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Conforto set in outfield after transition in college

Mets' No. 4 prospect settled in at new position after trying several at Oregon State

Conforto set in outfield after transition in college

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- After Michael Conforto arrived at Oregon State, but before he got into his first game the next spring, the Beavers' coaching staff gave Conforto -- mainly a shortstop in high school -- a third baseman's glove. And an outfielder's glove. And a first baseman's mitt. And some catcher's gear, too.

"I got a little bit of [grief] from the rest of the players who called me 'Golden Boy' because they threw all these different gloves at me. I had all these gloves in my locker," Conforto said Saturday in the home dugout at MCU Park, home of the Short-Season Class A Brooklyn Cyclones. "[The coaches] really just wanted to find a place for me. They wanted me to experience different positions, learn more about the game."

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So through that first fall and into the spring at Oregon State, Conforto got reps at all those spots, including a "difficult" and short-lived experiment as a backstop. But because the team had plenty of talented and older infielders, Conforto found himself on the bench for his first three collegiate games before head coach Pat Casey put him in left field. It was Conforto's first time playing the outfield since 2004, when he manned center for his local Redmond, Wash., squad in the Little League World Series.

Conforto homered that game against UC Santa Barbara -- he turned on an inside fastball to send it well over the right-field fence -- for his first collegiate hit.

"He never came out of the lineup after that game," Casey said in a recent phone interview.

And so began Conforto's journey from a position-less left-handed power bat to an even more polished offensive player who can very much hold his own in left field. The latter iteration -- a three-time All-American by the end of his junior year -- became the Mets' first-round pick (10th overall) in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. He ranks fourth on the Mets' Top 20 Prospects list.

The learning process, however, was indeed that as Conforto transitioned to the outfield. He missed cutoff men. Conforto had trouble getting reads. He took bad routes. Soon, he became known in part for his periodic goofs.

"I kind of started the game with the reputation of not being able to play the field," Conforto said. "Once I developed that -- that reputation of not being that great in the outfield -- I took that to heart."

Casey noticed. For a guy who was a natural with the bat, who could take one round of live batting practice and be ready for that night's game, Conforto spent much of those afternoon workouts in the outfield, shagging flies and getting better reads right off the bat. He worked with Pat Bailey, the Oregon State outfielders coach, on his throwing mechanics to ensure his arm was in the sort of shape it needed to be for Conforto to make the plays he needed to make.

All the while, Conforto's offensive ability was plenty for Casey to keep his name in the lineup, while his general athleticism was enough to guide him in the outfield. He led Oregon State with a .349 average and was third in the country with 76 RBIs in 2012.

A turning point in Conforto's defensive development came late in his freshman season. All you have to do is say "that Oregon game" and he can it recall instantly.

It was May 26, 2012, Game 2 of the so-called "Civil War" -- Oregon vs. Oregon State, a big deal in those parts. The Beavers won the opener, and a win in the second game would clinch the series. They led by one when Oregon put a runner on third with one out in the ninth inning. Conforto, playing left, turned to his center fielder, Joey Matthews: "Get ready to throw somebody out."

Oregon's Ryon Healy sent a sinking liner to left, and Conforto made a shoestring catch. Then he sent a one-hopper to the plate to catch the runner tagging up to complete the 7-2 double play. Game over.

"That was kind of a defining moment for me," Conforto said. "That throw won us the Civil War. It gave me a little bit of fame in Corvallis, so that was pretty cool. That did wonders for my confidence in the outfield and for just my career at Oregon State."

"That was probably my first significant play in the outfield in college. It really gave me confidence. It was toward the end of the year, and I came out the next year and the year after that and had really good years in the outfield. I ended up setting the record for outfield assists at Oregon State."

Conforto progressed to the point where Casey called him "maybe the best outfielder I've ever coached."

"He's not the fastest, but he's the best thrower accuracy-wise," Casey said.

That has followed Conforto, 21, to Brooklyn. He is less than two weeks into his professional career with the Cyclones, but he is making a mockery of New York-Penn League pitching so far, recording hits in each of his first nine games and multiple hits in five of them. Conforto, 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, is hitting .412 with a .459 on-base percentage.

Conforto's defense has been better than advertised, too, manager Tom Gamboa said after Conforto made a pair of slick plays Saturday against Vermont. In the second, he recovered from trouble with the sun to make a sliding grab. In the eighth, Conforto laid out again, diving forward to rob another base hit. In between, he beat out an infield single, stole second and scored the eventual game-winning run.

The defensive effort pushed Gamboa to broach the subject unprovoked.

"What I heard was totally wrong," Gamboa said. "I heard the term and read the term 'adequate' several times in regards to his defense, and that is so far from the truth. ... He's made every play that we've expected him to make so far, and some that you just don't expect."

The word on Conforto since he joined the Mets has been an appealing one: a relatively polished left-handed hitter with some pop, someone who might climb the Minor League ladder rather quickly. That's an exciting description for fans and execs alike, because power means runs and runs mean wins. The Mets have lacked much of those in recent years.

But Conforto might wind up something in addition to that -- a very good corner outfielder. No longer is he the infielder playing out of position he was just 2 1/2 half years ago.

"He's the epitome of what it means to be an overachiever. He went above and beyond what we thought," Casey said. "He wanted to be good -- you could tell."

Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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