- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Jose Reyes' thyroid, Carlos Beltran's knee and David Wright's power stroke are all vital to the success of the New York Mets this season. But they're still not as important as the pitching of Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine in the second, third and fourth spots in the rotation.
In other painfully obvious news, Mr. Met has an extremely large head.
Staff ace Johan Santana, five months removed from elbow surgery, has allowed a major league-high 26 hits in 14 2/3 innings this spring. It's worth noting that he's the one starter in camp who hasn't elicited a trace of concern.
"That's something nobody needs to tell us," Pelfrey said. "I've come in from day one saying that the whole season is going to depend on us three. And it's true. No matter what team it is, pitching wins championships.
"Johan Santana is going to be Johan Santana. The guys vying for the fifth spot are going to be great fifth starters. The rest is on us three."
As recurrent themes go, it's the baseball equivalent of Bill Murray bumping into insurance salesman Ned Ryerson day after day in the Punxsutawney town square. Pedro Martinez, Livan Hernandez and Tim Redding have come and gone, and the Mets still aren't sure whether they have the right complement of backup vocalists to harmonically converge with the great Santana.
The pitching news out of Port St. Lucie has been a mixed bag this spring. Young Jenrry Mejia is making a big impression in relief, and Jonathon Niese has pitched well enough to lay claim to the No. 5 spot. But Pelfrey, Maine and Perez have taken some poundings in their efforts to get ready for Opening Day.
During Perez's 4 1/3-inning, 81-pitch slog against Atlanta on Monday, four scouts sat behind home plate at Tradition Field and debated whether he's ever going to figure it out. Two were reasonably sanguine about his chances. The other two were less optimistic.
"He's a mess," an NL scout said. "He just pitches from behind so much. He's always in trouble."
The talk within the Mets' clubhouse is considerably more upbeat. Maine is now 18 months removed from right shoulder surgery, and Perez seems to be over the knee issues that limited him to 14 starts and 66 innings in 2009. The positive medical reports provide some basis for optimism.
General manager Omar Minaya and his staff monitored the free-agent market during the winter, but the Mets bailed on Randy Wolf when Milwaukee paid him $29.75 million over three years. Joel Pineiro, who was also on New York's radar, signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Angels.
Under a best-case scenario, that's true. Combine the best individual seasons of Perez, Maine and Pelfrey during their respective tenures with the Mets, and the net result is a 43-31 record, a 3.73 ERA and an average of 190 innings pitched.
"These guys have potential, but they need to be consistent with that potential," Minaya said. "I'm confident that if they're healthy and they can take the ball, they'll be fine."
Maine, 28, struck out 180 batters in 191 innings and won 15 games three years ago. Then his shoulder began to ache, his velocity waned and his problems came to a head in September 2008, when he underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a lesion from the back of his shoulder socket.
"There's a difference between pain and soreness, and there were times I went out there when there was pain," Maine said. "There are a lot of pitchers who go out there who aren't 100 percent. I'm not the only one who's had to deal with it."
Maine has a natural tendency to beat himself up during the hard times, and he can come across as a glass-half-empty type of guy. He's the opposite of his close friend Pelfrey, who exudes an infectious, heartland brand of optimism. There's a school of thought that Pelfrey might be too nice a guy.
"I always joke around with him," Pelfrey said of Maine. "I tell him, 'You're the moodiest guy I've ever met.' He's actually a lot better this year, because he feels healthy for the first time in two years. I see him smiling all the time."
If there's a prime breakout candidate among New York's starters, it's Pelfrey. After a disappointing 2009 season (10-12 with a 5.03 ERA), Pelfrey went home to Kansas with a new toy in his repertoire. Pitching coach Dan Warthen showed him a split-finger grip in late September, and Pelfrey experimented with the pitch all winter in the spacious facility at his former college program, Wichita State.
Pelfrey also dropped 20 pounds through a rigorous combination of diet and exercise. When he wasn't eating egg whites and wheat toast for breakfast, he was hooping it up with a bunch of old baseball buddies.
"It was five-on-five full-court, and I'd just run and run and run," Pelfrey said. "If I got hurt, [the Mets] would kill me."
Pelfrey gave up four windblown home runs to Washington in his last Grapefruit League outing, but he's still encouraged by his progress this spring. He's comfortable enough with the splitter to throw it at any point in the count, and along the way, his slider command also has improved.
In hindsight, it's amazing that Pelfrey has fared this well considering that he broke into the majors as a one-pitch pitcher with 176 1/3 minor league innings on his résumé. In New York, no less.
"He's got a good sinker," Maine said. "But if the hitters know what's coming, it takes away the guessing game, which is what you want as a pitcher."
Internally, the Mets are hopeful Perez can do more to justify a three-year, $36 million contract that's been panned throughout the industry. Perez is only 28 years old, and history shows that lefties from Al Leiter to Jorge De La Rosa have broken through with big seasons at a similar age.
The difference is Perez struck out 239 hitters for Pittsburgh at age 22, and that's starting to look like a career high point. Six years later, the "good Ollie, bad Ollie" joke has grown tiresome.
Even the Mets' broadcasters sound exasperated watching him. In Monday's start, Perez made Braves catcher Brian McCann look bad on a 3-1 changeup and blew a fastball past Troy Glaus for strike three. Amid those positive moments, play-by-play man Gary Cohen talked about Perez's "maddening" inability to throw strikes consistently, and color man Keith Hernandez took note of his penchant for missing up and away to right-handed hitters.
The Mets think Perez's wandering control stems from inconsistent mechanics, and they're trying to correct the problem through muscle memory. The task ranks high on Warthen's to-do list in spring training.
"That's always been my problem," Perez said. "We've been working a lot on it in the bullpen -- repeat everything, repeat everything. And try not to think too much. When you think too much, you can't enjoy the game. You just have to understand yourself and try to let [the ball] go."
One thing the Mets won't have to deal with in 2010 is unreasonable expectations. They'll be picked to finish third at best in the NL East, and Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel need the team to get off to a good start so that negativity doesn't run rampant at Citi Field.
The Phillies added Roy Halladay during the winter and Atlanta's rotation is stacked, so the challenge awaits. It's hard to believe that last April, Sports Illustrated picked the Mets to go the distance, and Minaya was garnering praise for shoring up the back end of the bullpen with J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez.
"I kind of laugh," Pelfrey said. "We pretty much have the same team and the same rotation that a lot of people picked to win the World Series last year. Now everybody is so down on us.
"I think we're going to have a really, really good year. People are doubting us, but everybody in here believes in each other. There's a different vibe around here. It's really positive, and it's always been kind of negative here.
"Nobody should count us out, because we're going to make a run at it. We're going to lie in the weeds and snipe some people, and in the end they're going to say, 'We took these guys for granted.'"
Are those comments just wishful thinking, a sign of quiet confidence or a delusion caused by too much Florida sun? If the Mets exceed expectations, Pelfrey can say "I told you so." If he and his rotationmates fail to do the job, there'll be plenty of blame to go around.
Sure, the Mets have a host of key players coming back from injuries, but the keys to the team won't be in the lineup. Its fate lies in the middle of the rotation.