It took three weeks, but Carlos Beltran finally made his spring training debut for the New York Mets yesterday. The five-time All-Star has had three knee surgeries since October 2007, two being on his right knee, and the wear and tear prompted Beltran to volunteer himself for right field duty this season.
Entering spring training, it was widely speculated that Beltran would be best served surrendering the center field duties to Angel Pagan. Most assumed Beltran, who said he would be ready for spring training after missing 98 games last season, would at least try to play center field in a few games this spring.
But Beltran, recognizing his limited range and strength in his legs, didn't even give himself a chance.
Beltran has been working out with a leg strengthening program he developed with team doctors for the last few weeks, and Collins finally gave Beltran the start at DH yesterday against the Boston Red Sox.
He singled in his first at bat and ended the game 1-for-3 with a run scored.
Beltran is perhaps the biggest key to the Mets success this season, so seeing him get a hit and run the bases is cause for celebration. However, can we please make it cautious celebration?
In the second inning, after his single to right, Beltran advanced to second on Jason Bay's single to center. After Ike Davis and Scott Hairston both flew out to right field, Daniel Murphy came up to bat and hit a soft line drive to right that bounced once in front of Boston's Josh Reddick.
This is when things got scary. Remember, Beltran was making his spring training debut. It's not his fifth start, or even his second, and it was not May 6, it was March 6.
Third base coach, Chip Hale, noticing Beltran's generous lead from second base, sent Beltran home on Murhpy's soft single. Watching Beltran make the turn at third base was like watching a video where you know someone is going to get hurt—your stomach tightens up in anticipation of a disaster.
Reddick's throw was off line, and Beltran scored the run without getting hurt. But that's not the point—this is not the time to be sending Beltran home from second base. As Joel Sherman at the New York Post put it, Beltran needs to be bubble wrapped right now, not risking collisions at home plate.
Even Collins admitted he was scared watching Hale send Beltran home.
"That is my fault; I probably should have been adamant [about having a red light for Beltran, regardless of the situation]," Collins said.
Hale's take on the play? "The last thing I want to do with any runner in spring is get them into a collision."
Yes, Mr. Hale, I'd say that's something to avoid in the middle of March. However, with with a player as fragile—and yet essential—as Beltran, that does without saying.
Beltan claimed he was running at about "80 percent" yesterday, but watching him run, that's not the number I'd put to it. He didn't seem comfortable running, and he certainly wasn't running very fast. If this had been a regular season game, Beltran probably would have been out by a mile.
Beltan is just one of many Mets players coming back from injury or looking to resurrect a career. The Mets are also leaning heavily on getting comeback seasons from pitchers Chris Young and Chris Capuano.
At this point in spring training, however, Beltran does not look like a player who will be able to start four to five times each week, and right field may present just as many—if not more—problems at center. Playing Beltran at DH this week will at least get him some at-bats finally, and Beltran said he saw the ball well yesterday, so that's good news.
Still, pushing him to his absolute limit on day one probably wasn't in the plan.
Scott Hairston is likely to make this team and serve as Beltran's backup. However, Collins recently made comments indicating that he might keep Beltran's replacement in Beltran's spot in the lineup on those days.
In other words, Mets fans might see Hairston batting clean up for the Mets at some point this season. If it's going to be Willie Harris in that role, that's not going to fly. Collins would at least have to move everyone in the lineup up one spot, which would put Jason Bay fourth and Ike Davis fifth.
For now, though, Beltran needs to be protected. They can't risk his health this early in spring training if they want him to contribute anything during the regular season. This is certainly Beltran's last season with the Mets as he enters his final year under contract, and he could find himself on the trade block at the deadline.
To get that far though, Beltran first has to make it out of spring training in one piece, and the Mets aren't making that any easier on him.
After yesterday's game, Beltran said he hoped to start again today when the Mets play the Detroit Tigers. But guess what? Not surprisingly, Beltran is out today because he feels "sore".
Yeah, no kidding.