It's A Story of Howe and When

In the midst of what looks to be the third straight disappointing season for the New York Mets, good news is few and far between. But there is some positive conjecture brewing in Metland.

Catcher Mike Piazza may be changing positions sooner than most fans thought.

Manager Art Howe, as a guest on the WFAN Mike and the Mad Dog program Thursday afternoon, openly spoke about the prospect and likelihood of Piazza making a position change.

"It's just a matter of time until he does play first," Howe said about the 34-year-old catcher.

Those are big words volunteered from the man who will be calling the shots in the Mets' clubhouse for the next few years. Especially, considering the fact that former managerial tandem, Bobby Valentine and current GM Steve Phillips always tip-toed around the touchy issue, insisting that Mike would have final input on any position change.

"We have to get the timing right," said Howe about the situation.

And now isn't the right time.

Speculation over Piazza changing positions is usually a strictly off-season topic. But with first baseman Mo Vaughn hitting below the Mendoza-line at .190 and now mulling over the possibility of surgery to remove bone spurs from his left knee, talk surrounding Piazza moving to first has heated up.

Still, it's unlikely Piazza would change positions during the season. Any move would most likely be made during the off-season, with Piazza having recently stated that he would prefer to have a full Spring Training at first base under his belt before moving full time.

"You just can't walk down there and play first base well," said Howe, endorsing Piazza's thoughts. "How good is he going to be if he doesn't get the opportunity to work there?"

With Tony Clark filling in for Vaughn well, the Mets do not need to consider moving Piazza to be a possible option to solve their predicament surrounding first base. The 6-foot-7 slugger is leading New York in home runs with six, in just 48 at-bats.

The biggest thing standing in the way of moving Piazza long term is the injured Vaughn. Mo, who has the biggest contract in the National League, is considered untradeable unless the Mets eat most of the remaining $30 million he is owed between now and the end of 2004.

But when the time comes for Piazza to make a move, the Mets are well equipped to fill the hole behind the plate from within.

Thirty-year old Vance Wilson is an able backup to Piazza and could start as catcher for a number of teams in the majors. Wilson already has three homers on the season in just 35 chances and plays far superior defense than Piazza, throwing out almost half the runners he sees.

Jason Phillips is batting .304 with three homers and 14 RBIs in 16 games at Triple-A Norfolk this season. Phillips, who is probably the Mets' minor league position player most ready for the big leagues next to phenom Jose Reyes, also plays dazzling defense.

Piazza, who has now logged more than 11,200 innings as a catcher, has seen his stats slip slightly each year since 2000, when he batted .328. Moving him to first would benefit both the Mets and Mike, assuming that his production would increase without all the wear and tear of catching everyday.

So a cheaper and younger alternative like Phillips or Wilson behind the plate with Mike at first would better suit the Mets for the future than letting Piazza's knees and RBI total deteriorate behind the plate.

The stage is set.

The time may not be now. But it is soon.

If the Mets can unload Mo Vaughn during the off-season, Art Howe may hand Piazza a first baseman's mitt during spring training.

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