Mets strive to improve outfield defense

Mets strive to improve their outfield defense

JUPITER, Fla. -- The travel chart affixed to the bulletin board in the Mets' clubhouse had check marks next to the names of Moises Alou, Carlos Beltran, Endy Chavez, Shawn Green, Ben Johnson and Lastings Milledge. All of them -- six outfielders in camp -- would make the trip to Jupiter, Fla., for the Sunday afternoon game against the Cardinals. And with Green assigned to first base, four of the six were in the starting lineup.

Perhaps manager Willie Randolph knew what was coming. Something was in the air.

Indeed, 10 of the 12 outs right-hander Orlando Hernandez achieved before his "precautionary" departure Sunday were in the air, including a pop to shortstop Jose Reyes in the first inning by Albert Pujols on one of El Duque's quasi-eephus pitches. And none of the Cardinals' three hits was a ground ball.

Say this for the old man, he aired 'em out, reinforcing his image as a card-carrying member of the Mets' likely rotation, aka the 2007th airborne. There was a reason for all the outfielders.

And there are reasons outfield defense is emphasized as much as it is in Mets camp. With Alou, Beltran and Green likely to get the lion's share of outfield innings, the need for execution is great. So bench coach Jerry Manuel, the man in charge of fly-ball outs, works with right fielder Green on his jumps and left fielder Alou on all phases of his game. And he routinely reminds Beltran, the man in the middle, of the challenge of playing between two outfielders of modest skill and range.

Clearly the Mets didn't make defense their primary consideration when they put together this three-man alignment. Beltran won a Gold Glove in 2006 after adjusting to Manuel's thinking: "The guys who win the awards play shallow." But Green, once more than an acceptable defender, didn't distinguish himself last year after he joined the Mets. And, for Alou, playing left field is what he does between RBI swings.

"It's going to be a challenge this year," Manuel said.

General manager Omar Minaya characterized the outfield defense as "average," and invoked the name Endy Chavez to defuse any alarm.

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"Historically, at the Major League level, outfielders come here with a lot of promise," Manuel said. "It seems to decline significantly after a few years. We try to address that in Spring Training, and periodically, during the season. We've had some success these years."

The work of Manuel with the outfielders has enhanced the team's overall defense in each of his two seasons working under Randolph. Mike Cameron played right field as no other Mets right fielder in 2005. The improvement in outfield relays was quite conspicuous, too. Manuel's influence made Cliff Floyd a more aggressive left fielder, who learned to appreciate assists and became more active because he wanted more.

The outfield defense improved again last season because of Beltran's positioning and because Chavez -- the team's most gifted defender other than Jose Reyes -- played the second-most outfield innings of any Met.

But now what? El Duque, John Maine and Oliver Perez are fly-ball pitchers. Chan Ho Park is a ground-ball pitcher despite what he showed Saturday -- three home runs and six strikeouts. Tom Glavine throws ground balls, as they say. And Mike Pelfrey is down in the zone as well, which is another element in his favor in his competition with Park for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Minaya noted the bullpen has ground-ball pitchers for the most part, but it also is likely to have Jorge Sosa and perhaps Ambiorix Burgos, who hit a lot of bats that produce fly balls. Then again, Chavez is likely to be in a game about the same time Randolph summons the first reliever. So maybe it will work. Maybe it does mesh; maybe it doesn't.

Shea Stadium is a "fair" park and doesn't readily give up home runs. But it's a big field, and runs score on doubles, too.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.