NEW YORK -- The black hole in the middle of the Mets' batting order, the vacuum where their chances for a 2010 revival were to disappear, has been partially plugged by Jason Bay. Time, scalpels, sutures and hours of rehab have joined forces to undo much of the physical damage incurred by their personnel last summer. And the change of calendar is to prompt a renewal of the hope that 2009 sucked away. Moreover, the club's company line is "We believe in [fill in the blank]."
And perhaps all that will happen.
Whether it does or doesn't though, the Mets still will begin Spring Training and their season with one overriding issue: Do they have sufficient pitching to execute a renaissance?
The factors that turned their 2009 season into a demoralizing and wretched experience could derail them again; though it is borderline inconceivable that they could produce a reprise of their off-Broadway show "MRI: Mets Really Injured." Then again, Beltran already is unavailable for Opening Day. And the club's feeder system still appears to be infertile.
But if all else goes well, and the pitching staff is no better than it was last year, rebound will become relapse and be followed by regret and, probably, reconstruction. That's what rests on the shoulders, elbows and arms of Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Jon Niese, Fernando Nieve, Frankie Rodriguez, Pedro Feliciano, Bobby Parnell, Kelvim Escobar, Sean Green, Ryota Igarashi, Pat Misch, Nelson Figueroa, Josh Fogg and anyone else who steps on the rubber wearing Mets togs. For the 2010 Mets to prosper, they must pitch.
Another season of shortfall -- it would be their fifth straight -- likely will lead to renovation of a team that, had it produced three or four additional victories in a three-season sequence, could have brushed aside its dismal 2009 and entered in '10 with some confidence and with no sense of urgency. But now, the Mets must reverse their fortunes. And to do so, their pitchers must pound the strike zone, change speeds, work fast, do all the other things pitching coaches urge and ... succeed.
That may be asking a lot from the set of pitchers general manager Omar Minaya sends to Port St. Lucie, Fla., after an offseason that was more about inaction than acquisition. The Mets' potential starting rotation remains riddled with uncertainty. Each of the six strongest candidates carries an issue in the suitcase he'll lug to St. Lucie. And despite words to the contrary from the general manager, a suspicion exists among even those who toast the 2010 Mets with full glasses that the rotation will be decided by default.
Santana's left elbow has been surgically repaired since he last pitched Aug. 20. Perez, who made all of 14 starts last season, underwent right knee surgery in September. Nieve and Niese suffered gruesome leg injuries. Pelfrey endured a self-proclaimed "bad year," and Maine has pitched merely 221 1/3 innings since his fine 2007 season. And the others who could compete for a place in the rotation -- Misch, Figueroa and Fogg have a composite 78-108 career record in the big leagues.
Winter-long whispers suggest some of those who doubt the Mets will share the clubhouse with the pitchers. As pleased as Mets players are by the acquisition of Bay, they are surprised and unsettled by the sameness of the pitching roster -- and DL -- that ended last season and the pitchers who will be in camp. They had expected the acquisition of a No. 2 starter to be a No. 1 priority.
But the Mets appeared to make a serious run at only one available starter, free agent John Lackey, and he signed with the Red Sox. Now the Mets seem resigned -- they won't use that term -- to another season of with Perez, the master of inconsistency, and Pelfrey, who has not developed as quickly as the club had anticipated.
The questions involving the rotation put greater stress on a bullpen that is, at best, unknown. Escobar has thrown five innings in the big leagues since the 2007 season, and Igarashi has yet to throw a pitch at that level. With Brian Stokes traded, the two are to be the right-handed setup men for Rodriguez. Always overworked Feliciano is the lone left-handed setup man.
It is not a deep staff.
And off last season, not a particularly reliable one. The starters won 53 of 117 decisions and produced the fifth highest ERA (4.77) in the National League. The Mets relievers were more effective -- 17-28 record and 3.89 ERA. Overall, the club placed second in walks allowed, only the Nationals allowed more than the Mets' 616. Moreover, their pitchers were 14th in strikeouts with a less than reliable defense behind them.
Pelfrey made the observation last month that the same pitchers who now are seen as inadequate were considered good enough a year ago to pitch the Mets to the World Series.
"How can it change that much?" Pelfrey asked.
How doesn't matter. That it did change does matter.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.