CATCHER: Terry Collins has named Josh Thole his No. 1 catcher. Even if Collins employs a straight platoon between the lefty-hitting Thole and the righty-hitting Ronny Paulino (one year, $1.35 million deal), Thole would get the bulk of the starts because teams more often face right-handed pitching. The newly married Thole hit .277 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 202 at-bats last season. New hitting coach Dave Hudgens already is familiar with the young catcher, since Thole played for Hudgens with Caracas in the Venezuelan winter league last offseason. Paulino’s signing gives the Mets a hedge if Thole falters in his second full season in the majors. Unlike former backup Henry Blanco, who has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Paulino has demonstrated an ability to handle the bulk of the duty. Paulino started 84 of the Florida Marlins’ first 120 games last season before beginning to serve a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. That suspension will carry over to the first eight games of the 2011 season, which means newcomer Dusty Ryan or Mike Nickeas may serve as the backup through an April 9 game against the Washington Nationals. The righty-hitting Ryan, 26, appeared in a combined 27 games for the Detroit Tigers in 2008 and 2009. He hit .257 with two homers and 11 RBIs in 70 at-bats. Ryan spent last season with Triple-A Portland in the San Diego Padres organization, where he hit .199 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 261 at-bats. The defensively sound Nickeas, 27, made his major league debut on Sept. 4 and was 2-for-10 with five strikeouts during the month.
FIRST BASE: Not much drama here as Ike Davis returns for his sophomore season. Davis played only 10 games with Triple-A Buffalo before the Mets aborted their Mike Jacobs/Fernando Tatis platoon and summoned the rookie. Davis, 23, hit .264 with 19 homers and 71 RBIs in 523 at-bats last season while flipping over the railing multiple times for highlight-reel catches. He finished second among National League rookies in doubles (33) and runs (73), third in homers, total bases (230) and RBIs, and fifth in hits (138) in 2010.
SECOND BASE: Luis Castillo is owed $6 million in the final season of a four-year, $25 million deal, but he needs to win the second base job in spring training or he risks being released. After all, there would be little use for Castillo on the bench because of his inability to play other positions, and because of his lack of ability to be a home-run threat or even a run producer as a pinch hitter. Castillo, 35, hit only .235 with 17 RBIs and eight steals in 247 at-bats last season. He mostly watched from the bench late in the year as Ruben Tejada received the bulk of the starts. Tejada is not a major factor in spring training, however, with the Mets predicting that he and Jenrry Mejia will be assigned to Buffalo to continue their development. That does not mean Castillo lacks serious competition. The Mets selected Brad Emaus from Toronto in the Rule 5 draft. Emaus figures to have an advocate in former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. Emaus, 24, is the prototype for the type of player the Mets want under the new front-office regime. He combined for 15 homers last season in 445 at-bats between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Las Vegas, and also had more walks (81) than strikeouts (69). Emaus had a .397 on-base percentage to go along with his .290 average. Daniel Murphy also figures into the second base equation as he looks to again reinvent himself. After a failed 2009 experiment in left field, Murphy was poised to be the Mets’ Opening Day first baseman last season before spraining a ligament in his right knee during a rundown the final week of spring training. With Davis entrenched at first base by the time Murphy was ready to return, Murphy was taken off his rehab assignment with Buffalo. He then suffered a high-grade tear of the medial collateral ligament in the same knee while manning second base on an arguably dirty takeout slide by Triple-A Syracuse’s Leonard Davis on June 2. Murphy did not require surgery. He returned to his second base tutorial by participating in the Mets’ fall instructional league in Fort Myers, Fla. Murphy then went on to play the position with Aguilas in the Dominican Republic — until his winter league season was cut short when he suffered a left hamstring strain that is not expected to affect him in spring training. Justin Turner is the fourth legitimate contender for the second base job, but Turner has a couple of factors working against him. Whereas Castillo has a guaranteed contract that must be eaten if he does not make the club, and whereas Emaus as a Rule 5 pick would need to be placed on waivers and then offered back to the Blue Jays if he does not stick the entire year on the Mets’ roster, Turner has a pair of minor league options remaining. That means he can be sent to the minors in 2011 and 2012 without being exposed to waivers. Turner, who appeared in four games with the Mets last season, also has the obstacle of his biggest advocate, special assistant Wayne Krivsky, losing influence in the front-office overhaul.
