Sandy Alderson heads to Nashville in search of lemonade

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Sandy Alderson. (SNY)
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When Mets general manager Sandy Alderson met with the media on Sunday night at the winter meetings in Nashville, he suggested, correctly, that he has herculean task in front of him. 

Alderson enters the biggest shopping days of baseball's offseason with a team that won 74 games last year, largely on the backs of two players: David Wright and R.A. Dickey. The team doesn't have a viable starting outfield to speak of, or a catcher, or any backup plan for its perfectly solid infield.

Wright looks like he's set to return, with a physical Monday expected to be a mere formality ahead of a Tuesday press conference in Nashville. But Dickey might not.

It's not clear how the Mets could improve upon Dickey, this year's Cy Young winner, or even on the 74-win team of 2012 as a whole.

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For all the rumors out there, it is worth distilling the basic reality of player acquisition here. The Mets can add talent to the 2013 team three ways: through player development, trades or free agency.

The first track looks like it will provide in 2013, at most, a starting pitcher in Zack Wheeler, and possible spare-part relievers like Josh Edgin and Robert Carson, both of whom pitched part of 2012 in New York. The team lacks other near-ready prospects at pitcher, and is utterly devoid of them among position players.

That leaves two other paths for adding 2013 talent: free agency or trades.

Free agency has a pair of built-in problems. One is the extremely limited budget the Mets have. Alderson has done some admirable things to help address that, borrowing from the future to buy out Jason Bay (with partially deferred money) and shaping David Wright's new contract, as the Post's Ken Davidoff put it, "like a bell curve". It is likely this money—$10 million deferred of Bay money, however much Wright's deal falls below the $16 million previously committed to him in 2013, and possibly clearing the $5 million owed to Dickey in 2013—that will constitute the team's free agent budget.

That's just not a lot of money to go around when a team needs to add four viable starting players, or being charitable, three and a half, if Josh Thole is counted on to return to hitting lefties, as he did until 2012, when Thole didn't hit anything at all.

The other is a very weak free agent class, combined with a huge influx of national television money, is creating a market where players are earning significantly more, and even small-market teams are participating (think Russell Martin to the Pirates). So the good free agents will be out of the Mets' price range, while the players who often found themselves without an offer until late in the winter, leading to budget-friendly deals, will probably get snapped up.

That brings us to the final acquisition path: trades. This, too, is problematic. Essentially, a team can make trades for players to help in the future (prospects), players to help now (veterans), or players to help now and in the future (young, cost-controlled major leaguers).

The Mets have few prospects at or beyond Double-A, and that limits what they can get in return for trading them. The Mets also have a built-in reason for not acquiring veterans near the end of their usefulness, which is that a returning core from a 74-win team isn't one or two players away, and they can't afford to bring in five or six.

So for the Mets to get better in 2013 without totally sacrificing the organization's stated plan of long-term sustainability, any significant acquisition needs to be the third kind of acquisition: a young, cost-controlled player.

Not surprisingly, this is precisely the kind of player everybody wants. And other than Dickey, those are the only kinds of players Alderson has as trade chips: guys like Jon Niese, Ike Davis and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada.

Niese, in particular, is the subject of trade rumors, the idea being that if Dickey is retained, Niese is dealt, and vice versa.

Starting pitching is the team's area of relative strength, which is different than the team having a surplus of starting pitchers, which it most assuredly doesn't. But the team's other needs are enormous and Alderson needs to address them.

Can he do it by degrading the starting pitching significantly and spending meager dollars to make half a lineup and a bullpen largely from scratch? 

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