Beltran: "Mets are the team to beat"

February 16, 2008 6:01:31 PM PST
Johan Santana's first workout with the New York Mets had his teammates all pumped up - even quiet Carlos Beltran.

The star center fielder reported to camp three days early Saturday and revealed he probably won't be ready to play when spring training games start because he's still rehabbing from Oct.

3 surgery on both knees.

That hardly put him in a sour mood, though. An upbeat Beltran spoke excitedly about the club's new ace and had a right-back-at-you message for Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

"Let me tell you this: Without Santana, we felt as a team that we have a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division," Beltran said. "So this year, to Jimmy Rollins - we are the team to beat!"

Of course, it was Rollins who boasted last offseason that his Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East, even though the Mets had run away with the 2006 division title.

The comment made headlines in New York and turned Rollins into a ripe target for angry boos at Shea Stadium. He backed up his words, however, leading Philadelphia's late-season surge past the fading Mets for its first division championship in 14 years.

On the strength of outstanding numbers (and perhaps his clairvoyant prediction), Rollins won the NL MVP award. Does Beltran plan to duplicate that feat, too?

"I don't know about that," he said. "We'll find out."

Beltran's bravado was completely out of character for a placid guy who has even been criticized in New York at times for not showing enough fiery emotion.

In fact, his message to Rollins came moments after this comment: "Spotlight for me doesn't mean anything. ... I'm not going to change. I'm going to be quiet. I don't say much. That's my personality."

No wonder his teammates were so surprised to hear about such a boast from Beltran, who became a father in October.

"Wow!" manager Willie Randolph said. "I guess when you have a little baby girl you get a little confidence."

But closer Billy Wagner cautioned that grand pronouncements can backfire.

"You create more of a target," he said. "Now, you have to lead."

Wagner also said Beltran will have to be around to "answer the questions" and take the "punishment" if he gets off to a slow start or things don't go well.

"My teammate, I got his back," Wagner said.

Third baseman David Wright thinks it's a good sign that Beltran voiced such confidence.

"Different guys have different ways to pump up their team.

Personally, I don't feel the need to declare anything because talk is cheap, especially in February," Wright said. "Just for him to make that statement shows that he's stepping up and he's going to do his part."

Rollins is scheduled to report to Phillies camp by Monday. When told about Beltran's comment, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said: "I got nothing to say about that. You have to ask Jimmy. I could see why they'd feel good with Johan."

Manuel did say, however, that he prefers when players just speak with their bats.

"Let Louisville do the talking," he explained.

Beltran, who signed a $119 million, seven-year contract with the Mets as a free agent before the 2005 season, batted .276 with 33 homers, 112 RBIs and 23 stolen bases last year. He had arthroscopic surgery on his knees to relieve tendinitis and said he hasn't been able to try running or turning at full speed yet.

"I took all my swings in Puerto Rico, so I come to spring training ready to swing the bat," Beltran said. "But the thing is, who's going to run?"

As he works his way back to 100 percent, Beltran isn't sure when he'll be able to play in exhibition games. But he acknowledged he probably won't be ready when they begin late this month.

"He can roll out of bed and hit. I'm not concerned about Carlos Beltran," Wright said. "You can give him 10 or 15 at-bats this spring and he'd probably be ready to go."

Beltran grabbed some attention away from Santana, who threw a bullpen session after his morning news conference on the day New York held its first official workout for pitchers and catchers.

Acquired from Minnesota this month in a blockbuster trade, the two-time Cy Young Award winner also threw off a mound Thursday.

"They were looking for improvement and they got some improvement," Santana said, reiterating that he doesn't feel any extra pressure in New York. "I'm not going to try to do anything crazy. I know what I have to do."

Notes: RHP Orlando Hernandez threw at less than 100 percent in his first bullpen session since offseason foot surgery, but Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson said El Duque is fine. ...

Randolph was impressed by RHP Duaner Sanchez's bullpen session.

Sanchez (shoulder) hasn't pitched in the big leagues since a July 2006 taxi accident.