PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For the second time this spring training, baseball's modern plague descended upon Mets camp.
Zack Wheeler, the gifted young fireballer, could no longer push through the lingering pain in his right elbow. Tommy John surgery beckoned, just as it had a few days earlier for reliever Josh Edgin.
With a little less than three weeks to Opening Day, the loss of Wheeler should have been a splash of cold water to temper the optimism of spring. But the Mets -- rich with young pitching -- barely broke stride.
"We're kind of built for things like that," David Wright said of the calamity.
Years of toiling in irrelevance had a silver lining: the chance to build for the future. The fruits of that labor were apparent almost every day early in camp, on the back fields of the team's complex, as the pitchers gathered to throw their bullpen sessions.
In front of team executives and coaches, prospects Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz flashed their blazing fastballs, hoping to position themselves for a promotion later this season. Wheeler often worked alongside Jacob deGrom, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, who is the senior member of the bunch at 26.
Rafael Montero, the slightest of the group, honed the impeccable command he later displayed in spring training. And then there was Matt Harvey, the alpha ace, who looked just as sharp as he did before undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2013.
With veterans Bartolo Colon, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee in the mix, the Mets absorbed the loss of Wheeler by simply relying on their depth.
"It's staring us in the face how important it is," assistant general manager John Ricco said recently as he motioned toward Wheeler's empty locker.
That depth didn't build itself. It required a massive construction job that has spanned two organizational regimes and still continues. It began during the tenure of former general manager Omar Minaya, whose drafts produced the likes of Gee, Niese, Matz (a Ward Melville product), deGrom and Harvey, the crown jewel of the staff.
The push continued under Sandy Alderson, who signed Montero out of the Dominican Republic as a 20-year-old before trading two stars in Carlos Beltran and R.A. Dickey to land Wheeler and Syndergaard.
"Most teams would tell you the same thing -- they're trying to amass some depth," said Ricco, who, as assistant general manager to Minaya and Alderson, has seen the entire process play out. "It's easier said than done." Now the Mets have reached rarefied air.
Thanks to their efforts in scouting and player development, they will reach Opening Day with more live arms than they have rotation spots.
"The scouting department, the front office, everyone has put together this incredible group of arms and helped keep them together," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "Now this is the culmination of a lot of hard work."
The Mets face plenty of questions. Doubt exists about the depth of their lineup. Can Wright and Michael Cuddyer stay healthy? Can Curtis Granderson bounce back? Can Wilmer Flores hit enough to cover up his glove at shortstop? Can catcher Travis d'Arnaud build on last season's second-half surge?
But when it comes to pitching, the Mets have all the answers they need. And the group has embraced the burden of expectations.
"I definitely like it," deGrom said. "I think everybody likes it. I think that we're ready to go out there and prove that we can win some games. Expectations are what they are and we still have to go out and do our job. I think we're ready and I think we're all looking forward to it."
Other teams might feature stronger starting rotations, but few appear better positioned for a run of long-term success.
"I can't remember it ever [like this]," Wright said. "Yeah, sometimes you hear about a guy here, a guy there. But to have multiple guys that are young, quality power pitchers like we have, it's pretty rare. That's why our farm system has been as good as it is."
Even now, the Mets continue pushing. Last season, major league teams needed an average of 10 starters to make it through the season. It's true: A team can never have enough starting pitching. "This is a never-ending process," Ricco said. ". . . We have to just continue to fuel the engine."
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