Johan Santana hopeful he can start Opening Day

Johan Santana warms up his arm during a Johan Santana warms up his arm during a spring training workout at Digital Domain field. (Feb. 25, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

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With Opening Day nearly four months away, Johan Santana still expects to start for the Mets that afternoon at Citi Field in keeping to the tentative schedule he and the team mapped out in September.

Although that is hardly a guarantee -- Santana has not thrown a pitch in the majors since Sept. 2, 2010 because of shoulder surgery -- nothing has changed in his rehab process since he was shut down late last season.

Chris Leible, one of Santana's agents, spoke to the pitcher Wednesday and said there have been no setbacks. Both the Mets and Santana agreed to skip winter ball, choosing rest instead before ramping up his rehab program.

"Santana is currently in the midst of his offseason conditioning and preparation for spring training," Leible said. "He expects to be ready for Opening Day."

The reality is Santana has plenty to prove before the Mets can count on him to be their ace again -- if ever. General manager Sandy Alderson acknowledged as much Tuesday when he described Santana as a "question mark" and wondered aloud if he would be healthy enough to take the ball April 5.

"We think he's going to be ready, but he might not be," Alderson said, "so that's where the depth becomes important."

The Mets have not pursued a front-line starting pitcher this offseason, but that likely has more to do with their financial issues and limited budget. For the Mets to be competitive this season, they need a healthy Santana, but history has shown that his particular shoulder operation is tough to overcome.

Santana had surgery Sept. 14, 2010 to repair a torn anterior capsule, and the fact it was a more invasive procedure rather than arthroscopic complicated his rehab. Chien-Ming Wang returned to the Nationals two years after his surgery but lacks velocity. Mark Prior has not pitched in the majors since a similar procedure in 2008.

Last year, in spring training, the Mets predicted Santana could be ready before the All-Star break, but later were forced to repeatedly delay his timetable and ultimately refused to provide potential return dates. He was diagnosed with shoulder fatigue after his first rehab start in August and made only two others before he eventually was shut down.

Santana has two years and a guaranteed $55 million left on a six-year, $137.5 million contract.

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