PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The bullpen the Mets thought might be their second-greatest asset -- behind their offense -- took another hit on Wednesday. Juan Padilla, never an Opening Day certainty, won't even throw another pitch before the Mets begin their season in St. Louis on April 1. He has been shut down for two weeks because of soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow.

Padilla was examined in the New York area on Tuesday because, in his words, he "didn't recover as quickly as usual" after making his exhibition game debut. He pitched one inning against the Marlins on March 11, his first game appearance since undergoing reconstructive surgery in his elbow last March.

The 30-year-old reliever described the discomfort as soreness, rather than pain, more a residual feeling than a new sensation. He didn't seem discouraged Wednesday, though he had expressed a desire to be on the Opening Day roster.

"I'm still ahead of schedule," he said. "So I can't get down. I was way ahead. Now I'm just ahead."

Padilla's absence means the Mets' bullpen is almost assured of including Jorge Sosa and Ambiorix Burgos, the erratic but hard-throwing right-handed pitchers added to the roster in the offseason. Neither has pitched effectively thus far.

Whether Padilla's absence affects the candidacy of rookie reliever Joe Smith is difficult to say. The Mets, who briefly considered promoting Smith to the big leagues last August after the injury to Duaner Sanchez, now have misgivings about "rushing" the sub-sidearm right-hander who turns 23 on Thursday; that despite Smith's strong performance in exhibition games.

Four places in the bullpen -- those of Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano -- are secure. The club probably will carry three other relievers -- a long man and two right-handed setup men, one who will probably evolve into the seventh-inning pitcher.

The club had spoken of using Sosa in long or short relief, though his tendency to allow home runs makes him less than ideal for any role other than "protecting" deficits.

With no Padilla, Sanchez or Guillermo Mota available, and with Mike Pelfrey seemingly in place as the No. 5 starter, one of the also-ran starter candidates -- Chan Ho Park or Aaron Sele -- could fill the long-relief role and leave the other two roles to Sosa, Burgos, Smith and/or Jon Adkins, who made his strongest showing to date Tuesday with a scoreless inning against the Orioles.