The New York Mets will enter 2012 as a long shot to make the playoffs. I'm not convinced they have the finances to retain Jose Reyes' services in Queens, and I'm certain they won't make any huge free-agent plays at Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or the like.
It's great that fans are saying they should use Reyes' money on an impact player like Pujols, but that is wishful thinking at best and downright stupid at worse. It's financially irresponsible and it's the kind of long-term deal the team just can't make right now.
People would come to see Pujols play at Citi Field, no doubt about it. But once the novelty wears off and the Mets are 10 games out of the NL Wild Card lead by the All-Star break, things will be back to normal. The only thing that puts people in seats is winning. The Mets need more than Pujols to win.
Fans still think that the Mets are a big-market club. They're not. They're an average-to-poor team playing in a big market. As soon as people realize that, they can look beyond the glamorous superstars the Mets can't afford and start thinking about much more realistic options to help the Mets through this rocky patch of on-field woes and monetary hardship.
The farm system is better than people give it credit for, but the real gems of the organization are still a couple years away. Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler and Wilmer Flores are all 18 months away in the best case scenario, and Jordany Valdespin and Reese Havens will most likely need at least a year at Triple-A before the Mets can consider a promotion. As for guys like Cory Vaughn, 2013 is maybe even unrealistic.
With shallow pockets and a lack of immediate help in the minors, the Mets can either trade for talent or try to find a bargain in free agency to help for a year or two. With the studs already off the table, the Mets will have to look for those cheaper guys who can fill a role in 2012.
The team will make small moves for veterans and half-a-million-dollar deals for role players. They won't make headlines for the right reasons this offseason. They will be called cheap. They will be accused of punting this season before the New Year has begun. They will give out one free-agent contract for more than $5 million and that guy, who will be slammed in the New York press and blogosphere as being a waste of money and past his prime, will instantly become the fourth-highest paid player on the roster.
That is why the Mets will reshape this team from the bottom up.
Here's how I see the team shaping up for next year, keeping in mind the likelihood that the club will have a payroll somewhere in the neighbourhood of $100-$110 million.
A lot of the Mets' money will be tied up in David Wright's $15.25 million contract, but the rest of the infield will come relatively cheap. I think there will be too many big-market teams interested in Jose Reyes for the Mets to make a competitive offer, but that means that there are options, and money, available.
Ruben Tejada and Ike Davis will likely start at shortstop and first base for less than $1 million between them, leaving gaps at second base and catcher. While Ronny Paulino is eligible for arbitration and could be had for around $1.5 million, I'd prefer to start Josh Thole and have Paulino on my bench.
Justin Turner could fill the second middle infield spot on the roster, but if the Mets decided to look elsewhere, I wouldn't be unhappy. Turner, while serviceable as a utility player, doesn't necessarily project as an everyday player that will help the team earn a playoff spot right now. I would love to see the Mets pursue Kelly Johnson. At 29, he's not as old as guys like Aaron Miles, and he has a lot more pop than other second base free agents like Clint Barmes and Joe Inglett.
A nice payday in Arizona came off the back of a 26-homer, 71-RBI season in Atlanta, and while he's probably not worth the $5.8 million he earned in 2011, there's no reason the Mets can't pursue something in the $4.5 to $5 million range. The Mets historically have not had a power-hitting second baseman for a while, and considering that is something Alderson considers in the position, I would love to see him sign a two-year deal and bat fifth in the order.
Even with Johnson, the Mets could have an infield for $22 million. With Pujols or Reyes, you're looking at a minimum of $33 million.
Whichever way you slice it, the Mets are in need of another outfielder. Jason Bay and his $18 million is virtually untradable at this point unless the Mets eat money, leaving two spots in center and right.
Angel Pagan is eligible for arbitration and isn't worth the $3.5 million he earned in 2011, and the Scott Hairston/Nick Evans/Jason Pridie platoon has very little long-term use. I like Evans the most here, but I just can't help thinking how much easier it would be if Fernando Martinez had ever lived up to his billing.
There are almost 40 free-agent outfielders, but I think they should start by giving former third-rounder Kirk Nieuwenhuis a shot. He's a left-handed bat that is just about where he needs to be to contribute on a major league roster. He won't hit .300, but he he could be a legitimate .275 hitter with power and speed. I'll take that over someone like Pridie who has an inferior skill set and is already 28 years old.
Scott Hairston and Willie Harris should both be out the door, but I would be open to keeping one of them for another year. I'd be inclined to stick with Harris for his versatility and leadership, but really he's just a cheap stopgap holding the seat warm for Wilmer Flores and Cesar Puello, who have lots of potential but are still a season away at the earliest.
