And they will have to do it without Johan Santana, at least for the first half.
The Mets will depend on Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey matching their 2010 performances, Jon Niese taking a step forward in his second full major league season and Chris Young and Chris Capuano proving injuries are behind them.
Last year: 15-9, 3.66 ERA
Pro: Pelfrey raced to a 9-1 record last season, his lone loss during that span coming in a 10-0 shellacking on May 1 while starting opposite Philadelphia's Halladay. Pelfrey appears to have conquered the issues with runners on base that affected him two years ago, when he balked three times in one game alone in San Francisco.
Con: With Santana potentially out until July -- or beyond -- while rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, Pelfrey is the de facto ace. Is he up to it? Only if he avoids a rut like the seven-start summer stretch last season when he went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA and .437 opponent batting average. Pelfrey gets tested right away. He opposes Florida ace Johnson on Opening Day.
Projection: 13-11, 3.82 ERA
Last year: 9-10, 4.20 ERA
Pro: Having developed a cutter to neutralize righty batters while still sporting his signature curveball, Niese established himself as a legitimate major league starter in 2010. His month-by-month ERAs -- including 2.67 in June, 2.48 in July, 4.43 in August and 7.11 in September/October -- bode well for this year. That's because Niese, with a full major league season now under his belt, should not tire during the final months in 2011 as he did a year ago, keeping his August and September ERAs closer in line with those other months.
Con: Because of a painful hamstring tendon tear, Niese's '09 season was cut short after only 120 innings between the majors and minors. Last year, he logged 178⅔ innings between the two levels. It has been documented that pronounced innings-count jumps early in a career can leave a pitcher susceptible to injury. Still, Niese has a fluid delivery, mitigating that risk.
Projection: 14-12, 3.56 ERA
Last year: 11-9, 2.84 ERA
Pro: The Mets rewarded Dickey for his 2010 season by handing him a two-year, $7.8 million deal -- a sign they believe the breakout performance in his inaugural season in Queens was no fluke. Dickey has further enhanced his knuckleball-dominated repertoire with a floater that registered as slow as 59 mph in Grapefruit League play, which he may flash a few times a game. Knuckleballers also defy age, so Dickey is relatively young by those standards at 36 years old.
Con: Things certainly broke right for Dickey during a storybook 2010 season, so even a comparable performance may yield inferior results. Not that opponents ever get comfortable with the knuckleball, but NL East batters now have a year under their belts facing Dickey and should be more accustomed to the quirky pitch.
Projection: 10-10, 3.94 ERA
Last year: 2-0, 0.90 ERA
Pro: In limited action last season, Young got by with fastball that averaged only 84.7 mph. In fact, in three September starts with the San Diego Padres after returning from shoulder woes, he limited opponents to two runs in 14 innings. Never a hard thrower, he mostly sat 87-88 mph in Grapefruit League games, suggesting the shoulder is closer to its pre-surgery condition. Given the 6-foot-10 Young's stride toward the plate and his ability to hide the ball with his front elbow, Young's pitches will look even quicker to batters than last season with the added oomph.
Con: Young must prove he is durable. His contract was specifically structured to account for the risk of re-injury, with a $1.1 million base salary and bonuses based on starts and innings pitched that can raise the value to $4.5 million. While spacious Citi Field may be friendly to him, Citizens Bank Park in Philly -- where Young is scheduled to make his first Mets start -- is not kind to fly ball pitchers.
Projection: 7-9, 4.14 ERA
Last year: 4-4, 3.95 ERA
Pro: Like Young, Capuano got through the exhibition season injury-free, further distancing himself from the second of two Tommy John surgeries in his career. The Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke figures to use his cerebral side and command down in the zone to get the most of out of his mid-80s fastball. Because the Mets do not need a fifth starter until Game No. 8, Capuano should work as a second left-handed reliever in the 'pen, joining Tim Byrdak, during the season-opening trip.
Con: Until returning for 24 appearances (nine starts) with the Milwaukee Brewers last season, the 32-year-old Capuano had not pitched since 2007. Whether he can get through the year making a full complement of starts remains a serious question. At least the Mets have Santana planning to come back near the All-Star break, which could provide a particularly needed infusion if either Young or Capuano breaks down.
Projection: 6-9, 4.33 ERA