With Cespedes ailing, enter Michael Conforto fresh off his MLB recall — into center field, a place he’s never played.
Conforto, 23, has never played a Major League or Minor League inning at the position, but Terry Collins will test the traditional left fielder.
“Why not?” Collins said. The skipper plans to get Conforto his needed reps today and tomorrow, with potential for his first ever center field start coming as soon as Wednesday’s 2:20pm series finale in Chicago.
For the interim, though, Collins will roll with Juan Lagares for the third straight day in center, with Cespedes again making way for left. The Cuban slugger voiced his preference to play left field – where he earned an American League Gold Glove in 2015 – on Sunday.
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“If they give me the option, I’ll stay in left field,” Cespedes said through an interpreter after Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Phillies. “I feel more comfortable and it’s also less on my leg.”
Cespedes strained his right quadriceps muscle two days prior to the All-Star Break and did not play in five straight games, including the Midsummer Classic in between pairs against Washington and Philadelphia.
His manager shares the concern of Cespedes, too.
“We’re taxing his body pretty heavily by putting him in center field…I just think if he’s in left field where he’s comfortable, and there’s not so much emphasis on the defensive side, that he’ll go back and do what we hope can do – and that’s be a big production guy.”
Even though Collins is giving Cespedes another break from center field on Monday night, he told reporters prior to the game that he does plan to plug the outfielder into center for Tuesday’s play.
By Wednesday, though, the door may be open for Michael Conforto, whose last center field work came in college for Oregon State – though never in a real game setting.
For his part, Conforto will take the change in stride, saying, “If the team needs me there, I’m going to do whatever I can to prepare myself to play as well as I can there.” The left-handed batsman is not in the lineup Monday against southpaw Jon Lester in his first game since Sunday’s promotion. He is likely to receive the vast majority of his at bats against right-handers.
Conforto hit .344 with three home runs, four doubles, and 15 RBI in 61 at bats at Triple-A Las Vegas. After an impressive rookie half-season which caught national attention, Conforto seemed to cement himself as a legitimate rising star in the game with a power surge, coupled with a .365/.442/.676 batting line, in the month of April.
Struggles thereafter, in which his batting average dipped to a career-low .222, led to his demotion.
Even though he “can’t remember” the last time he played center field, Conforto is ready to face the challenge in his ultimate effort to return to his early-season form. “I’ll be an athlete. I’ll go make plays. I’ll do whatever I can.”