New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson acknowledged last week that Johan Santana has yet to begin tossing a baseball following Sept. 14 surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder.
The Mets also have acknowledged this much: They will have to make do without their ace until at least June or July.
Is the rest of the rotation up to the task in Santana's absence? That remains to be seen, although knuckleballer R.A. Dickey recently expressed optimism.
"In everybody's eyes there's still question marks. So you want to see people healthy, and you want to see people back to the form that allowed them to be pursued in the first place," said Dickey, who avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $7.5 million deal with a team option for 2013.
"But I'll tell you what: Potentially, I think they've done an outstanding job of assembling a group of guys that may surprise a lot of people."
Manager Terry Collins already has anointed Mike Pelfrey his Opening Day starter, which likely means Pelfrey will face Marlins ace Josh Johnson on April 1 in Miami, then the Phillies' Roy Halladay in his second start.
If Pelfrey pitches the way he performed at the beginning of last season, when he raced to a 9-1 record, Santana's absence will be partly mitigated. But Pelfrey also must be more consistent. During a seven-start summer stretch, he went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA while allowing 62 hits and 16 walks in 30 innings.
Left-hander Jon Niese and Dickey will join Pelfrey in the rotation, with newcomers Chris Young and Chris Capuano the logical candidates to round out the staff. Both additions have smarts -- Young graduated from Princeton, Capuano from Duke. But both will have to rediscover the success they enjoyed before surgeries slowed their careers.
Alderson did not refute that some uncertainty existed about how Young and Capuano would perform.
"You have that [injury] history. You have to be aware there are risks associated with that," Alderson said. "But ... look, somebody who pitched 250 innings last year has a certain risk -- whether that's 5 percent or 10 percent. Who knows what that is?
"In the case of Chris Young and Capuano, I think those risks are different for each of those pitchers. Capuano is two years away from Tommy John surgery. That's a little different than being, say, a year away from shoulder surgery. So the risk factors there are different."
Young had shoulder surgery in August 2009. He made one appearance in April of last season and did not appear again in the majors until making three starts in September because of more shoulder issues. Although Young had success in those late-season outings (two earned runs in 14 innings), his velocity registered in only the low-80s.
Young counters that it was almost like spring training for him, and that he should have more zip now.
"I'm really excited about the way I feel right now," he said. "I feel healthy. I feel strong. I'm hopeful that it will hold up. I expect it to -- based on the work and the conditioning that I've done.
"I look forward to being successful. I'm throwing right now. I don't have a radar gun on me, but I feel the life on the ball and the arm speed is better now than it was at the end of the season. I feel like my arm is stronger now than it was at the end of the season. I was actually pleased at the end of the season. I felt like each start, progressively, the velocity went up about a mile per hour. That was just part of building arm strength, and unfortunately the clock sort of ran out of time."
The Mets have right-hander Dillon Gee, who went 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in five September starts, as a safety net in case someone in the projected rotation is injured or otherwise is not performing.
Right-hander D.J. Carrasco, who received a two-year, $2.4 million contract, should emerge as a late-inning reliever, but he also will get a spring training look as a starter.
And, at least technically, left-hander Oliver Perez (owed $12 million) is in the rotation mix, although he and second baseman Luis Castillo (owed $6 million) are widely expected to be released before Opening Day.
Meanwhile, while acknowledging that Young and Capuano have inherent risks, Alderson also noted their contracts were structured to shield the Mets from financial liability if either cannot rediscover his past form. Each pitcher can max out at $4.5 million if he hits innings-pitched and games-started benchmarks. But Young's base salary is only $1.1 million, while Capuano's base salary is $1.5 million.
"We feel that we've adequately addressed that in the contracts," Alderson said. "And then what we have to be able to do is protect ourselves personnelwise in the event something happens, and that's a little more difficult to do. You just can't run out and pick up another starter if somebody goes down. The real risk is opportunity cost, not bringing somebody else in, because we rolled the dice on somebody we've signed. Those are the choices you make."