PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Several months before the Mets selected Angel Pagan in the fourth round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, Pagan -- then a 17-year-old outfield prospect -- attended dinner in his native Puerto Rico with Carlos Beltran, a much-hyped Rookie of the Year candidate for the Royals.

"I asked him questions because I saw him as a light," Pagan said. "He was one of the biggest prospects from Puerto Rico. I wanted to see the way he was."

More than a dozen years have passed since that first meeting, with circumstances altered every which way. Beltran, as his countryman predicted, shot upward in his career, spending a decade as one of baseball's most complete players. And Pagan, after years of injury troubles, finally broke through with a .290 average, 11 home runs and 37 stolen bases in Beltran's absence last summer.

Now, though, the potential for awkwardness exists. Beltran is expected to report to camp on Saturday, more than a year removed from knee surgery and presumably completely healthy for the first time since 2008. But set to turn 34 in April, he may no longer be the best defensive center fielder on the roster.

That title may belong to Pagan, who, in his unwillingness to admit it, is prepared to defer to his elder.

"If Carlos is healthy, he'll be the center fielder," Pagan said on Friday. "No doubt about that."

From his vantage point, manager Terry Collins sees things similarly, saying that the center-field job is effectively Beltran's to lose. And Collins has been adamant in his stance that whoever wins the spot will remain there regardless of health or performance issues.

It is a position battle, to be certain, but not necessarily Beltran versus Pagan. More accurately, the fight card should read: "Beltran versus knees."

"His body," Collins said, "will tell him how it's going to be."

All of which means that Pagan, coming off the first full season of his career, will almost certainly start in right field. Lacking the power of a prototypical corner outfielder, his bat may not play as well there as it does in center. Nor will his ability to track down balls be on display as frequently. So unless Beltran rapidly returns to Gold Glove form on two injury-ravaged knees, the Mets may be a lesser defensive team because of it.

But such is the respect that both Pagan and the Mets have for Beltran -- not only for his skill set but for his status and his work ethic. They know that Beltran, if healthy, can still be elite.

"Sometimes people see this as a competition, as a rivalry," Pagan said. "This is not a rivalry. This is for the benefit of the team. I see it as a great problem to have, because we're going to have two center fielders playing right next to each other. In [left fielder] Jason Bay, you've got great defense, too. If you see that, you're going to see pretty much the best defensive outfield in the National League."

Deferring to Beltran is second nature for Pagan, a product of his youth in Puerto Rico. Only Bernie Williams ranks higher on Pagan's list of esteem. Beltran, despite being closer in age to Pagan, was also an idol.

"Angel looks up to Carlos so much" was how Collins put it, and that's an accurate assessment. The two men may not be as close friends as some reports make them seem, but Pagan's respect for Beltran is clear.

"He's an unbelievable defensive player, an unbelievable offensive player," Pagan said. "When I saw him come up with the Kansas City Royals, I saw a superstar coming up. He was the future for my country, so I had to try to follow the example. After he went to Houston and he put up those numbers, he got my respect as a player."

Pagan, too, is finally generating respect around the league, establishing himself as an everyday player and a valuable asset for the Mets. Planning to slot him second in the lineup, Collins will sandwich Pagan between arguably his two best hitters, Jose Reyes and David Wright. And to that end, Pagan plans to seek advice from Luis Castillo, a fine No. 2 hitter at points during his prime.

But the bulk of useful advice may come from Beltran. It is Beltran, after all, who helped motivate Pagan as a prospect in Puerto Rico, Beltran who encouraged him to attend community college before beginning his professional career. And it is Beltran, now, to whom Pagan will defer.

"It's a good problem to have, because I think we're both good defensive players," Pagan said. "I think we'll be fine. Doesn't matter where it is, I'm ready. I'm very prepared for the opportunity, and hopefully I can bring the best I can bring to the team."