THIRD BASE: David Wright bounced back from a 10-homer season in 2009, going deep 29 times in 2010. Still, Wright’s strikeout total rose to 161 last season, while his on-base percentage slipped to .354, its lowest level since 2004. Wright has two more guaranteed years on his deal, at $14 million and $15 million. The Mets also have an option for 2013 at $16 million.
SHORTSTOP: The first true test of Sandy Alderson’s tenure as GM may very well come with the decision about Jose Reyes. The Mets exercised an $11 million option on Reyes for 2011, but that is the final year before the longest-tenured Met is poised to become a free agent. Reyes experienced thyroid and oblique issues in 2010, but the leg issues that tormented him the previous year and early in his career were not an issue. If Alderson is adamant about not wanting to give players in their late 20s deals of five, six or seven years, then perhaps it’s worth trading Reyes before July 31 if the Mets are out of the race, as would be prudent with Carlos Beltran. However, Alderson maintains he does not have hard and fast rules — dogma, in his Ivy League vernacular — so do not write off the re-signing of the 27-year-old Reyes just yet. Regardless, it would behoove Reyes to lift his on-base percentage from the .321 he produced last season, which was his lowest level since a .300 OBP in 2005.
OUTFIELD: The spring-training question is not who are the three starting outfielders, but their alignment. Beltran has indicated he will continue to need to use a brace on his arthritic right knee — a joint that had enough pain to prompt Beltran to cut short last season after a Sept. 28 game. If Beltran does not show better mobility than last season, Collins could use Angel Pagan in center field and Beltran in right field rather than the reverse configuration. Pagan, who entered last season viewed by the front office as a quality fourth outfielder, emerged as a productive starter, hitting .290 with 11 homers and 69 RBIs in 579 at-bats. He had 37 steals in 46 attempts. Pagan also displayed a better baseball IQ, after too many baserunning and other gaffes earlier in his career. Meanwhile, Jason Bay figures to have a better second season in New York. After a 36-homer season with the Boston Red Sox in 2009, Bay signed a backloaded four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets. Team officials figured he would hit 30 homers in 2010, taking into account the spacious dimensions of Citi Field relative to former home Fenway Park. However, Bay hit only .259 with six homers and 47 RBIs in 348 at-bats. He did not appear after July 25 because of the effects of a concussion suffered at Dodger Stadium, although Bay maintained in December that issue was behind him.
BENCH: The Mets traded minor league left-hander Mike Antonini to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Chin-lung Hu, so Hu likely has a decided leg up in the battle for the backup middle infield position against Luis Hernandez. Otherwise, reducing the Mets’ depth of upper-level minor league pitching by giving up Antonini (8-12, 4.49 ERA in 2010 between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo) did not make sense. Hu and Hernandez are out of options, so whichever is beaten out would have to clear waivers to be sent to the minors. The 26-year-old Hu, a native of Taiwan and the 2007 Futures Game MVP, has played 58 games at shortstop and 30 at second base in his brief major league career. He has just a .191 career average in 173 at-bats spaning four seasons in the majors, but he did hit .317 with Triple-A Albuquerque last season. Hernandez had a memorable final game in 2010. He fractured a metatarsal bone fouling a pitch from Atlanta’s Tim Hudson off his right foot, but continued the Sept. 18 at-bat in pain and homered on the next pitch. If Hu backs up in the middle infield and Paulino backs up Thole at catcher, that leaves three spots remaining on a five-man bench. Murphy should be on the major league roster in some capacity, even if he is beaten out at second base and becomes a left-handed bat for the bench. Righty-hitting Nick Evans has an advocate in Collins and could fill a role as a backup corner infielder and left fielder. Evans is out of options, so he also would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minors. Evans, who turns 25 on Jan. 30, hit a combined .300 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs last season with Binghamton and Buffalo. Primarily a first baseman in the minors, Evans already has been exposed to left field at the major league level. He