PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – This was supposed to be a quiet day. Johan Santana would show up, slip on his New York Mets uniform for the first time, run some sprints, field bunts, laugh at Pedro Martinez's jokes, throw a bullpen session, confer with his pitching coach and retire for the evening.
So perhaps this was a good lesson for Santana, the one that showed him that quiet and New York never intersect in the city's Venn diagram. Just when he thought he had escaped any potential controversy by not declaring the Mets the National League East favorites – let alone the odds-on NL champion – here came a voice, the unlikeliest voice, with a book of matches and an incendiary tongue.
Seriously, Carlos Beltran? It's one thing for Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies' spark plug and mouthpiece, to declare his team the one to beat last spring. He blathers professionally. Beltran, on the other hand, is as controversial as Dr. Seuss, vanilla like Madagascar. Which made Saturday's utterance, sparked by last month's acquisition of Santana, so out of character.
"Without Santana, we felt as a team that we had a chance to win in our division," Beltran said. "With him now, I have no doubt that we are going to win in our division. I have no doubt in that."
And then, less than a minute later, the cherry, whipped cream and chocolate sauce all in one.
"So this year, to Jimmy Rollins: We are the team to beat."
How about that to offset 15 minutes of dullness that in the morning had escaped from Santana's mouth? Wearing the Mets' blue and orange for the first time, Santana scratched his left cheek, tapped his fingers and invited questions about everything from expectations to his flagging pitches toward the end of last season. He feinted them all, looking like an expert already, as deft with his deference as his changeup.
His most incisive words: "They were looking for improvement, and they got some improvement."
And that's more fact than opinion. The Mets needed a No. 1 starter, and they landed the best pitcher in baseball. They needed a losing-streak tourniquet, and they got a two-time Cy Young winner. They needed a star, and they found Sirius.
They should win the NL.
To hear Beltran say it, though – and then for him to squeeze a lemon in it by calling out Rollins, the reigning NL MVP – took a serious helping of hubris. Beltran is a great player, no question, yet the snapshot that defines his career is that of a bat on his shoulder, an Adam Wainwright curveball in Yadier Molina's glove and a World Series berth blown.
"Hopefully," Santana said, "we'll be the team that will celebrate the last game of the whole season."
More than anyone now, Beltran hopes. He signed with the Mets three years ago for $119 million. Along with Pedro Martinez, Beltran promised this was the dawning of the "new Mets," a catchphrase that never quite stuck. He struggled his first season and earned a reputation for being soft. Pedro missed most of last year with a bum arm and remains a question mark. The new Mets are a lot like the old Mets – still without a championship since 1986.
Santana changes everything, of course, his left arm a balm to the Mets' worries and, apparently, an analgesic to Beltran's inner monologue. Seeing Santana along pitchers' row in the Mets' clubhouse – the bank of lockers that goes John Maine, Oliver Perez, Orlando Hernandez, Santana and Martinez – reminds how devastating this rotation can be. To complement it with a lineup featuring David Wright, Jose Reyes and Beltran seems unfair.
Even so, the Mets' bullpen needs a plumber, and their manager, Willie Randolph, quickly must imbue in New York the confidence he lost last fall. The severity of the Mets' collapse in September cannot be understated. Blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to go is like running the first 25 miles of a marathon and refusing to finish.
Such concerns hang over the Mets, even with Santana's arrival acting like a Glade Plug-In. Little did they care Saturday. Santana, the newly minted $150 million man, jogged onto the field where dozens of Mets pitchers and farmhands gathered for their first workout of the season. He stood at the front of the only line appropriate for him, the one that he must embody for Carlos Beltran's sake, for the Mets' sake and, most of all, for his own.