PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The spectacle arrived on Florida's Treasure Coast late last week, when Mets left-hander Johan Santana threw off a mound for the first time this year. Santana was one of a large contingent of players who arrived at camp early, eager to begin the business of dismissing dampened expectations.

The rest of the club's pitchers and catchers are scheduled to arrive in Florida by the end of Monday, with physicals set for Tuesday and the first official workout on Wednesday. Position players have another week to show up, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Feb. 27.

But officially, the spring season began Monday in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets are looking to prove their abilities in a nightmarish National League East.

"It's about so many more things than just what's on paper," said starting pitcher R.A. Dickey. "But it's going to be difficult. We're going to have to really play well fundamentally. We're going to have to pitch well. All the things you hear at the beginning of every Spring Training, you're going to hear again. For a reason: they're true."

Aside from Santana's long road back from left shoulder surgery, many of this spring's most significant storylines will revolve around someone who is not here: Jose Reyes. Now training with the Marlins 40 miles to the south in Jupiter, Fla., Reyes will no longer be injecting the Mets with his unique brand of energy, leaving them to search elsewhere for a much-needed spark.

"We've got guys that are right there with their foot in the air," said Dickey, citing Santana, Ike Davis and Jon Niese as critical components to the team's success. "Now, are they going to step off the edge or are they going to take a step? You won't know the answers to those questions for a little while. But if a bunch of guys take that next step, all of the sudden I think we're right in that mix."

One of those guys could be Ruben Tejada, Reyes' replacement at shortstop, who holds the keys to the position at the age of 22.

One could be Davis, David Wright or Daniel Murphy, three promising hitters who missed significant portions of last season due to injury.

One could be Santana, one of the best pitchers in baseball when healthy and an integral part of the Mets' ability to complete.

It could be any number of the 54 players attending big league camp this year, including several non-roster invitees with real shots to make the team. To that end, the back end of the bullpen needs sorting out, as does the fifth-outfielder competition between Queens native Mike Baxter and former blue-chip pitching prospect Adam Loewen. The matter of deciding such things will fall to second-year manager Terry Collins, and will begin in earnest once Grapefruit League games start on March 5.

Beginning that evening against the Nationals at Digital Domain Park, the Mets will play a 31-game exhibition schedule, bringing them right up to their April 5 Opening Day showdown against the Braves at Citi Field.

"The NL East, it's going to be a real competition," Niese said. "And that's what I like."

By the official start of that competition, the Mets will know whether Santana will be ready for Opening Day, and whether the rest of the roster will piece together as planned. They will have a better idea of what new bullpen arms Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Ramon Ramirez will be able to provide, as well as new starting center fielder Andres Torres. They will have taken long looks at top pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia, neither of whom is competing to make the Opening Day roster.

The Mets won't know yet if Wright, Davis, Tejada, Lucas Duda and others will play as well as they need them to -- that's what the long summer is for. But the next seven weeks should give them a much better idea of how well they stack up against a formidable division, as well as some disappointing past versions of themselves.

"We've got to do things right, and then of course there are some question marks for us," Dickey said. "But at the same time, I think we've got people in place that are willing to answer the bell."