Mets general manager Sandy Alderson faces a daunting challenge.
He must sign 20-game winner R.A. Dickey and all-time franchise hits leader David Wright to long-term extensions. He must convince both core players that things will eventually get better than perennial fourth-place finishes. And he must upgrade a flawed roster that faded to 74-88 after a promising start.
He's tasked with doing all of this while wearing a financial straitjacket. His constraints come in the form of a roughly $100-million payroll, most of which will be gobbled up to pay arbitration-eligible players and for the services of past-their-prime stars Johan Santana and Jason Bay.
With that as the backdrop, here are the five key questions facing the Mets in the offseason:
1. Can they retain the "core"?
Keeping Dickey and Wright is a key part of Alderson's three-pronged plan to make winners out of the Mets. Wright appears to be the top priority; Dickey's situation may not be as clear-cut. He turns 38 at the end of the month, middle age by knuckleballer standards, though the Mets must consider how many more elite seasons they can bank on from him. Either way, the efforts to re-sign both must begin soon. If they can't reach agreement with either player, the Mets must leave themselves enough time to trade them, perhaps as soon as this winter.
2. Have the Mets properly evaluated their own talent?
The Alderson Regime has had two years to take stock of their own players. Now, they must lean on the accuracy of those evaluations to determine which pieces to keep or which to deal away. The team has a dearth of potential big-league position players in the minor leagues. The right trade might help replenish the system. Smart deals begin with accurate self-evaluation. Do they trade Ike Davis or Lucas Duda? The Mets can't afford to miss when deciding which assets to trade away.
3. Should the Mets dip into their starting pitching depth?
Even with a stable of young arms fronted by the likes of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, starting pitching depth is a valuable commodity, one that affords the luxury of letting prospects develop instead of being rushed to the majors. The Mets must also consider the constant threat of injury. But if the right opportunity emerges, and flipping a pitcher means an infusion of position-player prospects, the Mets might be better served taking the risk. Coming off a breakout season, lefty Jon Niese may never again have as much trade value as he does this offseason.
4. How will the Mets shore up glaring deficiencies in the lineup and bullpen?
The Mets endured substandard production at catcher, all three outfield positions and in the pen. They have no viable prospects ready to step into those roles and they don't have enough money to throw at the problem via free agency. To complicate matters, solid catching is in short supply in the game as a whole. Relievers are the most volatile commodity on the market, as the Mets experienced this season, when their winter bullpen rebuild proved disastrous. Their only options may be to a.) stick with what they have and endure it for another year or b.) bring in low-cost, short-term fixes in hopes of bumping into a bargain.
5. How much can the Mets expect payroll to increase after 2013?
The answer to this question has both short-term and long-term consequences. In an immediate sense, it would be impossible this winter to sell both Dickey and Wright on a brighter future without more cash to eventually improve the roster via free agency. The Mets have already resigned themselves to another season of austerity in 2013 -- a fact that both Dickey and Wright must accept if they sign on for the long term. But by '14 -- when the onerous contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay come off the books -- money will talk. Even if the Mets successfully churn out talent from their farm system, they will almost certainly need to augment that core to speed up the timetable toward competitiveness. By then, Alderson will be reaching the final year of his four-year contract. The club has an option to keep him for a fifth year, though it might be a long shot without tangible improvement. And that means more resources.