Terry Collins says Mets may tab Michael Conforto to play in center

CHICAGO -- Michael Conforto rejoined the New York Mets on Monday after a three-week stint in the minors. He may have returned as the team's primary center fielder.

With Yoenis Cespedes expressing a desire to solely play left field for the remainder of the season, manager Terry Collins plans to have Conforto begin taking fly balls in center field.

Collins said it makes sense to restrict Cespedes to left field because that is less taxing on his legs than center field. And keeping Cespedes' bat in the lineup is the priority. Cespedes returned to the starting lineup on Sunday after an eight-day absence while resting a strained right quadriceps muscle.

"We're taxing his body pretty heavily by putting him in center field," Collins said. "And we need him to hit. We need him to hit, and hit a lot. 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 he can do -- and that's be a big production guy."

Conforto said he worked out in center field while at Oregon State, although he appeared in no games at that position in college. He exclusively had played left field as a professional ballplayer until this month, when he started four games in right field with Triple-A Las Vegas.

Collins had planned for Conforto to begin seeing action in center field with the Pacific Coast League club on Monday, but general manager Sandy Alderson elected to instead promote Conforto to the majors for the series opener against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. So Conforto's center-field acclimation will need to occur on the fly in the majors.

"I'll be an athlete, I'll go make plays and do whatever I can if they need me out there," Conforto said.

Assuming he shows any aptitude, Conforto could begin handling center field against right-handed pitching -- flanked by Cespedes and Curtis Granderson -- as soon as the weekend at Marlins Park. Collins said his preference is not to use the 35-year-old Granderson in center field. Granderson has started 1,075 games at that position, but he has not been a full-time center fielder since 2012 with the New York Yankees.

"I think that's asking a lot," Collins said.

Juan Lagares will continue to start in center field against left-handed pitching, as is the case Monday night against Chicago Cubs southpaw Jon Lester. Lagares may see some time in center field against right-handers, but Conforto did not return to the majors to sit, so those opportunities for Lagares should be limited.

Because Wrigley Field has a relatively compact outfield and Conforto had no time to tune up, Collins initially planned to have Cespedes start Tuesday in center field against the Cubs. But after Cespedes patrolled left field conservatively in Monday's series opener, Collins huddled with outfield coach Tom Goodwin postgame and the manager indicated he may just leave Cespedes in the corner. Regardless, Cespedes will not remain in center field once the Mets move on to Miami for their next series, Collins pledged.

Meanwhile, Conforto returns to the Mets with more confidence at the plate.

Rookie outfielder Brandon Nimmo was demoted to clear the roster spot for Conforto, who hit .344 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 61 Triple-A at-bats. Conforto had been in an 8-for-75 rut before his June 25 demotion.

"I think there was a period of obviously being upset," Conforto said about the demotion. "You've got to go through that. ... Looking back on it, I think I got a little pull-happy. I think that was pretty clear. I think I really wanted to cover that inside corner, which was a spot I was having trouble with. And I think that took over a little bit. I didn't realize that would take away from my ability to go the other way. But I think it did a little bit.

"I just worked on trying to stay through the ball, worked on using my lower half a little bit better, getting my weight shifted a little bit further back just to start in my stance. I was kind of front-heavy there for a little bit. So when I went down, that was the first thing that the guys down there said."