By Rich Coutinho
» More Columns

The Mets’ 2012 season will begin shortly and it certainly appears the starting rotation is set: Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee and Mike Pelfrey.

Assuming Johan remains healthy, a Santana-Dickey duo could be pretty formidable at the top of the rotation. Gee and Pelfrey remain question marks, in my opinion, as the former struggles to find consistency and the latter is trying to find the Pelfrey of 2010.

So, Niese becomes a key component of this team — and here’s why:

Santana and Dickey will pitch to their historical ERAs if healthy: Johan around 3.00 and R.A. around 3.25. So, with question marks at the No. 4 and 5 spots, Niese becomes a central figure in the success of the 2012 Mets. In order to make the next step in his career, Niese must overcome two hurdles: durability and his love affair with the cut fastball.

The overhand curveball is his best pitch. Consider that the 12-6 breaking ball has become a lost art in the sport, as most pitchers would rather throw a slider, which is easier to control and harder to hang. But make mo mistake about it: Niese’s curve is top-notch. If you don’t believe me ask the guys who face him.

“He has an absolutely ridiculous curveball,” says Nationals rightfielder Jayson Werth, “and I am a right-handed hitter. I can only imagine how it looks to a left-handed hitter.”

And that brings up yet another point. This division is loaded with good left-handed hitters. Having Santana and an effective Niese in a three-game series — versus the Atlanta Braves for instance, who feature Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman — could neutralize a lot of other weaknesses. But pitch selection is only half the battle with Niese–the second part of the equation is staying on the field.

Niese has not finished healthy in the past two seasons, and as a consequence his numbers have suffered.

“He has to find a way to finish better,” said Mets manager Terry Collins, “and we have to help him get there. He has such great stuff but we have to take a long look at what he does between starts so he is fresh down the stretch.”

If Niese can solve these two issues, with a healthy Johan Santana, this rotation could look pretty good. Now don’t get me wrong–it;s not Halladay, Lee and Hamels. But it could solve a bunch of the Mets’ problems.

It’s all up to Jonathon Niese, in what may turn out to be the most important year of his career.

Do you think Niese will step it up in 2012? Sound off in the comments below…

Watch & Listen LIVE