With three intriguing position players ready to debut at Triple A-Buffalo next year (Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Fernando Martinez), the Mets can afford to concentrate their financial resources on starting pitching this off-season.
Johan Santana, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey will almost certainly make up three-fifths of the Mets starting rotation in 2010. The need for a consistent #2 starter to complement Santana is obvious, but with two gaping holes in the rotation the Mets might be better served by skipping the likes of John Lackey or Randy Wolf and focusing on using that money to get two starters.
Santana has been a legitimate ace in his first two seasons in New York, although elbow trouble at the end of last season has become the proverbial elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge the possibility that Santana's days as a stopper are over, despite four guaranteed years and nearly $100 million left on his contract. His 2009 numbers, while certainly solid, do not suggest that he can still be counted among the best pitchers in the National League. No matter - put him at the top of the rotation and (like so many other player personnel decisions from this front office) cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Oliver Perez was, somewhat predictably, horrible in 2009. Although the depths to which he sank may have been unexpected, there was an almost palpable sense that Perez was not going to live up to his free agent contract. He is untradable at this point, so the Mets will have to simply pencil him in as a mid-rotation option and (again) hope that he finds himself. Reports that he is involved in an off-season conditioning program are encouraging, especially since Ollie is not exactly renowned for his dedication to his craft.
Thanks to a quirk in the major league contract he signed with the Mets when he was drafted, Pelfrey is actually taking a pay cut this season. Reports vary on how much less he will be making, but Pelfrey will be paid a fifth starter's salary in 2010. That's exactly what he deserves these days - Pelfrey looks more like a busted prospect than a future star who cannot be counted on for even a league-average performance.
The Mets do not have a pitcher in their farm system who is ready to step into the rotation before the 2012 season at the earliest. There is no one to be blocked, and therefore no reason not to sign or trade for two starters with contracts that will extend over the next two seasons.
Since I do not think that two blue-chip starters are attainable this off-season, the Mets will have to take some short-term risks. John Maine is a wild card right now - if the Mets cannot swap him for another non-tender candidate, they will have to think seriously about whether or not it will even be worth offering him a 2010 contract. If they end up spending $15 million-plus on Lackey or a package of free agent starters, the Mets may have no choice but to keep Maine and hope that he or Perez steps up to be a #3 starter. I am tired of hoping.
That said, I am actually confident that Maine will outperform Pelfrey next year, so a bold move would be to trade Pelfrey and his very reasonable contract to a team looking to dump an "overpriced" starter. Indeed, it might be the only chance the Mets have of getting a decent starter on the trade market.
Trading for a starter will be very difficult. The Mets need to hold onto the precious few prospects they have, and even those young players may not be enough to acquire someone of substance. Forget about Roy Halladay - there is no way on God's green earth that the Mets have the horses to pry him away from the Blue Jays. Unless the Mets can move someone like Luis Castillo to take on a starter owed a lot of guaranteed money, I don't see how they can address their needs in their trade market.
If that proves to be the case, the free agent market will be the only alternative. I am never a fan of signing multiple free agents, but this is a rare season where it may make sense. The Mets have a protected first-round pick, so they can afford to sign one of the two Type A free agents (John Lackey and Randy Wolf) without giving that pick up.
Lackey is the only free agent who is a legitimate #2 starter when healthy, but Tim Marchman quite correctly points out that his injury history and the mileage on his arm do not suggest a starter who can be counted on to pitch regularly in the future. I would pass. Wolf was dominant in 2009, but that performance just screams "contract year." Some poor team is going to regret giving a multi-year contract to Wolf; I can only hope that it will not be the Mets.
The Type B free agent market has a few starters who are worth looking at, provided they can be signed for a reasonable length of time and annual rate. Rich Harden has the best raw talent of any free agent, with risk/reward potential so high that he is worth a one-year deal with a club option at a comparatively high price. He CANNOT be counted on as a second starter, even if he gets paid like one; Harden needs to be slotted in as a #5 and used judiciously this season.
Otherwise, Joel Pineiro is the best of a mediocre lot - he has become the type of groundball machine that Pelfrey should be by now. Jason Marquis claims to want to come to New York; will he come here for two years and $13 million? Erik Bedard has made only 30 starts in the last two seasons, but like Harden his risk/reward potential is worth a one-year flier if Pineiro or Marquis go elsewhere.
Best case scenario: The Mets sign Harden or Bedard to a one-year deal with a club option, who gives them 30 dominant starts and finally puts his injury history to rest. They also guess right on either Pineiro or Marquis and he performs well over the next two or three seasons. Perez uses his time in Arizona to finally realize his potential and becomes the best #3 starter in the league. Maine or Pelfrey succeeds as a fifth starter - the other one leaves town quietly.
Worst case scenario: The Mets dedicate too many years and too much money to Lackey or Wolf. They keep Maine, Pelfrey and Perez to round out the rotation and none of them are healthy or effective. They go into 2011 with their top two starters signed for three more years at financial rates far beyond their return, to go along with one more year of Bad Ollie and the same two holes in the rotation they have right now.