PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Even with all the bullpen renovation accomplished since September, the rotation appears to be the Mets' most formidable component. Whether the identity of the No. 5 starter turns out to be a Tim Redding, a Freddy Garcia, a Livan Hernandez or a rookie, the other four positions in the rotation constitute a seemingly impressive cast.

And then manager Jerry Manuel said, "Johan is not going to start tomorrow," and it all goes away. Formidable becomes flawed when 30-some-odd starts by Johan Santana are removed from the equation. Who bats leadoff and who plays second become weak-sister issues compared to "Who's No. 1?"

That hasn't happened. Not really. Left elbow tightness, an annual occurrence for Santana, removed him from the team's plans for Friday morning. He was to have pitched an inning against the Italian team from the World Baseball Classic. Instead, Santana will rest on Friday, throw lightly on Saturday, possibly Sunday, and make his first exhibition-game start against the Cardinals on Tuesday.

His minor malady -- that's how he and the club have characterized it -- caused no real alarm in camp on Thursday, because it was put in context almost as soon as it became known. Pitching coach Dan Warthen noted that every pitcher experiences joint tightness after the offseason. And since Santana typically does little offseason throwing and more weightlifting than most pitchers, his tightness is to be expected.

But even in February, with the season's first game 38 days away, the prospect of no Santana prompted an uneasy squirm or two in a clubhouse that otherwise is saturated with hope and positive thinking.

"Don't want to think about anything like that," John Maine said to a clubhouse stranger who had tried to make small talk.

Others seemed relieved to hear the explanation for the Friday scratch.

The Mets, as most clubs do, minimize most maladies. Pain is described euphemistically as "discomfort." A muscle characterized as "pulled" is, in fact, torn. The Mets prefer "strained," and, if pushed, they'll acknowledge "pulled." When Manuel explained Santana's problem, it was "discomfort."

The problem may have resulted, Santana surmised, because he had thrown on alternate days after his arrival in camp, more often than usual, because the Mets sought assurances that his surgically repaired left knee was fully recovered.

"It takes time to get loose each spring," Santana said. "I don't think it's a big deal, because there's no rush. April 6 is the day that matters, and that's what we're shooting for. It's still early."

And it is, the Mets said, merely discomfort.