With the 2011 season likely shaping up to be growing pains for the future, most agree the New York Mets chances of seriously contending are minute. But whether you’re talking World Series or a long playoff run, who is the single most important Met this season?

This is no 80 mph meatball floating over Main Street waiting to be bashed into next week. No, naming the player with the most significant impact on the Mets is hardly an exact science. It took some research and a lot of arguing with myself, but there is one name that noses ahead of everyone else – Johan Santana.

Yes, the same Johan Santana that’s not even a thought on Opening Day. No, I haven’t dropped shrooms or sampled the Green Fairy’s wares. Santana is legitimately the most essential player on New York’s roster.

On paper, the Mets will have a significantly stronger lineup than pitching staff when they open in Florida on April 1. The position players can get on base, steal bases and thump with authority. The pitching remains a question mark, however, especially the starting rotation. As of Jan. 25, it consists of Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Chris Young and Chris Capuano/Dillon Gee. There’s some talent in there, but guys like Pelfrey and Dickey are clearly ranked too high. The return of Santana, who was permitted to start throwing again on Jan. 14 and could return any time in the middle of the season, would correct the rotation. The sooner the Mets’ ace returns, the sooner Pelfrey can stop forcing the ace mind-set on himself and the sooner Jon Niese can continue focusing on improving rather than winning.

If Sandy Alderson finds a shooting star and wishes for a championship this year, the Mets chances are clearly better with Santana leading the way. He may not be throwing as many innings, striking out as many batters or keeping runners off the bases as frequently as he did back in Minnesota, but Santana is still good for a sub-3 ERA, an undying hunger to win and leadership. If he can come back at full strength in time for a pennant run with New York in the mix, his change-up could make the difference.

If the Mets don’t get an invitation to the dance in 2011, Santana’s presence still makes an impact. A natural leader, the ace has no problem guiding both pitchers and batters, and providing an emotional spark for the whole team. Santana’s wisdom, ability and experience can easily improve a younger pitcher, especially someone like Gee who relies more on smarts than stuff.

If Santana is tops on the list, Carlos Beltran falls just short of No. 1.

Unlike his pitching counterpart, the highly-paid outfielder is expected to start on Opening Day, although his position has yet to be decided. If the Mets end up in the playoff hunt or playing October baseball, they’ll need the extra-base power, speed and Gold Glove defense of a healthy Beltran to push them over the edge. For whatever it’s worth, Beltran has also two years of NLCS experience. Fair or not, I’m sure most Met fans have yet to let go of that Adam Wainwright curve in game 7.

If they end up in the basement, his performance and health will determine his future. In the last year of his seven-year, $119 million contract, Alderson is expected to trade Beltran by the All-Star Break if the star outfielder can recover some trade value. A blockbuster deal for young talent or blue chip prospects would greatly help New York’s long-term playoff chances. If he stinks, the Mets will likely be stuck with the entire contract and limit their roster flexibility until the end of the season.

One comment on “Johan Santana is the most essential Met

  • Paul Timmons

    I do see the impact that Johan could make come July but the season could essentially be over by then. This reminds me of your shroom comment. Dreaming that Beltran could return to the dominant player he was a few years ago makes me wonder if you have an IV morphine drip. David Wright’s relative consistency (with the exception of the power drop off in 09) makes one take him for granted. Essential to the Mets success is Reyes, Reyes and more Reyes. He’s coming off a year in which his SB numbers were half of what you’d expect and a year removed from being plagued with leg problems. However he does, so will the Mets. Two other “essential” Mets in 2011 are Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey. Pelfrey was poor as a rookie in 2007 then decent in 2008. His ERA was over 5 in 2009 then came back in 2010 with stellar numbers. Which Pelfrey will show up in 2011? R.A. Dickey is somewhat of an enigma. Was 2010 a flash in the pan or will he now have a great 10 year career as a knuckleballer. These are the players to eye closely, not Beltran and Santana

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