NEW YORK -- When the Mets traded Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers in mid-July, it created a void that they hoped -- if not expected -- to fill internally. That dream never transpired. After Jason Isringhausen recorded his 300th save, the Mets looked to Bobby Parnell, Pedro Beato and Manny Acosta to provide stability at the back end of their bullpen, to no avail.

Months later, the result is a general manager vocal in his desire to seek relief help from outside the organization. But do not equate imports with expenses. Just because the Mets aim to fill their closing vacancy through free agency, does not mean they will spend a significant chunk of their budget to do so.

Take Rodriguez, for example. Outspoken in his frustration with the Brewers, who have used him exclusively as a setup man, the former closer recently told several New York news outlets that he would be open to returning to New York. But even if he takes a significant pay cut from the $11.5 million he is making this season, Rodriguez would almost certainly be out of Sandy Alderson's price range.

Entering free agency, the Mets already have $55 million tied up in just three players: Johan Santana, David Wright and Jason Bay. Even if they do not re-sign shortstop Jose Reyes, who would almost certainly cost them upwards of $20 million per season, the Mets still must fill out a large chunk of their Opening Day roster through free agency.

Given the team's holes, it would not seem prudent for the Mets to spend roughly one-fifth of their remaining budget on any closer, let alone one with a history of personal issues in New York. Toss in Alderson's perceived (if not entirely accurate) reluctance to spend significant money on closers in general, and it seems beyond unlikely that Rodriguez will return to Flushing.

Then who? Alderson did not respond to a telephone message Monday evening seeking comment on his closer situation. But he did recently indicate that stabilizing the bullpen will be a top priority this winter.

"If you look at the bullpen as one of those areas of particular disappointment, I think we were thin there to begin with," Alderson said. "Really, most critical was [the loss of] Frankie. It led to a number of auditions for that closer role and some uncertainty as to other roles, and there's no question that blowing saves at a pretty spectacular rate is pretty debilitating on a team."

In some respects, the Mets -- at least to some extent -- could have anticipated those shortcomings. Outside of signing D.J. Carrasco, who struggled mightily after signing a guaranteed two-year, $2.4 million deal, the Mets spent almost no money on their bullpen last winter. Discounting Carrasco and Rodriguez, whom former general manager Omar Minaya had inked to a three-year deal, the Mets committed a combined $3 million to the other five relievers on their Opening Day roster -- a group that included two Minor League signings and a Rule 5 Draft pick and represented less than three percent of their payroll.

When some of those pitchers faltered, the Mets turned to Isringhausen, Ryota Igarashi, Acosta and others, each of them boasting either significant injury histories or inconsistencies.

But now, with the contracts of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo off the books, the Mets have a modicum of excess cash, which they plan to spend on shoring up the bullpen. After trying a host of internal candidates with little success this season, they are prepared to look elsewhere for a closer.

That does not mean splurging on a marquee free agent such as Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson or Heath Bell. But it could mean inking a proven closer coming off an injury or down year, similar to Alderson's strategy in signing starting pitchers Chris Young and Chris Capuano last winter. Former closers such as Brad Lidge or Matt Capps, for example, could mesh well with the Mets.

To that end, Alderson has ruled nothing out, hinting only that free agency will be his avenue of choice.

"We need to provide ourselves with the kinds of options that don't currently exist," Alderson said, without shedding any particular light on those options.

All that's clear now is that finding an adequate closer -- not to mention a bullpen to fit around him -- will be a top priority for the Mets this winter.