A New York Mets offseason certain to prove a pillar in whatever the future holds for the franchise has been somewhat quiet thus far. For how much longer remains to be seen, but the expectations are high.
Maybe not in the sense that fans are clamoring for an acquisition in the perennial All-Star mold of free-agent Robinson Cano or even a Jason Bay (hey, at one time) for that matter—think of this winter more as a step stool. A tall, slippery one with only a few barely discernible areas for which the team can confidently place its feet without risking falling off of it entirely.
A blueprint certain to make this New York Mets offseason a success you ask? Well, of course I'd be happy to oblige. Improvement is the name of the game, but overambition is precisely what a franchise—a mere misstep away from prolonging its frustrating seven-year run indefinitely—must avoid.
There are plenty of eyes evaluating New York's crucial winter between the fanbase, media and ownership, but grades should be withheld until spring training. General manager Sandy Alderson appears to be willing to consider all potential avenues of improvement, and frankly, that's the way it should be. Even if that means garnering just a few prudent—if not generally insignificant—assets this offseason has to offer.
The Mets don't need a super shiny, brand-new toy capable of shouldering the stragglers even David Wright couldn't carry alone.
OK, so maybe they do. But let's not pretend a single acquisition is standing between familiar mediocrity and October baseball at Citi Field—not even a high-end, $200 million Cano model can do that. The Mets aren't ready to add a piece like that. Not yet.
Churning out a 90-win team in 2014 would be great. Truly remarkable, actually. It doesn't, however, take a revamped, playoff-caliber roster to render the winter a success.
Instead, a successful offseason requires an honest front office approach (in regard to the fans), some shrewd spending and staying faithful to the course that finally has the organization heading in the right direction to begin with.
There will be plenty of calculated risk concerning each and every move Alderson explores. New York has a slew of gaping holes all around the diamond and insufficient funding to work with, even if he hits the $40 million general high-water mark most experts anticipate.
Throw the right money at the right guys and you're a hero—might even convince owner Fred Wilpon that his Mets are ready to rejoin baseball's financial big boys while he's at it. Saddle the team with a fresh bloated contract and the latest underperforming scapegoat, though, and Alderson could just be punching his own ticket out of Queens.
A delicate situation indeed.
Honesty Doesn't Mean Full Transparency, But Patience Is Wearing Thin
The overall narrative this offseason is that the Mets, now rid of a couple of contracts previously tying them up financially, are prepared to spend. That much seems to have merit this time, but Mets fans have been led down this road before only to be greeted by disappointment.
While a fanbase is left with no choice but to place their faith in a regime, since 2010, attempting to turn around a once-proud organization, it's difficult to ignore the recent past. That trust may be justifiably waning, and it's important for upper management to salvage any and all they're fortunate to have left.
New York's National League ballclub is certainly no stranger to losing—they've endured numerous extended runs of shameful play throughout their history—but as Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post chronicled, each former lengthy display of ineptitude came with "but" followed by reasonable logic:
Mets ownership lost, first, the bankroll and, later, the will to compete. From 2009-13 they have managed to fritter away half the paid fans who attended their games in 2008, have alienated the ones who stayed away, have asked for an endless supply of patience while providing a bottomless slate of empty, awful results.
There is no “but” to add here. Not yet.
Alderson was upfront regarding the correlation between spending and team revenue. Before the Mets can spend like financial juggernauts they'll need to generate funds like one. A little obvious. Not what anybody wants to hear, perhaps, but fair. Sure, winning tends to guarantee more butts in seats. Unfortunately, though, that type of winning could still be a ways away.
For a fifth consecutive year the attendance figures at Citi Field declined, good for 21st in Major League Baseball.
If you'll excuse the cliche—resembling baseball's elite goes beyond dollars, cents and even roster-makeup for that matter. Taking an honest approach with the loyal fans and media cohorts will, at the very least, keep some of the inevitable vitriol at bay.
Public support will always be key to the team's revenue—even if the desired on-field success comes later.
Don't Abandon the Plan
When Alderson came onboard in 2010, the team adopted a new philosophy to lift them out of a once-seemingly inescapable hole.
For years the Mets threw money at free agents only to leave them in competitive shambles. While the perennial contenders relied on a self-sustaining organizational scheme, the New York Mets neglected to take notice.
It was a franchise mired by ownership speculation and scandal, recent collapses and sorely in need of a swift transition. The revamped approach turned out to be closer to methodical than swift, but the ultimate vision became clear steadily. If the Mets were starting over, they were doing it the right way this time.
By the end of Omar Minaya's run, the Mets were in financial quicksand with a farm system bereft of the talent that any well-run club has the benefit of falling back on.
A youth-oriented strategy focused on building from within was implemented. Long-term contracts were avoided, veterans of value were shipped out and stockpiling young pitching became a top priority. Today the Mets are an organization extremely deep in pitching talent at all levels with a minor league system to be proud of.
New York has arrived at this point by committing to minor league development while, simultaneously, carefully monitoring expenditures. On the possible brink of sustainable prosperity and accomplished on the backs of a youth-infused roster and a steadfast approach still yet to run its full course.
Establish a winner internally. The tantalizing, pricey pieces should be supplemental to a GM, not serve as linchpins.
Spend Prudently or Not at All
Steering clear of the primary issue that got the Mets here in the first place served to afford the Mets some financial flexibility this winter—but that doesn't necessarily mean it should be flexed.
Not all of it at least. Not yet.
A single poor gamble could leave the Mets in the familiar strapped-for-cash position that excused their spending habits—or lack thereof—since Alderson's arrival. We bemoaned Wilpon for his ambiguous legal standing while tied up in litigation and begrudgingly accepted the organizational consequences.
The new GM would demonstrate payroll restraint while he waited for the final two bad contracts to come off the books prior to the 2014 season. It gave the Mets time to put a new plan in motion and ownership time to get their finances in order.
Now Alderson has some disposable capital, but the franchise can find itself in an all-too-familiar scenario if he isn't careful. A single poor gamble is all it takes to leave the Mets strapped for cash next winter.
For the Mets' purposes, the current free-agent crop isn't exactly ideal. A franchise-transforming piece is nowhere to be found with possible exception of a pipe-dream like Robinson Cano.
The market outside of free agency yields names like Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp—these are the type of risky propositions and reclamation projects dominating trade talks. It'd naive to feel any less than hesitant at the idea of any of them, and thankfully the Mets appear inclined to agree.
Should a valuable asset emerge somewhere on the market at the right price, Alderson should jump at it. Appealing options exist but should not be obtained for a monetary price that exceeds the value of their anticipated on-field contribution.
Shin-Soo Choo—long thought to be Alderson's primary target this offseason—seems to have priced himself out of New York's comfortable range. Probably for the better, too. The incessant need to add a big name is what resulted in the failed Jason Bay experiment. And that's putting it kindly.
Outfielder Norichika Aoki has apparently drawn the interest of some Mets insiders, and his ability to slide seamlessly into the leadoff role make sense. Aoki can match the performance of nearly every option available in free agency, and they shouldn't have to overspend to bring him in.
It'll take plenty of creativity and probably more time, but this franchise could use help in almost every area. The Mets need the right pieces, and for now, they remain undefined.
In the event that no such player is available, why force the issue only to add a new hindrance to contend with down the road? Alderson's astute managerial work should be enough to have the young, Matt Harvey-less Mets trending upward in 2014—with or without recruiting a bona fide star this winter to don the blue and orange.
Just don't compromise it all for an additional win.
For more Mets info and plenty of other random musings, follow me on Twitter: Follow @jaysteck.
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