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Different Shortstops, Different Expectations

February 14, 2004

Kazuo Matsui Bumps Former Heir Apparent Across Infield

NEW YORK—If familiarity is a cornerstone of the keystone, the new Mets double-play combination of shortstop Kazuo Matsui and second baseman Jose Reyes has plenty of work to do.

Not only is Reyes unfamiliar with his new position, but he barely has been introduced to Matsui. And while Reyes must acquaint himself with right side responsibility, Matsui has a new league and lingo to learn, to say nothing of a new culture. Comfort could become an issue.

General manager Jim Duquette acknowledges that Matsui still has to prove himself at baseball’s highest level. But he was hesitant to identify Matsui as any kind of “calculated risk.”

“The superstar player from Japan seems to perform at a high level here,” Duquette said. “There will be adjustments he’ll have to make, and anyone can struggle. But we expect him to be a special player.”

Reyes is also a special player. But with less than a half-season in the majors, he’ll have to switch to a new position.

The Mets nonetheless are pleased with the refurbished infield. They say Matsui and Reyes will form a special tandem that will purge the dreadful 2003 images of apathetic Roberto Alomar and uneven Rey Sanchez.

“We’re going to be able to turn some double plays that other teams aren’t going to turn just because of the two power arms we’re going to have in the middle of the infield,” manager Art Howe said.

Reyes, 20, is learning the pivot and the fundamental coverage at second. He is a gifted athlete, though, and anxious to take on the challenge. “I’m young. I can play the game no matter where,” he said after working with Mets infield instructor Chico Fernandez in the Dominican Republic.

Matsui, 28, played 10 seasons for the Seibu Lions and is mostly unfamiliar with grass infields. And wait till he’s introduced to the jets that roar above Shea Stadium.

“I’m very excited to play with Jose Reyes on the infield,” he said through his interpreter when he made his New York debut in January. “I am excited for spring training to start so we can work on our signs and our communications.”

Howe is also excited.

“(Matsui’s) got a complete game, the whole package,” he said. “He has great hands and quickness. I’m looking for him to lead off and for Reyes to bat second. Two switch-hitters with speed at the top. That’s a lot of excitement.”


Padres’ Win-Now Approach Means Greene Must Produce

SAN DIEGO—With one notable exception, the Padres’ lineup for 2004 is set. Phil Nevin will play first base, Mark Loretta is at second and Sean Burroughs at third. Ryan Klesko, Jay Payton and Brian Giles make up the outfield. Ramon Hernandez is the catcher.

The one position battle is at shortstop, where rookie Khalil Greene and veteran Rey Ordonez will go head-to-head this spring.

Greene, a 2002 first-round draft pick, is the future. In a September callup last season, he fielded his position superbly and showed flashes of brilliance at the plate, though he batted .215-2-6 in 65 at-bats.

Padres general manager Kevin Towers and manager Bruce Bochy say the future for this team is now, though, and that’s why Towers signed the slick-fielding Ordonez.

“This year, we’re not in the developmental stage,” Towers said. “We’re going to leave spring training with our best 25 players. If Greene is one of our best 25 players, he’ll make the team. But we have to protect ourselves in case he isn’t ready.”

Greene will play every day in either San Diego or Triple-A. Likewise, Ordonez is the starter or he doesn’t make the club.

“I liked what I saw of Greene last season,” Bochy said. “There is no question he can field his position at this level. He covers ground, has good instincts and he has a strong, accurate arm. Will he hit? I don’t know. That’s what we need to find out.”

Critics say Greene’s upright, feet-together batting stance leaves him vulnerable to the inside fastball. Backers say it doesn’t matter because he has the bat speed, quick hands and reflexes to pull the inside pitch.

Critics don’t bother Greene. Neither does fighting for a job. He’s about as low-key as it gets. Nothing seems to rattle him.

“I’m just the way I am,” he said. “I don’t get too fired up about things.”

Don’t for a minute, however, mistake Greene’s easygoing nature as a weakness. He wants to make this team, be the man in the middle and help the Padres win the division.

“I didn’t see anything that would tell me I can’t play here,” Greene said. “Do I need to improve? Sure. Do I have things to learn? Sure.

“But this game is all about learning, making adjustments.”


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