By Rich Coutinho
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When you look at the big question marks for the 2012 Mets, Johan Santana and Jason Bay top the list.

But in order to compete, the Mets must get solid starting pitching — even if Santana returns healthy and ready to go. Over the past four years, Mike Pelfrey has shown the ability to both impress you and leave you scratching your head.

In 2008,  he finished 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA, followed by a 2009 season in which he went 10-12 with a career high 5.03 ERA. And just when you were ready to write him off, he had his best season ever, winning 15 games and possessing a 3.66 ERA. Then the bottom fell out last year with a 7-13 record and a 4.74 ERA.

So what do you make of his inconsistency? Clearly he has shown the ability to rebound. Pelfrey’s track record would indicate a good  season in 2012. But I refuse to just dismiss this with a one-year-on, one-year-off explanation.

I really believe Pelfrey fell in love with his new pitch — the cutter — last season. It gave him some success in 2010, but the problem was it forced him to move away from his real strength — a hard sinking fastball. He gave up a career high 21 homers last year and I firmly believe the cutter had a lot to do with that. He needs to get back to basics. Pelfrey was a top draft pick because he threw a hard sinker very similar to Brandon Webb.

And if he is to have success, he needs to return to his roots.

Another big thing for Pelfrey is the presence of Santana, who I firmly believe has a profound influence on the big right-hander for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a return to ace status for No. 57 will allow Pelfrey to be Pelfrey — and not force the righty to be something he is not. Secondly, Santana spent hours with Pelfrey when he was healthy talking to him about preparation, focus and confidence.

“He has great stuff,” said Santana a few years ago in spring training. “And he needs to trust his stuff. You do thinking before you throw a pitch not during the motion of pitching.”

And that is an important point for Pelfrey. He has good stuff and sometimes he suffers from over thinking. That especially came to fruition when Terry Collins made him the Opening Day starter — one of the few mistakes the manager made last year. When he does not over think things, he performs well.  Case in point: Back in 2010, Pelfrey relieving in that marathon game in St. Louis. He performed in a very tough situation because he did not have time to worry about the moment. “Paralysis by Analysis” is the term for it I think.

I have gotten to know Pelfrey in the past few years and nobody wants to win more than him. He is a great teammate, very well-liked in all corners of that clubhouse and a real role model in the way he handles himself with both and the media and the fans. More importantly, he has talent. And if I were a general manager, I’d want him on my staff.

Pitching is a strange thing. Some hurlers blossom right away while others need time to develop. R.A. Dickey re-invented himself after an injury because he had the will to make it back to the majors. The road for Pelfrey is slightly different because he is physically healthy but he needs an injection of confidence and a return to “his basics” of pitching.

In both 2008 and 2010, he showed he could be more than a serviceable pitcher.

If he returns to that form in 2012, the Mets’ starting rotation may start to look a lot better than the gloomy picture the baseball world has depicted for all of us to see.

Do you think Pelfrey will turn it around? Sound off below…

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