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Van Wagenen won't say how much Mets are willing to spend in free-agent market

New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen

New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen introduces Carlos Beltra‡n as the 22nd manager in team history, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Credit: Corey Sipkin

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The question looming over this Mets offseason is the same question that looms over all of their offseasons: How much money are they willing to spend?

There are big prizes to be won on the free-agent market — Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon — but the Mets have a habit of not jumping into the deep end of that pool, and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has given no indication that that will change in the coming months.

That continued at the Omni Resort & Spa at Montelucia on Monday, the first day of the annual GM meetings, which typically serve as four days of offseason groundwork.

Asked repeatedly about the topic, Van Wagenen declined to say whether he has discussed with chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon his willingness to surpass the luxury-tax threshold.

“Our goal is to identify what the acquisition costs are of players and then make recommendations to the ownership group that we think are going to put the team in the best situation to succeed,” Van Wagenen said. “So we will do that. And if the luxury-tax threshold becomes something we have to consider, then we’ll talk about it at that time.”

The Mets already have an estimated 2020 payroll of $187.7 million, according to Cot’s Contracts. That leaves them with about $20 million before reaching the $208 luxury-tax mark before making a single move. Teams that go over that mark are fined 20 percent of every dollar they go over.

To translate, the Mets don’t have much financial wiggle room this winter unless they are willing to pay that tax. That left Van Wagenen leaning again on one of his buzzwords Monday: creative.

“We’re looking to improve and there’s a variety of different ways in which we can do it,” he said. “I’ve said in the past, and I think last season — and even the trade deadline — was proof positive that we’ll be creative, we’ll be open-minded to just about anything.”

One player the Mets seem set on not pursuing is Rendon, a third baseman. Van Wagenen said the Mets already have three options at that spot: Jeff McNeil, Jed Lowrie and J.D. Davis. “We feel pretty good about the options in-house,” he said.

Van Wagenen did identify, however, three areas of focus for the major-league roster: the rotation, the bullpen and defense, specifically in centerfield.

Zack Wheeler is expected to decline the one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer by the Thursday deadline. The Mets remain engaged with him on a long-term contract. If he signs elsewhere, the Mets will need a replacement. Van Wagenen cited Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman as in-house options.

Of all the spots at which the Mets could look to upgrade defensively — not an emphasis for the organization for more or less the entire decade — centerfield would have a ripple effect.

“If we improved our defense at centerfield, it would improve our leftfield defense and our rightfield defense,” Van Wagenen said, referencing the ability of Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo to stick mostly to the corners. “It [would give] us a greater stronghold in centerfield, but those players are very difficult to identify and even harder to acquire.”

Notes & quotes: Regarding the Mets’ pitching coach opening, Van Wagenen & Co. met with Twins assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who pitched for the Mets in 2012-13, and University of Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter on Monday in Scottsdale . . . Six months after Yoenis Cespedes’ surgery to repair his right ankle fractures, Van Wagenen said it is still “too early to tell” his status for 2020. Asked how often he talks to Cespedes, Van Wagenen said, “I’m not going to get into specifics of our communication with Ces.” . . . Van Wagenen said he expects Wilson Ramos to be the Mets’ starting catcher in 2020, but the Mets are in the market for a backup. Tomas Nido, the backup most of last season, remains with the organization.

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