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Mets have reason to be optimistic with Santana

Thu 23rd, February 2012

(Sports Network) - It's difficult to gather attention playing in the same division as Philadelphia and Atlanta, and it has to sting when also-rans in Miami and Washington are starting to turn heads in the NL East.

The New York Mets are the new duds of the division, and deservedly so since they've produced a losing record in each of the previous three seasons, have been embroiled in financial strife (thanks, Bernie Madoff) and let Jose Reyes take his talents to south Florida with the new-look Marlins.

Perhaps the only intriguing player left on the Mets' roster for the 2012 season is third baseman David Wright. And that's where the debate and popularity contest commences with news that staff ace Johan Santana could be ready to continue what he does best by Opening Day. The Venezuelan left-hander and two-time American League Cy Young Award winner (2004 and 2006 with Minnesota) missed the entire 2011 campaign with a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Santana last pitched on Sept. 2, 2010 against the Braves, allowing one run in five innings, and needed a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder repaired shortly thereafter. That's awful news for those who throw from 60 feet, 6 inches. The capsule is located on the front and bottom part of the shoulder close to the pectoral muscle, resulting in discomfort radiating through both areas. Shoulder issues are in a league of their own when it comes to elbow or biceps injuries, so it's fair for Santana to take baby steps. The Mets are keeping him from fielding drills right now in Spring Training.

According to surgeon and Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek, the tear in Santana's shoulder was difficult to reach and an incision was made near the problem. The only issue with that is scar tissue, which can affect range of motion and the rehabilitation process.

"If you can't get to it, you have to open it up, and it's less desirable when it's done that way," Dr. Craig Levitz, the chairman and chief of orthopedic surgery at South Nassau Hospital on Long Island, told the New York Times at the time of the surgery. "Anytime you open the shoulder, you have to make cuts in the tissue, and that causes scarring. So it does make you worry a little more, but you still expect him to do fairly well."

Pitchers can come back even stronger than before after undergoing this type of procedure; it's something similar for a recipient of ligament replacement surgery or Tommy John surgery. The Mets are hoping that is the case with their high-priced southpaw, who is in the midst of a six-year deal worth $137.5 million, which was signed before the 2008 season. Levitz added that Santana will need about three months to return to 100 percent, and that was over a year ago.

The Mets found a diamond in the rough in Dillon Gee in 2011 and he led the club with 13 wins. Jonathan Niese and Chris Capuano (now with the Los Angeles Dodgers) were tied for second with 11 wins each and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey followed with eight. Mike Pelfrey had a down season with just seven wins, further cementing the fact New York is in dire need of having Santana back healthy and ready to go.

Santana, who has two guaranteed years and a $25 million team option remaining on his contract, has posted a 40-25 record with a 2.85 ERA over three seasons with the Mets. He made it as far as Class-A St. Lucie in his rehab stint.

Like most athletes dealing with a post-surgery quandary, Santana never made it back to the major league level and was delegated to long toss and playing catch for the time being. It sounds pretty boring, but in athletic terms it's equivalent to Neil Armstrong's first steps off Apollo 11.

Santana expressed his excitement of getting back to work this week at spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

"I finally had a chance to get on the mound and throw to a catcher ... and I felt really good," he said.

Whether Santana can handle the normal workload during camp and be ready for Opening Day remains to be seen, but at least it appears the Mets will have their ace back regardless at some point in 2012. There's no need to rush the lefty back since the season doesn't begin for some time and Santana needs all the preparation possible to hold up for at least 30 starts.

Throwing off a mound to a catcher is just one of many encouraging signs that New York's changeup master is ready to get the club back into the NL East mix. Dickey said he's not getting his hopes up yet for Santana to bolster the rotation once again, but will have his fingers crossed that his teammate can make a full recovery with no setbacks.

In a sport in which pitching is king, the Mets, who haven't reached the playoffs since winning the division and losing in seven games to St. Louis in the 2006 NLCS, are evaluating Santana's every move in hopes of him being able to recover after each bullpen session let alone taking turns in the rotation during Grapefruit League action. Santana has already thrown two bullpen sessions and 55 total pitches off a mound since his arrival to camp. The Mets' Grapefruit League schedule starts on March 5.

Miguel Batista and D.J. Carrasco are a few rotation options for New York if Santana fails to crack the Opening Day roster, and quite frankly the team might as well raise the white flag if that comes to fruition.

"In my mind right now, in my heart, he'll be ready," Mets skipper Terry Collins told mets.com. "I don't think there's any question. He's gearing himself up for that, to be ready."

Santana's surgery was a very unique one for an even more particular type of pitcher. His teammates consider him the "bull of the team" -- sentiments rightfully deserved for Santana's frame of work over his career.

Even though one man doesn't make that much of a difference in baseball, the Mets are counting on Santana to successfully overcome an arduous journey and pitch them back to respectability.

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