manned third base in 16 games last season in the minors, and played at the hot corner exclusively in his first professional season, in the Gulf Coast League in 2004. In the outfield, Lucas Duda (.202, 4 HR, 13 RBIs in September) impressed scouts after a late-season call-up and may have the best résumé, but Collins has indicated Duda is best served playing at Buffalo unless he will be a starter. The Mets may very well still sign a free-agent backup outfielder. For now, ex-Twin Jason Pridie may be the best choice already with the organization. Pridie, who is adept at playing center field, was tormented by a persistent right hamstring strain and missed 103 games last season with Buffalo. He is out of options and also would need to clear waivers to be sent to the minors. Former top prospect Fernando Martinez should have been a viable option by now, but Martinez has not demonstrated any ability to stay healthy. Martinez missed 38 games with Buffalo because of a left hamstring strain and right knee discomfort last season, continuing an injury-plagued professional career. When Martinez finally returned in winter ball with Escogido, he lasted only one game, with the Mets announcing that arthritis in the 22-year-old Martinez’s knee needed additional rest.
STARTING PITCHING: Johan Santana is due to begin throwing early this month after undergoing Sept. 14 surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. Santana — who is owed $22.5 million in 2011, $24 million in 2012 and $25.5 million in 2013 — is expected to return no sooner than June, and perhaps closer to the All-Star break. Given he is returning from shoulder surgery, there is uncertainty about whether he can rediscover his past form during the upcoming season, if at all during the remainder of his career. That leaves Mike Pelfrey as the de facto ace for at least the first half, as part of a rotation also including left-hander Jon Niese and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Pelfrey, whose wife is expecting the couple’s second child in early February, raced to a 9-1 record with a 2.39 ERA in his first 14 starts of 2010. Despite a midseason funk (0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in seven starts from June 30-Aug. 4), Pelfrey finished with 15 wins, becoming only the 10th right-hander in franchise history to reach that plateau, and the first since John Maine in 2007. Niese (9-10, 4.20 ERA) became the ninth rookie in franchise history to make at least 30 starts, and the first since Jae Weong Seo in 2003. The 36-year-old Dickey (11-9, 2.84), who resurrected himself with the knuckleball, will need to demonstrate 2010 was not an aberration. Both Pelfrey ($500,000 salary in 2010) and Dickey are in line for big raises in arbitration if they do not settle beforehand, as is Pagan. Left-hander Chris Capuano was handed a $1.5 million deal Monday after passing a physical and could occupy the fourth slot, despite a pair of Tommy John surgeries in his career. The Mets want Mejia to spend the season in the minors, which makes Dillon Gee the top young contender from the minors, and a realistic bet to claim a back-end slot if there are no other notable additions. Gee, who set Buffalo’s modern record for strikeouts last season with 165, went on to go 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in five September starts for the Mets. A Mets official indicated the signing of Capuano does not preclude the addition of Jeff Francis or Chris Young as well. If the 2011 season started today, right-hander Boof Bonser might be the primary fifth-starter challenger for Gee. Working as a reliever at the major league level last season with the Oakland Athletics, Bonser went 1-0 with a 5.09 ERA in 13 appearances. Working at Triple-A in the Boston Red Sox and Oakland organizations, he went a combined 2-3 with a 5.59 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts). According to one report, newly signed right-hander D.J. Carrasco (two years, $2.4 million) could get a look as a starter, but that does not appear overly likely, since it would further destabilize an already shaky bullpen. Carrasco last regularly started in 2007 with Triple-A Tucson. Similarly, left-hander Pat Misch could get a look as a back-end starter, but he projects as a long reliever who is only asked to serve as a spot starter. 2010 first-round pick Matt Harvey could be a consideration later in the year, but he has yet to throw a pitch in a professional game. He did not even appear in a game in the fall instructional league. So an early contribution is unlikely.