At 40-42, and signs that the firing of Willie Randolph hasn't had any magical effect on the team, it makes sense to start looking ahead to next year for Met fans.
Regardless of the poor play of the Braves and Phillies, the Mets are nothing more than an average team as currently constructed. They are sixth in the league in runs scored and eighth in team ERA —a middle of the pack team with a top of the line payroll.
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and that lies in the contracts that come off the books after this season. Check the money freed up at the end of the year:
Carlos Delgado - $12mm (+$4mm paid by Florida)
Moises Alou - $7.5mm
Orlando Hernandez - $6.5mm
Pedro Martinez - $11.5mm
Oliver Perez - $6.5mm
Jorge Sosa - $2mm
Total - $46mm
Since the team is also moving into a new stadium, there shouldn't be any reason to cut payroll, in fact that gives the team the very real option of boosting their current payroll. So, where does that money get spent?
1.) #2 Starting Pitcher
The Mets need a starter to slot in between Johan Santana and John Maine. I can't see the Mets bringing in another $20mm a year pitcher like Sabathia, so they will look at the choices a step below that. Available options: AJ Burnett, Ben Sheets, Jon Garland, and possibly re-signing Perez. Another option is Japanese import Hu Darvish, but again he cost more than the Mets are willing to spend.
2.) First Base or Left Field
The question the Mets will have to answer for themselves after the season is, "Is Fernando Martinez ready for the big leagues?" Martinez, the 19 year old top prospect, is currently hitting .299/.335/.443 at AA. If the Mets decide he is ready, the left field job is his. If he needs another year, which he probably does, the Mets will need a short term answer in left, plus someone at first.
It's doubtful the Mets will give the first base job to a minor leaguer (Mike Carp or Nick Evans), and neither is considered a top prospect. Available options are slim at first base where Mark Teixeira is really the only top of the line option. There's very little doubt the Mets will in the running for him, but if they lose out, the Mets will have to look at other options like converting a veteran 3rd baseman such as Joe Crede or Adrian Beltre into a first baseman.
Left field offers some better options, so the Mets may take the stance of signing an OF, and then converting someone into a first baseman when Martinez is ready (or giving Martinez a first baseman's mitt). Milton Bradley, Adam Dunn (who can already play 1B), Wily Mo Pena, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu are all good options for the Mets.
The Mets have been hamstrung by an ineffective and short bench this year and GM Omar Minaya has to do a better job of building the bench. OF backups Endy Chavez and Marlon Anderson are already under contract, along with backup catcher Ramon Castro, so the IF is where the Mets can improve the bench. Someone like Aaron Miles, Mark Loretta, or Tadihito Iguchi would be a good fit.
Omar Minaya has had two bad offseasons in a row, despite the Santana deal. This offseason is going to be crucial not only to the team's success, but to his ability to keep his job.
The Mets can re-load and once again be a top contender when they open Citifield in '09, but for that to happen Omar has to learn from his mistakes and stop relying on aging veterans.
Smart free agent signings such as the 29-year-old Jon Garland, the 31-year-old Milton Bradley or 29-year-old Adam Dunn will prepare the team for another run at the division title. Now, if they could just find someone to take on the contract of Luis Castillo.
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