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Collins giving Nieuwenhuis big chance at leadoff

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When the Mets take their first hacks of the Grapefruit League season this Saturday, Kirk Nieuwenhuis will be the man digging into the batter's box. There's a decent chance he could draw the same assignment in April.

Manager Terry Collins said Wednesday that he is giving Nieuwenhuis first crack at leadoff, because he sees him as a potential solution at that spot.

"I think it sends a huge message to him," Collins said. "It's the first game. And when we were playing really, really well [last year], that guy was in center field. He deserves the right to get the first shot."

Nieuwenhuis figures to crack the Opening Day roster in a center-field platoon with Collin Cowgill, who possesses the skill set necessary to lead off against left-handed pitchers. Ruben Tejada is the incumbent option at leadoff for the Mets, though they are not necessarily sold on him in that spot. Mike Baxter and Daniel Murphy could also fill the role.

But with six weeks left in camp, Nieuwenhuis may be the favorite. He hit .264 with five home runs in 32 games as a leadoff man last year, compared to .242 with two home runs in 59 games elsewhere.

"Obviously it's a compliment, for sure," Nieuwenhuis said of his manager's curiosity. "I'm hopeful to take this spot and run with it. You set the tone for the game, and it's a big responsibility. You just have to be aggressive and smart. That's the biggest thing."

Thing is, Nieuwenhuis will not need to take the opportunity and run with it -- at least not literally. Collins said he does not need or expect his leadoff hitters to steal bags, so long as they make smart baserunning decisions whenever possible. That is good news for Nieuwenhuis, who had never been an elite base-stealing threat despite his above-average speed.

If Tejada hits leadoff, for example, Collins said he will not have the green light to steal whenever he wants. It stands to reason that Nieuwenhuis, Cowgill and Baxter will not, either.

"When the word 'baserunning' is talked about, everyone thinks it's basestealing, and it's not," Collins said. "We need to go first to third. We need to score from second, no matter who it is."