mike Baxter. More than a few veterans, and the occasional executive have expressed hope that the vacancy will be filled by right-handed power, some speed and an outfielder's glove.
If not, the alignment of the Mets' outfield will be, left to right, Lucas Duda, a possible platoon of unprovens Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill and some combination of Marlon Byrd, Mike Baxter, Andrew Brown and Jamie Hoffman, or Byrd alone if Terry Collins proves prescient.
Rare is the big league outfield with so little prowess. In speaking generally Saturday, Collins ended a sentence with "... we've got an entire outfield that has to be filled." And that assessment went unchallenged.
The Mets outfield may never be settled this year, unless Duda emerges as the genuine slugger the team needs and/or Byrd -- at age 35 -- performs as he did at age 31. A lot to ask in either circumstance, it seems.
The Mets have had a history of less-than-productive outfields. It must be in the franchise DNA. The majority of the most accomplished position players they have developed -- Darryl Strawberry, Edgardo Alfonzo, David Wright, Cleon Jones, Jose Reyes, Bud Harrelson, Hubie Brooks, Kevin Mitchell, Gregg Jefferies, Todd Hundley, Mookie Wilson, Rey Ordonez, Lenny Dykstra, Wally Backman -- have been infielders.
Only three of the Mets' 11 leading home run hitters -- Strawberry, Carlos Beltran and Kevin McReynolds -- have been full-time outfielders. Dave Kingman, fifth with 154, played first base in nearly 30 percent of his Mets games.
The 1969 team made its Miracle with limited power throughout the batting order -- except for first base -- for the second half of the season. Though Jones, in left, and Tommie Agee, in center, were critical to the team's offense, they combined for 14 fewer home runs and just two more RBIs than George Foster produced eight years later in his MVP season with the Big Red Machine. And the Mets' right-field assignment was shared.
The '73 team reached the seventh game of the World Series with merely one legitimate offensive force among its outfielders -- Rusty Staub, who drove in 76 runs and hit 15 home runs. Even the heralded '86 Mets lacked power at the traditional run-production positions by the time they reached the postseason. Foster (13 home runs, 38 RBIs) had been released in August, so the outfield had Strawberry (27, 93), Dykstra (8, 45) and Wilson (9, 45).
Not until 1987, after the club had obtained McReynolds, did the franchise deploy teams with sets of outfielders with genuine power at two positions. In the four seasons they played in the same outfield, Strawberry (144 and 390) and McReynolds (102 and 361) averaged 61 home runs and 188 RBIs as a tandem.
The current Mets would be delighted if their entire outfield produced at that rate this year.
The Mets team that reached the World Series in 2000 had an outfield that included Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, Darryl Hamilton, Derek Bell and other, less notable players. It produced 59 home runs, the sixth-lowest total in the big leagues that season, and didn't approach 300 RBIs. The 231 runs batted in ranked 28th among 30 teams.
So why should this Mets outfield, the one that is to play behind an above-average infield, be any better? And yet, how can the outlook for any outfield be so glum? Duda has the defensive outfield skills of a designated hitter, but he has 30-homer potential. He hit 15 in 401 at-bats last season, and he's learning.
Nieuwenhuis needs to lower his strikeout rate dramatically. Cowgill is an unknown. And all the right field possibilities make for a stew of uncertainty.
Who can say? Matt den Dekker, the most gifted outfield defender in the organization, could interfere if he suddenly begins to make contact consistently and pushes his way into center field. The Mets believe his glove already is big-league primed.
Who can say anything otherwise? It was merely five years ago when Jeff Wilpon, repeating what Omar Minaya had told him, predicted a Mets outfield of the not-to-distant future that included Lastings Milledge, Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez. Wilpon never made mention of Beltran in that scenario. No matter, the three outfielders he did mention never did materialize as the Mets outfield of the present.
Some organizations produce outfielders in an assembly line fashion. See the Giants of decades ago, when Willie Mays was surrounded by the likes of Bobby Bonds, Leon Wagner, Willie Kirkland, the Alou brothers and Jackie Brandt. The A's of the '80s had Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The Blue Jays put Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield and George Bell crammed into one outfield. The Big Red Machine and the Pirates of the '70s could outfit two teams with outfielders.
And the Mets of 2013 have one vacant locker.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.