PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - No one's saying it just yet. That doesn't mean, however, that most people aren't thinking it.
But after watching David Cone pitch Thursday night at Thomas J. White Stadium, it's hard not to imagine the veteran hurler being given the keys to the fifth spot in New York's rotation. Cone threw four strong innings in the Mets' 8-2 victory over Tampa Bay, putting forth his best effort to date.
He allowed one run on three hits, struck out four, walked one and finished with a flourish, retiring the last five batters he faced. Considering how fragile the back end of New York's rotation has become with Pedro Astacio on the shelf indefinitely, it will be hard to keep Cone out of the picture if he pitches as well in his final two spring outings as he did Thursday.
"It was a good outing and I showed improvement," said Cone, 40, whose ERA this spring is 6.75. "Overall my arm strength was pretty good. I had my best velocity in the fourth inning. I had a couple of strikeouts and that was encouraging. That last inning might have been my strongest.
"With each time out, I'm legitimizing it more. Even during my last outing [in Mexico City] I felt like I made strides with my arm strength. I know I can still do this. It's just a matter of stretching my arm out and pitching enough innings to be a starter."
If Cone follows his current schedule, he will pitch Tuesday night at home against the Dodgers. He will then throw again on Mar. 30, the day before the season begins. The Mets probably won't need a start from the No. 5 spot in the rotation until April 6 against the Expos at Shea Stadium, so there would be plenty of time for Cone to continue stretching out his arm, whether he does it with the club or stays down in Port St. Lucie for a few extra days.
"Right now I think he can still pitch in the Major Leagues," catcher Mike Piazza said. "We still have some time left but his velocity was there, he was sharp and his breaking ball had good snap. I don't know exactly what his role would be but his presence here has been a positive. I think that in and of itself is important."
Manager Art Howe and general manager Steve Phillips still haven't made Cone aware of any decisions they may have made so he's still working under the assumption that he has something to prove. Howe was impressed with Cone's effort but remained non-committal.
"I haven't had time to talk to them," said Cone, who threw 63 pitches. "In five days, I'll try to go five innings and continue to get stronger. At the end of spring, I'll sit down and talk with them.
"I made a big stride tonight but I still feel like I have more to prove. I know that's why they gave me a legitimate look. That's why they sent [Steve] Trachsel to pitch in a minor league game today. They wouldn't be giving me these innings if they weren't giving me a serious look. That's more than I asked for. They've showed a lot of patience and let me stay in a starter's routine."
It's looking more and more like a fifth starter's routine.