Mets in semi-rebuilding mode

NEW YORK -- Fingers tightly crossed, prayers said fast and furious, the Mets finally ventured into the wide-open space called free agency, offering second baseman Luis Castillo a three-year deal worth approximately $15 million on Tuesday. The club has no illusions that one player -- not even Alex Rodriguez -- can reverse their three-year decline. But, finally, the restoration project has begun.

The architect is Jim Duquette, the 37-year-old general manager who is bright but inexperienced, blessed with a $90 million payroll, but cursed to be in the same division with the world champion Marlins, not to mention the Braves.

And then there's the Yankees, whose payroll will be twice that of the Mets, making it impossible for their cross-town neighbors to rebuild without feeling dwarfed or rushed. While George Steinbrenner could be poised to spend as much as $200 million to get the Yankees back to the World Series in 2004, the Mets are cutting payroll by 25 percent, and rival GMs say they're 2-3 years away from playoff contention.

In most other markets, that's a survivable timetable. But Duquette works in a landscape where the tabloids have their tentacles wrapped around the Yankees and Mets all year, and where the baseball world is viewed through two prisms: over-celebrating the winners or publicly flogging the losers.

There's no mistaking which category the Mets have fallen into since the 2000 Subway Series. They collapsed so quickly that by 2003, no team had spent so much money ($120 million) to lose so many game (95), making the Mets the most expensive, colossal mistake in the game's history.

It's up to Duquette to heal Shea's wounds. He has the brains. He has the respect of industry peers. But does Duquette have a plan to satisfy the beast of New York's impatience?

He says the goal in 2004 is "to be playing meaningful games in September." There's no mention of the World Series, or even the postseason. Duquette has wisely set the bar low, which might irritate ownership looking to keep fans coming out to Shea. But Duquette needs, in no particular order, a second baseman, center fielder, right fielder, a No. 5 starter and a closer.

No wonder he avoids talking about October. And that's why, when asked if he was interested in the very-available Alex Rodriguez and his $25 million annual salary, Duquette ruefully answered, "we're more than one player away from competing. Our feeling is we need to spread our resources to the areas of greatest need. And we have 4-5 areas we need to address."

In other words, the Mets are sticking to a get-real wish list, which starts with Castillo. Or if the free agent remains with the Marlins -- which some Met officials believe he will -- perhaps Kaz Matsui. The Mets are also considering Mike Cameron in their outfield, envision Sidney Ponson or Miguel Batista in the starting rotation, and haven't ruled out the possibility of talking to Yankees free agent Jeff Nelson -- to serve as closer.

In a perfect world, Duquette would've already scooped up Billy Koch in a trade with the White Sox, agreeing to take on $3 million of the troubled reliever's 2004 salary. But the Mets can't spend like the Yankees; sobered by an internal estimate that the Wilpon family may have lost $25 million last year, the Mets have no appetite for such an expensive gamble.

Similarly, the Mets have all but resigned themselves to losing another potential closer, Keith Foulke, to the Red Sox, who are apparently ready to outbid the market. Duquette was hoping Foulke could be lured to New York because his former Oakland pitching coach, Rick Peterson, now works for the Mets. But the Mets don't intend to get in a bidding war with Boston -- not when Duquette considers a closer the final component of his rebuilding equation, not the first.

As Duquette put it, "if I felt I really needed a closer, I would've (traded for) Billy Wagner."

The news isn't all bad, of course. The Mets still have more than enough cash to succeed; their $90 million nearly matches the A's and Marlins' combined payrolls in 2003. Mike Piazza, still the team's best hitter, isn't being traded after all, and is instead ready to begin a new life at first base.

Duquette believes by catching less, Piazza could play as many as 150 games this year, and, as the GM put it, "I'd love to see the kind of numbers Mike will put up when he's in the lineup that often."

Shortstop Jose Reyes appears ready for a long run of excellence. And as quickly as Tom Glavine declined in 2003, Al Leiter was just as productive, winning 15 games. And Duquette himself is viewed as an asset. A's general manager Billy Beane says, "Jim gets it. He understands what this business is about. I wanted him to get this (Mets') job" after Steve Phillips was fired during the regular season.

Duquette seems prepared for a struggle ahead, bolstered by a statistic he offers, unsolicited.

"Since 1991, 40 teams have lost 95 games or more," he said. "Of those 40, 14 have had above .500 records the next year. We don't have a bleak feeling or attitude. (Getting to .500) is realistic. It's a meaningful number, especially with our resources."

He has a wish-list. He has a clear-eyed vision of the future. All that's missing from Duquette's universe is the answer to a single, burning question: can Mets fans wait while a rookie GM drains Shea's cesspool?

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.