PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - How difficult has this offseason been for the Mets? When the names most associated with your team during the winter are Bernie Madoff and Irving Picard, that's hardly a reason for optimism in 2011.

Remember when Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo figured to be the biggest financial drain on the Mets? Those two represent a total of $18 million on the payroll this season, the final year on each player's contract. Madoff and Picard could wind up costing the Mets close to $1 billion and force the Wilpons to sell the franchise.

By comparison, the Phillies don't sound so scary.

With so much uncertainty hanging over this team, both on and off the field, the Mets do have one advantage: The bar is being set pretty low on expectations for this season.

Despite an estimated $145-million payroll, the sixth highest in baseball, the Mets are more than happy to wear the label of underdog for a change. On paper, they might not project much better than fourth in the National League East, edging only the Nationals. But no one inside the clubhouse is forfeiting this season, especially not six weeks before Opening Day, and stranger things have happened.

"If we can stay healthy and guys put up the numbers on the back of their baseball cards," David Wright said, "we can surprise a lot of people."

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Of course, that's something the Mets have been unable to do the past two seasons, as injuries to Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran - to name just two - sabotaged any early hopes for the club's first playoff berth since 2006. Even Jason Bay, the $66-million slugger acquired to shrink cavernous Citi Field, looked powerless before missing the final two months with a concussion.

The good news is that all three are expected to be healthy this time around, and in the cases of Reyes and Beltran, each has the added motivation of playing for his next contract. The flip side of the walk-year factor, however, is the very real possibility that either player - or both - could be dealt before the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline.

Chances are that would happen only if the Mets have faded from contention. But with new general manager Sandy Alderson, who always has an eye on payroll, it depends on what he can get in return for two players whom he already may have counted out for 2012.

"We've got lots of money coming off the books next year," Alderson said recently.

The lineup will be complemented by an infusion of youth in Ike Davis and Josh Thole, but the pitching staff, especially the starting rotation, has been stitched together with some post-op replacements. With Johan Santana (shoulder surgery) out until late June or July at the earliest, Mike Pelfrey takes over as the No. 1, followed by R.A. Dickey and Jonathon Niese.

If that's not enough uncertainty, Chris Young and Chris Capuano have been added to the mix. Young is coming off a shoulder operation and Capuano has had Tommy John surgery - twice. That's not to say either can't become a viable starter again, but there's a reason they were low-cost pickups at this stage of their careers.

"If Capuano and Young can throw 300 innings for us, and the possibility of Santana coming back, we could be in very good shape," Alderson said. "Things have to happen for us, but that's true of any team. If we're healthy, we've got a shot at it."