Mets should open vault to pursue free agents

Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon looks on during

Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon looks on during batting practice before a game against the Atlanta Braves. (July 24, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Jim Baumbach

Newsday columnist Jim Baumbach Jim Baumbach

Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for

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The Mets know far too well the potential pitfalls of multimillion-dollar contracts, thanks to guys such as Jason Bay, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, to name a few.

So it's easy to understand in theory why they've gotten away from chasing the big names in recent offseasons and instead focused on building from within.

But then you hear the reaction to Mike Piazza stepping on the field Sunday, and it's so easy to make the case why the Mets need to be buyers again.

The standing ovation from the 41,891 on hand for Piazza's induction into the team's Hall of Fame was easily the most resounding roar here all season.

Mets fans should hope it is a sound that the team's decision-makers can't get out of their heads during the offseason.

Because as the Mets embark on one of their most important offseasons in some time, Piazza's return was a timely reminder of all the good that can come from spending money on the right player.

It's easy to forget, but when the Mets acquired Piazza in a 1998 midseason trade and gave him $91 million that next offseason, it represented an organizational shift in strategy.

Burned by a few high-priced contracts in the early 1990s, the Mets grew reluctant to spend and turned their focus within. Sound familiar?

Back then, the rebuilding process resulted in a strong nucleus, and the acquisition of Piazza turned them into consistent contenders again.

Now, with the Mets boasting a talented group of young pitchers and David Wright, it's again time for them to start acting like a big-market team during the offseason.

In just a few years, Mets fans have seen their team's payroll plummet from the $140-million range to about $90 million this season. And in the same time frame, the team has gone from contenders to also-rans; on Sunday, the Mets completed their fifth straight season with a sub-.500 record.

The payroll is a touchy subject among Mets fans, a source of the distrust they have for ownership. Heck, when Piazza in his speech thanked "Fred, Jeff and Saul'' -- as in Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz -- the Citi Field crowd booed.

But that distrust could start to thaw in the offseason with the right moves.

More than $40 million comes off the payroll with the expiring Johan Santana and Bay contracts, theoretically giving Sandy Alderson the opportunity to go on a spending spree for the first time since he became general manager three years ago.

When Piazza was asked Sunday how the Mets can get the next Piazza-type player, he said: "Well, I've got a boy. He's 2 months old. I'm going to train him, but the rest is up to him. I told Jeff I'll give him the first crack at him in a few years when he's ready. He's not going to be cheap.''

Maybe the right offensive addition could come via a trade, say in the form of Miami's Giancarlo Stanton or Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez. Or maybe the Mets think a free agent such as Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo would represent the best fit. Only time will tell.

But one thing is certain: The best additions aren't always cheap.

Hey, Piazza was worth it.

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