New York Mets pitcher Jose Quintana during a spring training...

New York Mets pitcher Jose Quintana during a spring training workout, Friday Feb. 16, 2024 in Port St. Lucie FL. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -— Jose Quintana makes his Grapefruit League debut Thursday night against the Astros at CACTI Park. Roughly a month later, if all goes according to plan — and that’s a big if when talking about the Mets — Quintana will be on the mound Opening Day at Citi Field, the fourth different pitcher to get that prestigious assignment for the franchise in as many years.

No one could have seen this coming. Certainly not when Quintana signed his two-year, $26 million contract in December 2022. He was meant to fortify the back end of the rotation, at first slotted behind the pair of three-time Cy Young winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, then dropped even further when Steve Cohen’s spending spree also nabbed Japanese star Kodai Senga only days after Quintana agreed to terms.

By early March of the same year, Quintana vanished from the rotation altogether.

He suffered a stress fracture of a rib that shockingly went from a baseball injury to a far more serious escalation. When a lesion was discovered on the impacted bone during the medical scans, Quintana wound up having the rib removed entirely just to be safe, requiring a bone graft that sidelined him for nearly four months.

When I asked him Wednesday about the normalcy of this spring, compared with the dizzying trauma of a year ago, Quintana smiled. Never has a pitcher been more thrilled by the mundane routine of what amounts to six weeks of practice.

“It was a very scary time,” Quintana said. “When I heard about what happened to the bone, I was just thinking about being alive — not pitching. But as soon as they found the spot and fixed it, everything changed. I felt like I had another opportunity to do things well and be prepared. So I think it was a gift from God.”

By the time Quintana returned to the Mets, he was back to being the same pitcher again — but the rotation was in the process of a major upheaval. First, Scherzer was traded to the Rangers, then Verlander shipped to the Astros two days later, leaving Quintana and Senga as the only two pillars left.

Fast forward all these months later, after a modest winter on the free-agent front, and now Quintana is the last man standing. Senga was the presumptive ace when camp opened, and pencilled in as the Opening Day starter. But after last week’s shoulder strain put him on the shelf until May, at the earliest, Quintana is now the new No. 1 by default.

Quintana hasn’t been told yet that he’s getting the ball for Opening Day, and the Mets aren’t ready to make it public. There’s an eternity between now and March 28. But that’s the plan and Quintana is currently lined up for that date, with plenty of time to make adjustments as necessary. He’s looking forward to the chance.

“It would be an honor,” Quintana said.

He’s done it only once before, for the White Sox in 2017, and Quintana had to wait an extra 24 hours when the scheduled Opening Day in Chicago was postponed by rain. On the chilly makeup date, opposed by Justin Verlander, Quintana was roughed up by the Tigers for for six runs — including three homers — over 5 1/3 innings. He recalled being “nervous” at first, but otherwise enjoyed pitching in front of a full house at Guaranteed Rate Field.

At this point, in scrambling for five reliable starters, the Mets aren’t as concerned about a single March afternoon as having Quintana be the rotation rock he was before last year’s freakish injury. From 2012 through 2022, Quintana’s 289 starts were the fifth-most in the majors, behind Scherzer (320), Zack Greinke (317), Madison Bumgarner (299) and Jon Lester (297). He also was seventh overall in innings and 10th in WAR (32.7).

The Mets never really imagined Quintana as their ace. But, if Senga does make it back on the prescribed timeline, Quintana can be a solid placeholder as long as he can stay healthy (at age 35) and the Mets can cobble together a stable of sturdy arms behind him during that interim. With so many rotation question marks around him, Quintana has shown himself to be good for 30-plus starts with a career sub-four ERA (3.74) and the Mets desperately need the same in his walk year.

When new manager Carlos Mendoza eventually anoints Quintana as his first Opening Day starter, the two will have come full circle. This spring doesn’t represent an introduction for the two — it’s a reunion, as Mendoza helped develop Quintana when the two were with the Yankees a dozen years ago on the low minor-league side in Tampa. Mendoza said that he and Jose Rosado, now the Mets’ bullpen coach, helped Quintana master a changeup, the pitch that he said catapulted his career.

“There’s where I learned my changeup,” Quintana said of his Mendoza-coached Tampa tenure. “It really helped me move forward to the major leagues.”

Just not with the Yankees. Despite Quintana going 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA for High-A Tampa in 2011, he wasn’t added to the 40-man roster and the White Sox signed him as a minor-league free agent. The next season, after only nine starts at Double-A, Quintana was promoted to Chicago.

Now, Mendoza finally will reap the benefits of that earlier relationship. And he couldn’t need it much more, starting with Opening Day.

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