Meetings kick off Mets' long, cold winter

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The first offseason under Omar Minaya, the New York Mets threw big dollars and extra years at Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and landed both. A year later, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner came on board. Subsequent offseasons brought Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez and Jason Bay.

Now? Signing right-hander Boof Bonser to a minor league contract qualifies as major activity by the Mets during the winter meetings.

Welcome to the big-market Mets. On austerity.

With gaping holes in the pitching staff and on the bench, new general manager Sandy Alderson spent the week securing catcher Ronny Paulino (one year, $1.3 million) and right-handed reliever D.J. Carrasco (two years, $2.5 million). Alderson officially announced both moves Thursday after the completion of physicals.

"From our standpoint, regardless of cost, we got the catcher that we think fits best for us," Alderson said. "And, of the right-handed relief that was available at reasonable cost, we think we got the guy we wanted. We were happy with both of those things. We didn't settle in either case. We might have to do that down the line here. We didn't have to do it here."

In reality, there does not figure to be much more sizzle by the Mets this offseason. In fact, the winter is expected to have less noteworthy activity than even Minaya-predecessor Jim Duquette's lone winter as GM. During that 2003-04 offseason, Duquette had to take the payroll down to $81 million and had Kazuo Matsui forced on him by ownership. He still found room to squeeze in the signings of Mike Cameron and stopgap closer Braden Looper.

In fairness, Minaya left Alderson in miserable shape payroll-wise -- which perhaps Alderson ought to mention when the two men meet over lunch next week to see if Minaya might have any kind of role in the new regime.

Even before any winter activity, mandatory raises for arbitration-eligible Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey and Angel Pagan will take the Mets' payroll to $130 million.
The spending restrictions on Alderson have left the Mets set up for a dismal season no matter how optimistically the organization spins it.

Alderson has not specified how much he has remaining to spend. But he has made subtle acknowledgements about severe limitations, such as noting the deal Jon Garland received with the Los Angeles Dodgers ($5 million guaranteed) set the bar for starting pitching too high for the Mets to be active for that caliber of pitcher.

You can question the sanity of the Nationals signing outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract -- and Alderson did Sunday night shortly after arriving at Disney World for the winter meetings -- but the reality is the Mets and Washington figure to be jockeying for fourth place in the National League East in 2011.

The problem should not be offense, even with several question marks. Bay is bound to have a better second season in New York. Jose Reyes and Beltran will be playing for new contracts and ought to give maximum efforts, no matter how much Beltran's arthritic knees hamper him. David Wright can be counted on for a certain level of production. And Ike Davis, Josh Thole and Pagan are no slouches as the second-tier players.

Pitching? That's an entirely different story.

The addition of Carrasco gives the Mets arguably three reliable relief pitchers, if you lump him in with K-Rod and Bobby Parnell, whom manager Terry Collins is penciling into the eighth-inning role. While right-handed reliever Ryota Igarashi and Manny Acosta remain under the organization's control, neither inspires complete faith. And the losses of Hisanori Takahashi and Pedro Feliciano cannot be overstated, and not just because they leave the Mets with no reliable left-hander in the bullpen. Both were workhorses whose efforts will be difficult to duplicate, especially with less than $10 million to dole out this winter.

As for the rotation, Santana is expected to return no sooner than June. And it is unclear whether Santana will achieve his prior form once he returns. That leaves an early season 1-2-3 in the rotation of Pelfrey, Jon Niese and Dickey. They are all reliable arms but hardly Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

"I wouldn't get to that level of pessimism yet," Alderson countered once the rotation as presently constituted was rattled off. "Let's see how things unfold."

The Mets may ultimately sign free agent right-hander Chris Young. Alderson seemed to suggest that was a strong possibility when he said: "With respect to the starting pitching, there are issues of cost and there are issues of health. And sometimes those don't get resolved in two or three or four days. I'm not disappointed at that. It would be nice to have another starting pitcher right now. But, again, there's a lot of time between now and spring training."

If Young, or whomever, is paired with Dillon Gee at the back of the rotation, the Mets may be in for a long year in 2011 given the overall state of the pitching.

One agent for a Mets player shook his head in dismay at the direction of the offseason when asked Wednesday night if he had heard anything interesting about the team's pursuits.

Yet Alderson expressed no frustration before departing the winter meetings Thursday, indicating he was fully aware of the payroll constraints when he took the job.

"Were we in that market [for premier free agents] and not able to sign players after competing for them, there might be a level of frustration," the GM said. "But I think given what we expected coming in, and where we are, and where we expect to be coming into spring training given the level of our payroll currently, there's not real frustration on my part. But it also underscores the desirability of being in the market every year, which I think is our ultimate goal.

"I want the Mets to make headlines. And I'm a realist about certain things. Believe me, flying under the radar is not something that I expect the Mets to do on a long-term basis."

Adam Rubin covers MLB for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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