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Questions linger, but Mets moving in right direction

NEW YORK -- Thirty-eight and counting. Thirty-eight and evaluating, too. Thirty-eight and wondering about the subsequent 162. One-hundred and twenty-four games into their 2013 season, the Mets have 38 games remaining -- but who's counting? -- and 38 to make some personnel determinations. Call it 38 and perplexing.

Three-fourths of their season have come and gone, and what we know of these Mets is scarcely defined. They might as well conduct business under the name New York Inkblots. Make of them what you will at this juncture of a season of steps forward, backward and sideways.

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Progress in the most critical area, pitching, has been achieved, no question. Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese and perhaps Jenrry Mejia might make for a formidable rotation in the near future if none is used as a medium of exchange in a deal to import offense. And before a herniated disk short-circuited his summer, Bobby Parnell was on his way to establishing himself as a bona fide closer.

At the same time, the third base assignment no longer is open to debate. (Did anyone really think David Wright could have been or should have been traded?)

But the rest of the roster vacillates between uncertainty and ambiguity.

The Mets began Spring Training with borderline confidence in their shortstop, Ruben Tejada, and they were tickled by the second-half resurrection of Ike Davis in 2012. They planned to bring Travis d'Arnaud, the prize they won for dealing the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner, to the big leagues before the All-Star break. And they insisted Daniel Murphy would more than suffice as their second baseman. They were seeking some certainty.

Now Tejada is at Triple-A Las Vegas, his future something of a gamble. He remains the most skilled shortstop in the organization; an organization that has no other shortstop possibilities. Davis remains a full-fledged enigma, though he has shown encouraging positives since his return from Triple-A. Moreover, legit left-handed power is a treasured commodity.

Because of injury, catcher d'Arnaud has played in merely four big league games. And Murphy is neither the defender nor the hitter the Mets had hoped.

So, has this season been one of progress or regress? Or running in place? The season was sacrificed -- not too strong a term -- for the sake of developing talent. And what talent, other than pitching, has been developed? After four successive fourth-place finishes and losing records, the Mets are unproven at vital positions, up the middle positions.

The pitching is improved and quite encouraging. But a significant batting order upgrade is essential even if Davis proves to be a 30-home run source.

Juan Lagares plays center field with a grace that occasionally camouflages his brilliance. He has some promising offensive skills and a worth ethic that delights manager Terry Collins. But he hardly is established after 85 big league games. And the rest of the batting order needs to be more productive if the club decides it wants to carry Lagares' extraordinary glove regardless of his production.

Two months short of his 32nd birthday, Omar Quintanilla is the shortstop for neither the future nor the present. And d'Arnaud may be the real deal, but he has caught barely more Mets innings than Steve Chilcott.

Murphy's determination is admirable, but his practiced defense doesn't offset his conspicuous inability to ad-lib at second base, the one position at which ad-libbing is essential. His value had been dragged down by that and his modest offense. He remains a .275 hitter with limited power and a low on-base average. Jerry Manuel promised in March 2009 Murphy would hit .310 with extra-base pop. Four fourth-place finishes have passed since then.

And none of those assessments touch on the corner-outfield positions. For now, left and right are manned respectively by the energy-provider, Eric Young, and the inspirational and surprisingly productive Marlon Byrd. But the Mets can't move forward and claim to be improved if both are regulars flanking Lagares come March. That scenario is improbable.

Young would be the perfect No. 4 outfielder if left field were assigned to an acquired run producer. Byrd would be an ideal role player, too, if a new man with left-handed power were deployed in right with Young in left. But after his strong performance this season -- he has a chance to hit 25 home runs and drive in 90 runs -- how willing will Byrd be to accept a diminished role and a moderate salary increase?

He says, "If they want me, I'm back." It's too early for the Mets to show their hand in that regard. They need the remaining 38 to make assessments.

One they have made evidently -- it involves Lucas Duda and excludes him as well -- is that Duda's occasional home runs aren't enough to offset the shortcomings of his defense. Chances of him playing left, right or, his best position, first next year are remote. His power is enticing, but Davis has a higher ceiling and better hands. The new, improved Davis ought to be retained.

Whatever personnel excesses these third-place Mets have appear to be limited to young pitchers. And for now, they have a player of promise without a position, Wilmer Flores. How much do they know about his readiness to play a big league second base?

Thirty-eight games with Tejada at shortstop and Flores at second would be an almost ample audition. Unless the club has no plans for Tejada, he ought to be brought back post-haste and afforded an opportunity to win back the position he unwittingly abdicated. Perhaps he'll care more after so much time in the desert.

The Mets won't necessarily be putting the final 38 at risk if they play Tejada, Flores, d'Arnaud and Lagares every day. They had no designs on a busy October, anyway. After being steamrolled by the first-place Dodgers last week, despite beating the first-place Braves Tuesday night, and with three weekend games against the first-place Tigers pending, their chances for advancement are slim. They're closer to fourth than to second and not yet in position to compare themselves with any division leader.

They ain't there yet. But that they have significant questions to answer between now and March suggests they're moving in the proper direction.

Marty Noble is a columnist for

New York Mets, Marlon Byrd, Travis d'Arnaud, Ike Davis, Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, Eric Young