The case for Mike Baxter

After spending most of spring training leading the majors in punch lines, the Mets’ outfield got a modicum of revenge on Opening Day, as the trio of Collin Cowgill, Marlon Byrd and Lucas Duda accounted for four hits (including a grand slam from Cowgill), two walks and six RBIs. They picked up three more on Wednesday.

But what stands out to me is the guy who isn’t on the field when the games start -- Mike Baxter.

At 28 years old, Baxter is far from an hot prospect; however, he might be the club’s best outfielder right now, and his absence from the lineup raises some questions about the Mets’ rebuilding approach.

Since debuting for the Mets in 2011, Baxter has played in 120 games and had 251 plate appearances, and all he’s done in that time is get on base: His .363 OBP trails only David Wright among active Mets with at least 200 PAs in that span.

Sure, it’s the dreaded “small sample,” but it’s not as if any of the other outfielders has unimpeachable credentials. Duda’s claim to a job is based on two hot months ... two seasons ago, and is considered by a number of defensive metrics to be among the worst defenders in the league. Cowgill, who turns 27 in May, has a long track record of minor league success, which is great, but so does Baxter, and he has been much better in his big league exposure. Byrd was once a solid player, but he was well-below average last season and, at 35, is almost certainly going to get worse.

What made Baxter’s absence so glaring on Monday was that Edinson Volquez, a righty, was on the hill for San Diego, and the left-handed hitting Baxter has handled righties well in the majors (.810 OPS against). But according to Adam Rubin, the Mets plan to use Duda, Cowgill and Byrd as the regular alignment until further notice.

If a lefty is on the mound and Terry Collins wants to sit the lefty-hitting Baxter, who has a big platoon split, that’s defensible. However, Duda, who’s 27, also hits lefty, has a huge platoon split (career .657 OPS against southpaws), and is a liability on defense. Baxter may not exactly be graceful out there, but his catch that saved Johan Santana’s no-hitter earns him the benefit of the doubt, at least when compared to Duda.

While I truly believe that Baxter has the most to offer of this quartet, that’s not the real issue here. (Let’s be honest, this isn’t exactly a Willie, Mickey or the Duke-level of debate.)

What’s really relevant is what this says about the Mets’ approach to rebuilding. With so many unproven players on the roster, they should be trying to foster a culture of competition among those fighting for spots. Play well, and you will play more.

So what kind of message does it send when you have an open competition among four players with uninspiring resumes, and you end up benching the guy who has played the best for you over the last two years? This isn’t a meritocracy, but it should be.

Odds are, one of the three current starters will play his way out of a job, but it shouldn’t have come to that. Baxter has done everything he could to earn a starting job -- including sacrificing his body to preserve the lone no-hitter in franchise history -- and should have been given the chance to lose one.