For nearly three years now, the New York Mets have circled 2014 on their calendar as their time to make a significant improvement to their roster. The Mets used the previous three seasons to improve their farm system, evaluate the current prospects in the system, and clear out burdensome contracts GM Sandy Alderson's predecessor, Omar Minaya, left behind after he was fired in 2010. The last of these contracts, belonging to Johan Santana and Jason Bay, will be officially off the books after this season. The Mets only have two players, David Wright and Jon Niese, under contract for the 2014 season and those two will cost the team about 27 million dollars.
The Mets, once arbitration raises are factored in, should have roughly 45 million dollars committed to their payroll for the 2014 season. That is about 50 million dollars less than the 95 million dollar payroll the club trotted out in 2013. The 95 million is misleading considering nearly half of it went to Santana and Bay, two players who did not appear in a game for the Mets. The Mets certainly have a lot of needs (first base, shortstop, outfield, and starting pitching to name a few) and they can't patch them all by signing free agents. The thing Mets fans want to see, however, is that the front office will spend money on external free agents to improve their roster.
Ever since the Bernie Madoff scandal a few years ago, the Mets have shed payroll and operated more like a small market organization. Front office personnel, namely Alderson and COO Jeff Wilpon, insisted that the club had the latitude to add players to improve the ballclub. The Mets passed on re-signing Jose Reyes to a 100 million dollar contract in 2012, a move that certainly appears to be the right call now. Alderson entered last winter insisting that the club would look to upgrade its outfield via either free agency or the trade market, yet sat on its hands as all the premium free agents signed elsewhere (like Shane Victorino in Boston and Nick Swisher in Cleveland) or were traded to new teams (like Justin Upton to Atlanta). The Mets made a half-hearted attempt to sign Michael Bourn late in the winter, only to hem and haw over losing a draft pick before watching the Cleveland Indians snatch Bourn out from under their noses.
All told, Alderson's biggest free agent signings have not worked out in the past few years. Alderson's biggest contracts went to Frank Francisco, who was a disaster for two years, and Shaun Marcum, who went 1-10 before being lost for the year this season. While Alderson did find Marlon Byrd off the scrap heap this year for a fraction of the cost of what Bourn made (4 years, $48 million), the odds of finding another highly productive player on a minor league deal are slim to none. The Mets have plenty of money to spend and there are players who fit their needs, but they can't be afraid to spend money again this winter.
Mets fans have grown very wary of whether or not the team will actually spend the money it has available. The Mets publicly insist that the payroll savings from Santana and Bay's deals will go back into the club, but reports have circulated that the Mets won't put all of it back into the payroll. Some of this may lead back to Alderson's hesitance to hand out big money second generation contracts, but no one is asking the Mets to go and spend 200 million dollars to get Robinson Cano or 100 million for Jacoby Ellsbury. The Mets could target a player like Shin-Soo Choo, who would be a perfect fit for them and cost less than Ellsbury. The Mets could also go for several shorter term commitments for veteran players, adding guys like Jhonny Peralta, Stephen Drew, Curtis Granderson, or Nelson Cruz to fill holes in the offense and pitchers such as Bronson Arroyo.
Either way, the Mets will need to land several major league caliber players to get their fans to believe the Madoff scandal is behind them and that ownership has money to spend on the roster. The Mets have asked their fans to be patient as they get their house in order, but Matt Harvey's injury should not alter this team's plans to improve, as fans and pundits have speculated. Even if the Mets' chances of making the playoffs are lower without their ace, the Mets can't sit on their hands again and expect to add several high quality pieces next winter. The process of going back up needs to begin now, and if the Mets show up in spring training with the same old questions at shortstop, first base, and the outfield as they did this season the front office will have failed this winter.
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