The Hidalgo Era Begins

NEW YORK -- The Richard Hidalgo era at Shea Stadium begins now, as the Mets' newest outfielder will be in uniform and likely hitting No. 5 for Friday's game against the Detroit Tigers.<P> Thursday's deal to bring Hidalgo, who is one year removed from a productive .309 season, to New York for reliever David Weathers and minor league pitcher Jeremy Griffiths, has the potential to turn out to be a steal for the Mets. <P>

Hidalgo fell out of favor with Houston Astros manager Jimy Williams after friction between the two cost the outfielder his starting job, and with free agency a certainty after the 2004 season – Hidalgo's contract would cost $15 million for next season, making it an easy call for the club to exercise the $2 million buyout and avoid that windfall – the Mets are hoping that Hidalgo will regain his stroke for the remainder of this season as the team shoots for an improbable playoff berth.

Even if Hidalgo turns out to be a half-year rental, he'll still be protecting Mike Piazza and Cliff Floyd in the heart of the lineup, which could make dreams of a Shea summer pennant race not seem so far-fetched after all.

Despite being three games under .500 at 31-34, the Mets enter Friday's game just 5.5 games out of first place in a weak NL East, and Hidalgo's arrival could help further spark a team that is coming off of a 2-1 series against the Cleveland Indians in which they scored 14 runs.

"I think this sends a message that we're trying to put a winning team on the field," said Mets manager Art Howe. "It's another bat in the middle of the order and he's been a run producer. He's an outstanding right fielder and a good guy to have in the clubhouse. We're pleased to have him here."

Offense has been the problem for the Mets, who entered play Friday hitting .248 as a team and having scored 271 runs, third fewest in the Major Leagues and the second fewest in the National League to cellar-dwelling Montreal. That cost hitting coach Denny Walling his job on Tuesday.

Interim hitting coach Don Baylor will greet his newest student on Friday and immediately begin work to correct a flaw in Hidalgo's swing, according to GM Jim Duquette. The Mets' advance scouts apparently identified an easily-correctable hitch in Hidalgo's plate stature, which could partially explain why the 28-year-old is hitting just .256 with four homers this season.

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