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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

For Mets' front office, questions will eventually need to be answered

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon addresses a

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon addresses a news conference, as Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig listens, at left, at New York's City Hall. (May 16, 2012) Credit: AP

Fred Wilpon made a rare on-field appearance before last night's game against the Braves but didn't stay long. The principal owner spent the entire time talking to Keith Hernandez at the dugout railing, and when the conversation was over, I approached Wilpon with a question about the state of the franchise.

Given the Mets' disappointing freefall, I asked, did he want to give any assurances to the fans about improving the club going forward?

Wilpon pleasantly declined, saying only "check with Sandy," a reference to general manager Alderson. Fair enough. Maybe Wilpon had more pressing obligations. Or maybe he didn't feel like getting tangled in an impromptu dugout news conference with a small group of reporters that soon closed ranks around him.

But there are questions that eventually will need to be answered about the Mets -- ones that don't involve whether Mike Baxter can be an everyday outfielder.

Questions such as: What kind of money can the Wilpons spend this winter? What is their projected payroll for 2013? Is the franchise on the rebound financially? Any idea when the Mets will be legitimate contenders, not just first-half flameouts?

Maybe these questions didn't need to be answered Saturday, but that's not going to stop them from being asked -- and not just by reporters hanging around the dugout.

They've come up in conversations with players in the Mets' clubhouse. And these questions definitely are on the minds of the team's paying customers. They need to be convinced to show up for the remaining 24 games at Citi Field -- and buy tickets for 2013.

The message delivered via Saturday night's 9-3 throttling by the Braves was not very encouraging. Johan Santana, fresh off a three-week stay on the disabled list, probably wished he never left that safe place after the Braves thumped him for eight hits and eight runs in 11/3 innings.

Santana was victimized by a handful of hits that dropped in or found holes, but that didn't lessen the damage on the scoreboard. Freddie Freeman's two-out, two-run double in the first inning was a grounder that barely sneaked past the diving Ike Davis. In the second inning, Santana allowed a leadoff walk and five singles before Terry Collins retrieved him.

But this was about more than merely Saturday's face-plant for Santana. He became only the third pitcher in Mets history to surrender at least six runs in four consecutive starts, joining Al Leiter and Pedro Astacio, as his ERA jumped to 4.58 from 3.98. During that stretch, Santana has allowed 36 hits and 27 earned runs in 14 innings for a 17.36 ERA.

Collins planned to limit Santana to 90 pitches in his first start since July 20, but he lasted only 43. What the manager has to worry about now is how much Santana has left in the tank to finish the season. It's safe to say his 134-pitch effort in the June 1 no-hitter took a greater toll than anyone originally admitted, and staying in the rotation after his July 6 ankle sprain could have forced him to compensate in his delivery before finally landing on the DL.

The Mets soon might have to decide to protect Santana from himself and shut it down for the season. Winning still is important, even for a team 10½ games out of the wild-card race, but this is about safeguarding the $31-million investment in Santana for next season.

Yes, you read that correctly. He is owed $25.5 million for 2013, the final year of his contract, and a $5.5 buyout on his $25-million option for 2014.

If the Mets intend to be competitive next year, they're going to need an effective Santana, if only to make it look as though that money has not been completely flushed.

"We've seen the results if he's healthy," Collins said. "We know that he is still a top-of-the-rotation starter if he's healthy."

So add Santana to that long list of "ifs" for these Mets. At some point, though, it might be nice to get some answers.

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