Starting pitching is baseball's perennial Holy Grail -- and the New York Mets justifiably feel that they've just found it.

It comes in the left hand of Johan Santana, whose offseason meandering on Tuesday ended where it had long been expected to lead -- in Flushing, N.Y., at the top of the Mets rotation.

Once New York general manager Omar Minaya and agent Peter Greenberg finish dotting the I's and crossing the T's -- and placing enough zeroes into a new contract -- the Mets will promptly leap from 2007's heartbreak to 2008's heartthrob.

And Jimmy Rollins, on a roll after forecasting that the Phillies would be the team to beat in 2007, will get a chance to revise his prediction that they will post 100 wins in 2008. Now that it will have to wind its way through Santana six times, that road just got tougher.

Such is the power of a premium pitcher, able to separate contention and frustration, optimism and fatalism, being zoned and being zonked -- a headliner for the most critical component of any team.

Without the ball rotating among trusted starters, the boys of summer just become geezers of bummer.

The composition of the rest of your team matters little. A deep bullpen certainly is a modern necessity, and to compete, you need a cohesive lineup, whether built on speed or power. But without stout starting pitching, the offense's efforts are squandered and relievers can't do their jobs. Leads are as lasting as a mansion built on a fault line.

The starting five certainly define roles, front-runner through bottom-dweller. That's why the Mets have instantly leapfrogged the Phillies as National League East favorites.

Yet, clarity is always in hindsight, not in foresight. Projections invariably go the route of other well-laid plans, because it's a landmine out there. Seldom, if ever, does that preseason rotation keep spinning through October.

That proverbial list of life's sure things may be expanded to death, taxes and the breakdown of starters. Advances in modern medicine, in fact, may promote the latter to No. 2.

Starters

Remaining Schedule

So it has become a matter of numbers. Not of ERAs and of strikeouts-to-walks ratios, but of heads.

The Angels may pioneer the idea that six heads are better than five. While the Red Sox briefly toyed with a six-man rotation to accommodate both Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Angels are actually going forward with that possibility.

Accommodating six arms could be quirky, but stockpiling them is a common objective. Like the guy in the buffet line, GMs say, "Never enough."

"Every club in baseball can say, 'Well we've got our five.' But you better have more than five," says Houston's Ed Wade. "Nine would be good."

Wayne Krivsky, whose Reds have a scrum for starting jobs behind the top two of Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, says of the crowd, "I'd rather be in this situation having a few too many than not enough."

Chirps in Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, "We are stockpiling the pitchers."

Adds Cleveland's Mark Shapiro of having more bona fide starting candidates than starting slots, "I feel good about our immediate depth. But as any GM would tend to do, I have anxiety about our long-term depth, because after those seven or eight guys, there are questions as to who the next guy is."

No doubt, that elusive No. 9 starter can hold the key to success.

Maxed out

Some fans would like club people to have to wash their mouths with soap after dropping words like "if," "best-case scenario" and "potential." To them, it sounds like rationalization before the fact.

However, in at least one sense, the sentiment is legitimate: Hoping for players to rise to levels they have already experienced. The Majors' top projected rotations, based on pitchers' single-season bests (admittedly a fantasy, in light of advancing age and debilitating injuries).

• Braves (John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Chuck James, Mike Hampton): 99-34
• Mets (Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Orlando Hernandez): 90-30
• Indians (C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, Paul Byrd, Cliff Lee): 88-41
• Dodgers (Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt, Chad Billingsley, Esteban Loaiza -- subbing for Hiroki Kuroda, without a track record): 87-31
• Tigers (Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson): 85-36
• Angels (John Lackey, Jon Garland, Kelvim Escobar, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana): 84-38

Stirring the pot

Melting pot, that is. Twelve years after the Dodgers unveiled the original iHop rotation -- their International House of Pitchers included Hideo Nomo (Japan), Ismael Valdez (Mexico), Pedro Astacio (Dominican Republic), Chan Ho Park (Korea) and Tom Candiotti (California) -- the new Mets would reenact the globalization benchmark:

• Johan Santana, Venezuela
• Pedro Martinez, Dominican Republic
• Oliver Perez, Mexico
• Orlando Hernandez, Cuba
• John Maine, Virginia

Five on the spot

• Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: Dice-K had a dicey Major League debut, carried in Josh Beckett's wind drag. The Red Sox expected the 15 wins, but not the 4.40 ERA. Boston scored 100 runs in those victories, going double-figures in four of them; yet Dice-K also took a pair of 1-0 decisions, highlighting his "rookie" inconsistencies. With his season of adjustments behind him, a Beckett-like breakthrough is now forecast for Matsuzaka. Can he step up from adequate to exceptional?

• Ben Sheets, Brewers: The Brewers missed by two games, he missed 10 starts. So there are big stakes for Milwaukee and bigger stakes for a 29-year-old right-hander in his "walk" season. In Sheets' case, perhaps the period approaching free agency should be called "limp" season. He has won 28 games and missed 39 starts the last three years with various injuries -- back, chest, groin, shoulder, finger, hamstring. By all accounts, he is a fantastic competitor when he's on the field. But can he get there often enough?

• Cliff Lee, Indians: Two years removed from rivaling Barry Zito as the American League's premiere left-hander, Lee enacted the opposite of the proverbial fast-rising prospect. He descended the Minor League ladder, pitching in Triple-A through Class A between disappointing shifts in Cleveland. He was riding a 41-21 stretch when the Indians rewarded him with a new three-year, $14 million contract in August 2006 -- and has gone 10-11 since. While the Tribe has other worthy candidates for the back end of the rotation, as Shapiro says, "When you pay a guy a contract of that magnitude, you don't want to send him to Triple-A."

• Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, Blue Jays: The two right-handers stepped up big for a Toronto rotation in need last season, combining to go 24-16 with fine ERAs. But encores have been the tall hurdle in Canada, and the two 26-year-olds will try to avoid being the new Josh Towers-Gustavo Chacin pairing. Towers and Chacin combined in 2005 to win 25 games but have mustered a total of only 18 wins in the two seasons since.

• Mark Prior and Randy Wolf, Padres: San Diego is betting big time on the come, and if these two come through, they could put the Friars' rotation over the top. Wolf hasn't been on the mound since July 3 (sore shoulder), Prior not since Aug. 10, 2006 (strained side).

Weakest link

As in, "You're only as strong as your weakest link."

Top records in 2007 by No. 5 starters (determined by number of starts):

• Claudio Vargas, Brewers: 11-6, 5.09
• Joe Saunders, Angels: 8-5, 4.44
• Horacio Ramirez, Mariners: 8-7, 7.16
• Jorge Sosa, Mets: 7-6, 4.59
• Sean Marshall, Cubs: 7-8, 3.92
• Jesse Litsch, Blue Jays: 7-9, 3.81

Rotation factoids

Philadelphia's Brett Myers turned a rare trick in this age of specialized roles. As the Phillies' Opening Day starter, he delivered their first pitch of the season, a called strike to Atlanta's Kelly Johnson; six months later, as Phillies closer, he delivered their last pitch of the regular season, a strikeout of Washington's Wily Mo Pena to clinch the NL East.

The last time a Pirates left-hander bagged more wins than Tom Gorzelanny's 14 of last season, the Bucs were winning NL East titles with Barry Bonds in left field. John Smiley won 20 and Zane Smith 16 in 1991.

There have been five 20-game winners in the Majors the last three seasons. Compare that to the remarkable fact that the Braves' rotation could include a quartet of 20-game winners, if Hampton is well enough to link up with Glavine, Smoltz and Hudson.