By Tom Verducci
March 03, 2009

1) For a team that spit up two straight September leads, the Mets are running a loose, confident camp -- at least until Johan Santana's elbow started barking.The imprint is from manager Jerry Manuel, who projects a slightly more relaxed approach, at least as far as the image he portrays through the media, than did Willie Randolph, his predecessor. It also helps morale to have relievers J.J. Putz and Frankie Rodriguez bringing flat-out filthy stuff to the mound.

2) Manuel's experiment to bat Jose Reyes third this spring is a good example of his willingness to look at situations from new vantage points.Sure, Reyes, like Hanley Ramirez, or Barry Larkin before them, could grow into a very effective No. 3 hitter. But people missed the point: The lineup experiment is more about Luis Castillo than Reyes. There is no way Manuel can hand Castillo more plate appearances if he is the same Castillo from last year (.245 with 11 extra-base hits and troublesome legs). Without an effective Castillo, talk of Reyes at No. 3 is moot. So Manuel appeals to Castillo's pride, realizing the upside includes something near the .391 OBP Castillo put up in 2005. Castillo did show up in camp lighter and in good shape. Here's the problem: Castillo is 33 years old and has posted only three seasons with an average or better OPS+. The odds are against him being the guy you want taking the most plate appearances for the team. He really should be batting ninth, a page Manuel can borrow from Tony La Russa, who bats his pitcher eighth, in part to construct the double leadoff hitter concept as the lineup turns over.

3) The other thing that jumps out at you in Mets camp is their outfield.The Mets have nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, all of whom have major-league experience -- and that doesn't include non-roster guys Bobby Kielty and Rob Mackowiak. Seems like a lot of duplication with a lot of low ceilings. The key guy to the mix is Ryan Church, who was awful after his problems with his concussion, hitting .239 after May 14 with almost no power. The Mets can't be certain what they have in Church.

This is hard to imagine, but Livan Hernandez could help this team. He looks to be in good shape and throwing well. If the Mets need him to make 32 starts they're in trouble, but New York will have far better pitching depth than it had in previous years if Hernandez can work a little of his 83 mph magic for 15 starts or so.

A healthy Johan. Until Santana gets a clean bill of health, a pall remains over this team, if only because of the possibility that he might miss some starts. Scott Kazmir came back from a balky spring training elbow last year to make 27 starts (he made three tune-ups in the minors) and help pitch the Rays into the World Series. The Mets will take a similar conservative mindset with their franchise pitcher. For now, though, living with the daily updates and the "what-ifs" exhausts some mental energy from this team.

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