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Mets in 3rd Place?! Contend for 2nd Wild Card?!

Yes. And yes.

ballBut there is a huge, tremendous caveat to my admittedly ambitious, over optimistic projection — absolutely nothing can go wrong. And I mean nothing;  no injuries to any of the starters that cause them to miss extended time, no continued Jason Bay slump, Johan Santana must make 30 starts (okay, 28).  If any of these things happen, the Mets likely drop to last place.

If you look closely at the Mets, all the potential is there for a surprisingly strong season. A lineup that has Daniel Murphy, David Wright, Ike Davis, Jason Bay and Lucas Duda hitting two-through-six is pretty formidable — unless Murphy, Wright or Davis gets hurt, Bay continues to be baffled or Duda goes back to being passive at the plate. If any one of these things happens, a big hole is created in the lineup that cannot be overcome.

The starting rotation of Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee and he who shall not be named can also be tough — Santana looks healthy this spring and Niese is showing signs that he is ready to take a giant leap forward into being a dominant starter. But it all goes out the window if Santana cannot complete his comeback or Niese or Gee cannot continue to take steps forward.

The revamped bullpen looks good on paper but it must translate that onto the field. If not…

As far as the bench, well, that is why absolutely nothing can go wrong. There is very little depth on that bench so if a starter goes down, his replacement will be far, far inferior; enough to doom the entire season.

I see the Mets winning 84 games and finishing third in the NL East. They will contend for the 2nd Wild Card all season long but ultimately fall just a bit short. If this happens I don’t think any of us will be disappointed with the season.

If, however, a starter goes down — any starter — the Mets drop to 89 losses and last place in the division.

Here’s how I see the East shaping up:

The Phillies win easily. They will struggle at the plate, what with Ryan Howard missing the start of the season and Chase Utley missing significant time with knee problems. But their pitching will allow them to cruise to the division title.

The Nationals are for real, finishing second. The solid pitching will overcome Jayson Werth’s continued troubles, but Bryce Harper will come up and set the world on fire. Incidentally, the Nats say they plan to limit Stephen Strasburg to 160 innings this season, and would likely hold him out of the playoffs if he reaches his limit and the team reaches the playoffs. That is nonsense — imagine the outcry from Nats fans, who finally reach the playoffs and then are told their ace will watch it from the bench. Enough with the babying of pitchers. And where did they come up with the random 160 innings number, anyway?

The Mets are third, God-willing.

The Braves finish fourth. They have a relatively weak lineup and the hangover from the 2011 collapse will linger all season long. Just like the Mets in 2008, no one paid for the 2007 collapse so it will not go away. At least the Red Sox fired Terry Francona for their collapse — someone paid, so it is time to move on. Not so for the Braves.

And the Marlins are dead last. I know they spent a whole lot of money, but I am not sold on this team (and this is not Jose Reyes-related sour grapes). The Marlins always seem to be a dysfunctional team with porous defense and a poor bullpen. Reyes and Heath Bell will respectively improve those areas, but not enough, and new manager Ozzie Guillen will just up the dysfunction level. The excitement from the new ballpark will quickly fade as the team’s losses mount, and it will be a long season down in Miami.

Oh, and my surprise team of the year is the San Diego Padres. They made out like bandits in the Matt Latos deal and had a very good off-season overall (Carlos Quentin, Huston Street). Just like the Mets, they will finish above .500 and contend for the Wild Card and possibly the NL West.

I know all of this goes against the conventional wisdom from the so-called experts, but contrarians are right some of the time, aren’t they? Let’s just wait until October and see what happens.

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