PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- We still have no idea at all what Johan Santana can mean to the Mets this season.
But it sure is easy to see what he means to them this spring.
Simply by taking the mound, even for a 30-pitch bullpen session, Santana provides a hint of hope to a team that so often seems hopeless. Every day he shows up and his left shoulder doesn't hurt, the Mets can point to him and say, "See, here's something that could go right."
Because the perception of the Mets right now is that everything goes wrong.
So when manager Terry Collins opened camp Tuesday morning by declaring, "We're better than people think we are," it sure helped that the next thing we saw was Santana making his second bullpen appearance of the spring.
In case anyone missed it, Collins helped with emphasis, turning to say, "That's filthy," after one Santana changeup.
"That's not bad," he told the left-hander when it over. "That's not a bad day."
For the Mets, that qualifies as a major success.
For a manager trying to sell hope, there's no better evidence than a two-time Cy Young winner who missed all of last season taking the mound and giving a hint that this year he'll be able to pitch.
You can't blame Collins for getting perhaps a little over-optimistic, declaring Tuesday that he believes Santana will be ready for opening day, and that "I don't think there's any question."
You can't blame Collins for saying that he's hopeful Santana can make at least 25 starts this season.
"If he gives us 25-28 starts, we'll be a lot better."
Honestly, the Mets would settle now for an assurance that Santana will be able to take the mound for one regular-season start, and go from there. Honestly, even if and when he does start a game, they don't know if he'll be the same pitcher who has a 3.10 career ERA over 11 big-league seasons.
This isn't Adam Wainwright, who also missed all of 2011 but had the relatively predictable Tommy John elbow surgery. Santana, who turns 33 next month, is coming back from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his shoulder. History provides few examples of pitchers making successful returns.
For now, Santana says he's able to do all his work with no trouble.
"The ball was coming out of my hand pretty good," he said after Tuesday's session.
But even he knows that 30 pitches in February tell you little about where he'll be in April and beyond.
"The key is how I recover, from one game to another," he said. "I'm approaching everything one day at a time."
Told that Collins mentioned 25-28 starts, Santana said simply: "It would be great if that happened. I've got to get my first out of the way."
It's worth remembering that Santana did get on the mound last summer, and even made two minor-league starts. What he's doing now is only a big deal if he can carry it through to when spring training games begin in two weeks, and then to real games in April.
And what if he does?
The Mets would still face an uphill battle in an ever-improving National League East. Even a totally healthy Santana wouldn't turn the Mets into favorites, or even into contenders.
But for an organization that desperately needs to change the story, Santana is the guy with the best chance to help do it.
Collins is trying.
"I don't want people to think for one second that there are no expectations," he said. "There are expectations. We're going to compete. . . . We're going to play to play in the postseason."
Realistic or not, it's better to say that in February than to state the obvious, which is that they sure look overmatched.
Any day Santana gets to the mound, even for a 30-pitch bullpen session, Collins and the Mets can sell a little hope.
And even if Santana on the mound in February doesn't tell us whether Santana will be on the mound in April, it's better than the alternative.
Too often in recent days, the Mets have seen the alternative.