By Mike Steffanos
I've decided not to spend a ton of time on this, as other writers have covered it both well and thoroughly. The needs of the team are fairly obvious -- a first baseman with some pop; a second baseman that can get on base, catch the ball, throw the ball and stay healthy; and a catcher to replace Mike Piazza.
How the Mets go about filling these needs is going to be influenced by their success in pursuing the top free agent closers. If they manage to sign a Wagner or a Ryan this will obviously use up considerable budget. If they wind up going cheaper on the closer, they might be inclined to spend more on the offense.
First Base: Mike Jacobs showed a lot down the stretch, but even those of us that are highest on the kid are a little leery of handing him 500 ABs next year. Unfortunately, the free agent market features Paul Konerko and not much else. Konerko will be 30 next year, coming off 2 straight 40 HR / 100 RBI seasons and a great post-season this year. Needless to say, he will be hotly pursued by several teams. What I've heard about him so far doesn't give me a lot of hope that he's coming to Shea, but we'll see.
After Konerko, the market drops steeply to Kevin Millar: 34 years old, coming off a bad year, and not a very solid defender. I'd be leery of Millar in a big ballpark like Shea. If it came to Millar I'd rather see the Mets give Jacobs the job and sign some veteran insurance in case he falls on his face. Ditto to the Jeff Kent via trade rumors. I know Dallas Green is no longer the manager here, but I don't think Kent was a New York typr of guy, either.
There are also rumors about Carlos Delgado being available in a trade -- next moment you hear that he is not -- be that as it may, although I think his left-handed power bat will provide a huge lift to the offense, he didn't want to come here last year. It was obvious he never had any use for the Mets beyond driving up the price elsewhere, and I'm always nervous about getting a guy that doesn't want to be here. You have to believe the asking price would be steep.
Second Base The free agent pickings are very slim here, featuring washed up vets like Brett Boone and Mark Bellhorn. Mark Grudzielanek is out there if the Mets want another infielder that doesn't walk. You also hear rumors that Furcal would accept being a second baseman in New York - I tend to doubt that he really would, though. As tempting as it would be to have him and Reyes at the top of the lineup, I doubt the Mets want to invest that kind of money in a second baseman when they have so many other needs.
Basically, when it comes to free agent infielders, I'd rather see the Mets resign Woodward, Cairo and Marlon Anderson for their bench than pursue any of these. If the Mets do upgrade at second base it will probably be through a trade. In-house options for replacing Matsui include Jeff Keppinger (coming off a serious injury + he doesn't walk) or Anderson Hernandez (who looks like he's not quite ready for prime time).
Catcher: Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez are the free agent names that matter, with Hernandez rumored to be the object of Omar's affections. Neither will come cheap. If the Mets fail to land one of these two, there are thoughts that they might consider picking up a solid backup and using Castro as the starter, although there is some sentiment that Castro would be exposed offensively if you try to give him too many ABs.
There has been some talk of using a platoon of Mike Jacobs and Castro, but from what I've read Jacobs has some serious issues throwing out baserunners. In a division that features speed this would be a problem. In addition, if the kid really struggles defensively you worry it might affect his offense. In any case, you don't get the idea that the Mets are really considering this option.
Let's Make a Deal
I have a feeling that the Mets are as likely to acquire a key player through a trade as through free agency. There are just so few top free agents out there and so much demand for their services. I'm sure there will be a lot of talking this off-season between Omar and the other GMs. You hear talk that the Ramirez trade is still alive despite the fact that Manny -- at least for now -- doesn't want to come here. Whether this goes down or not, I have a strong personal opinion that we will see some sort of major trade in the off-season.
Summing it Up
Although the free agent pickings are slim, I'd be very surprised if the Mets didn't get anyone. My worry is how much they will have to overpay to get someone, especially a closer. They really, really, really have to get serious about coming up with viable closer candidates in their own system in the coming years. And if they can't sign any of the quality guys, I'd like to see Heilman get a chance.
Last year Omar made a couple of major pickups in Beltran and Pedro, but this off-season is going to really show if he has what it takes to take this team -- and it's much maligned management -- to the next level. There is going to be a lot of pressure on him to make high-profile moves, but with so few impact free agents out there the moves might not be there to be made. The fear is that there will be so much pressure to do something that moves will be made that don't make absolute sense.
This will get me in trouble with a few of you out there, but I'm not absolutely convinced that the Mets are only a player or two away from being a threat to win it all. They have many guys who bring as many questions as they do answers. So far at least Omar has avoided making the big move just for its own sake, and I hope he'll continue that. As I mentioned previously, I share with other Met fans a distrust of the team's management, and as much as I understand the importance of bold moves to improve this team, I want to see them avoid those moves that don't necessarily make sense -- the type of moves the Mets have made all too often in the past 15 years.
One of the first things doctors are taught is "do no harm," in other words, make sure the cure isn't worse than what you are trying to cure. This is a good thought for a baseball GM to keep in mind, too. Enough worry, talk and speculation -- the 15 day window has started; soon the free-agent feeding frenzy will begin in earnest. Stay tuned.