When the Mets take the field against the Marlins this Opening Day, the sun will be shining and Johan Santana will be on the hill. You don't need much more than that to feel hopeful about the season that's about to unfold even if there will be plenty of days with clouds and Oliver Perez in the weeks and months to come.
That's the bed the Mets have made and now they've got to sleep in it. That task will be all the harder thanks to the constant divisional reminders of how far off the rails things have gotten in Queens. Every other team in the NL East has built toward this season with a stronger sense of purpose than the Mets and those team's best-case scenarios all take fewer leaps of faith than the one that features the Mets making the playoffs with an Opening Day cleanup hitter who wasn't a sure bet to make the roster a week ago.
Take the Nationals. No one is expecting them to make the postseason, obviously, but it's not hard to see them finishing with 10 or 12 more wins than they managed last season. That could put them in the mix for fourth place, although it isn't really this season's roster that should have the Mets feeling a bit jealous. The Nats have Stephen Strasburg, the first pick in the draft and a rotation that's just as mediocre as the one in Queens for a good deal less money.
Money leads us to the Opening Day opponents from Florida, a team that is actually being forced to spend more to avoid further rebukes from Major League Baseball and the players union. Even if they weren't having their feet held to the fire, however, the Marlins still would have more going for them than the Mets. They've got a consistent pipeline of talent bringing players to the Majors and, in Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez, a Cy Young/MVP contender tandem to build around. The fact that they now have to spend money and have a stadium in the near future means that they won't have to keep trading away talent. That should scare the entire National League.
Atlanta, with their mix of veterans good and mediocre, looks a lot like the Mets on the surface, but in practice they feel like a NASCAR team getting faster speed out of the same car. Derek Lowe is the guy the Mets should have signed instead of Oliver Perez, Troy Glaus is the first baseman that should be hitting cleanup in Queens and Billy Wagner should be, well, forget Wagner but you get the point. On top of all that, the Braves also have Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward starting careers that have been lavished with more hype than the iPad.
Finally, there are the Phillies who show the Mets that it is possible to have a big-time payroll that translates into a big-time team. It helps that they developed four of their biggest stars all by themselves, but the Mets still have to look at what the Phils have accomplished and feel some sense that they were supposed to be in that spot right now. They got Johan to do what Cliff Lee did for the Phils last season and what most feel Roy Halladay will do for them this time around.
The window in Flushing has closed to just a crack, however, and the Santana acquistion feels like it happened ages ago. The team that traded for him was so sure they would win in the present that they didn't think much about the future. They didn't win, though, and now they're stuck in a division with teams that can both win now and win later while the Mets don't provide much confidence in their chances in either time period.
Predictions about the future are ill-advised, or so Casey Stengel said, but we'll make one about the Mets anyway. They'll be better than last year, but not good enough to finish in the money or higher than fourth. Call it somewhere between 75 and 82 wins and a new manager to usher in the 2011 season.