Even winning, Mets have issues

While the Mets were busy welcoming rookie Ike Davis to his new life in the big leagues — and taking three of four from the Cubs in the process — an ominously worded update about Carlos Beltran managed to slip by without much notice.

The news, under-reported as it was, nevertheless had the effect of a punch to the face: the Mets said Beltran will remain on the disabled list indefinitely. The center fielder is still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery three months ago, and doctors won’t clear him to begin straight-ahead running, let alone baseball-related drills.

You don’t have to ask the Mets if they’re concerned: the nature of Beltran’s deep bone bruise is so serious, some have speculated he’ll inevitably require micro fracture surgery that could be a career-ender. Dr. Richard Steadman, the Colorado-based doctor who performed the operation, said Beltran’s knee still has “hot spots” on it. That means the bruises have yet to resolve.

So who’s at fault here? Both Beltran and the Mets could probably blame each other. The team was angry with Beltran for going rogue — having the surgery in the first place without permission. The Mets wanted the slugger to seek a second and third opinion, hoping against hope they could keep him off the operating table. The Mets were so furious at Beltran they initiated paperwork to file a grievance.

No such action has been taken, according to one major-league official. But Beltran, who insisted the Mets were fully aware he’d opted for the operation, nevertheless lost patience with the team’s medical staff by last fall. He felt the Mets’ doctors were too conservative with the chronic knee problems that plagued him throughout 2009.

In retrospect, both sides share the responsibility for Beltran’s hasty return last September after he’d been on the DL for nearly 2½ months. The centerfielder said he needed to play again for his peace of mind. The Mets relented, but shouldn’t have. The smarter move would’ve been to perform the surgery then, giving Beltran a full six months to heal before the start of the 2010 season.

Now it’s anyone’s guess when he’ll step into the batter’s box again. On Jan. 13, the day after the surgery, the Mets officially estimated a 12-week rehab. That would’ve put Beltran in extended spring training games this month, followed by a homecoming in Flushing in mid-May.

The updated target is now mid-June, but that’s just wish-casting on the Mets’ part.

“Obviously we need Carlos, we consider him a difference-maker for this team,” said general manager Omar Minaya. “He’s the kind of player who makes everyone around him better, so the sooner he can get healthy, the better.”

Privately, however, the Mets are preparing for the worst-case scenario in which Beltran is unable to play again in 2010. If so, they’re likely to lean heavily on Angel Pagan, phase out Gary Matthews Jr. and hope Davis can help erase the remaining production deficit.

Davis, a 23-year-old first baseman, has the potential not just to stick, but to keep the Mets from becoming desperate buyers at the trading deadline. Davis hit .273 in his first four games in the majors this week — which, coincidentally or not, marked the first time this season the Mets had won a series.

“I don’t know if we would’ve beaten the Cubs without Ike,” Minaya said. Obviously, Davis has to prove he has the poise to handle long-term exposure to major league pitching — he’d only played a half-season above Class A before this year — but the Mets will be happy with any short-term dividend.

They begin a three-game series with the Braves tonight, followed by three more with the Dodgers, after which there’ll be a three-game set against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

Think the Mets wouldn’t love to have Beltran around for this stretch? David Wright has struck out in 17 of his last 33 at-bats. His double in Thursday’s night’s 5-2 win over the Cubs was only his second extra-base hit in eight games.

Jason Bay has been even less effective, with a league-leading 23 strikeouts in 58 at-bats. The left fielder, who hit 36 HRs with the Red Sox last year, has yet to his a home run as a Met; his .315 slugging percentage is more than 200 points off his career average.

Jose Reyes, meanwhile, is batting just .220 since returning from the DL. The most noticeable red flag is his unwillingness to run: Reyes has attempted to steal just three times in the 11 games he’s appeared in.

All of this underscores why the Mets need Beltran, still their most talented all-around player. As his absence stretches onto a long, flat road to nowhere, the Mets’ best medical strategy might be to just cross their fingers.

NEW AND IMPROVED PELFREY AND HUGHES:

New York’s two young right-handers, Mike Pelfrey and Phil Hughes, are both enjoying a miniature version of the glory days. Pelfrey hasn’t been scored upon in his last 19 innings. Hughes took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the A’s on Tuesday night.

Both pitchers are succeeding not just because of 90-plus velocity, but because of the strength of their secondary pitches. In Pelfrey’s case, a sharp, late-breaking splitter, which he calls a change-up, has become the right-hander’s second-most effective weapon ahead of his slider.

Pelfrey is now throwing the splitter 11 percent of the time, a ratio that figures to increase as the season progresses.

He’s also getting ahead of hitters. In those 19 innings, Pelfrey has faced 81 batters, 48 of whom have seen first-pitch strikes. Fangraphs.com notes that 45 batters who’ve fallen behind 0-1 against Pelfrey are just 9-for-45 with only one extra-base hit. Ten of them have ended up striking out.

Hughes, working with a cutter he learned from Mariano Rivera, was also a master of the strike zone against Oakland. After issuing a four-pitch walk to Daric Barton in the first inning, he didn’t go to three balls on anyone until walking Gabe Gross in the eighth.

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