New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has pledged to procure new players at next week's winter meetings at Disney World -- even if the names are not blockbusters.
"I can guarantee you we'll come back with some new players," Alderson said Friday at Citi Field. "I can't guarantee you how high-profile they will be or how many. If nothing else, we'll pick in the Rule 5 draft just to say we brought a player back."
Alderson said he already has engaged roughly 20 teams in preliminary dialogue about trades.
Also on tap at the winter meetings, hitting coach interviews will be conducted at the Swan and Dolphin resort.
Still, far more important will be constructing the 2011 roster. The Mets desperately need depth in both starting pitching and relief, so the bulk of their activity is expected to occur in those areas, while the bench also gets a reconstruction.
"I think we're starting with a core of players -- 15 or so players, a core -- who are pretty darn good," Alderson said. "I think we have legitimate reason for optimism. We don't have a lot of money to fill out the last five or six spots on our 25-man roster, I would say -- not a lot of flexibility there. But that doesn't mean we can't be optimistic about and competitive next season."
A breakdown by position:
ROTATION: Newly hired manager Terry Collins has estimated a June return from shoulder surgery for left-handed ace Johan Santana, who will begin throwing in January. Alderson has been less committal. Regardless, Santana's absence on Opening Day leaves a void atop the rotation to start the season. Right-hander Mike Pelfrey becomes the de facto ace, followed by left-hander Jonathon Niese and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
The other two slots? That's wide open.
Collins recently acknowledged the Mets are deep into talks with free-agent right-hander Chris Young, although the former San Diego Padre has been injury-prone, including being limited to 20 innings last season due to a shoulder strain. Alderson said a formal offer has not yet been extended.
Even if Young is healthy, the Mets likely still need to be in the market for at least one additional back-end starting pitcher, so as not to be entirely dependent on a younger pitcher from the system. Unlike a year ago, the Mets have resolved to have raw right-hander Jenrry Mejia -- as well as infielder Ruben Tejada -- open the season at Triple-A Buffalo if at all possible in order to let them further develop. So the top young, internal competitor for a rotation spot might be right-hander Dillon Gee, who went 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA in five late-season starts in 2010.
"You look at our starting rotation right now, there are question marks even in some of the starting pitchers that we have," Alderson said. "I think the more that we could bring in, the better off we would be. It's not like all the starters that we have we think are No. 1s. But I think, realistically, we're looking for something less than that to fill out the rotation."
Alderson also cautioned: "You've got to be careful just bringing back guys who are coming back off of injury, because they may not be coming back off of injury. So that won't be our exclusive focus. We've been linked with Chris Young in part because he was in San Diego -- [as well as] Jeff Francis, coming off less than a full season. Let's see what develops."
RELIEF: Closer Francisco Rodriguez's legal and contract issues stemming from his altercation with his girlfriend's father at Citi Field finally appear behind him, with anger-management sessions on tap. And in reality, K-Rod might be the least of the Mets' concerns in the bullpen -- at least in terms of performance. His contract will vest at an onerous $17.5 million for 2012 if he finishes 55 games next season, but he will need to produce to get there.
Right-hander Bobby Parnell should be able to contribute late-inning relief work as well.
Beyond that, the bullpen is wide open, and the Mets would be well-served to bring in multiple arms.
Left-hander Hisanori Takahashi signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday. And Alderson indicated fellow southpaw Pedro Feliciano is "not likely" a consideration anymore because of the multiyear commitment required.
Internally, the best left-handed reliever option right now might be Oliver Perez. Yes, Oliver Perez.
Due to make $12 million next season, Perez initially appeared destined to be dumped this offseason, even if the Mets had to eat his contract. But Perez has tossed 10 straight scoreless innings in the Mexican winter league while sitting at 88 mph with his fastball and topping out at 92 mph. Alderson and Collins both plan to visit Perez in Mexico, and Alderson said he fully expects Perez to be in spring training with the organization. Since the Mets are on the hook for the money, Alderson reasoned, the new regime might as well take a look for itself before deciding whether to eat the contract -- although it's unclear whether Perez will be looked at in a relief role or perhaps even as a starter.