Outfield help isn't the biggest of the Mets' concerns, so don't expect to see them making any outlandish moves. They're not going to be in the bidding for guys like Nate McLouth, who should never see a contract with seven figures ever again, and they should stay well clear of the David DeJesus-like free agents who, for $6 million, could hit anywhere from .320 to .230 with some, little or no power.
A few years ago, the Mets could probably have afforded to take the risk. Not now.
If I had to throw a Scott Hairston-sized contract to one of them, though, I would be tempted to take a flier on Laynce Nix. Buy him for the versatility to play all the outfield spots and first base, but gamble on the potential of a repeat 15-homer season. If you're going to pay someone to play out there, it might as well be someone with a touch of upside who won't kill you defensively.
If you could fill the spots in right and center for $2 million, that's perfect.
The Mets' pitching has been a mess the last few years. The bad news is, it's not going to get that much better in 2012.
Sure, Johan Santana should be healthy, but for $24 million, I don't just want health. I want quality starts. I want innings. I want an anchor. There's very little below him two through five, so he has to be the ace the Mets signed.
If he is healthy, he's obviously the No. 1 starter. Mike Pelfrey has to be let go, making R.A. Dickey the default No. 2 for now. Chris Capuano isn't great, but he's half the cost of Pelfrey and serviceable. He's eligible for arbitration, but he's the kind of guy I wouldn't mind seeing return. If the Mets could get close to 200 innings out of him and an ERA closer to 4.25, they will be delighted.
That's three of the five, although they're still lacking a real No. 2 and probably a No. 4 guy to sit between Dickey and Capuano, depending on whether you even rank Dickey as a No. 3.
Starting pitching is a big problem for the Mets and if they spend any money at all, this is one of the places it should be.
Edwin Jackson would be more appealing to me if he wasn't a Scott Boras client, and Brad Penny would have some allure if I thought I could snag him for $2.5 million. But how about Aaron Harang? The Padres declined their options on him, sending him to free agency.
The one knock is that his 2012 season will likely earn him more than he deserves, closer to the $12 million he got in 2010 from the Reds rather than the $3.5 he made last year in San Diego. If I could get Penny and Harang for less than $7.5, I'd pull the trigger.
Then get Jeurys Familia some innings at Triple-A Buffalo and give him the entire second half to get his feet wet and ready to be thrown into the rotation on a full-time basis in 2013.
I see the Mets spending 50 percent of what Santana is earning next year on the other four starters combined.
Right now, the Mets lack options for the end of games, but let's look at the 'pen as a whole.
D.J. Carrasco will return for $1.2 million, but after that it's all about arbitration and free agency. Bobby Parnell wasn't bad last year (if you ignore the fact he can only throw hard and straight), and Manny Acosta needs more credit than I gave him. Tim Byrdak wasn't terrible as a situational reliever, but he won't make or break the team. As a left-hander, though, they probably need him more than his statistics suggest. Jason Isringhausen served his purpose but probably needs to move on, and Miguel Batista just never really worked out from the beginning.
I would give Dale Thayer, removed from their 40-man roster last month and sent to Triple-A, a shot in the bullpen from the start of the season. I might also look at Justin Hampson and give him one last chance in the majors before cutting him loose. Let's see how spring training goes.
As for free agents, Matt Capps isn't a bad bet if they can get him for the $3.5 million he earned in Washington in 2010 rather than the $7.2 million he got from Minnesota last year. Todd Coffey could be a steal at around $1.3 or $1.4 million. Then sign Joel Peralta to a one or two-year deal and you have the makings of a cheap but effective bullpen.
Cost: Around $14 million.
The bench is already pretty much there, save one or two holes.
Ronny Paulino could serve as Thole's backup, and Daniel Murphy could fill any of two or three roles off the bench, especially as another left-hander. I like Lucas Duda enough to keep him around, too, and Justin Turner proved he could handle big league pitching enough in 2011 to stay on the roster for 2012.
If the Mets don't pursue a second baseman (assuming Reyes leaves) Turner is not the worst problem to have. Harris has little value left at this point in his career, but I'd have no qualms keeping him considering his cost.
The Mets would have between $3 million and $13 million left to improve on this, depending on whether they are willing to push the payroll all the way out to $110 million. It's enough to grab an extra bench player, get bullpen help and add a couple hundred thousand to a free agent's contract.
It's not enough to re-sign Reyes, swap Ike Davis for Albert Pujols, lure Yadier Molina to Flushing, eat Jason Bay's contact and sell subsidized hot dogs for $2.50 each.
That will have to wait until 2013, maybe 2014 if the economy is still down on its luck.