It’s the middle of February, which means it’s time for pitchers and catchers to make their way south to the small towns and cities of Arizona or Florida for spring training. For the New York Mets, that means a whole lot of questions that will take the next seven months to answer.


    The Mets have a lot of uncertainty up and down their lineup, rotation and bullpen, but none more pressing than their starting pitching and the men behind the plate who will call their games. The Mets will likely use a platoon of catchers, riding a hot bat or matching pitchers with a catcher he feels comfortable with. The two veterans vying for time are both newcomers to Flushing, hoping to land the starting job, while the youngsters have spent time in the Mets’ farm system and are looking for a chance to shine.


    Henry Blanco has bounced around the majors, including stops in Atlanta and Chicago (Cubs) where he served stints as Greg Maddux’s preferred catcher. But he has started over 100 games a season only twice, most recently in 2004 with the Minnesota Twins, the season Johan Santana won his first of two Cy Young awards. The familiarity with Santana and his ability to call a good game can make up for his lack of offensive production. That will probably give him the edge over former Philadelphia Phillies veteran catcher Chris Coste, who has spent more time in the minors that in the majors at the age of 37. He can provide a little spark with the bat, but heads into the spring likely to start in the minors and would get called up in the event of an injury.


    The two young catchers vying for time both turned a few heads during the 2009 season. Omir Santos didn’t put up stellar numbers over 96 games last season (.260 avg, seven homers with 40 RBI) but was often right in the middle of a Mets rally, and had a handful of big hits throughout the season. His knack for clutch hitting could earn him a spot behind the plate and make him a go-to pinch hitter in late innings. Josh Thole put up impressive numbers in a small sampling in September (17 hits in 53 at-bats with nine RBI) even though the Mets were long out of the hunt. If he can put up good numbers in Port St. Lucie this year the Mets will have to include him on the major league roster. No matter who is catching, they will almost certainly hit in the seventh or eighth spot, but they will be heavily relied upon to play great defense and keep their young pitchers focused and in control over the course of the season.


    But the major concern for the Mets is starting pitching. As great as Santana has been over his major league career and his two seasons with the Mets, he is showing signs of age. His ERA jumped point six last season, and his strikeout and opponent batting average have gotten progressively worse each of the last five seasons. He is still one of the best starters in the game, but he has a lot of pressure on that left shoulder of his to be an automatic win every time he takes the mound.


    Behind Santana is where the real mess begins. This is the third straight season that Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez, and John Maine have been touted as the 2-3-4 (in some order) of the starting rotation. Maine and Perez had impressive outings in the 2006 postseason, earning some faith from the Mets brass. But injuries and inconsistency have kept Maine and Perez from reaching those heights again. There have been sporadic games for each over the past four seasons. Perez plays well against rivals like the Phillies, Braves, and Yankees but can’t get out of his own way against inferior teams. Maine came awfully close to the first Mets no-hitter in history on the second-to-last day of 2007 (a game I attended, Shea was rocking that Saturday afternoon - little did we know Tom Glavine would rip our hearts out “Temple Of Doom” style 24-hours later) but his numbers have fallen off each season since, and he can’t stay off the DL. Pelfrey looked like a number two starter back in 2008, but he regressed in 2009, suffering from Tom Verdduci’s 150+ innings syndrome for young pitchers (For more on that, read his story on  which pitchers could suffer the same fate in 2010).


    The fifth spot remains an open competition amongst familiar faces. Fernando Nieve and Nelson Figueroa are well-traveled veterans that have chalked up a few nice W’s over the past couple of years, but their magic never lasted long. Jon Niese is a youngster with an erratic track record in a few starts in 2008-2009, but could come into his own in 2010. Expect him to earn the fifth spot out of spring training.


    Maine, Pelfrey, and Perez all have the raw talent to excel in the majors, but the inability to get out their own way and stay healthy has been the Mets downfall each of the past three seasons. If they can’t get the job done in 2010, they will be looking for new employers in 2011. With the Mets near-barren farm system, it is unlikely that they can trade for a quality starter during the season, unless a rival general manager is desperate and sympathetic towards Mets GM Omar Minaya. None of the 2010 free agent pitchers would have been much of an improvement, if any, over the current crop of starters. If the Mets are going to break out of their three-year funk in 2010, starters two through five will have to carry them there. It’s the middle of February, so it’s time for Mets fans to start being afraid again.