NEW YORK -- The re-signing of Luis Castillo to play second base and bat second has re-stabilized the middle of the Mets' infield and the top of their batting order and allowed general manager Omar Minaya to remove a significant entry from his to-do list.
The sense of certainty created by Castillo's return allows Minaya to move on to two other priorities, each of which may be more critical than the identity of the second baseman. And little certainty exists in either circumstance.
Not that the Mets are required to have a catcher or a top-of-the rotation starter in place by Thanksgiving, but they have neither at this point, and the direction they are moving in their pursuit of each seems unclear. As of Monday night, Minaya was identifying Ramon Castro as, possibly, the team's primary catcher. And if the club was moving toward the acquisition of a starting pitcher, it has left no footprints.
A cold and nasty weekend that had been all about who wouldn't play for the 2008 Mets ultimately brought the Mets to the signing of Castillo to a four-year, $25 million contract. But the breakdown of the deal the Mets appeared to have with free-agent catcher Yorvit Torrealba, the finalized departure of Tom Glavine and the sense that developed that free-agent shortstop David Eckstein was in no rush to change positions and employers and move to the Mets all contributed to the sense of uncertainty.
The pitching situation is bound to be slow developing because the free-agent market is painfully shallow in quality starters, and trades usually don't happen quickly. Nonetheless, the White Sox traded starting pitcher Jon Garland to the Angels for shortstop Orlando Cabrera on Monday. Minaya said in a conference call Monday that he had spoken with the White Sox during the general managers meetings two weeks ago. He didn't say the Mets are aiming higher. But they are.
The catching situation may develop slowly as well because Plan A fell through and Plan B doesn't appear to be a plan at all. Minaya said on the call that Castro "could be an everyday guy," prompting a spontaneous, tongue-in-cheek remark from Castro's agent Seth Levinson, also on the call. "You should have told us that before we negotiated a contract."
Castro as a regular or even starting more than half the games seems unlikely. Two years ago, before the Mets traded for Paul Lo Duca, they discussed using Castro as their primary catcher and seeking a complementary player, perhaps a left-handed hitter, to share the load. But the club decided Castro was too prone to injury and was better suited to serve as a reserve -- a highly regarded and productive reserve.
It is difficult to imagine Castro, 31, is less prone to injury now, especially after he missed significant time to injury in each of the last two summers.
Minaya said he and his staff again were consulting about other options, and since the Torrealba deal fell through, he had left a message for the agent representing Lo Duca. That the Mets hadn't quickly contacted the agent after the collapse of the Torrealba situation suggests Lo Duca still isn't a high priority.
Yet earlier in the day manager Willie Randolph, speaking at an appearance in Manhattan, said "Paulie can play for me any time. He's solid." The manager also pointed out Minaya makes the decisions about player personnel. And if Lo Duca, who turns 36 in April, sought a three- or four-year contract from the Mets -- and there were indications he did -- it's hard to believe his stance will soften immediately now that the Mets' preferred option has been eliminated.
Meanwhile, the Mets' preference to sign -- as opposed to trade for -- a catcher remains. The club believes it must save its trading chips to import the pitcher it needs. That need became no more urgent when Glavine returned to the Braves; the Mets had anticipated as much. But it seems more conspicuous now.
"We are going to miss his quality starts [23, fifth most in the National League] and the innings [200 1/3] he provided," Minaya said.
Trading prospects for a pitcher, as the Mets are more inclined to do, may prove somewhat more difficult because they appear to have only six young players they believe other clubs find particularly attractive -- young outfielders Fernando Martinez and Carlos Gomez, young pitchers Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber and Lastings Milledge, the outfielder who is the most experienced of the six -- and the club may be overestimating the players' appeal.
Moreover, Minaya said Monday, "We're probably going young in right field," next year, meaning the club is inclined to play either Gomez or Milledge in right or create some time-share situation involving one or both and incumbent reserve Endy Chavez.
Minaya said the talent the Mets could deal "doesn't have to be from the farm system. It could be Major Leaguers." But that seemingly would involve robbing Peter to pay Paul -- not Lo Duca. The Mets aren't so deep at any position that dealing a player on the big league roster for a pitcher wouldn't create a different need.
Another possible glitch was discussed in the conference call Monday when Minaya addressed the possibility of the unsettled catching situation making the Mets less attractive to a free-agent starting pitcher or perhaps a pitcher, say Johan Santana, who might have a say in where he is traded because of the willingness of the new club to extend his contract.
"We'll find a catcher who will be able to get the job done and be attractive to pitchers," Minaya said without specifying whom that might be.
With all that, the Mets did sign a second baseman Monday. And that constituted progress.
Their pursuit of Eckstein had included a visit to Greenwich, Conn., that proved effective in the club's respective pursuits of Glavine and Billy Wagner following the 2002 and 2005 seasons. But that didn't work on Eckstein, the spunky veteran with World Series credentials who is a career shortstop. Now second base and the second slot in the batting order will be manned by Castillo, who might have been the Mets' second choice.
Asked to characterize the club's preference between Eckstein and Castillo, Minaya avoided the issue.
Two agents and a general manager of another National League East team had speculated over the weekend that the Mets had greater interest in Eckstein. If that were the case, even the step forward made by signing Castillo isn't as positive a step as the club had hoped to take.
Still, the Mets filled a key defensive position with a proven commodity in the 32-year-old switch-hitter who also has a World Series entry in his résumé and is far more familiar with second base than Eckstein. The most recent proof of Castillo's value was provided right before the Mets' eyes. He stabilized second base and batted .296 during a 50-game/48-start audition after the Mets acquired him from the Twins on July 30.
Back in the National League after a 227-game sabbatical in the American League, the former Marlin performed at higher levels for the Mets than he had during the previous 1 1/2 seasons. His on-base and slugging averages, .371 and .372, were higher with the Mets than they had been in either season with the Twins. He scored 37 runs in his 50 appearances, and his RBIs in 199 at-bats with the Mets exceeded, by two, his total with the Twins in 349 at-bats.
Of course, he batted second for the Mets after predominantly batting leadoff for the Twins.
The defense Castillo provided was an improvement over what Ruben Gotay, Damion Easley and gimpy Jose Valentin had provided prior to the day-before-the-trading-deadline deal, a deal made for reasons of defense. Castillo wasn't brilliant, but he occasionally was spectacular and routinely reliable, which is what his manager, Willie Randolph, a former second baseman, wanted.
And he too played with physical restrictions. His right knee required surgery after the season. The club, which didn't make the surgery public, eventually characterized the surgery as a "cleaning up" of a knee that had limited his mobility and, seemingly, his stolen-base attempts. Castillo was successful on 193 of 263 attempts from 1999 through 2002. Since then, and including 10 steals in 12 attempts with the Mets, he has attempted 143 steals and been successful 96 times.
His agent said Castillo is expected to be cleared for "full baseball activities" by January.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.