- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Ask any Mets official to name the biggest story in camp, and you'll get an are-you-kidding flexing of the eyebrows. Of course it's Pedro Martinez and the ongoing vigil over his damaged right toe.
There have been daily updates on the right-hander's pain level, his next bullpen session and the projection to his first start in a preseason outing (good luck pinpointing that one).
The countdown has now begun to the Opening Day assignment on April 3, which Martinez himself says is in jeopardy.
Through it all, however, the Mets are keeping an eye on a secondary dilemma, albeit a friendlier one. The question is what to do with David Wright, the club's best all-around hitter since last year's All-Star break.
With a .333 average, 16 home runs and 58 RBI in the second half, Wright would've already earned a promotion to the coveted No. 3 spot had it not been for his age (23) and his old-school manager (Willie Randolph), who believes third-year sluggers are still on audition -- no matter how talented.
"I trust David, he's obviously an excellent hitter, but consistency is what I'm looking for. He needs to show me he can keep making the adjustments," Randolph says.
Just how the Mets assemble this lineup is no small issue, given their need for offense. With Martinez's health in question and two of last year's starters, Kris Benson and Jae Seo, having been traded away, starting pitching can no longer be counted among the Mets' strengths.
Instead, they may have to rely on pure muscle to catch the Braves. The combination of Wright and Carlos Delgado puts the Mets in a position to lead the East in runs for the first time since 1999.
That's the most compelling reason for Randolph to make a radical switch -- bumping Carlos Beltran from the No. 3 spot into the two hole.
Not only did the $119 million free agent struggle last year, posting career lows in HRs and RBI, his own history suggests he's more comfortable moving up a spot.
Beltran has a .547 slugging percentage and .926 OPS batting second; .471 slugging percentage and .813 OPS batting third.
In other words, Beltran is more likely to extend a rally than give up an out, the way a more traditional No. 2 hitter would. Together, Reyes and Beltran would create a segue to Shea's version of murderer's row: Wright, Delgado and Cliff Floyd, who combined to slug 94 home runs last year.
Tempting as it might be for Mets fans to think about, though, Wright considers the issue too hot to handle.
"I'll hit anywhere Willie wants me to," he said "I actually liked working my way up [from the No. 7 spot] last year, it means more this way. I'm glad none of this has just been handed to me."
Such modesty is why one Mets official calls Wright "our Derek Jeter" and why general manager Omar Minaya says Wright is "easy for the fans to love."
He's also a blessing to the Mets' coffers. Slated to earn a mere $374,000 this season, Wright's return on investment would make even A's GM Billy Beane breathe hard.
It'll be another five years before Wright is eligible for free agency, by which time the Mets will have certainly locked him up to a long-term deal. But in the meantime, Wright's modest salary has made it easier for the Wilpon family to write Delgado's $14 million paycheck and absorb this year's $105 million payroll.
Still, for all the money invested in Delgado and Martinez and Beltran, it's Wright who's on the way to becoming the organization's front man. Not only is Wright talented, he's fan-friendly, well-spoken and easy to identify with.
He's the son of a police officer who's home in Virginia building a scrapbook for his son -- the old-fashioned way, with newspaper clippings. Wright can't help his family surf the Web, as he sheepishly says, "I'm computer illiterate."
Actually, many ballplayers are similarly lost on the Internet, more interested in fame's other perks. But Wright has yet to be seduced by money (he hasn't earned enough for that), expensive sports cars (he drives a Range Rover) or a gossip-page social life (he's still friends with the clubhouse kids).
"David is the one guy you know is never, ever going to change, no matter how rich he gets," said one senior official. "Guys like that don't come around very often, not in this sport."
Wright does have his moments of doubt, however. Despite batting a healthy .298 with runners in scoring position last year, he still says, "I need to calm down more. I need to learn from Carlos [Delgado], use him as an example of how totally focused he is when there are guys on base."
When he's totally relaxed, Wright showed flashes of being a miniature hitting machine last year. He's able to hit for average (.306) and power (27 HRs), and exploit Shea's huge gaps (42 doubles, tied for seventh-best in the NL). With a .912 OPS, Wright produced at a higher rate than any other Met.
The only problem with batting Wright third, however, is that the left-handed-hitting Delgado and Floyd would then be bunched together in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, leaving the Mets vulnerable to late-inning lefty specialists.
That possibility will likely kill Wright's promotion, although Randolph keeps promising to "wait and see how it goes this spring. I've got lots of options, lots of flexibility."
Wherever he ends up, though, Wright isn't about to let his ego interfere. Ushering in the year of living powerfully at Shea, the third baseman promises, "we're going to score a lot of runs. It's going to be fun to be part of it."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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