Uncertainty surrounds Piazza's move to first

NEW YORK -- Like any baseball blueprint hatched between October and March, the Mets' plans for Mike Piazza's conversion to first base is full of shiny, best-case scenarios. The experiment is part of the club's overall mission to become younger and more gifted in the field, even if it means taking a deep breath and hoping a 35-year-old catcher can learn a new position.

Piazza is hardly enthusiastic, but the fact that he's at least green-lighted the switch is, in the Mets' eyes, progress. That's why the club is focusing on the potential windfall, not just for the pitching staff and behind-the-plate defense, but most significantly for Piazza's offense.

It's a stirring, nice image for the Mets' family to contemplate -- an unbruised Piazza hitting 35-40 home runs this summer. But what if he can't handle the footwork, the scoops, the bounced throws? Don't ask. The Mets are banking so heavily on Piazza's success, they admit there's no real Plan B other than trading him -- which senior officials admit is still a last resort.

Still, no one in the organization dares address that possibility in public. It's safer, and better for the club's mental health, to assume Piazza will simply adapt.

Maybe because of their mid-winter optimism, the Mets have chosen not to clutter the plan with particulars. When pressed for a target date for Piazza's official switch-over -- when he'll actually begin playing more games at first base than behind the plate -- general manager Jim Duquette deftly avoided the question.

"It's part of a process. There's no real timetable," Duquette said recently. "I'm asked that question all the time. People are trying to pin me down on this. But we still don't know how the transition is going to go."

This much is certain: no matter how many ground balls Piazza takes in spring training, he'll be the Mets' Opening Day catcher, granted as many games as he needs to break Carlton Fisk's all-time HR record for catchers.

That might seem like a small concession, since Piazza needs just four more homers to pass Fisk. But home runs are a touchy issue, since Piazza's power numbers have been in decline since 2000. In fact, he ended an already bizarre 2003 season with an 88 at-bat home run drought, the longest of his career. With their courtship of Vladimir Guerrero ignited and extinguished in a 24-hour whirlwind two weeks ago, the Mets have turned their desperate gaze back to Piazza, hoping he can be a HR threat again in 2004.

That's the primary reason for this switch -- that by protecting Piazza from all the small injuries a catcher accumulates over a summer, he can accumulate more at-bats, healthier at-bats, and thereby make the Mets forget how much they craved Guerrero's right-handed power.

At least that's the mid-winter theory. But no one really knows why Piazza's HR muscles deserted him, especially since he spent much of the summer on the disabled list. Although flattened by a serious groin injury, a three-month layoff should've ostensibly allowed Piazza to return to the lineup refreshed.

Piazza disagrees, and there's probably some credence to his counterpoint. As he told the New York Daily News this week, "you miss three months, it's almost like completely starting over again. That's almost like an offseason."

It doesn't help matters that Piazza has caught more than 10,000 innings in his career, and that at age 35, he's well beyond middle-aged status among catchers. And that brings the Mets back to their best-case scenario: by shifting Piazza before he gets any older or creakier, room is created for Vance Wilson and Jason Phillips, the younger options behind the plate. And Piazza, no matter how unsure he might be at first base, could still represent a defensive upgrade over the leaden Mo Vaughn.

That is, if Piazza can play the position. He has a beautiful swing, but nothing about his work behind the plate ever suggested Piazza has the feet for first base, at least not yet. And as much as Duquette wants to duck questions about timelines, someone has to choreograph this change-over. Question is, will it be manager Art Howe or Piazza himself?

That's no small issue, considering Piazza didn't make it easy for management to start the process last summer, never once volunteering. And Howe, unwilling to lean on a veteran in his rookie year in New York, chose not to impose on Piazza. The result was total inertia. By season's end, Piazza had played just one inning at first base and the Mets had no idea if he was capable of a conversion.

To be fair, Piazza seems far more relaxed about the subject lately. Duquette said a series of discussions with the star have created at least a truce, and maybe even better than that. As the GM put it, "whatever mistakes were made last year, we've put them behind us. Mike has been great about this. There's no question we're starting with a clean slate."

Indeed, Piazza offered all the politically correct answers this week, as the Mets kicked off their mid-winter caravan. He told reporters he was looking forward to the switch, admitting, "I think in the long run, personally, it will prolong my career."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.