Mets look to 2012, but Reyes question looms
Shortstop's potential return will impact club starting with payroll
NEW YORK -- As the 2011 season progressed and the Mets began drifting out of playoff contention, they gradually shifted their focus toward '12. Young players such as Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada received more time on the diamond. Slightly older players such as Bobby Parnell and Nick Evans shifted into new roles. And the Mets commenced their wait for spring.
If 2011 was a transition year for the Mets, '12 will be the sequel. The team still has $55 million locked up in just three players -- Johan Santana, David Wright and Jason Bay, which may represent more than half their 2012 payroll. Mike Pelfrey and Angel Pagan could cost up to another $10 million combined, and that's before factoring in a potential free-agent contract for Jose Reyes. All of which is to say that the Mets still have another year before general manager Sandy Alderson's promised financial flexibility kicks in.
How the Mets fare, then, will be dependent upon how much their incumbents improve. Though the team will look to free agency to fill out its rotation, bullpen and bench, the core roster will largely remain the same.
It is a formula that did not work in 2011, but that's not to say the Mets are doomed for '12. Healthy seasons from Santana, Wright and Ike Davis, along with a more productive season from Bay, could go a long way toward keeping the Mets competitive deep into the summer. In that sense, even with few roster changes of note, the Mets could take on an entirely different look.
The most significant question surrounding the team, of course, is who will play shortstop. Nothing is more concerning to the Mets or their fan base than the re-signing of Reyes, whose value peaked in June before settling to a more modest level by season's end. The Mets want Reyes back, and he has been outspoken in his desire to return, but dollars and cents may not allow it.
Either way, the market for Reyes should rank among the most intriguing plotlines of the fast-approaching winter. The result will shape the franchise -- not just for next season, but for years to come. There are pros and cons to each side of the argument, and the Mets must weigh them in accordance with their needs.
Up and down the roster, that process has already begun; the Mets have spent the last two months evaluating each of their players with an eye toward next season. Soon, it will be time to make decisions.
A quick glance at their position-by-position breakdown shows that some of those decisions may prove easier than others:
Catcher: Josh Thole has one season remaining before he hits arbitration, meaning he has one season until his salary threatens to eclipse his production. For now, Thole continues to be an adequate solution at the catcher position. To support him, the Mets will look to import a free-agent backup, much as they did with Ronny Paulino in 2011 and Henry Blanco in '10.
First base: Assuming a full recovery from the ankle injury that devastated his 2011 campaign, Davis will remain the team's short-term and long-term solution at first base. Daniel Murphy can also play first if necessary, though the Mets see Murphy more as a starting second baseman or jack-of-all-trades utility player. Evans also remains in the mix as a backup capable of playing first, third and both corner outfield positions.
Second base: Murphy will compete with Tejada and Justin Turner for the second-base job come spring. Each of the candidates offers something different: hitting excellence for Murphy, defensive prowess for Tejada and perhaps the best all-around mix in Turner, whose ultimate future may be on the bench. Prospect Jordany Valdespin could also receive a look late in the season.
Third base: Though Wright's name will continue to pop up in trade rumors, he remains the face of the franchise and entrenched at third base. The team's plan to alter Citi Field's dimensions can only help him offensively, but Wright must improve his glovework if he is to stick at third base for the rest of his career.
Shortstop: No position for the Mets will come under more scrutiny this winter than shortstop, where Reyes has been the undisputed starter since 2005. If he re-signs as a free agent, Reyes will of course remain the answer at shortstop well into this decade. If not, Tejada will be the heavy favorite to take over the position.
Outfield: This is a tricky one. Whether the Mets like it or not, Bay is entrenched in left field for two more seasons. Center field is a different story; the Mets could opt not to tender a contract to Pagan, who is coming off a down year both offensively and defensively and is entering his final season of arbitration eligibility. Most likely, the Mets will keep Pagan in the fold while they wait for prospects Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Brandon Nimmo to arrive. Meanwhile, barring an unlikely free-agent acquisition, Duda will be the starter in right.
Rotation: Come spring, the Mets will be counting on Santana to be fully recovered from his 2010 shoulder surgery and ready for Opening Day. Santana has two guaranteed years left on his contract, meaning his health will go a long way toward determining the success of the franchise. Beyond Santana, the Mets have two locks for the rotation in R.A. Dickey and Jon Niese, along with a boatload of uncertainty. Though Pelfrey may be a non-tender candidate in his second season of arbitration eligibility, he should receive a contract due to his value as an innings-eater. The fifth starter will either be Dillon Gee or a cheap free-agent acquisition, a la Chris Capuano or Chris Young. Whoever fills that spot may be nothing more than a placeholder for top prospects Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia, each of whom could arrive as soon as midsummer.
Bullpen: Though it is not necessarily uncommon, no position is more unsettled for the Mets than the bullpen. Alderson has already indicated that the team's closer will come from outside the organization. Internally, lefty specialist Tim Byrdak will be back on a one-year deal, while Pedro Beato, Parnell, Manny Acosta and Daniel Herrera will all compete for jobs in the bullpen. Beyond that, nothing is guaranteed. The Mets plan to put an emphasis on relief pitching as they scour the free-agent market this winter, knowing that they have few viable internal options. Do not expect next year's bullpen to resemble this year's in its construction.