The biggest loser at the close of yesterday's 4 p.m. non-waivers trade deadline was manager Jerry Manuel. At times, his baseball strategy is open to debate, but Manuel is not stupid, and seeing the Mets basically wave the white flag by failing to improve the major-league club was like being handed a pink slip.
It's understandable that general manager Omar Minaya - in consultation with the Wilpons - refused to deal Ike Davis, Jonathon Niese, Josh Thole, Jenrry Mejia and Wilmer Flores for pieces that would help the Mets win in the final two months of the season.
But when Minaya's list of "untouchables" was stretched to include the injury-prone Fernando Martinez, whose stock has fallen at Triple-A Buffalo, and Double-A outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, that's the sign of a team with no illusions of playing in October.
After Friday's loss, which kept the Mets at 7½ games behind the first-place Braves, David Wright stood at his locker and begged the front office for reinforcements before the deadline. "They know we can obviously use some help," Wright said.
Despite those pleas, Minaya looked at the standings and then turned a deaf ear to his franchise player. Minaya admitted that the Mets' poor position swayed him not to deal what he described as "blue-chip prospects."
There's nothing wrong with Minaya holding on to his prospects. Unlike the lame-duck Manuel, he still has two years left on his contract. But just don't expect anyone to stay emotionally invested in this year's team, including the players.
"The message to them is continue to play hard and continue to play good baseball," Minaya said. "The bottom line is we would like . . . to win the most games we can. When opportunities come that we can find the right fit to improve the team, we will do that."
That sounds good, but it's evident that the Mets' focus has shifted. The directive from ownership all along has been for Minaya to preserve the improving farm system and then work with the blueprint of rebuilding the major-league club with younger, less expensive talent.
It's already happening. Davis was rushed from Buffalo out of desperation when Daniel Murphy got hurt and Mike Jacobs flopped, but now he could remain at first base for the next decade. Niese has pitched like a No. 3-type starter and the surprising Thole could be playing his way into the everyday catcher's job for 2011.
That's a promising start, and for fans upset by yesterday's deadline inactivity, you really should be optimistic. Sure, Minaya talked with the Cubs about a bad-contract swap that would have sent Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo to Chicago for expensive Carlos Zambrano. But even if that had been possible - a team official said it was never close - there's no need for the Mets to add more years to their own terrible contracts.
As difficult as it is to stomach Perez and Castillo, they are off the books after next season - and Zambrano is due another $18 million in 2012. Better to release one or both and replace them with productive, cheaper players. That should be on the agenda for this offseason, as well as another significant move whose time has come - and that's trading Carlos Beltran.
Beltran is owed $9 million for the rest of this season, and another $18.5 million next year, so he'd make it through waivers during the last two months.
But because he's still working his way back from knee surgery, his value could be greater this winter, and the Mets won't miss him with Angel Pagan in centerfield through 2012. Beltran does have a full no-trade clause, but he has no ties here and has become an island in the clubhouse, so he likely would waive that.
The Mets are trying to be a younger, cheaper and presumably better team. Unfortunately for Manuel, as we witnessed Saturday, that process already is moving forward without him. Bet on Wally Backman, fresh from Brooklyn, taking over this retooled Mets team next season.