The Carlos Beltran Quagmire

So that just happened. The official word is this.

Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran had worsening of osteoarthritis of the right knee during the offseason. He had not been experiencing pain following the conclusion of the season and into his early offseason conditioning. The symptoms returned to the point where pre-spring training conditioning became too painful.

He elected to undergo arthroscopic clean out of the arthritic area of his knee by Beltran's personal physician Dr. Richard Steadman today in Colorado. He is anticipated to return to baseball activities in 12 weeks.

Don't be fooled by the '12 weeks' business; it's a smokescreen. Beltran will be recovering for at least the next three months, which puts us in the middle of April before he's even doing things that baseball players do -- running, swinging, dancing gaily, shootin' up 'roids, and so on. Though the Mets should have learned by now to be conservative in their prognoses, I'm not particularly sanguine that Beltran will be running full-speed by the end of the twelve-week timeframe the Mets have propounded. It's probably even-money that he won't begin a rehab assignment until at least the beginning of May, and nobody who has been following this team over the past few seasons would even raise an eyebrow if Beltran didn't return until June.

Ted Berg calls the news of Beltran's surgery a 'gut punch', and that may be putting it too lightly. The Mets already had a lot of work left before Opening Day, like finding another starting pitcher (or two), a catcher, a second-baseman with some discernible agility in the field, and some bullpen help, to say nothing of the front office and coaching staff, which could both use an overhaul like nobody's business. Now they have to settle for sub-Beltran production in center field for the foreseeable future and possibly scramble to come up with a reasonable 'Plan B'. Some possible replacements for Beltran in the (hopefully) short term.

  1. Angel Pagan - The most obvious fill-in candidate is the one the Mets already have. Pagan hit .306/.350/.487 (.358 wOBA) in 343 plate appearances last season, though I suspect that .352 BABIP will regress some. UZR seemed to like him in left field (+4.5 in 146.2 innings) but less so in center (-0.3 in 506.1 innings), though the latter rating is basically average and average > poor. Plus/Minus liked him everywhere, rating him a +12 in left (7 runs saved) and a +7 in center (4 runs saved). Even if his batted ball results fall more in line with his components (line drive rate especially), if he can keep the power up he might still hit .275/.320/.450, which would put him around the middle of the pack among National League center fielders. He's already under contract for pennies on the dollar, and the Mets could do -- and have done -- far worse.

  2. Endy Chavez - You can probably cross Endy off the list, as he's out until May. Still, he's a personal favorite and would be a solid bargain purchase for later in the season.

  3. Rick Ankiel - He remains unsigned and probably won't get much when he eventually lands somewhere. UZR and Plus/Minus agree that he's not much to look at in the field, though he was a two-win player as recently as 2008, when he hit .264/.337/.506 with a .360 wOBA and a 124 RC+. He's considerably better against lefties than righties, so he couldn't realistically be used in a platoon arrangement with Pagan. The money factor alone makes Ankiel a fairly attractive option.

  4. Rocco Baldelli - Hasn't played much. Missed all of 2005, had 387 plate appearances in 2006, 150 in 2007, 90 in 2008 (all with the Rays), and 164 last season with the Red Sox, where he hit .253/.311/.433. UZR and Plus/Minus both rate him above average in center for his career. He's also a righty and has predictably hit much better against lefties overall, so if we hold tight to the platoon idea Baldelli could match up well with Pagan (or Ankiel, I suppose, though the fact that the Mets already have Pagan pretty much settles that one. I think.).

  5. Randy Winn - The defensive metrics are basically meh on Winn in center field, but they love him in right. He'll be 36 in June and he was awful at the plate last year -- .262/.318/.353, 82 wRC+ -- after hitting well in both 2007 and 2008. Despite his dreadful batting line he was still worth almost two wins (Winns!) in 2009, and was worth 4.6 and 2.8 in 2008 and 2007, respectively. Not a bad option.

  6. Johnny Damon - Great bat, stinky glove, especially in center. He's a Type-A free agent but the Yankees didn't offer him arbitration so any team can sign him for money alone. Might actually be interesting at first base if nobody else makes him a substantial offer to play the outfield.

I suspect it'll just wind up being Pagan for two-plus months while we all simultaneously hope for him to keep up his 2009 level of production and for Beltran to get better quickly. Of course, there's still this to consider.

Indications developed late Wednesday night that suggested Beltran had undergone the procedure without the club's approval, though not without its knowledge of the situation. He had been examined by Steadman in late June shortly after he began his extended assignment to the disabled list. He had sought a second opinion from Steadman, who pioneered the micro-surgery procedure that several professional athletes have undergone in recent years, at the suggestion of his agent Scott Boras, but with the club's blessing.

Evidently, the blessing was missing in his most recent scenario, according to one person who became familiar with the situation.

I'm not sure I'd make too much of this, but I'll confess that I'm not familiar with the potential contract-related ramifications of Beltran proceeding with a surgical procedure without the Mets' prior authorization. If there's nothing they can do -- or if they're not inclined to do anything, which in practice is the same thing -- I expect them to chalk this up to a 'miscommunication' or somesuch and call it a day. The Mets' medical staff and its handling of injuries have taken a number of shots to the face in the past year, some deserved and some not. If the Mets aren't going to pursue any recompense for Beltran's alleged malfeasance then the whole organization will be better served by sweeping this clandestine surgery storyline under the rug.

But hey, pitchers and catchers report in a month, so we've got that.

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