By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

The Mets sure could use Johan Santana right about now. A healthy Santana, that is.

That probably won’t happen until well after Opening Day, however, as Santana has yet to pitch in a game because of weakness in that priceless left shoulder of his. By all indications, he could be out all of April and quite possibly part of May — or even longer.

What started as an annoyance at the beginning of spring training has officially become a major problem. Worse yet, there is no guarantee that his shoulder will come around enough, even when strengthened, to give the Mets the reliable starter they’ve had since Santana arrived in 2008. Except for his 6-9 record of last season, when he came off his lost 2011 season after shoulder surgery, he has won no fewer than 11 games.

OK, that’s not an earthshaking stat. But consider this. The number of his opportunities have never been so plentiful as they were his first year here. Those 34 starts shrunk to 25 in ’09, and went back up to 29 in ’10, only to shrink again to 21 before Terry Collins shut him down after his Aug. 17 loss to Washington.

Shoulder fatigue caused by an ankle sprain that led to a stint on the disabled list in July was the reason, and his self-imposed inactivity over the winter didn’t help matters. As the Mets stand today, the shoulder is still a ways away from being pitching ready.

Worse yet, even Santana has no idea when he’ll step on a mound in front of an opposing, live batter. And even worse than that, there’s no guarantee that Santana returns to the early-2012 form that allowed him to become the first Met to throw a no-hitter.

“I’m going to battle and try to come back and help as much as I can,” Santana told the New York Post over the weekend. “When is that going to happen? I really don’t know. All I know is I have to work and make sure I get back into pitching.”

For a squad struggling to return to relevant status, that’s pretty devastating. For a pitcher of the 33-year-old Santana’s pedigree, getting back to the simple act of pitching sets the bar perilously low. They need an effective Santana if they even expect to make a run at .500.

It won’t help that right-hander Shaun Marcum could be headed for the DL with a neck injury. They’ll now throw Jon Niese on Opening Day, with Jeremy Hefner taking Santana’s spot in the rotation if healthy enough.

Dillon Gee’s seven strikeouts in six shutout innings against the Braves on Monday provides encouragement, tempered with caution because of Gee’s overall rocky spring training. Before that start, he had allowed 11 earned runs in two starts.

Whether that’s a blip in what could turn into a tough rebound season for him after a blood clot ruined last year remains to be seen. But suffice it to say that Santana’s slow recovery and Marcum’s injury really have left the Mets with Niese and young but hopeful Matt Harvey as the only two reliable starters.

Zack Wheeler will be waiting down below, of course, but the Mets aren’t going to rush him up.

Meanwhile, they’ll just have to wait for Santana and hope that the brilliant future that awaits Harvey is now. Santana won’t pitch in a game until he can throw a ball 180 feet. So far, he’s only halfway there.

It’ll be a while. But for a floundering franchise like the Mets, even a month will feel like an eternity. And that will make relevance appear very far away.

When do you expect to see Santana back on the mound in Flushing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…

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