After six cuts, Mets roster coming into focus
Club's final decisions will hinge on health of Torres, Byrdak
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The equipment truck rolled into Mets camp on Thursday, accepting suitcases and personal items from those going north.
Some will not be using it; the Mets cut six players on Thursday, all but finalizing their Opening Day roster. The only remaining questions revolve around injured outfielder Andres Torres and left-handed reliever Tim Byrdak, both of whom will make the team if healthy.
Gone are outfielders Adam Loewen and Matt den Dekker, catchers Rob Johnson and Lucas May, infielder Jordany Valdespin and left-hander Garrett Olson.
Translation: Mike Nickeas has made the team as the backup catcher. If Byrdak is not ready to go, Daniel Herrera will also be there as a lefty specialist. And Queens native Mike Baxter has beaten out Loewen for a bench job, barring an 11th-hour trade or free-agent signing.
"To potentially make an Opening Day roster is a big deal for me ... and to go home makes it even better," Baxter said. "I love playing in New York, like I've said a lot, and I'm excited for an opportunity to go back."
The one true position battle in camp began fizzling midway through this month, when Loewen simply stopped hitting. A converted pitcher who has played the outfield full-time only since 2009, Loewen struck out in 20 of his 43 Grapefruit League at-bats, not demonstrating nearly enough defensive aptitude to make up for his lack of offense.
Though Baxter has mustered just one extra-base hit all spring, he entered Thursday's play batting .341 with a .386 on-base percentage. He has also played center field with adequate results, increasing his versatility off the bench.
"He handled himself very good, no matter where we played him defensively," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He's done a good job. And his swing is short. For a guy to come off the bench, he's going to put the ball in play. Anytime you do that, you're dangerous."
A more difficult decision came in the bullpen, where Olson, Josh Edgin and Daniel Herrera all pitched admirably in their bids to replace Byrdak on the Opening Day roster. But a fair amount of intrigue rested below the surface. Had the Mets placed Byrdak on the DL and taken Olson north to New York, they would have had to expose him to waivers once Byrdak returned -- as soon as the fifth game of the regular season. Instead, the Mets will ship Olson to Triple-A Buffalo, where he will start games rather than relieve. The idea is to keep Olson's arm stretched out so that he can help the team in any capacity come midsummer.
A former top prospect of the Orioles, Olson indicated last week that he would welcome a return to starting.
"We create our own vision of what we want, but it really is about how we can contribute here," he said. "So yeah, I would love to start. I'd love a certain spot. But ultimately, it's wherever they put me."
The Mets did kick around the idea of bringing two lefty relievers north for the first series only against the Braves, to combat all the left-handed batters in Atlanta's lineup. But doing so would force them either to grant Miguel Batista free agency, or to option Bobby Parnell to the Minors. Neither option seems appetizing for the Mets, considering how enamored they are with Batista and how well Parnell has pitched.
The only bullpen question, then, hinges upon Byrdak's readiness. Recovering quicker than expected from a torn meniscus in his left knee, Byrdak threw off a mound Thursday for the second time since his surgery, and appears to be at least an even-money option for the bullpen. If Byrdak is not healthy, the Mets can simply carry Herrera until he is.
Likewise, should Torres be unable to go on Opening Day, the Mets will carry outfielder Vinny Rottino as a temporary sub. But that also seems unlikely; Torres ran the bases on Thursday for the first time since straining his left calf, and could appear in a Grapefruit League game as soon as Saturday.
Then there is Nickeas, who came to camp needing to prove only that he could hit Major League pitching. He didn't quite do that, entering Thursday's play with a .200 average in 13 games. But the Mets could not ignore Nickeas' 3.01 catcher's ERA last season, which was significantly better than that of Josh Thole or Ronny Paulino.
Had Nickeas caught enough innings to qualify, he would have led the league with that mark.
"We have all the confidence in the world he's going to do a great job," Collins said. "A lot of it had to do with the job he did last year when he was here. I don't know what the record was, but when he caught games, we played very good. So we're very confident he'll do a good job."