Mets general manager Billy Eppler at spring training, Monday March...

Mets general manager Billy Eppler at spring training, Monday March 14, 2022 in Port St. Lucie FL. Credit: Newsday

Baseball’s offseason is starting to get real, just in time for the Mets to tackle a series of weighty questions — with major implications for 2023 and beyond — during the main event.

The winter meetings are back for the first time in three years, running from Sunday night through Wednesday afternoon in San Diego. Executives, agents and usually even a few players descend upon one site, this time the Manchester Grand Hyatt, creating an environment ripe for deal-making — especially for teams such as the Mets, who have lots of deals to make.

Entering the big week, the Mets at least have clarity regarding star pitcher Jacob deGrom, who signed a five-year, $185 million contract with the Rangers on Friday. That leaves general manager Billy Eppler and his inner circle of baseball operations officials grappling with how else to fill out the rotation, which is near the top of a to-do list that also includes whether to re-sign or replace Brandon Nimmo and how to reconstruct most of a bullpen.

Whatever the answers are, the answers should be coming soon. The groundwork-laying early portion of the offseason is over.

“Talks are continuing to advance on a number of fronts, in a number of demographics — whether it’s starting pitching or position players,” Eppler said Thursday before deGrom bolted. “There’s some more clarity. As that continues to happen and as those conversations, you get a sense of things that fall into reality or maybe some things where the gap just provides too great to bridge that. It’s all the discovery process. We’re moving toward being able to identify more realities.” 

Among two possible realities: righthander Justin Verlander and lefthander Carlos Rodon, the remaining ace-caliber pitchers available via free agency. Each has his pros and cons. 

The upside of Verlander is he remains elite. Pitching regularly for the first time in three years, he returned from Tommy John surgery and won the American League Cy Young Award, posting a 1.75 ERA and 0.83 WHIP, both the best in the majors. He’ll likely receive a relatively short contract, which is always safer than a longer one for clubs.  

But Verlander will be 40 next season, so signing him would require taking on a risk similar to the one the Mets accepted in bringing in Max Scherzer last offseason: Sooner or later, Father Time will win out. Verlander won’t stay excellent forever, so the team that lands him has to hope that continues for at least most of his new deal. He also is reportedly looking for a Scherzer-type contract — an average annual salary of $43.3 million for three years — which in the Mets’ case would mean committing nearly $90 million to two older pitchers. That is a lot, even for Steve Cohen’s team. 

Rodon, who turns 30 next Saturday, is a decade younger and has 2,300 fewer innings on his arm. He has been very good the past two seasons — 2.67 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, All-Star selection both years — and probably won’t reach the Scherzer/deGrom realm in salary. That might matter to the Mets, who were excited to save a few million dollars via deferred money in Edwin Diaz’s contract (five years, $102 million). 

But 2021-22 represents Rodon’s entire track record of success. Before that, he was mediocre or injured or both for six seasons — a career trajectory that is reminiscent of James McCann’s before the Mets signed him. Because he still is relatively young, Rodon is more likely to get a longer contract, too. And because he has the qualifying offer attached, the Mets would give up their second- and fifth-highest draft picks and $1 million from their international bonus pool as a penalty for signing Rodon. 

The Mets, who return only two regular starters from the 2022 rotation, need to bring in more than one. Other free agents include a couple of their own guys — Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker — plus Kodai Senga, Andrew Heaney, Jameson Taillon and Jose Quintana. 

A popular trade-rumors name in recent years: Pablo Lopez of the Marlins. Though either team could be hesitant to deal within the division, might Miami be interested in a package headlined by South Florida native Mark Vientos? 

These will be the first winter meetings since 2019, when they coincidentally also were in San Diego. MLB then canceled the marquee event because of the pandemic in 2020 and the owners’ lockout in 2021. 

It was at the most recent winter meetings that the Mets talked with Cleveland about a trade for shortstop Francisco Lindor — about 13 months before they actually agreed on a swap, under the Mets’ new ownership and front-office leadership. 

Instead, the Mets signed Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha that week in an attempt to bolster the rotation. They probably can do better this time.