ATLANTA -- Far away, but not forgotten in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Andres Torres performed light outfield drills on Tuesday for the first time since straining his left calf on Opening Day. Torres could progress to baserunning drills as soon as Thursday, with a rehab assignment beyond that on the horizon.

Whenever Torres does return, the center field job almost certainly belongs to him -- not rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Manager Terry Collins made that clear on Tuesday.

"I think he's still an important piece of this puzzle," Collins said of Torres. "Nieuwenhuis has played great. But Andres Torres, we got him for a reason. One of the things he provides is that guy who can get in scoring position for us. Outside of hitting doubles, we don't have anybody that's going to steal any bases for us."

Nieuwenhuis has thrived throughout his Major League debut, supplementing strong defense with a .292 average, one home run and a .370 on-base percentage over his first nine games. But company policy is not to have a prospect ride the bench in the Majors, even if that means an unjust demotion back to Triple-A.

"I just don't think that's fair to a young player," Collins said of keeping Nieuwenhuis on the bench. "I know he wants to be here. You talk to any young player, they'll tell you they can learn by watching. ... You learn by playing. I watch a lot of golf. I stink. So don't think that for a second."

Early schedule allowing Johan extra rest

ATLANTA -- The soft part of the schedule is nearly complete for left-hander Johan Santana, who made his third start of the season Tuesday on an extra day of rest. Santana has one more start scheduled on an extra day, before his first outing on regular rest coming April 28.

Though the Mets privately kicked around the idea of using a spot starter for that game, manager Terry Collins has no intention of scratching Santana from any outing unless the left-hander requests it. Because Santana has been so honest with him throughout his rehab from left-shoulder surgery, Collins trusts him.

"That's where I think Johan has been the greatest help as far as we've gone through this thing," Collins said. "He's been pretty honest the entire way with us. He knows the importance."

Extra rest has allowed Santana to follow each of his outings this season with a complete off-day, before ramping up his throwing on the second and third day between starts, then resting on the fourth and fifth. A generous April schedule has allowed the Mets to pencil Santana in for that extra day after each of his first four starts, and five of his first six.

"And that's worked out great," Collins said.

The lone exception will come April 28 in Denver, when Santana will start for the first time on regular rest against the Rockies. The week leading up to that outing will mark the first time Santana does not take a complete off-day immediately following a start.

Regardless, the Mets are not concerned with Santana's ability to bounce back. The left-hander was on a maximum pitch count of 115 for Tuesday's game, after throwing 84 and 99 pitches in his first two starts, respectively.

"What we were hoping to have happen with the extra day has happened," Collins said. "It's allowed him to get an extra day before he has to do the throwing programs, which he's done."

Mets catchers putting in extra film study

ATLANTA -- Each afternoon, before most players and coaches arrive to the park, catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas camp in front of a laptop to begin scouting the opposition. The two run down that day's opposing lineup, scanning game film for tendencies, weaknesses and potential advantages.

Those sessions "never took place last year," according to manager Terry Collins, and the results have been startling. Through two turns of the rotation, Mets starters rank second in baseball with a 2.39 ERA. By contrast, they finished 17th last year with a 4.12 mark, despite using mostly the same rotation -- Chris Capuano over Johan Santana the only difference -- for almost the entire season.

The credit, Collins says, should go to the backstops.

"The catchers are doing a tremendous job on the game-calling side," the manager said. "The fact that they are personally involved in the game-planning, how we're going to pitch guys in any situations, I think the pitchers have bought into that. I don't see a lot of shakes going on, which is a salute to the job that those guys are doing back there."

Thole, in particular, leads the Majors with a 1.66 catcher's ERA through nine games, more than a half-run better than anyone else in the league. That is a significant departure from last season, when Thole ranked 21st in baseball in catcher's ERA.

"I believe that you learn instincts by practicing the right things, and right now he's doing a tremendous job behind the plate," Collins said. "I like where he's at. ... I don't want to change anything with the way Josh has played, because he's caught very well."