Camp nearing end, Mets roster ailing

Camp nearing end, Mets roster ailing

JUPITER, Fla. -- Four weeks later, it remains the Mets' Spring Training dance -- two steps forward and one step back; all steps taken tentatively. So it will be Saturday afternoon, when the Mets are to play their 17th exhibition game, their first with Luis Castillo and, probably, their 14th without Brian Schneider.

The starting lineup the Mets envisioned the day they acquired Schneider and Ryan Church can't be in place until Moises Alou returns. And what guarantee exists with Alou or the other members of the starting eight? But even excluding the left-field assignment, the Mets have yet to see all their regulars together. And even if last weekend's Daylight Savings Time adjustment is factored out, camp no longer is in its early stages.

Two weeks ago, when the team's injury list was as long as Eric Hillman's hamstrings, manager Willie Randolph prefaced many of his medical updates with "It's still early" and said he hoped for a team of fully functional players with 2 1/2 weeks to play. The Mets are in that period now, and most of the projected regular are available.

Even Schneider, his right hamstring tight again, indicated he would be available if the regular season were under way. But he did ominously footnote his brief state of the catcher address Friday morning with "I'm not sure how long I would last, though."

But now, at least, the Mets will see their middle infield working as a unit. Carlos Beltran has played center field in successive games, albeit for a total of seven innings, Endy Chavez is "almost ready," Jose Valentin is playing with regularity, Marlon Anderson has healed and Carlos Delgado's bat appears to be more of an issue than his problematic right hip, though neither seems to be an overriding concern.

Where Orlando Hernandez fits in "Get Well Week" is difficult to say. His next assignment will not be in an exhibition game as he had hoped. Now he is scheduled to pitch Tuesday -- after five days rest -- in simulated game conditions. The club says nothing is wrong, but if El Duque were on the schedule he had suggested, he would be starting Monday night in Viera, Fla., against the Nationals.

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Beltran batted three times, but didn't have a play to make in center field in the Mets' 8-2 victory against the Marlins on Friday. Yet he tested his repaired/cleaned out knees to a greater degree than he had previously, reaching third base on a double to right and a throwing error in the second inning.

Unlike Thursday, when he made his defensive debut, Beltran had the option of playing center or serving as the designated hitter; he opted for the latter, although his knees, particularly the left one, did ache. "Good sore, not bad sore," he said before the game Friday.

Valentin played third base Friday, made a handsome play on a roller and, according to Randolph tweaked his right knee. But "nothing serious," the manager said. And Valentin, his chance of being in the Opening Day roster improving each day, wasn't even slightly concerned. "It was a pain, not an injury," he said.

Anderson said he put himself through a challenging workout Thursday to see how his rib cage would respond. He was satisfied Friday morning that he no longer would be risking injury if he returned to playing.

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