Mets need Santana for prayer in East

Johan Santana is scheduled to return to the mound Tuesday for a second time since arriving at the Mets’ complex. And it’s no secret the Mets’ paper-thin rotation desperately needs Santana to make a relatively normal complement of starts this season.

Every start Santana is unable to make goes to a pitcher such as Miguel Batista, Chris Schwinden, Jeremy Hefner or Garrett Olson.

“I’m not getting my hopes up, but high tide raises all ships,” R.A. Dickey said about Santana’s 2012 contribution. “… I think everybody would be able to kind of slot where they need to slot. That would take some pressure off some guys, maybe so. I’ve got my fingers crossed. But I don’t want to get too excited because I know it’s a hard journey from the surgery that he had.”

The Mets were fortunate last season that other than Chris Young’s season ending after four starts, the rotation stayed relatively intact. Returnees Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Dickey and the now-departed Chris Capuano averaged 30 starts apiece -- with Niese the fewest of the bunch at 26.

The last time the Mets had five starters each contribute at least 26 starts came during the 2000 NL pennant season with Mike Hampton (33), Al Leiter (31), Glendon Rusch (30), Rick Reed (30) and Bobby Jones (27).

Continued durability will be critical given the limited safety net, and especially considering the strength of the other NL East rotations. Objectively rank the divisions starting pitchers and you would not have a Met in the top 10, and perhaps top 15.

The depth of the other rotations is particularly striking …

Atlanta Braves: Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor (or Julio Teheran/Randall Delgado).

Miami Marlins: Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Nolasco, Carlos Zambrano, Anibal Sanchez.

Philadelphia Phillies: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Joe Blanton.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann, Chien-Ming Wang.

“I don’t know if it’s any more challenging than any year simply because baseball, you see the best lineups on paper fall,” Dickey said in general about the improvement in the NL East. “So it’s about so many more things than just what’s on paper. But it’s going to be difficult.

“The NL East, in my opinion, is probably the second-most-difficult division in baseball now. And that’s purely opinion. But we’re going to have to really play well fundamentally. We’re going to have to pitch well. I mean, all the things you hear at the beginning of every spring training, you’re going to hear again because, for a reason, they’re true. We’ve got to do these things right. And then, of course, there are some question marks for us. But at the same time I think we have people in place who are willing to answer the bell.”

Said Niese: “The NL East, it’s going to be real tough competition. That’s what I like.”

Do the Mets have to overachieve to make the postseason?

“Overachieve?” Dickey repeated, considering the question. “I don’t know yet. Ask me again in a month maybe. We’ll see what kind of chemistry we’ve got going on. That next step, you never know from year to year how big a step a guy is taking. I mean, this guy to my right [Niese], he’s going to be a big factor. Johan coming back. Is Ike [Davis] healthy? We’ve got guys that are right there, with their foot in the air. Now are they going to step off the edge or are they going to take a step? You won’t know the answers to those questions for a little while. But if a bunch of guys take that next step, all of a sudden I think we’re right in that mix.”