Alderson added that in his stops with San Diego and Oakland, his bullpens sometimes have employed no left-hander, with right-handed relievers capable of getting out lefty hitters. So while the Mets will be in search for left-handed relief help, it is not essential.
"Bullpens are funny," Alderson said. "I've been associated with some teams that have had great bullpens with guys with virtually no experience. You say there's a dearth of arms that may be experienced guys -- guys that have several years of major league service. Some of the best bullpen types for the sixth, seventh, eighth innings don't have much major league service at all."
Specifically regarding Mejia, Alderson added: "We don't want him in our bullpen this year. It's possible he will be. But our goal is not to use some of the good arms that we think are a year away and rush them into a situation where they're being used on a stopgap basis in the bullpen. Do we have arms in our system who we like who can maybe pitch in the bullpen? I think so. But we don't want to sacrifice the long term for an immediate need in a role where maybe we don't project this guy in the future."
INFIELD: Trade rumors might flare up again regarding shortstop Jose Reyes, but that appears to be only because the Mets owe it to themselves to at least accept inquiries and see what he might command. Regardless, first baseman Ike Davis, third baseman David Wright and Reyes seem entrenched.
Collins already has indicated lefty-hitting Josh Thole is the No. 1 catcher heading into spring training, which leaves the Mets in the market only to sign a righty-hitting backup at that position -- very likely someone younger than free agent Henry Blanco, who spent last season with the Mets but is approaching 40 years old.
Alderson acknowledged he has not had any "real conversations" with Blanco's agent and that the former backup catcher is in consideration only because of the lack of available players on the free-agent market.
Second base might go to Daniel Murphy, who was reinventing himself at the position with Aguilas in the Dominican Republic when he recently suffered a left hamstring strain. Collins already had watched Murphy play second base in the Dominican Republic before the injury. Murphy will not return to winter ball. He was due to complete his stint with Aguilas in mid-December anyway before suffering the injury.
The Mets could try to find a bad matching contract to swap for incumbent second baseman Luis Castillo, who is owed $6 million in 2011. Otherwise, Castillo likely will go to spring training to compete against Murphy. If Castillo loses that battle, which might be the design going into camp, it would be hard to envision the new regime wasting a bench spot by holding on to Castillo -- since he would not appear versatile enough to play multiple positions and have a useful role.
OUTFIELD: The outfield intrigue centers on who will play center field -- Carlos Beltran or Angel Pagan. But the starting three are not in question. Jason Bay, with his concussion woes apparently behind him, will man left field. Spring training will be used to determine which alignment is best between Beltran and Pagan in center and right field. Beltran reiterated to Collins this week by telephone during a lengthy conversation that he is willing to do whatever is best for the organization regarding his outfield assignment.
BENCH: Aside from backup catcher, the Mets are in the market for a backup middle infielder who is capable of spelling Reyes, as well as a fourth and fifth outfielder, Alderson said. The reality is the backup middle infielder might not materialize. If so, that potentially leaves former Oriole/Royal Luis Hernandez as the backup on Opening Day. Hernandez hit .250 with two homers and six RBIs in 44 at-bats for the Mets last season.
One beneficiary of the naming of Collins as manager could be Nick Evans. Because Collins might favor players from the organization's minor league system, Evans could emerge as a righty-hitting backup for the bench who can play first base, third base and left field -- the role recently held by Fernando Tatis. Evans is out of options, meaning if he does not make the major league team out of spring training and is not traded, he must be exposed to waivers in order to be sent to the minor leagues.
"Position-wise, we're talking about mostly extra players," Alderson said regarding his offseason pursuits. "From a rotation standpoint, we're talking about a fourth or fifth starter. There's some spots there we need to fill in the bullpen, particularly left-hander."
Meanwhile, one topic that should not come up this offseason is multiyear extensions for current players. Reyes will be entering an $11 million option year after which he has the right to become a free agent, and Dickey has expressed interest in signing for more than one year. Regardless, Alderson said he does not want to commit additional obligations to 2012 before having a chance to review things. Instead, he would like to be a big free-agency player next winter, with maximum flexibility.
"I'd be very surprised if we had any talks like that before spring training -- with any player," Alderson said about extensions. "I mean, it could happen, I guess. I'd certainly feel a lot more comfortable having those conversations after having a lot more opportunity to interact with and observe all of our players."