With three early picks, Mets have golden opportunity

NEW YORK -- Forgive the Mets for thinking they're about to wake up in some alternate universe -- or at least one that allows for instant makeovers. The oldest team in the major leagues has three of the first 33 picks in the upcoming amateur draft; for the Mets, this opportunity is the equivalent of a man dying of thirst enjoying a long, cool drink.

It's logical to assume the Mets will target college players, especially since they'll have only three pitchers under their control in 2009: Johan Santana, John Maine and Mike Pelfrey. The trade for Santana cost the Mets three starting pitchers, while three others -- Pedro Martinez, Oliver Perez and Orlando Hernandez -- will be eligible for free agency after this season. The real question, however, is whether the Mets will be willing to exceed the slot -- the commissioner's office "suggested" pay scale for blue-chip picks -- in order to restock their system.

General manager Omar Minaya is being understandably coy, saying, "we'll see how it goes [on draft day]; we'll see who's available," when asked if the Mets are rethinking their position on slotting. Historically, the Wilpons have been model citizens in Bud Selig's tightly-controlled draft culture, showing no desire to spend freely like the Yankees and Red Sox.

However, Minaya dismissed the notion that the Mets are too frugal, pointing to his major league budget of $140 million, the highest in the National League and second overall only to the Yankees. The GM also says slotting has been less of an issue since 2005, the last time the Mets had a first-round pick. That's the surcharge they've had to pay for signing Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner. One Mets senior official flatly said, "we've never lost [a pick] because of slotting. It's been a nonfactor for us because we haven't drafted that high."

True or not, Minaya isn't blind to the spending habits of his rivals, including the Yankees. In December, he told Newsday that because the Bombers have been willing to exceed the slot, "they've been able to get Joba Chamberlain and [Ian] Kennedy and those kinds of guys."

No doubt, the Mets are in a enviable position now, bestowed with the No. 18 (from the Braves for Tom Glavine), No. 22 (Mets' first-round pick) and No. 33 (sandwich first-rounder for a Type A free agent) selections. Since 2005, the Mets have done relatively well, having drafted current major leaguers Mike Pelfrey and Joe Smith, and John Niese and Eddie Kunz, among others.

Only Pelfrey was a first-round pick among those players, however, and Minaya wasn't overstating his case this week when he said, "This is a good position for us to be in. We're going to have choices to make, but they'll be good choices. As a general manager, this is something you look forward to."

Minaya says the Mets will abide by only one edict when choosing between college or high school candidates, and deciding whether to pursue pitchers or position players: This time around, the GM said, "we're going after the best available players. That's going to come first."

The need to replenish is real enough, and Minaya is quick to concede his system is "depleted" at the Triple-A level. But the Mets say they're better off at the lower level than most talent evaluators think, and they are about to flood their system with prospects groomed through their new academy in the Dominican Republic.

Indeed, the international talent pool, which is relatively unpoliced by Major League Baseball, is the logical alternative for the slot-abiding Mets. If they're not going to take a chance on, say, first baseman Eric Hosmer -- a high-school All-American with thunderous power from the left side -- because he's represented by Scott Boras, it's far cheaper to cast a wide net in the Caribbean.

Trouble is, drafting conservatively and sticking to the slot is risky business. The international market is replete with unproven players; projecting their ceilings is difficult, often impossible.

The last option, of course, is free agency, in which the Mets have flourished in the past four years. Clearly, the Mets will be heavily involved in the courtship of Mark Teixeira next winter, and they could have similar interest in, say, C.C. Sabathia.

But with more teams holding on to their young stars, free agency is a dying phenomenon. And despite their previous willingness to spend on older stars, the Mets are ready to let the pendulum swing the other way. One team elder said, "we're really trying to change the business model here. We have to start getting more one-to-three [years of service] players on the major league roster. Everyone else is doing it, and we need to do it, too."

In line with that philosophy, Minaya says the Mets are already pushing their young prospects through the system, noting that Fernando Martinez, who was signed as an international free agent at 16 in 2005, "is at [Double-A]," the GM said. And so is Kunz, a 6-foot-5 right-hander the Mets hope to groom into the next Joba Chamberlain.

That sets the stage for the draft, in which the next generation of Mets is waiting to be plucked. With Alou, Wagner, Martinez and Carlos Delgado all nearing the end of their careers, the next set of decisions the Mets make will be important, if not critical.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.