Mets need a healthy Pedro ... or else

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Day by day, one missed workout at a time, Pedro Martinez is falling behind the Mets' pitchers, some of whom are already up to 40 tosses per bullpen session. Pedro has yet to throw off a mound and is still looking for a solution to the chronic pain in his right foot.

There's no specific timetable for Pedro's return, though, the first goal is to get Martinez on the mound -- actually on the slope of the mound, where he'll throw, not pitch -- by this weekend. The Mets' next task is to then separate their ace from the World Baseball Classic.

Pedro says he wants to pitch in the tournament, even though he knows he can't, at least not by March 3. The Mets know Pedro is better off in camp, but they can't say that, either, afraid of swimming against a tidal wave of WBC enthusiasm in the Dominican Republic.

So for now, everyone is adhering to a perfect, PC script: Pedro says, "I would love to represent my country," and the Mets nod and say it's his decision, not ours.

Of course, the Mets' best-case scenario would allow Pedro to excuse himself for medical reasons and have everyone in his native country believe him. That would give Martinez a clear conscience while allowing him to focus on the tender sesamoid under his big right toe, which has nagged him for nearly two years.

Martinez describes it as background pain, just enough to keep him from fully pushing off the rubber. It's the price Martinez is paying for what pitching coach Rick Peterson calls a "violent" hip rotation during his delivery. It's the same motion Martinez has always had, but at 34, he's begun to feel the surcharge.

Actually, Pedro required his first cortisone shot in 2004, then experienced a flare-up last June that eventually cut short his season in September. Nearly five months later, Pedro still isn't running or sprinting or moving laterally without some discomfort.

Instead, he's been forced to exercise on a stationary bike or play long toss in the outfield, as he did on Saturday with manager Willie Randolph. On Sunday, Martinez never made it out of the trainer's room while the Mets went through a two-hour workout.

The longer Martinez is delayed in beginning his throwing program, the more obvious it becomes he'd be at risk in the WBC. The very blueprint for dethroning the Braves could be written in the next few weeks, depending on how fast Pedro heals -- or not.

The front office has been nervously monitoring Pedro's condition since September, when his fastball was down to 86 mph and he had to stop pitching. The Mets were hopeful of a complete recovery during the winter, during which time GM Omar Minaya traded both Jae Seo and Kris Benson while hanging on to to the wobbly Victor Zambrano.

The GM defends the decision, insisting he needed to upgrade his bullpen in deals with the Dodgers and Orioles. And besides, the Mets say, Aaron Heilman deserved Benson's spot after his performance in the second half of the 2005 season.

Used in a set-up role, the right-hander held the National League to a .175 batting average while posting a 0.68 ERA.

Assuming Heilman can maintain that effectiveness a second and third time through the opposing lineup, he should replace Benson and perhaps will be considered an upgrade.

But counting on Zambrano is risky business, if not entirely self-destructive. The Mets lost 17 of Zambrano's 27 starts last year; they won 11 of Seo's 14.

When asked about his rotation's potential thin spots, Minaya is quick to say "we have numbers." He cites Jeremi Gonzalez, Alay Soler and even Jose Lima, among others, as possible replacements if either Tom Glavine or Steve Trachsel goes on the disabled list, or if Zambrano doesn't improve on his maddening ratio of 14.5 baserunners per nine innings.

Ultimately, though, if the Mets are serious about taking on the Braves, someone will have to rise to the bigger moments. Someone, specifically, will have to outpitch John Smoltz.

For now, Pedro is the Mets' leader both on and off the field, but Minaya might regret trading Seo and Benson while Pedro's rehab was bogged down. If Martinez's new, specially fitted spikes don't take the pressure off his toe, it's conceivable he'll be a permanent six-inning pitcher, forced to live with an 86-88 mph fastball.

Of course, Martinez is creative enough to succeed even at that reduced velocity. But that could make him a 12- to 15-game winner instead of a 17- to 20-game winner. The Mets are still sniffing around Barry Zito and might intensify their pursuit based on Pedro's progress -- or lack of it.

The other scenario, albeit a long shot, is hurrying rookie Mike Pelfrey, who has the kind of physical skills, mechanics and makeup to make a GM light-headed. Pelfrey, the Mets' first-round draft pick last year, hasn't even thrown an inning in the minors yet, but has stunned the hierarchy during his mound sessions this week.

Randolph said trying to hit off Pelfrey "could be like facing Randy Johnson" after watching the 6-7, 230-pound right-hander throw off a mound on Saturday.

"He's huge," the manager said. "I was impressed at the way the ball exploded out of his hand."

The Mets would obviously prefer not to pressure Pelfrey, who is only 22. But every day that Martinez grapples with pain creates its own kind of pressure on the club's hierarchy.

The first dilemma is the WBC. The real landmark, however, is Opening Day, when Martinez is finally, fully recovered. Or not.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.