As the Giants and Tigers battle for World Series supremacy, 28 teams have already begun wading into their offseason plans. That includes the Mets, however modest those plans may be.
In similar fashion, your own thoughts have already drifted to wintertime, if the latest submissions to the Mets Inbox are any indication. So without further ado:
Mr. DiComo, can we just dream for a minute? The Mets sign David Wright, sign R.A. Dickey, and pull off a miracle and sign Josh Hamilton. All of a sudden, they have depth in the lineup and a qualified outfielder, and all the other question marks are a little less bad. If anything, doesn't one good, quality signing make a little more sense than the hundreds of stop-gap measures they've pulled in recent years?
-- Thomas, Long Island
So many early questions have revolved around this concept, so let me try to make this as clear as general manager Sandy Alderson made it to reporters on the final day of the regular season:
The Mets will not pursue Hamilton. They will not pursue B.J. Upton or Michael Bourn. They are unlikely even to pursue free-agent outfielders with resumes as modest as those of Cody Ross or Delmon Young, given the going market rate on power-hitting outfielders.
Gone are the free-spending days of former GM Omar Minaya, who loaded the payroll with high-priced -- and often back-loaded -- contracts. Alderson's top priority is creating financial flexibility, which means making few commitments beyond the coming season. Signing Hamilton, Upton, Bourn or others would fly in the face of that strategy, requiring significant multiyear contracts.
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At this point, even 2013 dollars are at issue. The Mets already have $72 million committed to six players next season (plus $8 million in expected 2014 buyouts), forcing them to approach a $100 million payroll without adding a single player. Alderson has already stated that the 2013 budget will look similar to the roughly $100 million the Mets spent in 2012, meaning there is virtually no wiggle room to add free agents.
So if the Mets are to upgrade their starting outfield, they will need to do so through the trade market, though payroll constraints will still limit them unless they deal Wright, Dickey or Jon Niese -- the only large salaries that would be desirable in a trade. The Mets will not take on significant dollars in a deal unless they shed equal money in the process.
So what will they do as an alternative? Expect Alderson to seek out a few bullpen bargains, perhaps a cheap veteran catcher and a lower-tier outfielder. If Alderson has a blockbuster move up his sleeve, it will almost certainly come through trading Dickey or Niese -- not by investing heavily in the free-agent market.
When the salaries of Johan Santana ($25.5 million) and Jason Bay ($16 million) come off the books this time next year, Alderson's strategy could shift course. But without that flexibility in place, expect this offseason to look eerily like the last one.
Do you feel that Kirk Nieuwenhuis will be given a shot at a starting role in the outfield next season? It seems that Andres Torres and, possibly, Scott Hairston will be on their way out, none of our younger prospects is ready, Mike Baxter seems to be more valuable off the bench, Jordany Valdespin looks uncomfortable in the outfield and Bay is a non-factor. Do the Mets feel that Nieuwenhuis can improve against lefties and cut down on his strikeout rate? If so, Nieuwenhuis gives them speed and 15- or 20-homer potential, and he is not a defensive liability.
-- Aaron F., Canton, Conn.
I believe you've read the situation perfectly. Though Nieuwenhuis possesses some significant question marks in his own right -- particularly his ability to stay healthy, hit lefties and avoid strikeouts -- the Mets have no obvious alternative in center field. Torres is a prime non-tender candidate, Hairston probably priced himself out of Flushing with his strong 2012 campaign, and Baxter and Valdespin both have proven more valuable off the bench. Unless the Mets strike a blockbuster trade, they are unlikely to find help from outside the organization, either.
If I had to wager, I'd pencil Nieuwenhuis in as the Opening Day center fielder, though that would hardly give him a hammerlock at the position. The Mets are enamored with the defense and power bat of prospect Matt den Dekker and are simply waiting for his contact rate to pick up. If it does, and Nieuwenhuis slumps, den Dekker could make a run at the position by midsummer.
In Alderson's ideal world, whoever plays center field will simply serve as a stopgap until Brandon Nimmo arrives sometime around 2015. But in the short-term, Nieuwenhuis has at least positioned himself to be that guy.
What are the chances of the Mets going after a young, proven, defensive-minded second baseman and moving Daniel Murphy to either right field or left field? I still think he has a high ceiling and is a hitting machine. He would have fewer errors in the outfield, and the Mets would still have his solid hitting in the lineup. With so many holes in the outfield, it makes a lot of sense.
-- Andrew M., New York
The Mets experimented with Murphy in the outfield once before and it didn't work. So why move him back there now? Murphy is coming off another adequate offensive season, to be sure, but that .291/.332/.403 line looks a whole lot rosier at a position where power production is a bonus. In the outfield it would be expected.
Murphy will never be a standout defender, but he made enough strides this season that the Mets are comfortable placing him at second base for the immediate future. At the least, he has proven that he is not a complete defensive liability, which was the fear heading into 2012.
So if the Mets do anything with the arbitration-eligible Murphy, the logical move might be to trade him, considering his salary may eclipse his production by the time the Mets are ready to be perennial contenders.
More likely, they will do nothing. Why mess with one of the few areas of the roster not already in flux?
Surprisingly, I can name 11 possible starters the Mets might have next year: Niese, Dickey, Chris Young, Matt Harvey, Collin McHugh, Zack Wheeler, Jeremy Hefner, Santana, Dillon Gee, Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia. Could the Mets make some bullpen additions from this group or even trade some for position players?
-- Sy Y., New York
Starting pitching is far and away the organization's greatest strength right now, which is a nice surplus to have considering the state of many starting staffs around baseball. Because of that supply and demand, it would certainly make sense for the Mets to explore trades. But when I asked Alderson that exact question last month, he offered only caution.
"I think you've got to be real careful about dipping into your starting pitching," Alderson said. "If you look at what happened to us, the five guys that started the season, we lost three of the five. So the depth there can be very important. You've got to be careful about our starting pitching, which is certainly our strength at the moment."
Translation: Though trades may be possible, they are certainly not inevitable.
Will Wheeler be in the rotation?
-- R.J.I., Deer Park, N.Y.
On Opening Day? Almost no chance. Expect the Mets to treat Wheeler exactly as they did Harvey this season, starting him in Triple-A and calling him up to the Majors midsummer. In addition to giving Wheeler a few more months of development, that tactic will allow the Mets to delay his arbitration eligibility for one extra season.
How will the Mets handle the backup shortstop position? Will they re-sign Ronny Cedeno, who has performed well and served as a mentor to Ruben Tejada? Or look for Justin Turner and others to step into the role Cedeno played this season?
-- Jeremy C., Scotia, N.Y.
If Cedeno can find a job elsewhere as a starting shortstop, which is certainly possible, I would expect him to pursue it. If not, the Mets could make another run at him. Or they could sign a different veteran backup, preferably one who can give them a left-handed bat off the bench -- a Cesar Izturis type, for example.
Though manager Terry Collins is more than happy to slot Turner, a natural third baseman, at shortstop in a pinch, he is wary of placing him there for an extended period of time. When that exact need arose early this season, in fact, Omar Quintanilla leapfrogged Turner on the depth chart.