After discussing his situation with manager Terry Collins, Beltran announced Monday that given the uncertain health of his right knee, he will shift to right field for the upcoming season, allowing Angel Pagan to succeed him in center for the Mets.
"In my heart, I still feel that I can play center field," an upbeat Beltran said late Monday morning. "But at the same time, this is not about Carlos. This is about the team."
The decision is final and will not be reversed due to injury, performance or other factors.
Reporting to camp at less than full strength last weekend, the 33-year-old Beltran worked with the Mets on creating a running program that would allow him to gauge the health of his knees and ultimately his ability to play center field. A week's worth of running encouraged Beltran, but not enough for him to commit to his readiness for center. As such, Beltran said, it would be unfair both to Pagan and to Collins for him to continue attempting to play the position.
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Beltran is not scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut until next week, at which point he will serve as the designated hitter. Though he maintained Monday that he will be ready to play the field come Opening Day, his knees will require further strengthening between now and then.
Beltran underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in January 2010, missing the entire first half of the season. He also skipped the final five games of the year after discomfort resurfaced in the joint.
"I didn't want this decision to be a decision made the last day of the camp," Beltran said. "I wanted to make the decision early so we get over with this and we can focus on playing ball. [Pagan] doesn't have to deal with questions, I don't have to deal with questions, neither does Terry, so we can focus on playing baseball and that's it."
Thus ends the reign of one of the generation's top center fielders, a man who ranked among the position's elite defenders for more than a decade. The job now belongs to Pagan, a 29-year-old friend and fellow Puerto Rican who has sought out Beltran's advice in the past.
"It's a relief knowing that you're going to be in a certain position," said Pagan, who homered in Monday's Grapefruit tilt against the Nationals. "I feel really fortunate to be passed this torch from the player I always looked up to. I think having him here right next to me is going to be a great plus for me. I'm going to keep looking up to him, keep trying to pick his brain, because he's one of the best center fielders out there. I'll try to be like him."
Though both men spoke freely of it Monday morning, the decision proved to be a difficult one for Beltran, who spent much of the past week seeking advice from family and friends: his agent, Scott Boras; his former teammate, Carlos Delgado; and his wife, Jessica, among them. It was not until Sunday evening that Beltran finally made his choice.
Seeking out Collins first thing Monday morning, he informed the manager of his decision, then relayed it to Pagan.
"The conversation we had was the most professional conversation I've ever had with a baseball player," Collins said. "He was upfront, upbeat, honest as you could possibly be."
Shifting to right field will not necessarily be easy for Beltran, especially considering Citi Field's quirky warning track and vast right-center field gap. But it is also not without precedent. Nine-time Gold Glover Torii Hunter moved from center to right for the Angels last season in order to accommodate a rookie, Peter Bourjos, while three-time Gold Glove winner Mike Cameron made a similar move with the Mets in 2005.
Yet Beltran must make his shift while battling the dual evils of age and injury. He has not felt completely healthy since 2006, when he hit a career-high 41 homers and knocked in 116 runs in his second season with the Mets. Since then, tendinitis and multiple surgeries have robbed him of what was once elite speed and quickness.
This summer marks the final chapter of the seven-year, $119 million contract Beltran signed prior to 2005. If he is to ink another significant multiyear deal before his career is through, Beltran must prove not only that he can still hit at an elite level, but that he can remain healthy for an entire season.
He may be better able to do that in right, where the strain on his knees will not be so great.
"I still play in the big leagues, I'm still having fun," Beltran said. "If I continue to get better, you never know. But right now, it's best for me to move to right."
The new alignment gives the Mets a starting outfield of Beltran, Pagan and Jason Bay, perhaps one of the top defensive groups in the National League.
"When Carlos was on the disabled list, they gave me the opportunity to fill his shoes," Pagan said. "I was just trying to do my job out there, trying to help the team as much as I could, and I guess I did it well."