This is the second installment of this year's Around the Horn series, taking a segment-by-segment look at the Mets' roster heading into Spring Training.
NEW YORK -- What was once one of the National League's most impressive rotations, by many estimates a playoff-caliber crew, absorbed an irreparable blow in mid-December. The Mets traded their best pitcher, R.A. Dickey, to the Blue Jays, willfully stripping themselves of their first Cy Young Award winner in more than a quarter-century.
They won't be the same. They don't intend to be the same. But if things fall right for the Mets, they could still be successful.
Officially, the Opening Day rotation should consist of Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Matt Harvey, Dillon Gee and Shaun Marcum, whom the Mets acquired via free agency to replace Dickey. And that's all well and good. But for the Mets to duplicate the excitement that Dickey brought during his three years in Flushing, they will need Harvey and Zack Wheeler to take steps forward as well.
For Wheeler, that opportunity will not exist immediately. The Mets plan to place their top pitching prospect on the same track that Harvey took a year ago, starting him out in Triple-A and moving him to the Majors sometime midsummer. Wheeler should wind up receiving at least a handful of starts down the stretch, potentially vaulting him into his first full season in 2014.
"I'm maybe a little bit more anxious, but I'm still going there to pitch and do my job," Wheeler said of his first big league camp with the Mets. "I'm trying to win a spot, but I'm just going there to pitch. It's just a different group of guys."
Wheeler has already begun picking Harvey's brain about the process, which seems a smart thing to do. After starting out in the Minors last spring, Harvey blazed through a 10-start big league run before the Mets shut him down on an innings limit. The former top-10 Draft pick should approach 200 innings this season, giving the Mets their first complete look at his abilities.
Some scouts still peg Harvey as a future No. 2 starter. The Mets believe he can be an ace.
"The main focus is winning games and doing everything I can to stay here," Harvey said in September. "Sticking with my approach, not trying to do too much and not trying to be Superman. Just going out, attacking the zone, keeping my body in shape and just not doing too much ... but there's a lot of positives to build on."
In place of Dickey, the rock of the rotation is now Niese, who, like Harvey and Wheeler, is under team control through at least 2018. Though Niese does not boast the superstar ceiling of Harvey and Wheeler, he is still just 26 years old, merely entering his prime.
Niese took a significant step forward by amassing more than 190 innings last season, setting career bests in wins, strikeouts and walks per nine innings. The Mets believe he can still improve -- though if all goes according to plan, he will need only to settle as a long-term No. 3 behind Wheeler and Harvey.
"Obviously, I'm never satisfied with the numbers that I put up," Niese said in September. "I'd have liked to have gotten to 200 innings, 15 wins, a couple extra starts, but that's just the way it goes. I try to do what I can to help the team out."
After Niese, the picture blurs significantly -- not necessarily in the names that will fill out the rotation, but in the expectations of their performance. Santana may be the leading candidate to start Opening Day, but he has not given the Mets a full season on the mound since 2008. Santana could either be terrific, as he was over the first two months of 2012, or underwhelming, as he was down the stretch.
Or, more likely, something in between.
Then there is Gee, who missed the entire second half of last season after undergoing emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his throwing shoulder. Gee has already been working out for months and says he feels great; if so, the Mets may ask him for another heavy workload.
Marcum, the new guy, believes he will "slide into the rotation pretty easily." The Mets hope for 200 innings out of the veteran right-hander, knowing they are likely to be quality innings if Marcum can stay healthy.
If he can't, the Mets do boast more rotation depth than most teams, with Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Collin McHugh, Jeremy Hefner and others all capable of filling in if needed. Mejia and Familia figure to factor heavily into the future one way or the other, be it in the rotation or bullpen.
But it starts with five. And if the Mets are going to harbor any dreams of an underdog playoff run, they will need those five to be at least as good as they were last year, when Dickey was still in the fold.
"If all five starters go out there and do their job, stay healthy, get to the goal of 200-plus innings," Marcum said, "that will fill R.A.'s shoes by itself."