Future dawns with Santana in fold

Future dawns with Santana in fold

NEW YORK -- The Mets will contend they never even approached desperation this winter, that they could have moved forward without Johan Santana and still qualified as a contender. They will say they had improved their roster and remind us all that, ultimately, their September collapse left them merely one game from a second straight division championship. It wouldn't have been all spin, though Al Gore might have identified it as convenient truth.

Now, though, the Mets' truth seemingly has been recast right before our eyes and ears, from spirited spiel to sparkling unspun splendor. Whatever optimism they take into Spring Training now is authentic and powerful. A signature moment -- Santana's autograph on a document that made him more than Barry Zito wealthy -- has justified plans for a signature season.

Only everything changed when Santana signed and passed a physical. The Mets' rotation improved, of course; but the bullpen benefited, the defense became more reliable and even the offense was upgraded. Santana has a Gold Glove on one hand and knows what to do when both hands are on a bat.

Moreover, his presence affixed closing punctuation to the 2007 season. Mourning will end. The September shortfall won't go away. But it certainly fades into meaninglessness now that the future commands immediate attention. That and 220 innings of quality pitching for the next few years ought to make the Mets' investment worthwhile.

There may have been no other player in the game who could be expected to have the impact expected of Santana. Maybe Josh Beckett. This pre-eminent pitcher has arrived at the ideal moment. Not since Rusty Staub joined the team 10 days before Opening Day, 1972 has a Mets booster shot of comparable potency been delivered with better timing.

Almost all thoughts involving the 2008 Mets were modified when the agreement between the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club and Johan Alexander Santana was in place. The bottom line is that the Mets have significantly enhanced their chance of being on the top line in the National League East standings when the season ends.

"If we get Johan Santana, we're back to being one of the five best teams in the game," Billy Wagner said Tuesday when the four-for-one deal with the Twins was struck. And while not everyone embraced that exact evaluation, no one in the game has refuted publicly the general sense of how the Mets' winter perseverance will affect their summer performance.

Now the Mets are what they were in Willie Randolph's first two seasons as manager -- greater than the sum of their parts. They were not that last season, not even before their slippery-slope September.

A starting pitcher capable of pitching regularly, effectively and deep into games keeps the bullpen fresher deeper into the season. Better pitching relieves the burden on the offense. And strikeout pitching -- Santana has averaged more than a strikeout per inning beginning in 2002 -- reduces the onus on the defense.

Moreover, Santana's presence can make the other starters better. Now the Mets have another "look" in their rotation -- his changeup, Pedro Martinez's cutter, John Maine's up-in-the-zone fastball, Oliver Perez's slider, Orlando Hernandez's assortment and Mike Pelfrey's "bowling ball" are different from each other. Not since the days of Dwight Gooden's fastball, Bobby Ojeda's dead fish and Sid Fernandez's funky delivery has a Mets rotation featured so many "looks."

With Santana pitching, the Mets need not rely on Martinez's 36-year-old, surgically repaired body to produce 200 innings and 15 victories. The onus of the other starting pitchers is reduced as well. Lower expectations may benefit Pelfrey, the youngest among them, more than his colleagues.

The National League game, which requires greater use of pinch-hitters and substitutes, may deny Santana innings. But batting orders less challenging than those he faced in the American League may offset that change and, with the Mets offense behind him, he may pitch deeper into games. Either way, he will be supported by a bullpen that rivals any the Twins afforded him.

Setup relief is quite fickle, we know. So who can tell in February? But the return of Duaner Sanchez could make the seventh, eighth and ninth innings mostly hazard-free. Other than Carlos Delgado, Sanchez is the most pivotal figure on the Mets' 2008 horizon. A return to his no-contact brilliance of 2006 would settle Shea Stadium's stomach.

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Even with his occasional blips, Wagner remains a most formidable closer. No opponent looks forward to all those miles per hour in the ninth inning. And Aaron Heilman, even after his uneven 2007, is an uncomfortable pitcher to face for right-handed and left-handed batters. Pedro Feliciano is quite effective against left-handed hitters.

Better pitching makes for better defense, even if the Mets starters aren't equipped to pitch to the defense as the great Braves rotations of the '90s were. The Mets defense now has four above-average components as opposed to last year at this time, when Jose Reyes' shortstopping and Carlos Beltran's center-fielding were the team's lone defensive strong points.

Reyes and Beltran are what they were: steady, mostly reliable and occasionally spectacular. Each could benefit from more precise throwing. New catcher Brian Schneider constitutes a defensive upgrade over Paul Lo Duca. His throwing is likely to be most consistent. And Ryan Church ought to make more plays -- routine and challenging -- than Shawn Green and Lastings Milledge made in right field last season.

Luis Castillo won a Gold Glove at second base in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Perhaps range gained by the clean-out-the-right-knee surgery he underwent in October will allow him to move toward another award.

David Wright winning a Gold Glove at third base was unexpected. But he makes plays. His throwing accuracy is lacking.

Still, on days Santana pitches, the Mets can field a team of four Gold Glove defenders -- Castillo, Beltran, Wright and the pitcher -- something no Mets team has ever done. When Endy Chavez replaces Moises Alou, the Mets' outfield will have narrower gaps and taller fences. And Reyes is the best defensive regular the Mets have.

He also is the most dynamic offensively and, therefore, the most critical figure -- even on days when Santana pitches. He is a dominating force, as are Wright, Beltran, Santana, Wagner and, on occasion, Martinez, Maine and Perez.

Too much of the blame for the September of last year will be directed at Reyes. The club will monitor his response to whatever finger-pointing or booing occurs because it understands Reyes' development as a player and as a man is not yet complete. Randolph is tentatively scheduled to visit Reyes in the Dominican Republic before Spring Training to make sure the leadoff man's conscience is clear and his outlook optimistic.

The club has few, if any, concerns about the next three spots in the batting order. Castillo, Wright and Beltran have no issues, and Castillo and Beltran are to be without knee problems. And even after a 30-30 season in which he drove in 107 runs and scored 113, Wright still is in the upswing. He can, and probably will, improve in some areas. And if he remains at the level he attained last season, the Mets will be well-served.

The fifth and sixth places in the order are not quite as question-free as the Mets would like, no matter whether Randolph bats Delgado fifth and Alou sixth or vice versa. At ages 34 and 35 last season, Delgado appeared overmatched by some fastballs; and at ages 40 and 41, Alou missed 75 games.

If last season was an aberration for Delgado -- it wasn't for Alou -- and Alou bats 450 times, the batting order could be the force it was in 2006, when it scored early and often, hit 200 home runs and produced 834 runs. The Mets hit 177 homers and scored 804 runs last year.

Church's production with the Nationals last season was comparable to that of all the Mets' right fielders combined, and he had 135 fewer at-bats than they. Schneider is a defense-oriented catcher who nonetheless produced RBIs at a marginally higher rate than Lo Duca in the last three seasons, even though Lo Duca was part of a more dynamic offense for two of the seasons.

On days when Schneider doesn't catch, Ramon Castro will take his place and enhance the offense far more than his receiving and throwing will diminish the defense.

With Castro, Chavez, Damion Easley and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Marlon Anderson at his disposal, Randolph ought to have a more the adequate lineup, so long as he keeps its members off the disabled list.

Castro has been remarkably productive as any understudy, averaging nearly an RBI per start last season. Chavez is as good a No. 4 outfielder as there is in the league and probably the Mets' best defensive player, regardless of position.

Easley, before his disquieting ankle injury last year, had proven to be an able reserve, and Anderson routinely prospers in the game's most challenging assignment.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.