Mar 22

March 22.10: Questions down the stretch.

When pitchers and catchers reported Feb. 18, I posted five key questions the Mets faced heading into spring training. With two weeks remaining, there are issues with four of those five concerns.

Question: What is this team’s attitude?
Assessment: By all accounts, it is good and positive. The Mets aren’t rolling through their spring schedule, but there have been no issues of lack of hustle and laziness. David Wright said the Mets need to use last year’s embarrassment as a motivator. Jason Bay is fitting in and Jeff Francoeur has been a positive influence. So far, so good, but they haven’t played any games that count yet.

Question: How healthy is this team?
Assessment: Injuries sabotaged the 2009 season, and already two of the team’s core will open the season on the disabled list and likely won’t be ready until May. Carlos Beltran’s knee is responding well to rehab and Jose Reyes’ hamstring feels good. However, Reyes’ issue is his thyroid and one wonders how that will be with the riggers of the season. Reliever Kelvim Escobar, penciled in as a set-up man, has missed the entire spring with shoulder pain. There have been no problems physically with Francoeur, Oliver Perez, Johan Santana and John Maine, all with recent surgery on their resume.

Question: What is the status of the three pitching questions, Mike Pelfrey, Oliver Perez and John Maine?
Assessment: These three guys represent the season’s key. If they do well, then the Mets can contend. The Mets didn’t make any rotation additions this winter because they believe in the upside of these three. It has been an up-and-down spring for all three, but Perez has been refreshingly positive. However, none have performed to where the Mets can say they are in the clear. The concerns remain.

Question: Who is fifth starter?
Assessment: Fernando Nieve, Jon Niese, Nelson Figueroa and Hisanori Takahashi are in the mix. Takahashi has looked the best, but he hasn’t pitched enough to be stretched out. Niese has options remaining, so they could do the safe thing and send him out and protect someone else. Jerry Manuel said he’ll use a fifth starter from the start, so there will be no hiding him with the off-days in April. This is the biggest decision remaining in camp.

Question: What is the make-up of the bullpen?
Assessment: The biggest sub-question is whether Jenrry Mejia goes north in the pen and what role he would have. With his stuff, he’s a closer in waiting, which makes me think eighth-inning set-up. But, will the Mets expose him to that or put him in a low-pressure role. To me, that’s defeatist thinking. If you’re afraid to use him, then why carry him? Losing Escobar went a large part in opening the door for Mejia. So has, the general ineffectiveness of the relievers. If Takahashi doesn’t make it in the rotation, it could be him. Any of the losers for the fifth-starter could also fit as the long man. Bobby Parnell is still around, but he might be a casualty if they keep Takahashi in the pen. Kiko Calero and Ryota Igarashi will make the roster. Pedro Feliciano is still the only lefty of substance.

Mar 21

March 21.10: The plans for Davis?

Daniel Murphy has not had a good spring, but Ike Davis has been sizzling non-stop. Makes me think that if Murphy’s troubles continue Davis could be with the team earlier than expected.

By all accounts, Davis has the chance to be a special player and the timetable for him is next year. The plans for Murphy appear to be a position switch to second base.

Davis hit a game-tying homer yesterday, his third of the spring. It’s too soon to say Davis, despite hitting .500, is ready to start the season with the Mets. After all, his window has only been 24 at-bats. Davis will start today against the Astros’ Roy Oswalt in Kissimmee.

But next season, along with Jenrry Mejia and Fernando Martinez, the Mets have the potential for an outstanding young core.

FIFTH STARTER AUDITIONS CONTINUE: Nelson Figueroa will start today’s exhibition against the University of Michigan, followed by Fernando Nieve and Hisanori Takahashi, all up for the fifth-starter role.

Another fifth-starter candidate, Jon Niese, will start in the split-squad game vs. Houston.

Here’s today’s lineup vs. Michigan:

Luis Castillo, 2B
Alex Cora, SS
David Wright, 3B
Mike Jacobs, DH
Jason Bay, LF
Gary Matthews, CF
Chris Carter, RF
Daniel Murphy, 1B
Chris Coste, C

Here’s the lineup against Houston:

Jordany Valdespin, 2B
Ruben Tejada, SS
Ike Davis, 1B
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Fernando Martinez, CF
Fernando Tatis, 3B
Frank Catalanotto, LF
Omir Santos, C
Jon Niese, LP

ESCOBAR TO THROW: Kelvim Escobar, who has been shut down this spring with shoulder soreness, said he hopes to begin throwing tomorrow. But, that’s just him talking and it hasn’t been confirmed by the Mets.

Even if Escobar is cleared to throw, there’s no way he could catch up in time for the start of the season. The best guess would be early May.

Escobar was acquired with the idea of being the set-up reliever for Francisco Rodriguez. Right now that’s still an unanswered questions.

