Mets giving Reyes chance to either sink or swim

NEW YORK -- Depending on which perspective the Mets choose, the summer of 2003 is already an endless purgatory -- punishment for all their bad contracts and wasted millions. It's either that, or they accept last place, embrace its short-term hopelessness and catch the hint of a rebirth in their midst.

The signs are subtle, but nevertheless unmistakable: it's right-hander Aaron Heilman allowing the Marlins just one earned run in six innings in his major-league debut on Thursday, despite the Mets' 8-1 loss. It's Ty Wigginton batting .300 in June. And it's shortstop Jose Reyes, as long-limbed and unbalanced as a colt, convincing Mets executives to keep him in the big leagues longer than anyone expected.

The rookie was initially summoned from Triple-A on June 11, while Rey Sanchez was placed on the disabled list with a strained left thumb. The injury allowed the Mets to abruptly end their internal debate about the merits of calling up a 20-year-old, and instead offered an in-the-flesh look at why scouts say Reyes will someday be a Jimmy Rollins/Rafael Furcal clone.

Someday, is the key word.

One general manager who's watched Reyes asks, "I like him, but I wonder what he's doing in the big leagues. He swings at everything."

Indeed, Reyes is batting only .207, and although he's considered a switch-hitter, has looked almost helpless batting from the left side. Yet, Reyes is undeniably charismatic in the field, can steal bases almost at will, and the Mets say, for all his inexperience, he's still mature enough to benefit from a prolonged stay at Shea Stadium.

"We're going to keep watching him, make sure he doesn't sink too far underwater," said Jim Duquette, the Mets' interim GM. "So far, we think Jose has been solid. Even if he hits .210, we're going to be a better ball club. What's been so surprising is his RBI (15 in 15 games). That says he can handle pressure."

Even the most conservative elements of the Mets' hierarchy agrees Reyes has a considerable upside. That's precisely why they wonder about Duquette's hurry-up timetable. Reyes played just 42 games at Triple-A this year, far fewer than Derek Jeter (158) and Alfonso Soriano (131) before they became everyday starters for the Yankees.

The difference, of course, is that the Yankees have to nurture their rookies, considering the greater burden they eventually carry. The Mets, on the other hand, have nothing to lose while traveling the long, flat road to nowhere. If Reyes struggles -- he made his fifth error in 15 games on Thursday -- Duquette is still considering the longer-range benefit.

"There's the notion of on-the-job training, and some players can benefit from it. Jose is one of them, we think," the GM said. "We'll continue to watch this, to see if it affects his personality, but what we're trying to do is look ahead to next year. Every at-bat Jose gets is going to make him better next year. It's why (Aaron) Heilman is here, to take the edge off for next season."

There are still several important steps to complete the transition, including trading away Armando Benitez and Roberto Alomar for younger, cheaper talent. So far, no one's in hot pursuit of either veteran. The only team that has expressed interest in Alomar -- the A's, Reds and Dodgers -- insist the Mets pick up every remaining penny of his $8 million salary this year.

And the Red Sox were actively pursuing Benitez before he sabotaged his own market-value last Sunday. On national television Benitez walked four batters in the ninth inning while trying to preserve a 3-2 win over the Yankees.

Since that day, the interest in Benitez has waned so dramatically, one major-league executive said, "It was like hot air coming out of a balloon." The Mets think the Red Sox will eventually call again, but not for a few weeks, and not until Benitez rehabilitates his self-confidence. He'll need more performances like Wednesday's six-out save against the Marlins.

Once Benitez leaves, the Mets will be left without a bona fide closer, although that'll hardly matter. Their games will have become an open-air audition for 2004, one which Reyes says he's eager to keep alive.

"I'd like to stay here, but they told me two weeks. So who knows what's going to happen," he said. "I think I can learn here (in the big leagues). I have a lot to learn. But I'm enjoying this."

Part of that education will be delivered in the second half of the mid-summer Subway Series, as the Mets and Yankees play four times in three days, beginning Friday night at Yankee Stadium. Reyes might've been growing accustomed to smaller, quieter crowds at Shea while the Marlins were in town, but the Yankees' domain is louder and more hostile, where a fragile rookie can get crushed like a grape.

Duquette insists, "we like Jose's make-up." Still, it's an education for everyone: the Mets are about to find out how much heat -- and noise -- the rookie can handle.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.