PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Mets' second-base competition isn't all bad. If nothing else, it provides a nice diversion from the two biggest stories in Mets camp, which are: 1) the Oliver Perez Watch, and 2) the Madoff mess.
Not too many folks seem impressed by the Mets' current choices for second base, but that position isn't going to be what makes or breaks them in the NL East this season. While there appears to be no good answer at that position right now, it's possible the solution may not even be among the four or five combatants currently in camp.
Although, if anyone's waiting for the Mets to bring in free agent David Eckstein to solve the problem, don't hold your breath. The Mets have already made it clear to Eckstein they have no interest, which is noteworthy because two of their top executives, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, had Eckstein in San Diego and Toronto, respectively, in recent years. Eckstein looks like an excellent choice as someone with experience at the position, plus a winning attitude, style and background. However, sources indicate that the feeling among Mets people is that the 5'7" Eckstein is worn down, as a small fellow with a bit of age on him (believe it or not, he's 36).
Now for the actual competitors.
For the moment, there appears to be four of them -- though not exactly the same four that started the competition. It seems that Daniel Murphy, part of the original four, has been determined to be a utility player who's likely to make the team to play all the infield positions except shortstop. One Mets officials opined that given a full-time job, "Murphy would lead the team in hitting.'' The problem is that he's played almost no games at second base, and in fact suffered a season-ending injury last year when taken out on a double play in his very first game at second.
The new contestant is Luis Hernandez, who has played 120 games in four major league seasons -- including 17 with the Mets last year -- and is evidently the choice of first-year Mets manager Terry Collins, at least for now. How can we tell? Whenever Collins is asked about second base lately, his answer seems to be about Hernandez, whose career OPS is .584.
"Let's not forget we have one guy who can absolutely play there," Collins said recently. "And that's Luis Hernandez."
There are two caveats. One is that Collins has only seen Hernandez play one game at second base this spring. The other is that, ultimately, it may not be the manager's call.
In fact, one person familiar with the Mets' situation, opined, "Collins has no say whatsoever.''
That may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But the reality is that GM Sandy Alderson's staff will surely wield a lot of power with their Moneyball background, and more to the point, the Mets' ownership may need to be convinced to cut Luis Castillo, whose contract calls for a $6 million guaranteed salary. Castillo may not be the fan's choice after he batted .235 with just six extra-base hits in 299 plate appearances last year, but he looks a lot more like a second baseman than the others in camp.
Murphy, a former outfielder and first baseman, appears to be lacking in agility, and Justin Turner and Rule V pickup Brad Emaus are a bit on the squatty side for second base. Emaus is believed to have the backing of Ricciardi, who handpicked him from the Blue Jays, but it's hard to imagine he's convinced anyone else with his early spring showing as one of the rounder second basemen on record.
Castillo showed up a tad tardy (though he wasn't technically late) for Collins' tastes, but he arrived in better shape than he had been in years past. He has heard word that Collins is no fan but said, "I don't worry about what people say. I don't want to think about that. I'm going to focusing on playing.''
Castillo survived the tenure of previous Mets manager Jerry Manuel even though he too was no fan of Castillo's going back to their days together with the Florida Marlins almost a decade ago. So don't count Castillo out. Should Castillo be cut, the Mets would have to pay a major league salary in addition to his $6 million, and that is no small consideration.
And while Castillo's range is "from here to there'' one scout said, pointing to a spot right next to where he is standing, he has about 70 times more experience than the other three contestants combined (that is not an exaggeration; he has player 1,720 games at second, Hernandez 25, the others zero).
One person somewhat familiar with the Mets' thinking said it's about "fifty-fifty'' whether the team starts the year with Castillo as the second baseman. If it's not Castillo it may be some combination of Hernandez and another player entirely. Things are that unsettled.