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SportsColumnistsJim Baumbach

Where do Mets go from here?

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon chats with

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon chats with fans before the game against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field. (April 22, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

On my way back to New York after covering a Mets minicamp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., several years ago, I bumped into Brian Cashman in a Florida airport, an exchange that came to mind this weekend.

When the Yankees' general manager learned where I was coming from, he half-jokingly suggested the Mets were taking the reins from the Yankees as the crazed team for reporters to cover because of all the big-ticket moves they kept making each offseason.

I thought about that in the wake of the Wilpons' surprising announcement Friday that they're willing to sell 20 to 25 percent of the team to raise cash and "to provide additional assurance that the New York Mets will continue to have the necessary resources to fully compete and win."

It wasn't too long ago that the Mets were known inside baseball circles as big-game hunters, a team that always had to be considered a contender to land the most attractive free agents every offseason.

As for these days, well, the nearly $8 million they just agreed to give arbitration-eligible R.A. Dickey more than doubles the financial commitments they've made to free agents this offseason. Only a handful of small-market teams have spent less money on players.

The Wilpons are sensitive to the overwhelming notion that their spending habits changed in the wake of the Bernard Madoff fraud scandal that broke in December 2008. They have always pointed to their high payroll - still among the top handful in the majors - as the best evidence in their defense.

But a close look at the machinations of recent Mets offseasons since the Madoff scandal first hit raises questions about their decisions, questions that have frustrated fans for some time.

Such as, why didn't they take advantage of the collapsing market for corner outfielders in January 2009 when Bobby Abreu - who signed for $5 million with the Angels - would have been a clear upgrade over Daniel Murphy and Ryan Church? Or entering last season, why didn't they sign a starting pitcher such as Joel Piñeiro, Ben Sheets or Jon Garland when their rotation clearly was lacking in depth?

It's easy to think that the pre-Madoff Mets would have been quick to fill those holes, even if their decisions weren't always sound from a baseball evaluation standpoint (see: Castillo, Luis). One thing about those years: You certainly could never accuse them of standing on the sideline when moves were there to be made.

We're admittedly wiping dust off old issues now because, in light of Friday's development, Mets fans are within their rights to wonder what's in store for the future of their ballclub.

The Wilpons insisted Friday that the Mets' baseball operations department will not be affected by the "uncertainty" surrounding their personal finances as they stare at a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought forth by the special trustee in the Madoff case.

And one big reason for hope is general manager Sandy Alderson, who has a strong reputation around baseball.

For the second straight day, a Mets spokesman said Alderson was unavailable for comment, but he'll have to emerge at some point and discuss whether he sees the future in a different light now.

And although this offseason has been devoid of significant player movement, it does reflect well on the Wilpons that they were willing to pay Alderson and his top lieutenants, Paul DePodesta and J.P Ricciardi (as well as eat the remainder of Omar Minaya's salary).

But the fact that this lawsuit by the special trustee has spurred them to do what once was unthinkable - welcome in limited partners to create cash flow - raises questions about the future of the Mets that will be impossible to answer for some time.

One of George Steinbrenner's original minority owners, Ed Rosenthal, told me last year that taking on that role was one of the smartest business decisions of his life. "Financially," he said, "it's been a bonanza."

On the other hand, another described the role of limited partner as essentially a "privileged fan."

It'll be interesting to see who buys into the Mets, and whether they'll offer their reasons to the public.

But of greater concern to Mets fans is what type of players this franchise will choose to invest in during future winters, which promises to be the most telling development of all.

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