Mets position vacuum on first

On Aug. 16, 2004, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz started a game for the Red Sox against Toronto. He played seven innings in the field, had four total chances, made two putouts, registered two assists and participated in one double play.

Oh, by the way, he was playing second base at the time.

The man has skills.

"He's just got such great instincts," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "He's one of these guys who, if he had to play another position, he wouldn't be stuck. He's like having a shortstop playing first base."

Forgive Ricciardi his hyperbole — we're sure he meant a second baseman.

Either way, it's no hyperbole to say that when it comes to soft hands, agile feet and a feel for the way thrown balls can hop, skip, and jump toward the bag, Mientkiewicz is the best first baseman in baseball.

When the Mets lost out to Florida in the Carlos Delgado sweepstakes last month, general manager Omar Minaya was disappointed but he wasn't ruined. Not by a long shot.

"Sure we would have liked to land Delgado for his offense," Minaya said, "but we had two plans going at the same time and once we didn't get Carlos we were right on Doug."

Why? It wasn't his career .767 OPS. It wasn't the fact that he's been good for about 65 runs driven in every 162 games over the past seven years. It wasn't even the curse-busting, Yankee-slaying mojo that he carries with him as a member of the 2004 Red Sox.

It was his hands. More to the point, it was the hands of the rest of the Mets' projected 2005 infield. David Wright (22 years old, 11 errors in 69 third-base starts in 2004), meet Doug Mientkiewicz. Jose Reyes (21 years old, six errors in 53 second-base starts ... he'll play short this season), let us introduce you to Doug Mientkiewicz. Kazuo Matsui (29 years old, but only one season of major-league experience, 23 errors in 110 starts at short ... he'll play second), this is Mr. Doug Mientkiewicz.

Even with Wright, Carlos Beltran and Mike Piazza swinging the bat, the Mets might sometimes struggle to score runs this season. But with Mientkiewicz (just 14 errors in his last 406 games played) covering the bag at first, they also look to be stingier about giving 'em up. New York infielders (at second, third, short and catcher) made 92 errors last season. There's no telling exactly how many of those might have been erased by any old first baseman not named Piazza, but it's a safe bet that one named Mientkiewicz — whose relatively inexperienced Minnesota infield partners had error totals of less than 45 in both 2002 and 2003 — is a major upgrade at the position with the potential to help drive that number way down.

"I think Omar wanted a very good fielding first baseman because Reyes and Wright are both so young," Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. "He wanted someone who could cover for them, someone who makes the rest of the infield feel confident because they know he'll pick a ball and go get a throw that's maybe off the bag and bring it back."

Minaya figures first base is undervalued in the market place and in the minds of the average fan. "People take the position for granted," he said. He looks at a guy like J.T. Snow of the Giants, a smooth, graceful glove who "saves the Giants 10 games a year," and he anticipates something similar for his club with Mientkiewicz.

"In Mientkiewicz's case," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said, "soft hands around the bag may be his carrying tool. He and Snow can impact a game defensively like few other guys can."

It's true. There's a short list of those with spectacularly soft hands. Among active players, in addition to Mientkiewicz and Snow, the All-Palmolive team features John Olerud (currently unsigned), Derrek Lee, Carlos Peña, Darin Erstad, Travis Lee and Tino Martinez. Beyond that crew, GMs struggle to come up with names when you ask.

"In addition to soft hands and good instincts," Shapiro said, "it takes discipline and hard work. Practice and repetition make a huge difference. You want a guy who takes pride in his defense, and that can be rare."

Conventional wisdom says any mope can catch the ball at first, but the skill set, said Melvin, is more rare than people think: "I think there's a misconception that you don't need to be an athlete. You've got to be a pretty good athlete to play first well."

You've got to, for instance, be the kind of guy who can play second in a pinch ...

But aside from the presence or absence of the gift of grab, another reason we don't see a lot of wizards around the bag is simply that many teams will make do with less, if it means getting more.

"It's the one position where we may look the other way, in terms of defense," Ricciardi said. "You tend to look past some of a guy's deficiencies because of what he may give you in terms of offensive production."

Which makes the Rockies' Todd Helton a bolt of lightning in a bottle. The three-time Gold Glove winner committed just four errors at first base last year (while also demonstrating some terrific range and leading all big-league first baseman in assists). He also slugged .620, walked 127 times and drove 32 balls over the wall.

Now he's got skills.

But Heltons are one-of-a-kind finds; you can't model your team infield on them.

The truth, Shapiro said, is that, "most likely, you're going to have to sacrifice on one side or the other; you're going to end up with an imperfect player."

Maybe so, but Minaya, fresh off his failed courtship with Delgado, sounds plenty satisfied with the "imperfect" player he's got now: "Doug is so important for us this year ... I know he is going to save us plenty of runs."

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.