If the lefty-hitting Kirk Nieuwenhuis makes the team, the issue is moot, since he likely would platoon in center with the righty-hitting Collin Cowgill. But what if Nieuwenhuis opens the season injured, or in the minors with Valdespin beating him out? Then Byrd in center field against righty pitching may have to be an option. Thirty-nine of Byrd’s 40 starts last season with the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox came in center field.
I’m admittedly somewhat biased here. I didn’t like the Byrd signing, and wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of him cracking the opening day roster, let alone getting the majority of the starts in right field. So far this spring, Byrd has hit well. He appears to be a lock to not only make the team, but get a large chunk of playing time early on. Still, spring numbers always have to be taken with an enormous grain of salt. Byrd is hitting now, but that may not translate to the regular season.
As far as Byrd in center field? That simply isn’t the direction the Mets should be looking to go. Byrd has looked shaky in right field this spring, getting bad breaks on balls hit over his head, looking slow coming in, and even dropping a routine fly ball. His range out there is poor. Putting him in center field would further weaken an outfield defense that will likely have Lucas Duda in left.
As Rubin points out in his article, Collin Cowgill is expected to get the majority of the starts in center field against lefties. Instead of entertaining the notion of Byrd getting starts in center, the Mets should do one of three things (in the event Kirk Nieuwenhuis isn’t on the team to open the season).
One option would be to allow Cowgill to play center every day. Everyone keeps pushing the idea that Cowgill will only start against lefties, but his numbers in the minors show that he can hit righties just fine. Last year in AAA, Cowgill was better against righties than he was against lefties, hitting .260 with a .337 OBP over 181 AB’s.
Another option would be allowing Matt den Dekker to open the year with the club and split time in center with Cowgill. den Dekker’s defense is viewed as gold glove caliber by some. He struggled last year after reaching AAA (batting .220), but the same thing happened in 2011 when he reached AA. He hit .235 after arriving in AA, but tore the league up in 2012 with a batting average of .340 before being promoted to AAA. It’s reasonable to expect den Dekker’s offense to come around as he adjusts to better pitching, since that’s what he’s always done.
If the Mets don’t want to let Cowgill play every day, and they’re not ready to promote den Dekker, a third option in center field against righties would be Jordany Valdespin. He’s still learning the outfield on the fly, but in a year most view as a rebuilding one, it would make sense to see if Valdespin can handle center.
Any of the above options would be fine. Putting Marlon Byrd in center field wouldn’t be. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.