PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Speed is no longer king. It had a good run, so to speak, until chicks started digging the long ball and everything else lost so much of its cachet. The fallout? Despite a recent basestealing renaissance throughout the big leagues, elite foot speed is no longer a requirement for leadoff men.
The Nationals frequently scrawled Jayson Werth's name first on their lineup card last year. The Orioles turned to Nick Markakis with plenty of success. The Yankees relied on Derek Jeter, while the Tigers gave the job to Austin Jackson. All of those teams made the playoffs. All of their leadoff men profiled as solid contact hitters with good -- but not great -- basestealing ability.
It is a model the Mets hope to copy this year, more out of necessity than anything else. The team leader in stolen bases last season was No. 3 hitter David Wright, who swiped 15. There's a decent chance no Mets player will steal that many in 2013. So the Mets are no longer concerned with speed from their leadoff men, looking for Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Ruben Tejada, Mike Baxter and/or Collin Cowgill to claim the job.
Those folks all seem to agree with the more modern definition of a leadoff man.
"Typically, it's a guy who can get on base," Cowgill said.
"You always remember the goal is to get on base," Baxter agreed.
"On-base," Nieuwenhuis added, "is everything."
Ideally, a team's most talented basestealer is also quite adept at reaching first. Stars such as Mike Trout of the Angels and Michael Bourn of the Indians possess both skills. As a result, they are two of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.
The Mets employed one of their own such specialists for nearly a decade, giving Jose Reyes the perpetual green light to run. But since Reyes left, no one has quite been able to fill his sprinter's spikes.
Reyes' successor at shortstop, Tejada, spent significant time batting leadoff last season. The Mets never expected Tejada to steal many bases, so they simply shrugged when he didn't. But they did envision him reaching base more than 33 percent of the time, which is why they have not simply handed the leadoff job back to him this spring.
Tejada remains a candidate and would like to seize the role, saying he needs "to take good pitches and stay on base all the time." He even spent a week this winter working with Reyes on baserunning instincts. But the Mets may ultimately look in another direction.
There is Baxter, for example, who thrived as a leadoff man before displacing his collarbone in June. The Queens native's greatest strength may be his lack of a weak area, as his on-base percentage, speed and baserunning all fall within the accepted norms for a No. 1 hitter.
"I like hitting leadoff," Baxter said. "I think my game kind of plays into that a little bit."
The problem is, Baxter may not even be a fulltime contributor for the Mets, given manager Terry Collins' desire to provide Marlon Byrd with regular playing time in right field. So who else? Collins has considered giving Daniel Murphy a crack at batting leadoff on more than one occasion, but he feels Murphy's contact bat is more valuable in the two hole.
That leaves Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill, who are slated to platoon in center field. While neither is a proven big league hitter, both have demonstrated an ability to reach base regularly against opposite-handed pitchers. A leadoff platoon is the most likely scenario at this point, provided Nieuwenhuis and Cowgill hit enough to make it work.
Cowgill in particular embodies the type of baserunning philosophy that Collins has preached this spring -- not necessarily stealing bases, but taking an extra bag whenever possible on balls in play. The Mets aim to maximize what little speed they do possess by becoming more than just a station-to-station team.
"You don't need to have a fast guy to run the bases in the right way," Tejada said. "I've learned how to take an extra base in certain situations."
Jordany Valdespin led off Thursday night against the Nationals and singled to start the first and third innings, but figures to open the regular season in Triple-A. In Valdespin's absence, one of the Mets' other leadoff candidates will need to make the sort of impact the team has missed since Reyes went running off to Miami.
"I think it's a cool spot to be in, being a leadoff guy," Cowgill said. "You take some appreciation for that, a little pride in that. You wake up, you're up."