Carlos Beltran will begin his minor league rehab assignment with the St. Lucie Mets tomorrow, and the atmosphere and expectations within the team can’t be any higher.

Beltran will have to be activated to the big league roster by the time the season resumes after the All-Star break, and players just know the boost that the outfielder will bring to the team when he is back patrolling centerfield and hitting in the heart of the lineup.

The Mets announced Beltran’s timetable yesterday, prior to the first of three home games against the Detroit Tigers. As the news spread around the team during batting practice and pre-game warmups, there was a collective agreement that his return would be a massive boost.

Jason Bay told me it would be similar to trading for an All-Star, and David Wright called Beltran “special”. As much as the Mets can’t wait to welcome him back, the overwhelming feeling was that the Mets should not push Beltran too hard the day he rejoins the big club.

Angel Pagan leads the club with a .304 batting average, and only Jose Reyes has more stolen bases. It’s an understatement to say Pagan has simply “filled in” for Beltran, and he reminded front room staff that he shouldn’t be overlooked when he fell a home run short of the cycle on Tuesday night.  His effort hasn’t been lost among his peers either, who said they have been impressed with just how well Pagan has embraced the challenge of starting full time.

“Carlos Beltran is a special player, but with that being said, Angel Pagan really deserves a ton of credit for doing what he’s been able to do this year. He’s not only held the fort down, but really excelled and he’s been a very valuable player for us this year,” said David Wright. 

“It will be exciting to see what Carlos does in his rehab, but it’s also been a blessing having Angel here doing what he’s been able to do.”

Pagan has only sat out two games this season for the Mets, and it has been his performance that has left some to question whether it should be Jeff Francoeur who moves to the bench after the All-Star break when the Mets travel to San Francisco on June 15.

Francoeur didn’t speculate on who would become the fourth outfielder three weeks from now, instead highlighting how important Beltran is to the team and the need to ensure he’s 100 percent healthy when he returns.

“Obviously it’s one of those things where he’s a great player,” Francoeur said.  “Hopefully he’s healthy and we are going to welcome him back, but until then we have to play with what we’ve got and that’s what we’ve done all season.

“The last thing you want to do is get him back and then have hum hurt his knee two days later. So hopefully he can keep rehabbing and getting better, and I’m sure when he gets back it will be a huge boost.”

The outfielder least likely to lose his starting job, Jason Bay, said the importance of Beltran’s return cannot be overestimated.

“I think it’s almost like making a big trade,” the left fielder said, standing next to the Mets dugout on Tuesday. “You don’t have a guy and all of a sudden, boom, you get him back. It’s like acquiring a guy.

“Carlos isn’t just an average guy. I mean, he’s one of the better plays in the game and like I said, it’s like picking up a huge piece for us and it can’t do anything to help us, that’s for sure.”

As well as giving the team a huge morale boost, an upgrade at the plate, and Gold Glove defense in the outfield, Beltran will bring that winning mentality to the club, Johan Santana said.

“He means a lot to this team. He’s been around for a long time and he knows how to win games. It’s definitely going to be a plus for us, but at the same time we want him to be 100 percent to help us out. It’s going to take time to get back on track into baseball activities, but definitely the sooner the better.” 

Pundits said the Mets would be lucky to tread water until Beltran returned, and that was when the front office thought he might be back much sooner. The Mets, 10 games above .500, have done more than stay afloat, and now they are primed to get a massive cog back in their lineup.

If Beltran has even part of the impact his peers expect, the Mets could become a very serious contendor in the National League in 2010.

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