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For Mets, is it too early to stress?

NEW YORK - Earlier this week, the online sports poll question for the tabloid New York Daily News was simple and blunt:

NEW YORK - Earlier this week, the online sports poll question for the tabloid New York Daily News was simple and blunt:

What should (Mets general manager) Omar Minaya and (manager) Jerry Manuel do about the Mets' poor start?

- Shake things up. The play has been embarrassing and the players need a wake-up call.

- Nothing. Hey, it's only April! Give them a chance to get some games under their belt.

At first glance, that was sort of an impertinent premise 3 weeks into the schedule. Except that this isn't an ordinary season for the New York Metropolitans Baseball Club. Not after fading down the stretch the last two seasons, costing themselves a chance at the postseason each time. Not after Phillies starter Cole Hamels allowed himself to be lured into labeling them as "choke artists" during an offseason radio show. Not after Minaya addressed the team's most glaring weakness, the back of the bullpen, by adding both Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz in the 2-day blitzkrieg at the winter meetings. Not after opening $850 million Citi Field.

The real question, then, is whether a team that arrives at Citizens Bank Park tonight with a 9-12 record has what it takes to be competitive this season or whether the early sputters are an indication of more fundamental flaws.

"I don't think anybody can tell me who was leading each division last year at the end of April," Putz said, sitting in front of his locker before a game against the Marlins this week. "It's a long season and I think we're still trying to find our identity. We've got a lot of new people here and things are starting to come together very nicely. It's just a matter of time.

"Have we played great baseball? No. Have we played our best baseball? No. Are we accountable for the way we've played? Absolutely. Are we happy with it? No. Are we going to change it? Yes."

It seems that Putz would have voted for the second choice in the poll.

In fairness to the Mets, they had 16 players leave camp to participate in the World Baseball Classic during spring training, more than any other team. While they won't use that as an excuse, it had to be disruptive. And as tiresome as it gets to keep repeating the obvious, it is still very early.

At the same time, there were some developments in the first month that have rightfully raised red flags.

Like the fact that Carlos Beltran, the superbly talented centerfielder, failed to slide into home plate in St. Louis last week and was tagged out easily. And that he did it again last Sunday going to second. And that his explanation was that he thought he'd heard the pitch make contact with David Wright's bat. But there were two outs. Hmmmm.

Like the fact that Wright, the bright face of the franchise, is hitting .250 with runners in scoring position and has struck out 27 times in 82 at bats. The worry isn't that he's slumping. It's that he's putting too much pressure on himself to carry the whole team. He even has been booed at home.

Like the fact that Daniel Murphy, the converted infielder who was penciled in as the team's regular leftfielder, helped cost the Mets a win in Florida when he dropped a fly ball and another in St. Louis when he slipped trying to corral a line drive. He has started just three of the last seven games.

Like the fact that Citi Field has a spacious outfield with high walls. The Mets have hit just seven home runs in 12 home games this year. And while they ended play Wednesday fifth in the majors in batting average (.282), they were 17th in runs (96), 20th in slugging percentage (.411) and 28th in homers (13). "We're getting a lot of hits, but not extra-base hits," Manuel observed.

Like the fact that Oliver Perez, who signed a 3-year, $36 million contract during the offseason, may be on the verge of pitching his way out of the rotation already. He's 1-2 with a 9.31 ERA, and Manuel hinted that the only reason he will take his turn tomorrow is that he had so much success against the Phillies last year: 1 earned run in 26 innings.

"Philadelphia has been a team he has pitched very well against," Manuel said. "I think it's important, him being one of our guys, that I give him every benefit of the doubt and give him that start. And I have to watch, evaluate and we'll see what happens after that. I'm looking at this Philadelphia outing as a big outing for him."

Veteran Gary Sheffield shrugged off the lack of patience that has been shown.

"This is New York. Everybody knows they want to win right now," he said. "They ask for that perfection right now. They want you to be perfect at this point when actually it's [the end of] April. All you need to do is look around this room. We have the talent here. Everything's in place. Now it's just a matter of going out and doing it. Because you can have all the names you want, but you still have to do it out on the field.

"We're not clicking on all cylinders yet, but to still have the record we have speaks volumes about this team."

Sheffield, it appears, also would vote along with Putz.

The Mets have been playing without the starting right side of their infield. First baseman Carlos Delgado (hip) and second baseman Luis Castillo (back) may or may not be ready to return to the lineup tonight.

Manuel told reporters after Wednesday's second straight loss to Florida that he's "looking forward to going [into Philadelphia] and seeing how we match up."

Just a guess, but if that newspaper poll was limited to those who wear Mets uniforms, it would probably be unanimous for doing nothing drastic at the moment.

And that's probably the right answer. Of course, whether that willl change by Sunday night remains to be seen. *