PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Circle July 1 on the calendar. That's about the time Johan Santana should be ready to rejoin the Mets' rotation, according to the timetable outlined Thursday by general manager Sandy Alderson.

Santana is recovering from Sept. 14 surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, and Alderson described a three-stage process for the pitcher's rehabilitation that could have him back by late June at the earliest and possibly as late as mid-July.

That's under the best-case scenario, and not even Santana knows what type of pitcher he will be upon his return. Right now, he is only in the second part of that process - the return-to-throwing segment - and he admitted to feeling some "tightness" since starting it two weeks ago.

As for what it means for this season, and even his long-term prognosis, the two-time Cy Young Award winner is unsure. Santana is due a guaranteed $67.5 million through the 2013 season, and there's no way to accurately predict how he will emerge from his third - and most serious - surgery since joining the Mets.

"I am very optimistic, and that's the way I am," Santana said. "I'm going to try and do my best and get in great shape and strengthen my arm. It's hard to tell right now. When you get your arm all cleaned up and fixed, there's always a question mark. You never know, time will tell. But if everything goes right and I feel good, I'm going to continue playing as much as I can."

Before Santana even began yesterday's dugout news conference, Alderson sliced through the wall of reporters to make his own opening statement. The GM took the immediate pressure off Santana by laying out the medical staff's three-stage plan, with the apparent goal of shielding the Mets' ace from daily grilling about his condition.

As he works his way through the throwing phase, next up is the return-to-pitching stage, which is not likely to begin until May. From there, Santana will begin his own personal spring training, which will take another six to eight weeks.

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"Keep in mind that it's the shoulder that's going to lead this process," Alderson said. "It's not the doctors, it's not the front office - it's how the shoulder responds. There may be bumps in the road, and you know, when those occur, if they do, they'll be addressed by Johan."

The Mets believe it is important that Santana join the club in Port St. Lucie for spring training, and he took the field with his teammates Thursday for the first official workout for pitchers and catchers. The hope is that Santana still can be a good influence on the team without taking the mound. It's all he can really offer until July.

Manager Terry Collins said Santana told him he's going to be back "faster than people think" and doesn't want to be a distraction. But rather than keep him isolated from the club, Collins asked him to take part in the first-day activities.

"He's one of the leaders on this team," Collins said. "So I asked him if he could be out there in the morning, just to show the guys that he's a part of this club, and that I'd appreciate it. He said, 'You got it. No problem.' I'm thrilled I had him out there."

The Yankees' Jorge Posada had a similar procedure, and seeing him back is encouraging for Santana as he continues his long road to a full recovery. It's the first time in his career that Santana has not been ready for Opening Day, and that makes this rehab a little more difficult from a mental standpoint.

"It's not easy, but I know that I'm not ready," Santana said. "You cannot outsmart this game. It doesn't work that way. So it's time for me to watch and help but at the same time work hard and come back."