Collins: We’ll be better than people expect

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) — New York Mets manager Terry Collins anticipates Johan Santana will be ready for opening day. And despite drastic payroll cuts, he says the team will be a lot better than people think.

As pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday, Collins said the Mets might find their own Jeremy Lin. Collins said every team has a player like Lin, the Knicks’ out-of-nowhere star, and that it’s all about providing opportunities.

He planned on telling players that, too.

“We don’t know who it’s going to be yet,” Collins said. “But every good team, there’s a surprise.”

During the winter when other NL East teams were loading up and the Mets were shedding talent, Collins said there was no sense of despair. He’s confident in a largely no-name roster.

“It’s human nature to say, `Wow, we’ve got a challenge on our hands,'” Collins said. “The thing I want to get these guys to understand is it’s not acceptable to say, `Well, we’re not supposed to be very good.’ I will not stand for that.”

In a nod to the perceived talent gap he added, “It’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best that wins. We’ve got to be that club.”

Collins was optimistic about the Mets’ chances despite the loss of shortstop Jose Reyes in free agency. The Mets could have a payroll of about $90 million to $95 million this year after starting last season at $120 million, not including $18 million owed released players Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo.

“I think everybody in this clubhouse is really excited for a fresh start,” outfielder-first baseman Mike Baxter said. “Pessimism kind of ends at the clubhouse door.”

Most position players had reported, too, well ahead of schedule.

A strong return from Santana, who threw off a mound Tuesday for the second time this year, would be a huge help. Collins said the team would be happy if it got 25-28 starts from the two-time Cy Young winner, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since September 2010.

“In my mind right now, in my heart, he’ll be ready,” Collins said. “I don’t think there’s any question. This guy has worked so hard in the last 18 months to get ready, I think he’s going to be ready, I really do.”

After throwing 30 pitches off a bullpen mound, Santana said to reporters: “Suave, amigos. Everything is under control.”

A little later, the left-hander was confident he’d make it back, saying he was happy with his mechanics. He was more circumspect, though, about his chances of pitching on opening day, having learned from enduring setbacks last season.

Santana expected to have a better idea later in spring training after seeing how his shoulder responded after facing major league competition.

“Opening day’s always good,” he said. “But again, I’m approaching everything one day at a time. Going through everything last year, one day you feel good and another you don’t feel good, it’s like a roller coaster.”

The 62-year-old Collins is rolling up his sleeves to face the challenge. He arrived at the training site at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to get in a workout and some private time, hoping to set an example for players who’d check in later and see their manager on the job. A manager who’ll always accentuate the positive, too.

“Last year, with all the things that happened, was the most fun I’ve had in managing,” Collins said. “Even though we had tough times with the injuries and we didn’t win as much as we wanted, I had a great time. Players bought into what we wanted to do, they bought into the system.”

Daniel Murphy will be his second baseman because “his bat plays and it plays real well.” Center fielder Andres Torres will be the leadoff man. Collins sees plenty of promise in 22-year-old rookie Ruben Tejada, who replaces Reyes at shortstop.

He anticipates bounce back years from third baseman David Wright and outfielder Jason Bay.

Santana’s message to fans: “Be positive. We’re here, we’re getting better, and a lot of these guys are excited about being back. We’re going to have fun and win some games.”