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02/27/10 4:32 PM EST

Bauman: Overcoming ifs first step for Mets

Talent is there if club can find good fortune in 2010

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It is not impossible to project the 2010 New York Mets as a genuine contender in the National League East. It is just that, with the regular season five weeks away, the Mets already lead the league in "ifs."

This is still an improvement over leading the league in injuries. But for the Mets to be in the immediate neighborhood of the Phillies in the standings, a remarkable run of good fortune will have to occur.

There is indisputable talent here and players who have performed at extraordinary levels in the past. But this is a team returning from a 70-92 season. For the Mets to, for instance, reverse that record, an entire laundry list of players who were injured or underachieved, or both, in 2009 will all have to be healthy, whole and effective.

This kind of hope does not have to lie in the realm of the impossible, even though it may reside in the land of the unlikely.

For example, if you suppose that center fielder Carlos Beltran returns from knee surgery in a timely and healthy manner, what an outfield this team could have. The newly acquired Jason Bay is in left and his run-production capabilities are beyond dispute. In right, Jeff Francoeur's career was revived after a trade from Atlanta. He still only walks once a week, but this would be a trio with significant pop and no dramatic defensive weakness.

One whole side of the infield could get markedly better. Third baseman David Wright should rebound from a season in which his power numbers dropped significantly. Wright's track record indicates that he should bounce back and so does the notion that he will get more protection from a lineup that hasn't been devastated by injuries.

At short, the importance of the return of Jose Reyes cannot be overstated no matter how hard we try. For the Mets, Reyes is the offensive catalyst, the defensive glue -- a force on the basepaths and a player compelling enough to lift the level of his teammates just by playing with the excitement that he brings. He appeared in just 36 games in 2009.

Now the Mets are encouraged by the mere Spring Training sight of Reyes ranging far and wide to field ground balls.

"To watch him range to the left and to the right with balls that you saw just getting by or just get in the hole [last season], he could definitely be a difference-maker for us as the everyday shortstop," manager Jerry Manuel said on Saturday.

On the mound, the ace of this staff, Johan Santana, missed September after he had bone chips removed from his left elbow. But there is no current indication that there are any residual problems with the elbow. There hasn't been a better starting pitcher in baseball over the past six years. Santana should once again be a source of stability and strength for this team.

The rest of the rotation will still be required, however, to start four out of every five games. This is where questions arise. Right shoulder problems limited John Maine to 15 starts last season. The Mets would like him to get back to his 2007 level, when he won 15 games.

Oliver Perez, troubled by knee problems, made only 14 starts in 2009. But he, too, was a 15-game winner in '07. This is the thing with the Mets: The notion of Maine and/or Perez winning 15 games this season is not a pipe dream. Each pitcher has already reached that level. But a three-year-old performance is also no guarantee that each pitcher will reach his peak level this season.

Starter Mike Pelfrey had no major health issues over the past two years, but a bounce-back year will also be required of him. His ERA was 5.03 last season, as opposed to 3.72 in 2008.

In the bullpen, a bit of bad news has already arrived. The Mets acquired a reputable veteran pitcher, Kelvim Escobar, whom they viewed as an eighth-inning setup man. Escobar won 18 games for the Angels in 2007, but pitched in only one game over the next two years due to shoulder injuries. It was thought that switching to the bullpen, where Escobar had pitched earlier in his career, would limit further shoulder injuries.

But Escobar is still having shoulder problems, and Manuel said on Saturday that the pitcher would not be available to begin the regular season. Thus, the Mets are stuck for the moment, at least, with uncertainty over bullpen roles.

"It's definitely a work in progress, because when you find that [eighth-inning] piece, then everything else, you think, gets in its right place," Manuel said. "You feel like you're going to be more consistent if everybody identifies what they're supposed to do, and then they find that and they do it well.

"When you figure out those spots, then you work to get to those spots and you feel like you've got a chance. With a team that is still looking for those things, there's still some trepidation as far as how you feel about the flow and the rhythm of the game."

"Some trepidation" might serve as the status report for the 2010 Mets. There are variables heading off in all directions. If everything clicks for them, anything is possible. But with all the "ifs" confronting this team, a substantial run of both good fortune and top-level performances will both be required.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.