NEW YORK -- If there is an awkward element to the impending center-field competition between Carlos Beltran and Angel Pagan, it is that the two men are genuinely friends. Asked about Beltran's position when he was busy thriving last summer, Pagan always made certain to defer to his injured countryman. Even now, he will not discuss the issue in any depth -- largely due to that same respect.
Although Beltran and Pagan have spoken to each other on the phone this offseason, they have not yet discussed the elephant on the diamond: that they will both be vying for the same job come spring.
"We have never touched base on that, because that's a situation we have to discuss in Spring Training, according to how he feels," Pagan said Tuesday at the annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner in Manhattan. "I can tell you right now, he's feeling pretty healthy. He's close to 100 percent. That's the decision of the team -- whether he's going to play center or I'm going to play center. I'm ready for any opportunity."
If Beltran is indeed healthy come spring, the center-field job should be his to lose. Beltran is, after all, not only the incumbent but a five-time All-Star at the position, while Pagan has played just one full season in the big leagues.
But Pagan is also coming off a sensational campaign, batting .290 with 11 home runs and 37 stolen bases and -- perhaps most importantly -- proving he can be an elite everyday defensive center fielder. Even if Beltran's oft-injured knees are 100 percent, he will still turn 34 this season. Age takes its toll. So it's worth noting that Pagan, who may already be the better defensive player, is now squarely in his prime -- to that end, he just inked a new one-year, $3.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration with the Mets.
"I was never worried about the contract," Pagan said at the dinner. "I knew that would come. I was more worried about my preparation, because I wanted to be 100 percent ready for the upcoming season."
Add in the fact that Pagan remains under team control through 2012 and Beltran will be a free agent after this season, and the center-field battle suddenly becomes that much more intriguing -- meaning, ultimately, that someone will walk away disappointed. Though both men should find their way into the Opening Day lineup come April -- the loser will start in right -- center field is the clear prize here.
A prize amongst friends.
Mets manager Terry Collins has said that he will sit down with both men at the start of Spring Training to discuss the situation. Ultimately, Collins will make the final decision -- and his choice will indeed be final. Even if Beltran ultimately lands back on the disabled list or Pagan regresses back to the mean, Collins does not plan to mix and match his outfielders once the season begins. His center fielder will remain in center, and his right fielder will remain in right.
In that fashion, Collins hopes to achieve some much-needed continuity at Citi Field.
He, like Pagan, hopes to improve.
"We're looking for a turnaround really bad," Pagan said. "We're trying to go beyond the expectations. A lot of people think that we don't have a good team, but we're going to prove a lot of people wrong."