Can Matt den Dekker hit a breaking ball? Can he lay off the off-speed pitches out of the strike zone? Will he ever be a competent MLB hitter?

Those are some of the questions the New York Mets are facing this spring, as the minor-league defensive whiz of a center fielder makes his case in Grapefruit League play.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Collin Cowgill will probably form a lefty/righty center field platoon in the regular season, provided the former recovers well from a bone bruise on his knee.

However, Nieuwenhuis is far from an accomplished MLB hitter himself, with a sub-.700 OPS in 314 big-league plate appearances in his career, all as a rookie last season.

He showed some flashes of solid defensive play in all three outfield spots last summer, and worst case scenario, he'd be a strong defensive replacement in the corners late in games.

On the other hand, den Dekker, who's actually three days older than Nieuwenhuis but only has 317 career plate appearances in Triple-A, is a superb defensive center fielder.

Nobody can dispute that den Dekker could play good to great defense center field if he ever became a major-league regular, but at 25 years old, he's still not MLB-ready with the bat.

In the 77 games he played in Triple-A last season, he had a paltry batting line of a .220 AVG/.256 OBP/.373 SLG for a .629 OPS, with an alarming 11 walks and 90 strikeouts.

No matter how excellent his defense is, the left-handed hitting den Dekker is simply not ready for the majors offensively, and many scouts doubt if he ever will be.

But if the gap between den Dekker's defensive edge over Nieuwenhuis proves to be larger than the gap between Nieuwenhuis's offensive edge over den Dekker, all bets are off.

For that to truly be the case, however, den Dekker is going to have to answer some of those questions about his bat. Grapefruit League play aside, he needs to show it in the minors.

While he's probably not coming north with the club at the conclusion of spring training, Matt den Dekker only has to hit a fair amount to be a valuable contributor overall.

He is not on the 40-man roster, which is just as large an obstacle as his poor offensive game for him to overcome. But unlike his bat, the Mets can literally change that overnight.

If Nieuwenhuis proves to not be a capable center field option, even in a platoon, I still think it would be best for den Dekker and the Mets to be patient with his development.

Collin Cowgill, Marlon Byrd, and even Jordany Valdespin are all center field options that should be on the Opening Day roster. But Matt den Dekker shouldn't be. Not yet.

The Mets can afford to send Matt den Dekker to the minors, even if Nieuwenhuis, Cowgill, Byrd and Valdespin don't inspire much confidence in center field.

It's best for den Dekker to hone his craft in Triple-A to the best of his abilities, so that he can maximize his stint in the big leagues when he does get the inevitable call-up this summer.

If he proves to be even Ruben Tejada-ish offensively, the Mets will have a valuable player on their hands. But letting him learn at the MLB level just isn't the right approach right now.

 

Follow Jon Presser on Twitter @metsjetsnets88 and @TheSheaFaithful