The New York Mets have two clear priorities heading into the winter, coming off a fourth consecutive season in which they did not even sniff meaningful baseball in September.
Holes exist up and down the roster, and there's not much payroll flexibility available to patch them. But more than anything, the Mets are committed to negotiating long-term deals with third baseman David Wright and starting pitcher R.A. Dickey. Both have club options on their contracts for 2013.
"We really have not, until now, been in a position to retain our core players," general manager Sandy Alderson said, defining that goal as the second prong of his three-layer offseason approach. "I think we're in that place now."
The other two prongs of Alderson's strategy are continuing to build through his farm system and beginning to invest "judiciously" in free agents.
It is the type of plan that teams throughout baseball exercise on an annual basis, but it may prove more difficult for the Mets than most. Though Alderson said the organization is in an "unquestionably stronger" financial situation now that ownership's Bernard Madoff lawsuit is settled, the Mets are not budgeting any significant increase to a payroll that sat around $100 million this year.
That means the Mets cannot invest in many free agents unless they ink them to heavily back-loaded contracts. It also means their most rapid path to roster improvement may come through the trade market, where the Mets are committed to receiving big-league-ready talent as the return on any deal.
"There are a couple of obvious needs that we have," Alderson said, "so it's very possible that we'll be more active in the trade market as well as potentially in the free agent market. But I don't want to give the impression that we'll be out in the free agent market looking for significant additions. We have lots of payroll tied up in a handful of players."
Chief among those are Johan Santana and Jason Bay, who are still owed a combined $49.5 million considering their 2013 guaranteed salaries and 2014 buyouts. Until those two are off the books for good, the Mets will be limited in their ability to improve the roster without significantly increasing payroll.
For now, they will try to lock up Wright and Dickey, hope that their top prospects improve and look to fill out the rest of their roster with cost-effective talent.
"We need some major-league-ready players," Alderson said. "There are some positions where we are not strong, either at the major league level or in our system. And we need major-league-ready players."