Healthy Reyes holds key to Mets' hopes

If you're looking for reasons to doubt the Mets in 2010, they're already a buffet table of distress: the starting rotation is still awful behind Johan Santana; Carlos Beltran, out until May or June, is estranged from the front office; the manager probably won't last the first half, and the Wilpon family has either run out of money or just refused to spend it after signing Jason Bay.

It makes for an uninspiring vista, but that's not to say the Mets are necessarily a lost cause. Actually, there are two positive developments that have the potential to end the Mets' run of bad luck.

Johan Santana, coming off elbow surgery, was throwing without pain in Port St. Lucie, Fla., this week. More important, the lefthander is now able to go back to his pre-injury release point, throwing from closer to his body.

"It makes a huge difference to the hitter. They (had) a much better look (last year)," Santana told the New York Daily News . "Now I'm back to where I need to be. I can hide the fastball and I can extend and finish on my changeup again. It's why I feel so great. I feel like I'm going to have a big year."

The other glimmer of light comes from Jose Reyes, who like Santana is coming off surgery (torn hamstring) and is pain-free. Off all the questions that confront the Mets' offense – can David Wright regain his home run swing? Will Beltran's knees hold up once he returns? – Reyes' long-term health is arguably the most critical.

Reyes wasn't kidding when he recently said, "I know my team needs me." If he can run the way he used to, he creates a unique set of problems for opposing pitchers: There's enough power, speed and base-stealing ability to perhaps even save Jerry Manuel's job.

It's a heavy responsibility for an easy-going player who's never assumed a leadership role with the Mets. Reyes defers to Wright and Beltran as the clubhouse heavyweights, yet his absence last year stripped the Mets of that on-field arrogance that drove opponents crazy. As one talent evaluator said, "Reyes is the key to that whole lineup. He's the catalyst, he turns the crowd on more than Beltran or Wright. To me it's a healthy Reyes that (Manuel) better be praying for."

Reyes showed up at the Mets' mini-camp two weeks ago, making news by simply running sprints without incident. He says the doctors who operated on him last summer told him, "having (surgery) was the best decision I could've made." To hear Reyes tell it, he's ready to resume the career path that made him one of the National League's five best players in 2006.

Reyes hit a career-high 19 home runs that year, pumping up his OPS to a career-best .841. Reyes led the league with 64 stolen bases and 17 triples. Best of all, he was only 23, not even close to his prime. None other than Rickey Henderson was convinced Reyes could someday steal 100 bases while inching closer to 25 home runs.

But Reyes' surge toward Henderson-like production crashed after he injured his hamstring last May 20 in Los Angeles. That was the last game he played in 2009, although it took the Mets four months before relenting on surgery.

In between, Reyes kept rehabbing and testing his leg in Port St. Lucie. The extent of Reyes' injury was still a mystery, so the longer he remained on the disabled list, the louder the whispers about his mental toughness. Reyes was nice, everyone agreed – maybe too nice.

But the cloud of cynicism evaporated when he tore the hamstring once and for all while running at a workout facility in New York in late September,

It was another embarrassing episode for the Mets' medical staff, although Reyes isn't confrontational enough to say the Mets' doctors should've treated him more aggressively. All he knows is that the surgery has removed any doubt that 2010 will be a brave new world for him – and, he hopes, the Mets.

"Last year was hard for me," Reyes told WFAN. "I was the guy who loved to be on the field, (so) to play only 36 games, it was a disappointing season. I was planning on having a big year."

The Mets don't mind waiting a year. All they ask in return is an uninterrupted summer of perfect health from Reyes. That might be wish-casting on their part, but in the Mets' world, any nugget of good new is its own gift.

Johnny Damon's long and winding road

Johnny Damon's deal with the Tigers is all but done, as they outlasted the White Sox and Braves in negotiations that were never hotly contested. Scott Boras prevailed on Detroit owner Mike Illitch for a deal that'll be worth an estimated $14 million for two years.

But it doesn't really matter where Damon ended up, because his first wish this winter was to return to the Yankees; everything else was Plan B. Damon had his chance, but turned down the Bombers' final multi-year offer for – guess what – two years, $14 million.

He and agent Boras were convinced there was more money to be made elsewhere, and took that iron conviction into the open market. Their calculation couldn't have been any faultier.

It took a desperate Boras almost two months to break even. Considering Damon wanted to finish his career in Pinstripes – and that the Yankees wanted him back – it's a pity it took him this long to realize what his true market value was.

The Yankees wish Damon well, but the resounding sentiment in the front office can be captured thusly: "told you so."