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mets countdown

Mets Countdown: No. 3, Carlos Beltran

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Mets players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 3, center fielder Carlos Beltran.

In about a week and a half, Carlos Beltran is going to start running. If you think such a prolonged rest period before he is able to begin such a rudimentary activity augurs woe, you might be right: General manager Omar Minaya said yesterday that from the time the running begins, it would "4, 6, 8 weeks" until Beltran would be able to play. Best case, that's the beginning of May; worst case, beginning of June. Angel Pagan and Gary Matthews Jr. will patrol center field in his absence.

That's a long time to be without the man who very well might be the best player on your team, though the Mets are getting used to this. Still, if all goes well, Beltran will be in the lineup for the majority of the season, and because it has been so long since Beltran has been at full strength (not since last May, really), it's easy to forget just how dramatically he changes the Mets lineup. Beltran is a Gold Glove–caliber center fielder — two years ago, Fielding Bible author John Dewan had him saving 21 runs from the position — and before his injury last year, he was as terrific as usual. (He was hitting .336 when his knee bruise took him out around Father's Day.) Obviously, knee surgery is an unpredictable procedure, but if Beltran can be even close to where he was before, slotting him in as the No. 3 hitter, before Jason Bay and David Wright, transforms the Mets lineup immediately. This is a man who is making $17 million a year and is probably a bargain.

It'll be another month or so until we see Beltran, and no one knows which Beltran we will see: Super Beltran or Gimpy Beltran. But if he is able to be the force the Mets need him to be, if he is even 90 percent at full strength, the Mets have a team that can put some runs on the board even in Citi Field. Mid-May isn't that far into the season: Surely, the fort can be held until then. The Mets have a lot of questions this year, but a healthy Beltran provides the answer with the most upside. This is a uniquely talented player. The Mets are a different team when he's around, in the field and at bat. Whether Beltran will be okay, or whether the Mets will still be competing when he returns, are both large uncertainties. But the Mets' improvement will be substantial if they're able to answer both with exclamation points.

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Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images