Beltran suddenly becomes a leader

Oh, it’s on.

Last year, Jimmy Rollins — an already vocal sparkplug in the Phillies’ clubhouse — came out and declared the Phillies the team to beat in the NL East, with little more than personal pride to back him up. He and his teammates felt they had the best team in the division on paper, though that contention could be debated at length. In the end, though, Rollins performed on the field and the Phillies took advantage of the Mets’ stumble to take the division for one day — the last day.

Now, it’s Carlos Beltran’s turn. After three years of being a silent leader — if that — on the field, Beltran sat down with reporters on his first day in camp on Saturday and said, “To Jimmy Rollins: We are the team to beat.”

It’s certainly out of character for the reserved center fielder, but if this signals a new, outspoken outfielder, that would almost certainly be a benefit for the Mets, a team already seen as more businesslike and tightly wound than the Phillies. In my mind, the Mets already were a loose and fun-loving team, especially compared to the Yankees. So if the Mets are too stiff, what does that make the Yankees? And do the Phillies have any discipline?

I’ll save my thoughts on Mets vs. Phillies on paper for my overall look at the NL East, but I’ll say this now: If David Wright continues to assert himself as a clubhouse and on-field leader (and something of a captain, as suggested by the New York Times last week) and if Carlos Delgado can stay healthy and have a bit of a bounce-back season while continuing his veteran leadership, Beltran’s emergence as a more visible leader can only help.

I can only imagine Opening Day at Shea. Rollins will be booed as lustily as ever, and Beltran may very well get the loudest ovation he’s heard in three years in New York. Saturday’s proclamation should keep Beltran in the fans’ good graces for a month or two, and I expect it will buy him a reprieve when that first slump hits.

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