Saying goodbye to Rod Barajas on Sunday to hand the full-time catcher's job to Josh Thole was not the start of the Mets' youth movement this season, only its most recent step in that direction. Benching Luis Castillo in favor of Ruben Tejada happened two weeks earlier in Philadelphia and Jonathon Niese has been a rotation fixture since Opening Day.
On most nights, the Mets feature a homegrown infield of Thole, Tejada, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Ike Davis. The problem is that the Mets, with a payroll at roughly $130 million, find themselves stuck between trying to win games now and developing potential starters for 2011.
They can't do both, but still refuse to make a commitment to either path. The Mets ditched supposed prospect Fernando Martinez on Thursday merely to activate Barajas, who was gone three days later when the Dodgers grabbed him on a waiver claim. So rather than get an extended look at Martinez, the Mets are back to plugging their outfield holes with the likes of Chris Carter, Jesus Feliciano and Jeff Francoeur.
Of those three, Carter is the only one with a chance to be on the Mets' Opening Day roster next season, but he's a one-dimensional player whose greatest value is off the bench. What's happening now is that manager Jerry Manuel is left scrambling to put together a lineup in a haphazard fashion, and these games are serving as little more than an education for the younger players.
"The more you can play, the more experience you can get, that takes you to the next level," Manuel said. "The more you play, the better you become."
Clearing out Barajas opened up that extra time for Thole, who is likely to be penciled in as the starting catcher for next season, with Henry Blanco as his backup. Handing the job to Thole at this point was an easy decision, given that Barajas' production had fallen off steeply before he landed on the disabled list for three weeks with a left oblique strain.
"When you have a guy as talented as Josh - a young guy who you see as part of your core nucleus going into the future - if he's up here and he's playing well, you're going to want to keep playing him," Barajas said. "I understand that. I've been around the game long enough to know what directions teams are trying to go in."
The Mets won't admit yet that they're looking to be a younger, cheaper club in 2011, but it's not hard to figure out by watching them lately. Despite Ike Davis' recent struggles, he also should have a grip on a starting job for 2011 as the Mets look to be cost-efficient. Davis had two hits in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Pirates, but he's batting .195 (8-for-41) with 12 strikeouts and only two extra-base hits in his last 13 games.
Back when they were still in contention, the Mets made Davis an untouchable in trade talks - the Mariners asked for him in very early conversations about Cliff Lee - and the same held true for Niese, whose workload may be cut back over the final six weeks. Manuel said he will discuss limiting Niese's innings with pitching coach Dan Warthen before his next start Wednesday against the Astros.
While Thole, Davis and Niese are all firming up their roster spots for 2011, the same can't be said for Tejada, who is showing that he is not ready for an everyday role in the majors.
Tejada has been great defensively. But with the Mets struggling to score runs, they can't afford to keep starting a .170 hitter, regardless of where he is in the lineup. Tejada is hitting .032 (1-for-31) since he was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo on Aug. 7.
"It's kind of tough to keep running him out there when there's been so little production," Manuel said.