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den Dekker out to reclaim place in spotlight

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It was a common scene last spring to see Mets players gathered around a clubhouse television at Tradition Field, watching sports highlights shows. They were curious. They wanted to see where Matt den Dekker's latest spectacular catch might rank.

On the Mets' short list of potential impact position-player prospects, den Dekker scored high grades for his elite defense -- one scout last spring said he would be an instant Gold Glove candidate in the Majors -- and power bat. But a broken right wrist late in March dashed his hopes of making the team.

A year later, with Juan Lagares, Eric Young and two expensive free agents perched atop the Mets' outfield depth chart, it's clear that den Dekker's career arc has changed.

"I still feel it a little bit," den Dekker said of his injury, rubbing the wrist with his left hand. "People tell me if I had been healthy I would have been the first guy called up [to the Majors], but it doesn't matter. It's just part of the game. It happens."

Watch tape of the injury, and it's easy to see why den Dekker's recovery took so long. Ranging back for Austin Jackson's fly ball in a Grapefruit League game against the Tigers, den Dekker swayed back and forth as he tried to gauge the wind. In doing so, he lost track of the wall. Thinking he was upon it and expecting to crash into the padding, den Dekker instead crumpled his entire weight on top of the wrist, knocking him out for almost three full months.

The former University of Florida star rehabbed just fine, ultimately bashing six homers in 202 plate appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas before making his debut with the Mets in August, but by then it was too late. Lagares had emerged as one of the best defenders in baseball, leapfrogging den Dekker on the depth chart, and the Mets had traded for another athletic young outfielder in Young.

After the season, general manager Sandy Alderson spent $67.25 million to acquire Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, pushing den Dekker ever farther down the depth chart. So the rookie adopted a new mantra.

"I can't worry about that," den Dekker said. "I worry about what I can do and the work I put in and the performance I put out on the field, and try to leave it on the field and take care of business out there."

The only difference is the sheer number of obstacles now littered across his path. In a perfect world, manager Terry Collins said, den Dekker would begin this season back in the Minors, where he can receive the regular at-bats necessary to continue developing as a hitter.

But even if things go swimmingly for den Dekker, his path remains blocked, barring a significant slump, trade or injury. Granderson is in place for the next four years. Eric Young is a favorite of Collins'. Lagares is a strong summer away from entrenching himself in the team's long-term plans.

As for den Dekker?

"He is still very, very highly thought of," Collins said. "Tremendous defender, as we know. Everybody's disappointed with what happened last spring with him, because he had a great spring. But I think he's still hugely in the picture."

Collins pointed to den Dekker's history of struggling at a particular Minor League level, only to repeat the level and make significant improvements the second time around. He hopes the same will ultimately hold true in the Majors, where den Dekker hit .200 with a .643 OPS in 80 at-bats late last season -- in retrospect, with his wrist still bothering him.

But despite the lingering discomfort, den Dekker will not change his aggressive style of defense. That is what once made him a rising star in the organization and what can ultimately carry him back to those heights.

"Obviously, I'm here to make the team, so my first goal is to make the team any way I can and try to help the team out and help the team win," den Dekker said. "That's what I'm here to do, whatever I can do to work hard and show them that I can play out there and prove it to them. The rest is up to them."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.
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