Return of injured players has GM confident

New York Mets' player Daniel Murphy reacts after

New York Mets' player Daniel Murphy reacts after getting tagged out at home plate to end the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs. (Aug. 28, 2009) (Credit: MCT)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Mets went 77-85 last season, and as they show up at Digital Domain Park for spring training this year, they do so with a payroll that has been slashed by 40 percent and a roster missing three significant former All-Stars.

Ruben Tejada steps into the void left by Jose Reyes at shortstop, Lucas Duda replaces Carlos Beltran in rightfield and Frank Francisco -- signed to a two-year, $12-million contract this offseason -- takes over the closer's job from Francisco Rodriguez.

While those three former Mets account for roughly $41 million off the books for 2012, their absence also creates a deficit of talent and experience. The Mets' desperate financial situation leaves general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins with the challenge of doing more with less this season, and only six weeks to prepare an outgunned franchise for the ultracompetitive National League East.

"As I recall last year, there weren't high expectations for the Mets, and there apparently are not this year on the part of most people," Alderson said Saturday, "so my talk [with the team] may be similar to the one I had last year.

"There are very few players in camp who don't have something to prove, and that runs the gamut from the veteran players to the younger guys. Some are trying to make the club, some are trying to re-establish themselves, some are trying to rebound from an off season, some are coming back from an injury. But there's not a player in this camp that doesn't have something to prove and something to improve, and so that can be as much of a driving force as anything."

Alderson is right about that: Complacency shouldn't be a problem. The Mets haven't finished with a winning record since 2008, when they went 89-73. In the last 11 years, they have qualified for the playoffs only once, in 2006.

The odds are against that streak ending this season. But in Alderson's mind, the return of last year's injured players is similar to free-agent signings. Though that appears to be an overly optimistic view, Alderson would present Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy and David Wright as Exhibits A, B and C in his case to prove why the Mets' offense should be vastly improved from the patchwork lineup of a year ago that did not include them for much of the season.

As for pitching, the rotation hinges on the health of Johan Santana, who has not appeared in a major-league game since September 2010. The good news is that Santana made it through his first side session Friday without any issues. The bad? That was only the first hurdle in what will be an anxious six weeks for both him and the Mets leading up to Opening Day.

"We're hopeful that at the end of the day, at the end of the spring, he's ready to go or very close to being ready to go," Alderson said. "Right now, as he says, it's one day at a time, and that is, I think, absolutely true in his case."

With Santana's iffy status, rotation depth will be an issue, but Alderson feels better about the bullpen since the signings of Francisco and Jon Rauch this winter, along with the acquisition of Ramon Ramirez, who came with centerfielder Andres Torres when Angel Pagan was dealt to San Francisco.

"If things break right for us, I think realistically, we can be a much better team than we were last year," Alderson said. "If we're a much better team than we were last year and that's reflected in the won-loss record, then we've got a shot."

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