Alderson describes an exciting winter plan for the Mets that requires money

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Sandy Alderson. (SNY)
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On Tuesday afternoon, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson spoke with Mike Francesa. And if you wholly ignore the context of his previous statements, or what things cost in baseball, or ownership's current financial circumstances, there was some reason for optimism.

For instance, talking about the plan for 2014, Alderson said this about replacing Matt Harvey's production: "We’ve got some money to spend. I wasn’t planning on spending a lot of it on starting pitching because of the depth that we have currently at the major league level and in the minor league system. But given the fact that we’ve lost our number one guy, it probably means that we’re going to have to look for an additional veteran presence in that starting rotation."

So this must mean the Mets have money to spend, right? After all, that's been the primary problem for years, hamstringing Alderson's admirable effort to rebuild the pipeline of young talent by limiting his ability to augment it with talent from outside the organization.

But it's probably worth remembering that Alderson, presumably relying on information he was getting from the Mets' owners, has been saying for years that the Mets have money to spend. He said it in 2010, shortly after getting hired, pointing to a huge number of contracts coming off the books after 2011. He said it throughout 2011, providing repeated specifics on payroll, none of which came true. He said it in 2012, saying last August that the Mets needed an infusion of "players, productive players," but ultimately adding just two low-impact major-league free agents all winter, Shaun Marcum and Brandon Lyon, even as the restructured, heavily deferred David Wright deal and deferral in a Jason Bay buyout created an extra $23 million to hypothetically spend, and ownership borrowed roughly another $160 million.

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Alderson's specifics Tuesday were far less detailed than his public-relations offensive back in June, attempting to provide season ticket holders and Joel Sherman with specifics about next year's payroll while trying to lock ownership into making a similar public declaration. 

It didn't happen, and now Alderson is left to make the case that the team has to improve via free agency, rather than by trading some of the team's diminished number of starting pitchers, in light of Harvey's injury, not to mention Jeremy Hefner's Tommy John surgery and yet another reminder of Jenrry Mejia's tragic fragility.

As Alderson put it regarding the team's starting pitching depth heading into 2014, which includes the current major league group, thin enough to force the Mets to pitch Daisuke Matsuzaka every fifth day, plus minor leaguers Jacob deGrom, Rafael Montero and by midseason, perhaps Noah Syndergaard, "But we are very happy with where our depth is. Now, the next question would be, 'Do you have so much depth that you can make a deal?' Well, maybe."

Counting up that total, and you get to seven, if the Mets are not going to subject fans to more Matsuzaka starts next season, which Alderson pointed out "hasn't been pretty." Trading from that group will only deplete it further. And nearly every major league team uses more starters in a season than that.

So how does the alternative work? Signing a front-line starting pitcher, an "additional veteran presence" as Alderson put it, will cost money. To come anywhere close to replacing Harvey's production, it'll need to be someone like Matt Garza or Ervin Santana, two pitchers who will make eight figures per season, and require multi-year commitments. Hiroki Kuroda and A.J. Burnett are also free agents, much older, but even the reduced years will still mean a salary north of ten million dollars next season, if they're even willing to sign on for the relatively unlikely proposition of the Mets contending in 2014.

And not trading starting pitching means also adding the two starting outfielders they'll need in left field and right field from the free agent pool, which Alderson acknowledged last year would cost north of $10 million apiece to get offensive production the team sorely needed, and still needs. That's another $20-30 million, even if the Mets count on Juan Lagares in center field next season. The price might be higher, of course: while Mets ownership needs to figure out how to simultaneously manage a $320 million debt payment against the team due next year and also afford players, 29 other teams will be particularly flush with new television money from a national television deal that begins in 2014.

Then there's shortstop, where once-touted Jose Reyes replacement Ruben Tejada was again ritually flogged by Alderson: "You know, one of the problems with Ruben is, it’s like pulling teeth. Extra batting practice, extra this, extra that, doesn’t happen unless someone else is insisting on it. And that’s what we need to see. We need to see a commitment to improvement."

That doesn't sound like a starting shortstop in 2014, which means spending more money, since the Mets don't have a reasonable starting alternative in the system next season. Perhaps Jhonny Peralta, currently suspended for his role in the Biogenesis scandal, or Stephen Drew, playing intermittently well for the Red Sox, could be answers. But once again, the Mets would be bidding against other teams who need a shortstop, and the price is going to be steep, the commitments likely multi-year.

This doesn't even take into account adding a backup to Travis d'Arnaud, a catcher who has yet to prove he can hit major league pitching or stay healthy, or relying on anything other than internal options for a bullpen ranked 25th of 30 in baseball in E.R.A., and whose most consistent performer, LaTroy Hawkins, is 40 and a free agent.

Francesa didn't press, or even ask, about specific payroll. But he did ask about whether the Mets can contend without the injured, and likely missing-in-2014 Matt Harvey.

"I think we can if we make the right decisions and are able to strengthen ourselves in other areas," Alderson said. "Yes, I think we definitely can." 

The biggest thing Alderson has going for him is an almost complete lack of payroll commitments for 2014. Other than David Wright at $20 million and Jon Niese at $5 million, there's nothing, though presumably Daniel Murphy and Bobby Parnell, for instance, will be kept at a few million dollars apiece through arbitration. And any efforts to call money owed to Bay and Johan Santana a drag on 2014 payroll, don't forget, flies in the face of previous statements that those salaries were already what kept 2013 payroll down.

The Mets have reached that utterly free place Alderson cited when he took over (which was supposed to be, don't forget, in 2011), then again prior to this season. There's nothing left to do, thanks to the team's needs and lack of realistic trade alternatives, besides ownership investing, finally, to add talent from outside the organization. And there's not even a fig leaf of payroll commitments to hide behind. Either ownership has resolved its inability to add new financial commitments due to its debt (even deferring Wright's deal around the team loan due next season), or none of what Alderson accurately described as the only path to respectability in this, the final offseason of Alderson's contract, will be possible.

Now it's time to see what ownership can give Alderson. There's still little reason to believe it's much of anything.

But based on Alderson's described plan, and his implicit threat to leave if ownership once again denies him the promised resources to pursue it, it had better be a lot.