PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- With concern for the health of Jon Niese's shoulder reduced to nearly nothing, the Mets move on to real baseball Friday.
"All we need now," manager Terry Collins said Thursday following an intrasquad game, "are hitters wearing different colors." Come Friday afternoon, the Nationals will fill that need, and the Mets' Spring Training season will begin.
The results of the game Friday and the other 32 Mets games scheduled -- split-squad contests included -- won't mean anything. These games are about preparation for the season. No one ever has linked Spring Training records to success or failure in the regular season in a meaningful way. (Though Tony La Russa once called his Cardinals together after they had split their first two games in February and said: "I'd rather not fall under .500.")
The objective, beginning Friday at 1:10 p.m. ET at Tradition Field (live on MLB.TV), is simple -- play well and prepare for March 31 when the Nationals again will provide the opposition, but in the first of the 162 games that matter, the first of 81 games at the Big Citi.
The plan is to have Niese start that Opening Day game, and now that Dr. David Altchek has cleared him to resume throwing after reading the results of an MRI taken Wednesday night, the plan and the objective are hand in hand.
The Mets have allowed secret communication to seep into the public domain, so now we know general manager Sandy Alderson expects his team to win 90 games -- or 15 more games than the Mets have averaged from 2009 through last season.
Collins is hardly pulling away from the figure that some observers consider a longshot, given the Mets' middle-infield defense and unproven relief.
"If our players perform like we know they can," the manager said Thursday, "we'll be fine. If we get that special season from someone, we'll be better than fine."
Collins said he has stared at the roster posted on his office wall, devised four or five different batting orders and felt confident about each one. Strikeouts may be an issue if the outfield is manned as expected.
The manager predicts improved defense among his players in the outfield, including Curtis Granderson, Chris Young and Juan Lagares. Lagares will be the center fielder Friday. Young is likely to be in center this weekend.
David Wright will not play against the Nationals, so the infield will have Ike Davis at first, Wilmer Flores at second, Josh Satin at third and Ruben Tejada at shortstop. Travis d'Arnaud catches and prospect Rafael Montero is the starting pitcher, opposite Stephen Strasburg. Replace Satin with Wright, and the lineup Friday is likely to be the lineup March 31, unless Collins thinks he needs Eric Young to lead off.
The manager clearly agrees with the general manager's foresight. The players seem excited and hardly disillusioned by the two successive seasons with 74-88 records. Now they begin a 33-game schedule that has no meaning that can be measured in numbers, but so much meaning in how they will fare.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com.