Spring training. It's the most wonderful time of the year...well, for a baseball fan anyway. The snow is melting, the birds are chirping and players are heading to Cactus and Grapefruit League action as they prepare for another grueling 162-game season.
Spring training is also a time for internal positional battles. The coaches will spend the next month-and-a-half evaluating their 40-man roster as they determine the best 25 athletes for the start of the 2013 season.
Terry Collins, manager of the New York Mets, will find that his biggest decisions will be featured in the outfield. The Mets came into this past offseason with the intentions of adding a quality bat that can fill a void in the outfield. So far, that has yet to happen (they garnered some attention by their inability to sign Michel Bourn).
So it looks as if the Mets will open camp with a crop of unproven and/or unaccomplished outfielders who will be vying for a starting gig with the Mets when they head north to Citi Field.
Lucas Duda, who measures in at 6'4", 255 lbs, has more of a build for a first baseman than an outfielder. Unfortunately for Duda, the Mets have Ike Davis to handle first-base duties. So in order for the Mets to keep the 27-year-old in the lineup, he will have to patrol the outfield.
The Mets optioned Duda to Triple-A at the end of July last season, when he was hitting only .241 with just 12 home runs in over 300 at-bats. Duda has the capability and the power to hit 20-30 bombs in a season, but has yet to show an improved batting eye, striking out 120 times in 2012 (compared to 51 walks).
Heading into spring training, Duda more or less has the left field job on lockdown. However, if he isn't able to provide the consistent offense that the Mets are expecting, his job could wind up being less secure than it seems.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis got off to a decent start in 2012, his rookie season. Through the end of May, the 25-year-old was hitting .294 with a .361 OBP over 160 at-bats. But as the season wore on, his strikeouts got the best of him. At the end of the year, Nieuwenhuis wound up with a .251/.315, with almost four times as many strikeouts as walks.
And, his hitting against left-handers was even worse. He hit just .180 against southpaws with just two RBI.
He plays a good center field and has the speed to cover a lot of ground. But his inconsistent hitting, coupled with his struggles against left-handers, places Nieuwenhuis in a platoon in center field at best in 2013.
Marlon Byrd represents the marquee outfield acquisition for the Mets this past winter. Byrd, whom the Mets signed to a minor league contract, split the 2012 season between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, accumulating a total of 143 at-bats.
Byrd's best season came with the Texas Rangers in 2009. He hit .283 with 20 home runs that year, adding in eight stolen bases along the way.
The 11-year veteran has a lifetime .278 batting average and was an All-Star in 2010, his first season with the Cubs. A right-handed bat with occasional pop, he stands a chance of at least breaking camp with the Mets, if not securing a starting job in right field or center field.
Mike Baxter will always be remembered in Mets lore for his heroic catch in left field, preserving Johan Santana's no-hitter, and displacing his right collar bone in the process. But physical sacrifice aside, does Baxter have what it takes to be an everyday Major League outfielder?
The 2012 season marked Baxter's first full season in the big leagues, though he only appeared in 89 games due to the injury suffered in June. He hit .263 with a .365 OBP. The former fourth-round draft pick never really showed a whole lot of pop in the minor leagues, with 18 being his personal best back in 2010.
And, the New York native will have to improve against left-handed pitching. His .053 batting average (or one hit in 22 at-bats) against southpaws just isn't going to cut it. Look for Baxter to be at least platooning in right field with Marlon Byrd, though he may be better suited for pinch-hitting and late-inning defense duties.
Collin Cowgill is an intriguing outfield option for Terry Collins. Cowgill, 26, was originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the fifth round in 2008. He spent the 2012 season with the Oakland A's, appearing in 38 games for the American League West Champions.
An although his numbers are not anything to write home about, he's a hard-nosed gritty player who isn't afraid to get dirty. And his minor league numbers are somewhat impressive, having reached double-digits in home runs on four different occasions. He also stole 30 bases at Triple-A Reno in 2010.
Cowgill is battling to be a platoon-mate with Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center field. But a strong spring could make Cowgill the everyday center fielder for the Mets in 2013.
Andrew Brown is by no means a household name. He has just 57 games of MLB experience, 46 of which came last year with the Colorado Rockies. And Brown doesn't really profile as an everyday player at this point in his career, as he enters his age-28 season in 2013.
Originally an 18th-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007, Brown has all of five home runs to his credit, all coming in 2012. He showed marginal pop during his minor league tenure.
Yet, the right-handed hitting outfielder comes to spring training looking for a chance to at least head north with the Mets in April. The Nebraska native will have to impress Terry Collins and company if he wants that dream to be a reality, but surprises do often happen in spring training.