PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- He paused for a moment for effect, to suggest that he actually was considering an alternative response. Then the best pitcher in the National League East spoke his two-word reply to the question on the floor. "Santana ... simple," Johan Santana said. How else could he respond when asked who he considered the best pitcher in the division?

No, no; this wasn't another volley in the Jimmy Rollins-Carlos Beltran-Cole Hamels public dialogue that heated the division a few years back. Until the Mets can respond in a walk-the-walk way, they're out of the "My dog's better than your dog" business. Santana, whether or not his mind stopped at Phillies ace Roy Halladay, was speaking what he considered the truth Thursday.

By necessity, the Mets are in "It's not about them, it's about us" mode. They hardly are thinking about the Phillies at this stage; they have their own issues to occupy their minds. Is their primary catcher Rod Barajas or Omir Santos? (Barajas, if he does sign.) Is their first baseman named Murphy or Jacobs? (Murphy.) Who will serve in Beltran's stead, Gary Matthews Jr. or Angel Pagan? (Pagan.)

And one more: Is there enough pitching? (No one can say.)

The Mets would feel quite comfortable if they could answer that question with something smart and quick, like, "Sure, Johan's OK." But that level of confidence can't exist even in this glass-half-full stage of the baseball calendar year. Instead, this is the state of the Mets' pitching: Santana's OK. The others will form a line behind him.

The club is confident and Santana is as well that he regularly will provide performance commensurate with his formidable resume in 2010, and the pitching he did in the first two months of last season. He might have deferred to Halladay if he were uncertain. Or he might not have. Santana doesn't readily give up secrets. He couldn't straighten his left arm last summer. And he wasn't straight about that in his public pronouncements.

"No one needs to know if my arm hurts," Santana said, speaking hypothetically early last August, three weeks before pain-causing bone chips forced him to the disabled list and led to Sept. 1 surgery on his elbow. Now he characterizes the problem as "a sharp pain in the back of my elbow."

Then it was "nothing?"

Now visible proof exists that a change has happened; the arm straightens. The straitjacket has been removed. As a result, Santana sees no reason why he can't be the pitcher the Mets acquired before the 2008 season, the pitcher who brought them to the threshold of the postseason in the 161st game that year, the pitcher who, despite the elbow and working with unreliable support last year, produced a 13-9 record and a 3.13 ERA in 25 starts.

Indeed, Santana said when he turned 30 last March and he experienced unrelated pain in his tricep, he felt an apprehensive "Whoa." On Thursday, with his 31st birthday three weeks away, Santana said, "I feel younger."

Evidently, a year or two was removed along with the chips.

Even in the brief interim since the club staged its minicamp last month, Santana's elbow has improved "a lot," he said. "I've added the breaking ball with no problem. I'm locating pitches."

Santana intends to start an exhibition game for the first time in the second week of March -- he was unsure of the date. And the longer-range plan is what it was last spring, to be the Opening Day starter. That date he knew: April 5 against the Marlins at Citi Field.

The Mets' ace characterized himself as "happy and excited," and qualified much of what he said with "at the same time," a phrase that serves as a "but." As Santana discussed the limited personnel changes of the previous four months, he said, "It's always good to improve; at the same time, you have to be realistic. This is what we have."

Or don't have.

Santana said he expects the team to be a contender "because I'm a competitor," a cause-and-effect statement that seemed out of character. Most of what Santana said was expressed in the first-person singular, a decided difference from the past two years, when he discussed even his personal workouts and pitching performances in the first-person plural.

"Johan can do that," Jose Reyes said. "When he talks, we all listen. We don't have Carlos [Delgado] here. Johan can take his place that way. He is a competitor."

On this day, at least, the Mets could focus on what they do have and not what's missing. And what they'll have on the mound April 5 may well be the best pitcher in the NL East.