It has taken three painful seasons, marked by a financial scandal, extreme austerity and repeated failure on the field. But the Mets believe they finally have reached the line that separates what they have been from what they aspire to be.
"This sort of demarcation is an important one for us," general manager Sandy Alderson said at Citi Field Monday, a day after the Mets closed out their fifth straight losing season.
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They gathered many of their top decision-makers to announce a new contract that will keep manager Terry Collins in the dugout through 2015 with an option for 2016. But the afternoon served a larger purpose, and the message was clear.
Preparations for 2014 -- which has long been touted as a critical juncture in Alderson's long-term plan -- will begin free from financial handcuffs.
"We expect to compete," said Alderson, who for the first time in his tenure expects to have a substantial war chest heading into the offseason.
Exactly how much remains to be determined and will hinge partly on the market of available players, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. The team has yet to formalize its offseason plan, a process that will get under way with organizational meetings beginning Tuesday in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Nevertheless, Alderson estimated that upward of $40 million has come off the books, giving the Mets enough financial flexibility to add talent through the signing of top-shelf free agents or absorbing big-ticket contracts through trades.
When asked if the Mets can afford a $100-million player, Alderson said it would be "more of a strategic question than a resource question." It's a massive shift from last offseason, when the Mets spent $5 million on big-league free agents Brandon Lyon and Shaun Marcum.
Now the challenge rests in adding to a base of talent that includes catcher Travis d'Arnaud and pitchers Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey.
The Mets' first official move of the offseason was perhaps their easiest. Collins piloted the Mets to a 74-88 record and owns only a 225-261 record since taking over in 2011. But Wilpon and Alderson credited Collins for pushing the team through massive roster transitions and injuries. The Mets were 50-50 in their final 100 games.
"Not seeing any collapse and not seeing anything fall apart was part of what we were evaluating," Wilpon said.
Now the Mets face much more complex decisions, such as how to go about adding a major player to their lacking outfield, identifying a solution at shortstop, resolving who will play first base, stocking the bullpen with more arms and determining which players fit best at Citi Field, where in the last three seasons the Mets have gone 103-140.
They also must decide how to flex the financial muscle they claim to boast.
According to a source, the Mets already have surveyed the landscape for potential trades, a display of their willingness to take on contracts that other teams might shed.
The Rockies have a pair of players -- shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez -- who might become available in this kind of deal.
The Mets also could pursue a big-ticket free agent -- Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo fits perfectly with the Mets' offensive philosophy -- or perhaps sign midlevel types, as the Indians opted to do last offseason.
For the first time in years, the Mets might become active on the international front. A source said they have bolstered their scouting presence overseas, going beyond "keeping tabs" on players such as Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka and power-hitting Cuban first baseman Jose Daniel Abreu.
There are no signs that the Mets have identified either as high-priority offseason targets. But they have at least positioned themselves to make a push to pursue both.
Indeed, these are the kinds of decisions the Mets expect to debate at their organizational meetings, where Collins and the front office officially will begin tackling a whole new challenge.
"I was thrilled when Sandy said, 'Hey, we want you to come back,' " Collins said. "And you know what? Maybe we can finish what we started."