A few things happened in the past couple of days that drastically affect the future of the New York Mets:
While the Braves and Nationals reload, the Mets have to decide what to do with Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, who has one more season before becoming a free agent. As a 38-year-old knuckleballer, this is likely Dickey's one chance to cash in really big. He has already said he won't negotiate during the season, so the Mets will have to pay market value to keep him. Trouble is, with Wright now signed and the Mets operating like a midmarket franchise with an estimated $80 million budget, they may not be able to afford Dickey.
The bigger issue, however, is that the Braves and Nationals are really good right now -- and young. The Mets just can't compete with the depth and talent of those two rosters.
Look at the Opening Day 2013 ages of the Atlanta regulars:
SS Andrelton Simmons -- 23
1B Freddie Freeman -- 23
RF Jason Heyward -- 23
3B Juan Francisco -- 25
CF B.J. Upton -- 28
C Brian McCann -- 29
LF Martin Prado -- 29
2B Dan Uggla -- 33
Meanwhile, the Nationals acquired Span, giving them likely the best defensive outfield in the majors with Span in center and Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth on the corners. If they re-sign first baseman Adam LaRoche, that gives GM Mike Rizzo the option of trading Mike Morse or gives manager Davey Johnson the best depth in the National League to work with and shelters the Nationals against injuries.
The Nationals also feature a young core: Their Opening Day roster will include Harper (20), Danny Espinosa (25), Wilson Ramos (25), Ian Desmond (27), Ryan Zimmerman (28) and Span (29), along with starting pitchers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler, all 27 or younger.
Although the Mets have a potentially solid rotation for 2013 with Dickey, Matt Harvey, Johan Santana, Jon Niese and either Dillon Gee or prospect Zack Wheeler, they would still have to catch a lot of breaks to compete with the Nationals and Braves (not to mention the Phillies). They just don't have the same talent or the depth to withstand injuries.
And it's not just 2013. The Nationals and Braves should be strong for years to come, barring an unforeseen string of injuries or bad luck or dumb trades. This makes it a challenging division for the Mets to compete in.
Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron writes that the Mets aren't that far away:
So, I say good for the Mets on not giving up on their short-term future. They just aren’t anywhere close to being bad enough to justify punting the next few years while they wait for the farm system to develop new stars to build around. They already have stars to build around. They can win with the ones they have now.
I agree with Dave's premise that teams shouldn't always be so willing to punt on a season. But I think the Mets are just in the wrong division; and if they can't sign Dickey now, there's no guarantee they sign him next offseason. Their best move would be to shop him around and acquire a young hitter to add alongside their old third baseman. You can still build a rotation around Harvey, Wheeler and Niese, but you need to build up the offense around Wright. If they can sign Dickey to a long-term deal, I'm in favor of that -- knuckleballers are good risks even in their early 40s -- but I don't believe this ownership is going to give out two megacontracts in one winter.
As bad as the public relations hit would be in trading away the reigning Cy Young winner, maybe Mets fans -- at least the older ones -- can remember back in 1989, when the Mets acquired the reigning AL Cy Young winner, Frank Viola. While he had some nice years with the Mets, the Twins did acquire Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera in the deal. Two years later, the Twins were World Series champs.