Mets have little left in budget to pursue free agents

Sandy Alderson speaks about pitcher Johan Santana during

Sandy Alderson speaks about pitcher Johan Santana during a news conference. (Aug. 22, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Baseball's annual free-agent bazaar kicks off just after midnight Saturday. But once again, the Mets find themselves at the back of the line, reluctant shoppers with a meager budget that general manager Sandy Alderson will be forced to stretch.

At season's end, Alderson acknowledged that the Mets have "not been able to be involved significantly" in free agency, and that appears unlikely to change this winter.

The Mets enter the offseason with holes to fill at catcher, the outfield, the bullpen and perhaps the back end of the starting rotation. But with upward of 80 percent of their roughly $100-million payroll already earmarked for returning players, a splashy free agent likely won't fall into the Mets' price range.

Meanwhile, the team remains focused on long-term contract talks with third baseman David Wright and pitcher R.A. Dickey, which are ongoing.

With little wiggle room, a person with knowledge of the team's thinking said the Mets likely will follow last winter's free-agent blueprint, when they passed on a major signing in favor of spreading their limited dollars with several low-cost signings.

What the Mets lack in dollars for free agency they hold in chips for trades -- if they choose to put them in play. But if not, Alderson and the Mets must rummage for bargains.

The Mets likely will kick around the market for catchers after getting weak production in 2012 from a quartet led by Josh Thole. However, catching is one of the thinnest positions in the game, and veterans such as Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski may be out of the Mets' reach.

The crop of free-agent outfielders features an intriguing candidate in Melky Cabrera, whose career season with the Giants was derailed by a 50-game steroid suspension. The switch hitter is a candidate to take a one-year deal to revive his career, which could put the Mets in play. Even though the Mets appear priced out of signing top-shelf outfielders, the market may have enough depth that veterans such as Shane Victorino may trickle down to an affordable range.

Outfielders with power also will be particularly attractive to the Mets.

Meanwhile, the supply of available relievers remains strong, presenting an opportunity for the Mets to land a few arms at the right price. Last year's signing of Jon Rauch to a one-year deal stands as an example. But relievers are also notoriously prone to wild swings in performance, which they experienced with the struggles of another free-agent signing, closer Frank Francisco.

Even though next year's starting rotation appears set, the Mets could use another veteran arm to bolster depth and guard against injury. A back-end starter could also function as an insurance policy against having to rush their young arms to the big leagues before they are ready to make the jump.

This season, the Mets benefited from the signing of veteran Chris Young, who had come off shoulder surgery. With affordable price tags because of injury, players looking to re-establish themselves often represent worthwhile gambles for teams working within a tight budget.

Those opportunities once again appear to exist with the Mets.

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