By Ernie Palladino
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Terry Collins may never say it outright, but he has a decision to make about Jose Reyes starting Friday when the Mets gather for official full-squad workouts.
He can either plant his leadoff hitter at third base permanently, or bounce him around the infield and outfield to keep his valuable bat in the daily lineup.
Reyes undoubtedly can handle the latter plan. From his first incarnation with the Mets, he proved he could play both shortstop and second. And since his return last July after Colorado cut him following a suspension for domestic violence, the 33-year-old Dominican has been talked about as a possible center field plug-in, even though he has never played a game out there.
The first option — keeping Reyes at third — is clearly Collins’ best option, though it will be his most painful, too. Nobody wants to see franchise face David Wright turn into one of the league’s highest-paid backups. He doesn’t deserve that, not after the years of ideal citizenry and strong production he had before his body betrayed him the last two years.
But these are the tough, sometimes heartbreaking decisions a manager has to make for the good of a team’s future. And for Collins, the Reyes/Wright situation looms the largest and most emotional.
It should also be the easiest.
Reyes is more physically ready to resume the arduous third base chores of a regular than Wright. And by the time spring training ends, it may well be that Wright can no longer handle that position for an extended period.
That’s not a function of his 34 years. It’s all about the neck surgery to correct a herniated disk and the spinal stenosis doctors found.
Wright hasn’t thrown a ball since the June surgery. Questions abound about whether he’ll ever again be able to make those long, tough tosses from the hot corner again with any consistency. The uncertainty is why Collins started talking about Wright as a potential first base fill-in for Lucas Duda in the first place.
Collins’ heart obviously lies with Wright starting at third. In other years, that would have been a no-brainer.
But not now.
Reyes belongs there, an not just because he’ll do a better job in the field. Placing Reyes there will bring him the mental stability he needs to improve on his .267 average from last season, mostly from the leadoff spot.
Reyes doesn’t need the pressures that come with the constant shifting of defensive positions to interfere with his hitting.
Pick a spot and leave him there. With Asdrubal Cabrera planted at his more natural shortstop spot, and Neil Walker ready to revert to his pre-injury form at second, the only truly open position for Reyes lies at third.
So that’s where he should stay. All season. He’s too important to the lineup to think otherwise.
Remember, the Mets return almost the same lineup as last year, which is not necessarily fantastic news. That offense finished as baseball’s most notorious all-or-nothing team that hit a fifth-ranked 218 homers but finished tied for 25th with 671 runs.
The leadoff hitters came in 15th with a .239 cumulative average, but that wasn’t all Reyes’ fault. Curtis Granderson spent half the year in that spot, and he was absolutely dreadful until Reyes bumped him down to second and finally cleanup during the last part of the wildcard run.
In other words, this lineup needs stability in all areas. Reyes doesn’t need the added distraction of floating around the defense.
It will probably break Collins’ heart to turn Wright into a sometime player. It will certainly kill ownership as it remains on the hook for $67 million over the final four years of Wright’s contract.
If the Mets are serious about making a run at the NL East title, planting Reyes at third is a necessary move. Let Wright back up there. Train him at first base.
But leave Reyes alone.
The fewer distractions their leadoff hitter has, the better.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino