Manuel eyes healthy Reyes as No. 3 hitter
Shortstop says move would likely be until Beltran returns
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- His wait has been endless, months going on centuries. And, as you might have discerned from watching many of his 3,353 big league at-bats, Jose Reyes is not among the most patient folks on the planet. So the wait has been particularly difficult for him. But now he's fully fueled and fit once again, ready to go. Give the man a bat and watch him ... no, no, give him a bat and watch him wait some more.
It is the intention of one Jerry Manuel to extend Reyes' sentence of game inactivity two more batters. If the Mets' manager does as he hopes, Reyes won't even be on deck when the team takes its first official swings of 2010. Come April 5, when Citi Field's voice, Alex Anthony, introduces the Mets' first batter, he might say "Now batting, No. 16, Angel Pagan," and "Still waiting, No. 7, Jose Reyes."
Manuel once again intends to make someone other than Reyes the Mets' leading man and to have the most dynamic offensive player on their roster bat third. As the organization makes every effort to move well beyond its painful 2009, the manager has brought back a concept from just about one year ago. He discussed all the reasons and ramifications Friday, and qualified nearly all he said with ifs, ands and Beltrans. But with a specific question pointed at his head, the manager said of Reyes, "I'd love to see him as our No. 3 hitter." Period.
Reyes also offered a reprise of his 2009 posture. "I'll do anything to help the team. He's the boss. If he wants me to bat third, I will."
And this time, it might actually happen ... for a while. What Manuel didn't mention, but Reyes did, was that the change would be in effect until Carlos Beltran returns -- in May, the Mets hope.
"That's what he said to me," Reyes said. "It would be until Carlos comes back."
"Without Beltran, we need offense," is what the manager said. Still, he did propose some tops of the lineup that included Reyes, as the third hitter, and Beltran as well as David Wright, Jason Bay and Luis Castillo. And he added a somewhat left-handed assessment: "Jose could be a legitimate No. 3 hitter on a good team."
When Manuel proposed the change last spring, his endorsement of Reyes as a No. 3 hitter was defused because he had no suitable leadoff replacement. The team's personnel was different, or at least it was seen in a different light. Pagan's bat had not yet made the positive impressions it would make in the summer, and Castillo was merely months removed from a horrid season. Manuel couldn't be sure either would prosper in the role.
He still can't be, but the manager believes the same two players are more viable options now, so he has approached his shortstop and presented him with string to this year's trial balloon.
"We talked a little [Thursday], and he wants to talk about it more," Reyes said. "It's OK with me. I'm open to it, no mater what."
Reyes denied he was opposed to the change when it was proposed last spring, that he had said "sure" when he was anything but. But a sense of reservation was obvious then. One teammate, Jose Valentin, wondered aloud whether Reyes would sulk if not used in his customary role. No comparable indications were evident Friday. Still, Manuel said, "I'd have to be sure he wanted to do it."
Reyes indicated he now is more comfortable with abandoning the top spot. "If he wants me to bat ninth, I will," he said. (But among the starting pitchers, only John Maine and Johan Santana would give up that assignment.)
Manuel suggested Reyes' acceptance might be fueled by his fundamental desire to resume his career. It was interrupted by injury May 20. When the Mets play the Marlins on Opening Day, 319 days and 126 games will have passed. "No. Really? That's a lot," Reyes said. And later, he added, "It will be good just to be back on the field."
Speed and switch-hitting make Reyes well-suited for the No. 3 position. And Manuel says he sees run potential in Reyes' extra-base prowess, though it hasn't often translated to runs. Reyes has batted higher than .277 with runners in scoring position once in his past five seasons. But his batting before Bay, Wright or Beltran probably would improve the pitches Reyes would see.
"It is evolution as a player. I think he's ready for that if that's something that we need," Manuel said. "It would put more emphasis on him driving in runs than accumulating stolen bases."
None of that addresses the potential production of his replacement in the leadoff position. Castillo has more appearances in the leadoff position than in any other, 4,067; his career on-base average as a No. 1 hitter is .364. His on-base average in 76 plate appearances as a leadoff batter last year was .322. And his OBP in all innings, 130, in which he led off was quite high, .415.
Pagan reached base more often last year, but it is a small sampling and not particularly telling.
What was telling was the reaction in the clubhouse. Several pitchers turned their noses up at the very idea of removing Reyes from the leadoff spot, no matter where he would land. And well before Manuel initiated the public conversation about the possibility, Jeff Francouer had this to say: "I think we'll put up some runs. Playing against the Mets for five years, I can say I'm glad Jose's here and healthy. When he's at the front of the lineup, he's tough. Chipper [Jones] and I were talking, and if he gets on base 250 times a year, the Mets are tough to beat."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.