PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The box is circled on Michael Conforto's calendar: May 1, the date Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has targeted for his return from shoulder surgery. The competitor in Conforto wants to come back sooner. The realist knows it could be later.
"The timetable is fluid," Conforto said.
Whenever Conforto returns, he wants to make sure he is at little risk of reinjuring the shoulder that spoiled his 2017 season. An All-Star despite sitting on the bench for much of April, Conforto spent much of the season as one of the Mets' few bright spots. In 109 games, he hit .279 with 27 homers and a .939 OPS. His adjusted OPS, which accounts for external factors such as ballparks, would have ranked fifth in the National League if he had enough at-bats to qualify.
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But Conforto dislocated his left shoulder swinging a bat Aug. 24 at Citi Field; subsequent testing revealed a capsule tear that necessitated surgery, ending his season. Team physician Dr. David Altchek told Conforto there is a 99-percent chance he will not dislocate his shoulder again, compared to much lesser odds had he not undergone surgery.
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In other words, once Conforto returns to full capacity, there should be no reason why he cannot resume his elite career arc. He just needs to heal first.
"I want to make sure that when he's back, he's back," manager Mickey Callaway said. "We want him to just go through his rehab routine, make sure we communicate with him along the way how he's feeling. Players always tell you they feel better than they probably are, so we're going to be aware of that. But we want him back and when he's ready, he's there for the rest of the season."
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For most of the winter, Conforto logged two hours of physical therapy daily, hoping to accelerate his timetable as much as possible. All the while, he knew that an Opening Day return was likely out of the question. It was not until this weekend that Conforto began swinging off a tee, the next step in the process of molding his shoulder back into baseball shape.
"I was willing to do whatever I could," Conforto said. "I want to be out on the field with my teammates, give us the best chance to win and be the player that I am. It's all worth it. It makes it worth it once I get in the cage like I did today and hit off the tee a little bit."
With Conforto sidelined, the Mets will give center-field reps to Brandon Nimmo and Juan Lagares, each of whom could also replace Conforto as the Mets' leadoff hitter. Because the Mets signed Jay Bruce to a three-year deal this winter, Conforto will be the team's starting center fielder for the foreseeable future -- something he believes he can handle with aplomb, despite knowing he's "not Billy Hamilton out there."
Quite simply, the Mets don't need Conforto to be Hamilton, Willie Mays or anyone else. They just need him to be healthy.
And they're willing to wait for that.
"My energy is channeled into my rehab," Conforto said. "Every rep gets me a little bit closer to getting back out on the field. As long as I keep that fire, I think that's what's going to get me out there and be successful and be healthy."