Beltran brings hope and questions

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- New York Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran won't have a comfortable reintroduction to major league pitching. Instead, Beltran immediately will be challenged by one of the game's elite pitchers.

In his first major league game in 285 days, Beltran is due to be inserted in the cleanup spot in Thursday's lineup against the San Francisco Giants by manager Jerry Manuel.

The opposing hurler?

The Mets are scheduled to draw Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum to open the second half, after the two-time reigning National League Cy Young winner went unused in the All-Star Game.

Beltran officially was activated from the disabled list Sunday as the Mets dispersed for the All-Star break. He replaced outfielder Jesus Feliciano, who was sent to Triple-A Buffalo.

"Carlos has been around awhile," Lincecum said Tuesday in the NL All-Star clubhouse. "He knows what he's doing. It probably won't take him too long to get back into the groove, I guess. He's one of those pure athletes. I'll just attack him the same way as if he was on a streak."

In 14 games with Class A St. Lucie -- 10 as a center fielder, four as a DH -- Beltran hit .367 (18-for-49) with five doubles, five RBIs and no steal attempts. Other than when he opposed another rehabbing player, Philadelphia Phillies right-handed reliever Clay Condrey on July 2, Beltran has not seen major league pitching since Oct. 4, 2009, when he flied out against Houston Astros left-hander Wesley Wright in the seventh inning.

Beltran will wear a knee brace when he returns and admitted Sunday he's not 100 percent.

"Hopefully there's not a long adjustment period, but you can't expect a guy like that to just hop right back in and be the Carlos Beltran that we saw having those great years," said David Wright, who will remain third in the batting order, with Beltran now offering him protection in the cleanup spot and rookie Ike Davis likely pushed to fifth.

"I think it's going to be a little bit of an adjustment period, just like with Jose [Reyes]," Wright added. "But I think it's going to be almost like riding a bike after a couple of weeks getting some at-bats."

Reyes hit .216 (19-for-88) in his first 21 games upon being activated from the DL. The shortstop had been idle for three weeks during spring training because of a thyroid scare and had not seen major league pitching since May 2009 because of right leg woes that led to surgery.

"For me it took a little while," Reyes said about getting readjusted to the speed of a major league game. "I don't know how he's going to be. We have to wait and see what's going to happen because you never know. What we want him to be is Carlos Beltran, but let's see what happens."

Indisputably, Beltran's return crowds the outfield.

"You're going to have four good outfielders that can do good things for your team," said Angel Pagan, who filled in with distinction in center field with the Mets missing Beltran. "So that's a good problem to have."

Manuel originally said he would meet with his entire outfield corps and articulate a plan so that no one shows up at a ballpark on a given day not knowing if he is going to play. Tellingly on Sunday, however, Manuel met only with right fielder Jeff Francoeur -- whose playing time should most drastically diminish. That's because of how well Pagan (.315, six homers, 40 RBIs, 19 steals) performed as the fill-in center fielder.

Manuel told Francoeur that he would start against San Francisco's two left-handers in the four-game series -- Barry Zito on Friday and Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday. During the next series of the 11-game trip, at Arizona, Manuel pledged to get Francoeur one start in the three-game set.

Francoeur is a career .302 hitter against southpaws and a .256 hitter against right-handers. The switch-hitting Pagan is a career .310 hitter against right-handers and a .252 hitter against left-handers, so they can be complementary pieces.

In his first major league season, as a Chicago Cub in 2006, all of Pagan's starts came in the corner outfield spots -- 22 in left field and 15 in right field. Similarly in '08, after joining the Mets, Pagan had 20 starts in left field, two in center field and one in right field.

"I've done corners before," Pagan said. "It's not a problem for me."

As for his first-half play overall, Pagan said: "I'm very happy with the job I've done. I think I've done a good job replacing Carlos. But, to me, it's about helping this team win a championship, becoming a better player for this organization and growing and keep helping. I know I can be better."

Beltran likely won't play every day early on, allowing Pagan to see limited action in center field. That should mitigate Francoeur's lost playing time, too.

"Especially when Carlos first comes back, he's not going to be able to play every day," Francoeur said. "So it's going to be one of those things where I'm sure we'll all rotate."

As for Beltran's return making for a confusing -- or even disruptive -- outfield dynamic, Francoeur added: "It's not like you don't want him in there. At the same time, we'll make sure he's healthy. You know, the knee is one of those things where you never know what's going to happen. He can come back, not feel the same. I honestly believe, especially the first road trip, we're all going to rotate, we're all going to play. And, for me, after three or four weeks, those things usually have a way of playing themselves out -- whether somebody is hurt, whether somebody is not playing well or somebody is traded. You never know what can happen with that."

If Davis hits behind Beltran as Manuel originally articulated, with Jason Bay sixth, perhaps teams will choose to go after the rookie first baseman instead of either big-ticket outfielder. Not necessarily, though, Lincecum predicted.

"Ike's got a lot of ways he can hurt you," the Giants ace said. "He can hit balls off the plate. He's got a good eye, especially for a guy who is just coming up. He's very impressive."

Still, he's not Beltran.

"He's one of those prototypical five-tool players that really is one of those difference-makers," Wright said about Beltran. "He can put a team on his shoulders and really carry them for an extended period of time -- whether it's offensively, defensively. So I think it's going to be a big boost for us. It's almost going to be like a deadline trade getting a guy with that kind of skill-set back into the lineup."

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy suggested he would afford Beltran a great deal of respect -- rust or not.

"We're going to look at Carlos as we normally do," Bochy said. "He's a great player, a great hitter, and we're not going to change anything. We're not going to hopefully drop our guard. This guy is a tremendous player and he's going to help the Mets coming back. That's not good news for us, we know, when they get somebody like this healthy. We're going to do all we can to get him out. We're not going to take him lightly."

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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