PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) — The top of the New York Mets' rotation is in good hands again, with Johan Santana looking healthy this spring after season-ending elbow surgery last year.
After Santana, well, there's a lot of ifs, maybes and question marks.
Mike Pelfrey regressed last year after a promising 2008 season. John Maine has struggled to stay on the field. Oliver Perez was so disappointing last season he was sent to the bullpen for a stretch. The top candidate for the final spot in the rotation is coming off surgery to repair a torn right hamstring.
And the consensus is this group could be the biggest key to New York's season.
"The other four of us need to step it up," Maine said before the Mets worked out Saturday. "We all need to go out there, we need to be healthy, we need to be consistent."
Health was a big issue last year, when 11 pitchers started at least five games. Maine missed much of the year with a balky right shoulder. Santana finished the season on the DL after undergoing an operation to remove bone chips from his left elbow. Perez was shelved following right knee surgery September 1.
Pelfrey made 31 starts, but slipped to 10-12 with a 5.03 ERA after winning 13 games with a 3.72 ERA in 2008. The 6-foot-7 right-hander acknowledged all the injuries played a part in him trying to do too much.
"You felt like you need to do more, you need to pick it up," he said. "I think I did that, tried to go out there and do more than I was capable of at times. You know, it didn't work out, it didn't work out that way. Having everybody healthy, ready to go, we're going to be fine."
The biggest enigma is Perez, who has dominant stuff when he's on but has struggled to find the plate throughout his career. The 6-3 lefty averages 4.95 walks per nine innings — the worst rate for an active pitcher with at least 1,000 innings.
Perez agreed to a $36 million, three-year contract after he closed 2008 with a flourish under new pitching coach Dan Warthen, going 5-3 with a 3.77 ERA in his last 20 starts. But last season was a disaster from start to finish.
He left Mets camp during spring training to compete for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but didn't get much work and was way behind when he returned. He struggled with his motion because of knee problems, finishing with a 3-4 record and a 6.82 ERA in 14 starts.
Now healthy, Perez's mound sessions have been the hit of camp, and Warthen is cautiously optimistic about his prospects for a comeback season.
"This year, he has worked hard all winter long," Warthen said. "He's getting the front foot open and the ball is coming out of his hand. It's good to see the life back on the fastball better than he had at any time last year."
Maine also is feeling good after he was limited to 15 starts in 2009 due to shoulder discomfort, which frustrated him all season. He thought he would be back quickly after going on the DL in June but wasn't able to return until Sept. 13.
Maine had surgery in September 2008 to remove a lesion from the back of his right shoulder socket, and he thinks last year's problems stemmed from overwork following the operation.
"I felt that I had to make up the time I missed by doing more sooner and harder and faster," he said. "I didn't know. I mean I just didn't heal properly. I didn't know any better and I learned and I modified things this winter."
Jonathon Niese and Fernando Nieve are the top candidates in a crowded field for the No. 5 job. Niese was regarded as one of New York's top pitching prospects before he injured his hamstring covering first base against St. Louis on Aug. 5.
The 23-year-old lefty rehabbed over the winter, and Warthen also has been impressed with his bullpen sessions this spring.
"Everybody came in great shape," Warthen said. "They're looking like they have a mission in their eyes. I think Pelfrey, Perez, Maine are all throwing the ball extremely well. I think there's a great competition for the No. 5 starter."
NOTES: Manager Jerry Manuel said he doesn't think RHP Kelvim Escobar (shoulder weakness) will be ready to contribute in any capacity at the start of the season. Escobar was being looked at as a possible eighth-inning setup guy. ... Both of closer Francisco Rodriguez's eyes looked puffy when he slipped into camp for his workout. The right-hander is trying to stay away from his teammates while he recovers from conjunctivitis, also called pink eye. "It hasn't gone away at all," he said. "Supposed to be seeing the doctor on Monday." ... The Mets tweaked their pitching probables for their first two spring games. RHPs Bobby Parnell and Elmer Dessens, and LHP Hisanori Takahashi were added to the list for Tuesday's opener against Atlanta. LHPs Pat Misch and Pedro Feliciano are scheduled to pitch Wednesday against the Braves, with Nieve moving back to later in the week. RHPs R.A. Dickey and Tobi Stoner were posted for Thursday against St. Louis.