2003-02-15 / Sports

Ty Is The Guy, For Now: Matsui’s Florida Arrival

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Ty Is The Guy, For Now: Matsui’s Florida Arrival By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist

Baseball Columnist

Ty Wigginton has the chance to win the starting third base job.Ty Wigginton has the chance to win the starting third base job.

Try as they might, it seemed the Mets were twisting every which way to avoid getting to this point, with the names of established big-leaguers Joe Randa, Jose Hernandez, Shea Hillenbrand and Bill Mueller bandied about with reckless abandon.

But as those options for the club’s 2003 Opening Day third base position withered and evaporated, 25-year-old rookie Ty Wigginton stepped out of the fog, emerging with increasing conviction as the favorite to nail down the job going into camp.

Just who is Wigginton? For his part, the stocky slugger from Chula Vista, Calif., is playing the role of fresh-faced rookie extremely well. Hard-nosed but unassuming, Wigginton is certainly making no assumptions as the Mets crack the seal on camp in Port St. Lucie this week.

"I haven’t really heard anything at all," he says of his status in the Mets’ plans. "I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself.

Hideki Matsui will make front-page headlines in America and Japan.Hideki Matsui will make front-page headlines in America and Japan.

"If you come in knowing that, saying ‘If I play well, I’ve got a chance to win the job here, you try not to think about it. Then, you’re just adding extra pressure to yourself, and it makes the process tougher to catch a ground ball or hit."

It’s the former part of that quote, not the latter, which has been Wigginton’s problem over the years. A solid hitter with a decent amount of pop, Wigginton stroked to the tune of a .306 average in 46 games with the Mets late last season and later kept up his torrid plate work down in the Dominican Winter League, where he batted .280 with 9 homers and 31 RBI in 47 games for Cibao.

Strong showings of that sort are nothing new for Wigginton, who is still just two seasons removed from a 20-homer season for Binghamton (AA) in the Eastern League and a 21-homer season the year before at St. Lucie (A) in the Florida State League.

Attractive numbers like the ones that adorn Wigginton’s ballplaying resume have no doubt made an impression on Mets officials, especially with free agent Edgardo Alfonzo’s departure, but just as striking has been Wigginton’s inconsistency with the leather. After projecting only as a utility-type player on minor-league depth charts as recently as this season, he made five errors in his brief stint with New York, including three at third base.

"I’ve never had a favorite position," admits Wigginton, who has been given looks at third, first base, second base and in the outfield. "My favorite position has always been being in the lineup and getting a hit."

Still, when Japanese slugger Norihiro Nakamura reneged on a verbal agreement to come to Shea Stadium and the club was unable to woo a more established name by their self-imposed Super Bowl deadline, the Mets began to extend just a little more slack in Wigginton’s direction as a bonafide third base candidate.

"If the season were to start today, Ty Wigginton would be the lead candidate for the position," general manager Steve Phillips said recently. "If something presents itself, we’ll look at it and consider it. But if the season started today, we’d like our shot."

Besides Wigginton, the Mets have a pair of backup plans for third base on their roster, with veterans Rey Sanchez and Jay Bell having joined the mix. But Sanchez will start the season as the club’s shortstop, bridging the gap from the traded Rey Ordonez to the arrival of stud super-prospect Jose Reyes, and Bell – who batted .167 in 32 games last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks – is by no means a lock to make the team out of camp, especially at age 37.

Even while Phillips frantically worked the phones in New York to plug his hot corner dilemma, Wigginton felt no urge to keep up with the ongoing media reports of the Mets’ search, instead remaining confident that his performance had earned him a solid chance at the job - no matter what.

"The offseason moves aren’t in my control & power," Wigginton said. "Steve’s going to go out there and try and make the best team he can, and my job’s just to show up & play & do what I’m told.

"Even if they go out and bring in a Hall-of-Fame third baseman, I’m still going to go out and feel like I have a shot to win the job. If you’re not mentally prepared to battle for a spot, then why even compete?"

▪ The Yankees opened their spring training camp this week as well, with a huge Japanese media contingent flooding the club’s facility in Tampa to document every step and twitch made by new acquisition Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui.

Get used to it: if Matsui hitting six home runs in a batting practice session makes for front-page news in Japan, just imagine what a extra-innings grand slam in May – or an 0-for-8 collar in a June doubleheader – will do to get the presses rolling.

Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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