Five things to watch with the Mets

The action appears to be falling right in line for Willie Randolph's Mets, a result of planning as much as anything else – the first-year skipper spent an innumerable amount of hours brainstorming for the course of action the next six weeks will hold. <P> While edicts like the new no-facial hair policy are getting most of the buzz, Randolph has a few more aces up his sleeve. He wants the Mets to play like a cohesive unit, which is true of any manager, but Randolph has a plan to make it happen.

Like it or not, the Mets must abide by several professional regulations this season, which includes hustling from field to field during spring workouts to keeping alcohol out of clubhouses and off of team charters and buses during the season.

Of course, just like the old saying about Rome, the Mets will not be built in a day, or even two. Here are five items that will be worth watching as spring training progresses:

1. Kaz Matsui's transition. Matsui's shift to second base actually began weeks ago in Japan, when the infielder started going through an unspecified amount of drills, but he's really getting a crash course now in the early going of spring training.

Matsui arrived in Port St. Lucie well before the mandatory reporting date for position players and will probably be sick of infield coach Manny Acta by the time all is said and done, but the jumpstart could pay big dividends as Matsui morphs into a passable major league second baseman.

There are few that doubt his athletic talents, and a number of factors went into his poor defensive performance last season – a below-average throwing arm, for one, that appears better suited for second base; a below-average first baseman in Mike Piazza was another.

Acta has gone as far to say that Matsui could be one of the top defensive second basemen in the National League this year or next; the Mets will be plenty satisfied if Matsui can just reduce his major league leading error total of 23 from last season.

2. Pedro and Beltran in the spotlight. Pedro Martinez has already made it pretty clear that he's happy to be in spring training with the Mets, getting something of a fresh start and freed of the monumental expectations that the Boston fans and press placed upon his capable shoulders.

But after a season of yielding the spotlight to Curt Schilling as Red Sox ace, Martinez also seems plenty happy to be the center of attention again.

Around the Mets' clubhouse, there's little question who is the Mets' numero uno, and it's Martinez, who has already had a lot of fun with the fact that the New York media still hangs upon his every word – Martinez stalled a Thursday morning press conference with reporters for almost six hours while he attended to workouts and the like.

He seems to be fitting in well with his Mets teammates, joshing and ribbing whenever he gets a chance. Hopefully, the same can be said of Carlos Beltran, who hasn't yet made his way to Port St. Lucie but has already had his vehicle with Texas plates delivered to the players' parking lot.

Having Martinez around should help Beltran deflect some of the attention, but there is the matter of Beltran's huge contract to attend to – for that price, the formerly near-anonymous outfielder will have to live up to all of those public and private commitments that come with being the marquee name upon a New York franchise.

Reviews are mixed as to whether Beltran is up to the task, but you can bet the Mets' support staff will do everything within their power to ease his transition.

3. Bullpen shakeout. Beyond Braden Looper and Mike DeJean, the Mets' bullpen is an acknowledged weakness, and one of the final loose ends Randolph will have to attend to as the Grapefruit League schedule commences.

Helped by a flurry of last-minute signings, the Mets have a number of arms in camp with solid major league resumes, but past performance doesn't necessarily indicate that those pitchers will be able to help the team in 2005.

Lefties Felix Heredia and Dae-Sung Koo are probably assured of roster spots when the team breaks camp, but Heredia is coming off of an awful year with the Yankees and no one is quite sure how Koo will react to major league hitters – with a funky delivery that slings in at three-quarters, he could be devastating on left-handed batters, but only live competition will tell.

Scott Strickland, in camp as a non-roster invitee, is believed to be healthy enough to seriously compete for a major league return, while Mike Matthews and Scott Stewart give Randolph decent left-handed options if Heredia or Koo are injured or otherwise unable to make the team.

Heath Bell, Bartolome Fortunato and Matt Ginter are all right-handers with negligible big league experience, but all are also serious contenders to make the club out of spring training.

Bell is roller-blading eight miles round-trip to camp each day in an effort to continue losing weight, while Ginter is helped by the fact that he served effectively as a fifth starter for New York last season. The Mets would love to have flexibility to nurse Martinez's right arm during the cold months in New York, and keeping Ginter around provides them with it.

4. Fight for first base. The starting job at first base is all Doug Mientkiewicz's, barring injury, but Andres Galarraga and Jason Phillips should wind up having a nice little battle for the rights to back him up.

The Mets love the idea of having the ‘Big Cat' around camp to tutor some of the team's younger players, and as a universally respected presence around baseball, Galarraga should fit in nicely in the clubhouse.

There is the matter of whether the 43-year-old Galarraga can still swing it, but one look at his biceps and you know that there are a number of batters that pitchers would rather face.

He could provide a good amount of power off the bench for New York, but then again, so can Phillips, who reportedly put on 25 pounds during the offseason as part of a workout regimen. If the Mets do opt to go with Galarraga, that will probably spell the end of Phillips' career in New York via trade.

5. Corner outfielders. Yes, the Mets shopped both Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron over the winter, and Cameron was a tad unhappy when the Mets finally did land Carlos Beltran to play center field – despite the fact that Cameron had earlier given his blessing on the pursuit.

It's all an old story now, and the Mets are really hoping it'll go away soon. There's a fat chance of that, as every groan or peeve from either player will probably be misconstrued as some kind of slight on their situation with the organization.

Floyd showed up early in Port St. Lucie this week – not exactly his favorite place in the world, if you remember his "hole" comments last year – and said all of the right things. Cameron is expected to arrive sometime next week when position players are due, and after an initial trip through the ringer from reporters, all should be well for a while.

The bottom line is that both players are major league veterans and professionals, and they should be able to handle a little thing such as off-season phone calls between GMs with maturity and success.

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