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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets weren't willing to give up young pitchers to acquire Yoenis Cespedes

Yoenis Cespedes takes batting practice before a game

Yoenis Cespedes takes batting practice before a game with the Yankees at Fenway Park on August 3, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jim Rogash

SAN DIEGO - When Matt Kemp and Yoenis Cespedes suddenly changed teams early Thursday morning during the final hours of the winter meetings, the first thought that crossed our minds was how each might have looked in a Mets uniform.

Alas, by mid-December, it was too late for that.

Kemp wound up going to the Padres, who reportedly will get a sizable chunk of salary relief -- roughly $31 million, according to USA Today -- in a swap that also sends three players to the Dodgers. That would put Kemp at the manageable cost of $76 million through 2019, or $15.2 million annually for San Diego.

Even that was too rich for the Mets, who need to shed a few bucks -- Dillon Gee's projected $6 million, for instance -- to wind up at their targeted $100-million payroll for 2015. One of the Dodgers' priorities since their elimination from the playoffs was to relieve their outfield glut, but the Mets couldn't fathom a way to make Kemp fit from a financial standpoint.

The more realistic option was Cespedes, whom the Red Sox got for Jon Lester at the July non-waiver trade deadline and began shopping not long after. The athletic, power-hitting outfielder seemed to be a natural for Citi Field, where he won the Home Run Derby at the 2013 All-Star Game.

According to a source, the Mets asked the Red Sox about Cespedes toward the end of the season but were told it would take Zack Wheeler or Jacob deGrom. Those two names remain virtually untouchable for the Mets, and that ended the discussion before it really even began.

Fast-forward to Thursday morning in San Diego, and the Mets were understandably surprised to see Cespedes go to the Tigers for Rick Porcello, a durable 26-year-old with a career 4.30 ERA for Detroit. Porcello, like Cespedes, will be a free agent after this season -- but the Cuban slugger also has a clause in his contract that he can't be extended a qualifying offer, meaning no compensatory draft pick.

The Mets, despite their outfield needs at the time, weren't about to give up their young, controllable pitching talent to rent Cespedes and decided to quickly move on Michael Cuddyer, whom they signed Nov. 10 to a two-year, $21-million contract. The Mets also agreed Thursday to a one-year, $1.45-million deal with outfielder John Mayberry Jr., who presumably will play against tough matchup lefties when/if Cuddyer starts at first base for Lucas Duda.

Getting Cuddyer instead of continuing to hunt bigger prey on the trade front goes to show what the Mets face in those sort of talks. While they prefer to move Gee, Bartolo Colon or Jon Niese, other teams want Wheeler, deGrom or Noah Syndergaard. Heck, Arizona asked for Syndergaard in exchange for shortstop Didi Gregorius before putting together a three-way deal that sent him to the Yankees.

That's how trades work. It's a negotiation. Start high and see if some middle ground can be struck. So far, the Mets haven't been comfortable with any of the suggested returns, whether it's been for Syndergaard or Gee.

Their shopping list is pretty well defined -- shortstop, another righty bat, a lefty reliever -- but Sandy Alderson was content to watch the feeding frenzy that occurred during the final 24 hours of the winter meetings.

As we all know by now, the Mets have been excruciatingly patient in rebuilding since the day Alderson was hired as GM in 2010. It's been brick-by-brick. The construction of the Second Avenue Subway line feels as if it's moving at a quicker pace.

Then look at a team like the Dodgers, whose roster has been under constant renovation since Andrew Friedman was lured from the Rays. He dominated the winter meetings as if they were his own reality show.

The Dodgers won 94 games in 2014, so it's not as if they can play much better. This is more about improving in any way possible, by any means, and L.A. has the organizational depth and financial might to do that. As for the Mets, we're still waiting.

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