Mets looking to steal offseason

NEW YORK -- Like some expensive sports car idling in the parking lot, keys left in the ignition, Vladimir Guerrero is the ultimate temptation -- there for the taking. Despite knowing Guerrero's availability is somehow too good to be true, the Mets are about to reach into their wallets. That's because after a winter of free-agency successes, executives are body-surfing a wave of optimism, convinced they're one player away from becoming a 90-win team.

That player, of course, is Guerrero, mystifyingly available with spring training just a month away.

"Are you kidding me?" is how one member of the Mets organization put it, when asked what Guerrero could mean to the club's renaissance. Question is, can the Mets really be a factor in this bizarre courtship? They concede it's the mother of all long shots, considering the right fielder is currently mulling a five-year, $65 million offer from the Orioles.

But Christmas and New Year's have passed and Guerrero is still unsigned -- which is to say, nothing is impossible.

That's why owner Fred Wilpon is preparing to become an official suitor, if and when Guerrero decides to recalibrate his demands. Indeed, there's talk the outfielder is so disappointed by the market's tepid response, he might abandon his quest for a multi-year deal and instead sign a monster one-year contract with the highest bidder. This, just to prove to the world his back is healthy, and then test free agency again in 2005.

If Guerrero does, in fact, re-start the bidding, Wilpon could have his opening -- ready to offer deals up to three years, somewhere between $11-13 million per. More significantly, though, the Mets would be prepared to use an entirely different sales pitch, not centered on money.

The Mets would appeal to Guerrero's roots as a National Leaguer, as well as emphasize their proximity to Montreal, where his family currently lives. And the Mets would also play to Guerrero's privately stated desire to be surrounded by fellow Dominicans, both in the clubhouse and in any new team's fan base. Considering New York's heavy Dominican population, Guerrero would become "an instant hero" at Shea, according to a friend of the outfielder's, and would be paired with the Mets' own Dominican star-prospect, Jose Reyes.

The Mets really believe Guerrero could be swayed. Despite a 95-loss season in 2003, they convinced Japan's top infielder, Kaz Matsui, to sign a three-year deal. And it was Matsui's decision that compelled Mike Cameron to choose the Mets over the A's. And just this week, the Mets signed free agent Braden Looper, whom GM Jim Duquette called, "the best available closer out there."

So far, the Mets believe they've gone from an 66-win team to at least a .500 club for 2004 -- no small achievement, considering all three acquisitions are 30 or under, and none of them cost the Mets a draft pick. Duquette said, "we had a plan, which was to build a team that was conducive to our ballpark, and we've stuck to that plan.

"The key was Matsui, then everything else fell into line. Cameron came to New York because he was excited about Matsui, because he'd had a relationship with Ichiro (Suzuki in Seattle). And we were on the East Coast, so for the first time location helped us."

From this point on, however, the storyline is all about money. The Mets' payroll currently stands at $80 million, which is Duquette's limit. He's under orders to never again spend $120 million as foolishly as predecessor Steve Phillips did in 2003 -- an edict that has teeth, considering the Mets no longer have former partner Nelson Doubleday's assets as a backup, nor does the team have its own cable outlet as a revenue source, like the Yankees' YES Network.

More than anything, the Mets fear emptying their coffers on another broken-down player. They learned their lesson from Mo Vaughn, who can barely walk but is still owed $17 million for the '04 season. The Mets' liability to the first baseman is covered by insurance, but they know no one will write such a policy on Guerrero. He suffered a herniated disk last summer and was on the disabled list from June 5-July 21.

Even though Guerrero had a .661 slugging percentage after his return from the DL, it's not just the Mets who are leery. In fact, the best offer he received was from the team that knew him best -- the Expos, who plunked down $75 million for five years. Guerrero refused, after which Montreal declined to offer him arbitration.

That was two months ago, and no one thought Guerrero would still be looking for work today. Even the Yankees dismissed the thought, targeting Gary Sheffield instead.

All this works in the Mets' favor -- assuming Guerrero would consider karma over cash. It's naïve to think the plan will actually work. But as the Mets have learned more than once this winter, nothing is impossible.

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