NEW YORK -- After a flurry of delirious check-writing, appearances at glitzy press conferences and otherwise rerouting the road to mediocrity, has the unthinkable finally occurred in New York?
Have the Mets become the city's best baseball team?
No one would've dared pose the question in 2005, not even two months ago. But thanks to the Wilpon family's money and general manager Omar Minaya's near-compulsive need to make trades, the Mets boast a roster that's nearly as star-studded as the Yankees'. Even if the roster isn't as talented, the Mets still might have a clearer path to the playoffs than the Bombers.
Says who, any Yankees loyalist will ask. None other than the Bombers themselves.
One high-ranking official said this week, "There's no question the Mets are the best team in that [NL East] division. So go ahead, say they're favorites. Say they're the best team in the whole league. Put the pressure on them, for once."
The Yankees official wasn't speaking spitefully or sarcastically, he was simply candid enough to tell the Mets: Welcome to our world, where even a two-game losing streak isn't tolerated, and five years without a world championship is the equivalent of a dark age.
Harsh as it is, the Mets are loving the limelight. They're the hottest team in town and certainly the busiest. Their projected $110 million payroll is still some $70 million lighter than the Yankees', but they have All-Stars in four starting positions (first base, catcher, left and center field), an elite-caliber Opening Day starter in Pedro Martinez and the game's hardest-throwing lefty reliever in Billy Wagner.
Many baseball officials believe the Mets now project to a 90-win season, even if Minaya doesn't make another move before April.
Finishing at 90-72 might be good enough to topple the Braves. At the very least, the Mets have surged past the Phillies, Marlins and Nationals, none of whom has significantly improved this winter.
The Yankees? They're a year older, slogging through a crisis in center field, trying to pass off Bubba Crosby as a suitable replacement to Bernie Williams. The real crossroads, however, will be the moment Johnny Damon decides he'll accept less than a seven-year deal. But the question is for whom.
While the Yankees wait out Damon and his agent, Scott Boras, the Red Sox and Blue Jays both have upgraded their starting rotations, prompting Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi to boldly say, "We've closed the gap" on the East's power brokers.
It's conceivable a three-way race will ensue, and the Yankees could find themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since 1993. It's a long shot, but Yankees GM Brian Cashman is desperately looking for help. Still, as long as the Yankees are committed to Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang, and further refuse to trade Carl Pavano, they look inert compared to the Mets.
Cashman admitted as much, wearily saying, "It took me four days just to trade [Tony] Womack" during the winter meetings.
Of course, George Steinbrenner can't possibly allow the Mets to outright steal the Yankees' place in the universe. The Bombers are poised for an intense courtship of Roger Clemens beginning in January, and are so intent on stealing Damon away from the Red Sox, Joe Torre personally called the free-agent center fielder on Tuesday, according to Newsday.
But the Mets aren't finished with their own upgrades, either. Minaya continues his pursuit of Manny Ramirez, having tried to hatch a three-way deal with the Rangers and Red Sox that would've landed the slugger at Shea.
The deal never got past the Rangers, however, and Minaya has back-burnered Ramirez -- for now. In the meantime, the GM is low-key about his chances of outdistancing the Yankees, refusing to rule out the possibility of finishing second to Atlanta.
"We haven't won anything. The value of winning as a team, as a nucleus, that's insurmountable. The Braves have that."
Clearly, Minaya is trying to take pressure off his newcomers, like Wagner, Carlos Delgado and Julio Franco. But the Mets front office is gearing up for a long, loud summer in Flushing, Queens. There's a new cable network, SportsNet New York, coming in 2006 and to help cover the cost, the Mets have raised their ticket prices by 7 percent, including prime seats that now cost $96 apiece.
The Yankees moved even faster than the Mets in raising prices. Two weeks ago, they announced the Stadium's best seats will cost $110, after selling for $90 last year.
Not that the two teams are actually competing for revenue. The Mets and Yankees have their own distinct fan bases, so the who's-better question is more likely to impact street corner debate than attendance or TV ratings.
But the Yankees and Mets are clearly aware, if not wary, of each other. When the Bombers were looking for a center fielder last summer, they knew the most logical place to look was Shea Stadium, where Mike Cameron was unhappy after being shifted to right field.
The Mets could've made a deal. They could've taken the Yankees up on their offer of Gary Sheffield for Cameron. But the trade was nixed at the highest levels in Queens, where one Met executive told a go-between, "Why should we help the Yankees get over the top? Why?"
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.