NOTES: Reliever Sean Green has a blister on his right big toe (push off leg) and is day-to-day. … It appears lefty reliever Joe Beimel won’t sign with the Mets. His agent, Joe Sroba, told The Post he’s been getting mixed signals from the Mets. What a surprise.

Mar 19

March 19.10: Looking at the pen.

Jerry Manuel said if prospect Jenrry Mejia makes the roster coming out of spring training, it won’t be in the set-up role but in low pressure situations.

If that’s the case, then isn’t he better off in the minor leagues pitching in the role the Mets envision for him immediately?

I just see the Mets doing the same yanking around with him they did with Bobby Parnell. Speaking of Parnell, his spot on the roster could be in jeopardy if fifth-starter candidate Hisanori Takahashi makes it as a reliever.

Takahashi will start the March 27 game against Washington. He has worked 8 1/3 scoreless innings in three appearances in competing with Jon Niese and Fernando Nieve for the fifth-starter role. The more I think of Takahashi as a fifth starter, the more I wonder. His numbers are good, but he hasn’t exactly been stretched out this spring and one start won’t do it, thereby making him more suitable for the bullpen.

PEN NOTES: Kiko Calero and Ryota Igarashi are in good shape as far as making the roster. … Pedro Feliciano was hit on the right knee by a grounder and left last night’s game. Feliciano was able to throw warm-ups after the injury and is expected to be fine. … Either Sean Green or Parnell could also be in trouble if the Mets sign left-hander Joe Beimel.

LIKING JACOBS: Manuel likes Mike Jacobs as a back-up first baseman and pinch hitter. The word is he’s been better than expected defensively. Jacobs has two homers this spring.

MANUEL ENDORSES CORA: After last night’s game Manuel endorsed Alex Cora over Ruben Tejada to play shortstop while Jose Reyes is down. That’s not to say Tejada will automatically be ticketed to the minor leagues.

Mar 18

March 18.10: What’s Jerry’s thinking about the fifth starter?

With most managers, at least those with security, their objectives are a balance between winning today and building for the future. That can’t be said for the Mets’ Jerry Manuel, who has joked about the importance of a fast start for the preservation of his job.

There’s truth in humor.

Manuel presided over the late season collapse of 2008 and full season free fall of 2009, and knows the Mets must contend, if not get to the playoffs and win a round, if he’s to return next year. Manuel’s job is on the line, and with it there’s a sense of urgency of being competitive immediately.

Given that, it stands to reason Manuel’s decisions, like that of choosing his fifth starter, will be to give him the best chance of winning now as opposing for building for the future, because quite simply, he has no guarantee of a future.

Manuel’s comments the other day that he’d like to see Hisanori Takahashi start a game this spring suggests strongly he’s being seriously considered for the fifth starter role. Takahashi has been superb in six scoreless innings, giving up two hits and striking out nine.

“What we have seen so far is he really has the ability to pitch and pitch with all his pitches,” Manuel said. “He probably is our sharpest pitcher right now, as far as everything hitting where he wants it to hit.”

If not Takahashi, then perhaps Fernando Nieve. Nelson Figueroa will be sent out to clear waivers, and Jon Niese, who went into spring training the favorite, will be sent out because he has options remaining.

Niese might be the fifth starter down the road, but Manuel doesn’t have the luxury of letting him learn on the job. As long as Takahashi is getting batters out, the Mets have a chance to win, and that means Manuel has a better chance to stick around.

Mar 15

March 15.10: Not pleased with Maine.

Not at all pleased with John Maine’s explanation for his horrendous performance yesterday afternoon. Maine gave up five runs on three hits and three walks while facing only eight Marlins.

“My mechanics felt fine. I just I wasn’t into it,’’ Maine told reporters.

Huh?

“The feeling that it wasn’t my game as a starter – that was the hardest thing. It’s a waste of a day… I was up, down, I can’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong. My delivery was fine. I was rushing a little. But that’s normal when you haven’t pitched in a while.’’

It might not have been his day as a starter, but it was his day as a Mets pitcher and there can never be any excuse for going through the motions. Never.

There was too much of that last year and if this spring is about starting fresh, there can’t be that kind of attitude.

The Mets’ pitching is suspect enough as it is and they can’t afford to have pitchers throw away their games even if it isn’t in the role they desire.

Maine is supposed to be one of the pitchers the team is looking up to and he has to come up bigger than this.

NOTEBOOK: Francisco Rodriguez, out with pink eye, will make his debut today. … The following were sent to the minor league camp: R.A. Dickey, Josh Fogg, Josh Thole and Eric Neissen.

Here’s today’s line-up vs. St. Louis:

Luis Castillo, 2B
Ruben Tejada, SS
David Wright, 3B
Mike Jacobs, 1B
Jason Bay, LF
Fernando Martinez, CF
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Rod Barajas, C
Fernando Nieve, RP

Followed by: Jon Niese, Francisco Rodriguez, Pat Misch, Sean Green, Tobi Stoner and Elmer Dessens.