At the close of business on Friday, the New York Mets’ winning streak was at eight games and counting, and they were getting by with a simple formula -pitching and defense, with a few key hits thrown in to provide enough scoring.
Along the way, a new hero seems to emerge with each victory.
Rod Barajas was a force when New York’s bats were sluggish, and Jose Reyes proved that Jerry Manuel, that mad scientist, should never again experiment with the No. 3 position in a batting order. Lately, if David Wright isn’t driving in an important run, then Jeff Francoeur will offer a tutorial on how to play rightfield.
It’s like that for a winning team.
The Mets (38-28) also has one other thing working for them -except, that it took a prolonged absence by their most expensive player for them to realize it.
When the New York Mets inked Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million free agent contract -then, the largest in franchise history- after the 2004 season, they had filled several needs with one stone. Beltran, the 1999 Rookie of the Year with the Kansas City Royals, was already a fine defensive centerfielder. But, he was more noted for his run production (five 100+ RBI seasons), particularly after swatting eight homers during the Houston Astros’ playoff run in ’04. That’s what really stoked the Mets’ fire.
At the time, 23 year-old Angel Pagan was patrolling the outfield for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides of the International League, a small dot on New York’s expansive radar screen. He was already in his sixth professional season, and something had to give. The Chicago Cubs purchased Pagan’s contract from the Mets in 2006, and the kid finally had a chance to play in the major leagues; on his 25th birthday, Pagan hit the first two homers of his career. He proved to be a serviceable player for the Cubs but, after two seasons and a bout with colitis, they shipped him back to New York for a pair of minor leaguers.
This is where the respective worlds of Beltran and Pagan have seemingly collided. With Beltran still on the mend after his controversial knee surgery in January (and Luis Castillo on the Disabled List with a bruised right heel), Pagan has emerged as both the Mets’ regular centerfielder and No. 2 hitter.
His contributions have made a world of difference.
On defense, Pagan has a .988 fielding percentage and is tied for second with six outfield assists. After blanking the Yankees, 4-0, at the Stadium, the visitors improved to 11-2 in games he has batted after Reyes. Overall, Pagan -who stroked a decisive two-run double in the eighth inning of Friday’s victory- is hitting .292, with 14 stolen bases in 17 chances.
Now, it is Beltran on the outside looking in. When he does return (his estimated time of arrival changes every third day or so), Manuel has several decisions to make -particularly if his club is still rolling along.
Does Beltran play immediately, even at the risk of disrupting team chemistry?
And, if Jason Bay’s four year, $66 million contract guarantees him playing time (despite just four homers and 27 ribbies), who then becomes the odd man out?
Will the Mets actually insert Pagan in rightfield, and bench Francoeur, a top-notch defender?
While each of these questions lurks in the distance, their ultimate answers will make or break this season. But, that is a story for another day.
In the meantime, Pagan’s effort should not be overlooked. With him, New York has become a considerably better team. Without him, Manuel would be looking at a much different campaign, one which is underscored by Beltran’s extended rehab stint.
Both the manager and his de facto centerfielder –who avoided arbitration by signing a $1.5 million contract in February- are only signed through the end of the season. Beltran’s seven year, $119 million deal expires in 2011.