Mets' outfielders confident they can step up
Position gains clarity with Bourn's deal with Indians
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even here among the palm trees, blue skies -- a scoreboard thermometer boasted of temperatures over 80 degrees on Monday -- and ubiquitous optimism of Spring Training, the Mets could not avoid it. Talk of Michael Bourn, the free agent they coveted, permeated every practice field and chain-link fence.
The Mets wanted him. They did not get him. Bourn agreed Monday to a four-year deal with the Indians, rejecting a near-identical four-year offer from the Mets, according to a source. With no assurances that the Mets would be able to avoid giving up the 11th overall Draft pick to sign him, the two-time All-Star opted for a sure thing in Cleveland.
And back in Port St. Lucie, where pitchers and catchers officially reported on Monday, the Mets were left with a familiar underlying thought: This outfield is not good enough.
General manager Sandy Alderson was among the first to admit that, making the outfield an early-offseason butt of his jokes. Even as he began pressing hard for Bourn in January, he speculated that the outfield alignment "won't be a strength for us."
Yet here among the palms and light breezes that Bourn will not call home, the outfielders already in camp disagree.
"I think we're good, actually," left fielder Lucas Duda said.
Duda's stance, of course, is born out of necessity. If the Mets are to have any chance at making a surprise postseason run, they will need their outfield to be a minimum of "good." The rotation, even without R.A. Dickey, seems strong. The infield is solid, with no glaring weakness. The relief corps boasts enough new faces to generate hope.
But the outfield, an obvious liability last summer, appears even weaker heading into Spring Training. Gone is Scott Hairston, the unit's most productive power hitter, along with Andres Torres and Jason Bay.
To replace them, the Mets traded for Collin Cowgill, a 26-year-old former prospect with severe platoon splits, and signed bench candidates Andrew Brown and Marlon Byrd. Duda will be back as the everyday left fielder, following last year's midseason demotion to the Minors. Also returning are Mike Baxter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis, both of whom suffered serious injuries in 2012.
Every one of them understands the widespread belief that they will rank among the least productive outfields in baseball. Every one of them shrugs it away.
"I don't read that stuff," Baxter said. "I don't get into the papers too much. Believe me, I have enough desire to want to stick here and help this team win, and that fuels me plenty."
Cowgill, the new guy, is familiar with this feeling. He made his Major League debut on a D-backs team that was supposed to land near the bottom of the National League West in 2011. They finished first. From there, he made his way to an A's club that was supposed to sit near the bottom of the American League West in 2012. They, too, finished first.
"I definitely think I can help," said Cowgill, who owns a .379 career on-base percentage against left-handed pitching. "I look around, I know these guys, I've seen them play. There's a lot of talent."
That talent begins with Duda, whose chance of a breakout season seems as high as anyone's. Newly determined after last year's demotion and fully recovered from an offseason wrist injury, Duda is ready to improve upon his .239 average and 15 home runs from last season.
To his left, Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill will likely split time, in a platoon situation that could mitigate both players' weaknesses. Nieuwenhuis struggled mightily against left-handers in his rookie season, just as Cowgill floundered against righties. Deployed correctly, those two could complement one another.
"We're just excited, and we're preparing the way that we know how," Nieuwenhuis said. "We know what we're capable of doing and we're excited for the season. All that stuff that people talk about, all that stuff is just completely out of our control. For us to dwell on that and think about that would be completely detrimental to our play on the field."
Like Duda, Nieuwenhuis is completely healthy after partially tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot last summer, shortly following a Minor League demotion. Baxter is likewise healed after displacing his collarbone crashing into the left-field wall last June, in a successful attempt to preserve Johan Santana's no-hitter.
Slated to start in right this year, Baxter has no apparent competition for playing time now that Bourn has signed elsewhere. He and his outfield mates will enjoy opportunities aplenty. They know what their general manager said over the winter. They realize that it reflects what the public believes. And they are prepared, nonetheless, to go to battle with what they have.
"I'm excited, man," Duda said. "People can say what they want about our outfield. We're just going to continue to work hard."