Manuel might drop Reyes in order

February 15, 2009 1:21:54 PM PST
Jose Reyes has a surprise in store when he arrives at spring training. New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel is pondering the idea of dropping his speedy shortstop from the leadoff spot, one of several tweaks that could be on tap for a team coming off consecutive September collapses.

Luis Castillo might get a shot at the top of the lineup, perhaps with Carlos Beltran batting second and Reyes No. 3. Reyes could also be handed more leadership responsibilities on defense, such as aligning other infielders and visiting the mound.

It's all part of the master plan for Manuel, entering his first full season in charge of the Mets. After general manager Omar Minaya rebuilt a wretched bullpen this winter, Manuel is ready to make his own mark.

"My emphasis will be on team vs. individual. I think that message is so critical," he said Saturday.

And it goes for everybody.

"This is not about statistical success. This is about winning as a team, and you have to put people in positions that you feel is best to win as a team," Manuel said during a 40-minute news conference, one day before New York's first official workout for pitchers and catchers.

"Whether that means Jose batting second, third, whatever - first or leading off - you have to accomplish that. And that's a big part of the message throughout spring training: The game takes precedent over individual stats."

Does that mean Manuel thinks the Mets played selfishly last season, when they coughed up a division title to Philadelphia and missed the playoffs for the second straight year?

"Not to a degree that is different than anybody else. But I do think that there was some selfishness to the degree that the team wasn't fully embraced," he said.

Manuel was promoted from bench coach to manager on an interim basis when Willie Randolph was fired last June. The Mets went 55-38 under Manuel, but 7-10 down the stretch as they squandered a 3½-game edge in the NL East.

He was retained with a two-year contract that guarantees him more than $2 million and includes a club option for 2011.

"We have to get over the hump," Minaya said. "We feel the team is better than last year."

A three-time stolen base champion who hit 19 triples last year, Reyes is one of baseball's most dangerous leadoff men. Dropping him in the order would be an attempt to benefit Castillo, accustomed to the role from his days with the Florida Marlins.

The switch-hitting second baseman, a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner from 2002-05, slumped to .245 in only 87 games last year while hampered by nagging injuries. He had 11 extra-base hits in the first season of a $25 million, four-year contract, and became the target of boos in New York.

"If we could lead him off, which is probably best for him, it might be something that we'll have to do because it's for him," Manuel said. "We have to give him the best possible chances for success in order to get his year behind him.

"It's critical that you get off to a good start to eliminate some of that tension that you might be going through that could possibly not only affect you, but affect the team," he added. "So we're going to try to do everything we can to get him ready to get off to a good start. ... I'll probably play with that lineup a lot."

Manuel thinks the 25-year-old Reyes would handle the adjustment well if it helped the team. The two-time All-Star was expected to arrive in Port St. Lucie on Sunday but isn't required to report to camp until Wednesday.

Many key players have already showed up early, something Manuel was happy to see.

"Obviously, that's a good sign, that guys are anxious to get started and ready to compete," he said. "I think that anytime you don't win and you expected to win, it leaves some things unsettled."

New closer Francisco Rodriguez arrived Saturday and jumped right into the Mets-Phillies rivalry, proclaiming New York "the team to beat" this year thanks to a revamped bullpen that includes setup man J.J. Putz, an All-Star closer in 2007 with Seattle.

"One of the reasons they brought me here is because obviously what happened the last few years. I don't feel like all the weight of the back of the bullpen is on my shoulders at all," Rodriguez said.

K-Rod set a major league record with 62 saves last season for the Los Angeles Angels, then signed a $37 million, three-year contract with the Mets.

"It's going to be fun. I'm not going to lie to you, I'm a little bit anxious," he said. "I know it's going to be difficult to save 63, 65 games."

After the back-to-back meltdowns by New York, ace Cole Hamels of the World Series champion Phillies called the Mets "choke artists."

That didn't bother Manuel, who considers the trash talk a challenge to his team.

"That's OK," he said. "I'm glad we're still being mentioned."

Notes: Mets ace Johan Santana, coming off October knee surgery, on insurance costs preventing him from pitching for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic: "Unfortunately, it's out of my hands," he said. "I'm disappointed because I wanted to represent my country."