Santana returns to hill to face Braves

Johan Santana makes his return to the mound this afternoon when the New York Mets open their 2012 season against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field.

Santana missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery, but the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner remains one of the few reasons to pay attention to this Mets team this season.

"Everyone wants to see Johan Opening Day," teammate Dillon Gee said. "Obviously, once the season gets going, it doesn't matter what spot you're in, you're going out there every five days. I think it's just the prestige of Johan on Opening Day that's big for us."

Arguably the best pitcher in baseball during a five-year stretch from 2004-08 -- Santana owns a career 133-69 record and 3.10 ERA. Since joining the Mets via trade and inking a six-year, $137.5 million contract extension in January 2008, Santana has gone 40-25 with a 2.85 ERA.

Expectations are at an all-time low for the Mets, but a healthy Santana would go a long way to restoring some respectability to a franchise that has become the butt of jokes in recent years.

"I'm very happy," Santana said. "It's going to be fun. It's a great feeling to be back and be with these guys from the beginning I think is very important, is huge for me. So I'm very happy that everything has been good."

For the offense, nearly all eight positions were spoken for as the spring approached, but of course the unit will be looking to replace the loss of All- Star shortstop Jose Reyes, who took his bat and speed to the division-rival Miami Marlins.

It will be a collective effort from within for the Mets, who had a largely quite offseason -- at least by New York standards -- for the second straight year as the franchise tries to recover financially from the Bernie Madoff fraud scheme. The sun appears to be setting on that fiasco as owner Fred Wilpon and team president Saul Katz reached a settlement on a lawsuit filed by a trustee of the victims that will see the owners deal out $162 million.

With the Mets needing to keep an eye on their payroll, they were unable to keep the home-grown Reyes in the fold. Instead, New York revamped its bullpen in an effort to keep pace in the National League East, signing both Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch to contracts while trading center fielder Angel Pagan to the Giants for another righty in Ramon Ramirez as well as Pagan's replacement in center (and Reyes' at the top of the order) in Andres Torres.

While Torres will be looking to replace one of the game's top leadoff hitters in the lineup, it will be the young Ruben Tejada taking over in the field.

The Mets brass also decided to level the playing field a bit by changing the dimensions of the offensively-frustrating Citi Field, bringing in the fences in an effort to generate more power in Flushing. Coincidentally, that shift could have hurt Reyes' numbers, especially in the triples department, had he stayed on with New York.

Atlanta, meanwhile, enters what will be the final season in the great career of third baseman Chipper Jones, while trying to erase the memory of a disastrous 2011 season that saw the team collapse in epic fashion in September. The Braves entered the final month in prime position to reach the playoffs for a second straight season. However, they ended the month, and their season, on a five-game losing streak and one game out of the National League Wild Card position.

That collapse has put a big chip on the shoulder of this year's Atlanta squad, which enters its second season under manager Fredi Gonzalez following Bobby Cox's retirement. The Braves could have used the experience of their former manager down the stretch as they held an 8 1/2-game lead for the league's extra playoff spot with 23 games to play.

However, a three-game sweep in Philadelphia started things on a downward spiral, but Atlanta still led the wild card race by three games with five to play. They lost all five, two in Washington and the final three at home to the Phillies. A victory on the season's final day would have forced a tiebreaker with the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves lost 4-3 in extra innings.

Offense was once again a struggle for the Braves in 2011. Despite better-than- expected seasons out of rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman and Jones, Atlanta was near the bottom of the league with a .243 average and scored just 641 runs. The Braves were also forced into 55 one-run games, going 29-26.

Speaking of Jones, he will start his 19th and final year sidelined with a knee injury. The team, though, is hoping he can be ready by their home opener on April 13.

Righty Tommy Hanson takes the hill today for the Braves in the first of what the Braves hope will be many Opening Day assignments. Still five months shy of his 26th birthday, Hanson will be the youngest Braves Opening Day starter since a 23-year-old John Smoltz held the honor in 1991.

Hanson will also be trying put 2011 in his rear view mirror. Injuries led to diminished velocity and only allowed him to make 22 starts, as he went 11-7 with a 3.60 ERA.

"I feel better," Hanson said. "Even that normal soreness that pitchers get, I'm not as sore as I was in years past. I think I kind of found something that I need to stay on top of and keep doing."

Hanson's spring didn't get off to the best of starts, as he suffered a concussion in a car accident, as he drove to the club's first Spring Training workout for pitchers and catchers. However, he is fine now and ready to go.