NEW YORK -- Though the Mets hoped to compete seriously for a playoff spot in 2013, they understood the sizeable chance that it would be a transition year. If nothing else, by the end of the summer, the Mets hoped to establish the identity of their future first baseman and shortstop, along with at least some semblance of their outfield and bullpen.
Here's the most relevant info they actually learned in 2013: Bobby Parnell is a legitimate Major League closer, Juan Lagares is a highlight-reel center fielder and Matt Harvey has a bum elbow.
They still do not know if Ike Davis will be their first baseman of the future, nor if Ruben Tejada can man shortstop for them. They still have no earthly clue about the identity of their outfield, or their bullpen, or what their rotation will look like if Harvey cannot pitch. And so many of the questions the Mets had heading into the 2013 season still apply six months later.
What's clear is that this promises to be the most eventful offseason for the franchise in years. With the contracts of Johan Santana, Jason Bay and Frank Francisco coming off the books, the Mets enter this winter with only $25 million in salary commitments -- $20 million to David Wright and $5 million to Jon Niese. They will ultimately owe another sizeable chunk to some of their 11 arbitration-eligible players -- a list highlighted by Davis, Parnell, Dillon Gee and Daniel Murphy -- but should still have dollars to spend.
That should translate into a high-profile news conference or two this winter -- perhaps for Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, a pending free agent, or a veteran starting pitcher to round out their rotation. After years of not spending, the Mets have reached a place where they can -- and, just as importantly, want to -- open their wallet.
How they spend that cash will go a long way toward determining when their next playoff run will occur.
So while the Mets did not learn a heck of a lot on the field about their future makeup, 2013 is not over yet. The next four months will be even more telling than the previous six when it comes to the future of this franchise.
Arbitration-eligible: 1B Davis, 2B Murphy, SS Omar Quintanilla, SS Tejada, INF Justin Turner, OF Lucas Duda, OF Mike Baxter, OF Eric Young Jr., RHP Scott Atchison, RHP Gee, RHP Parnell.
Free agents: RHP David Aardsma, RHP Aaron Harang, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, RHP Francisco, RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, LHP Tim Byrdak, LHP Pedro Feliciano, LHP Santana.
Rotation: So much of what the Mets do this winter will depend upon whether Harvey can avoid Tommy John surgery, which would sideline him for all of 2014. If Harvey can successfully rehab the partially torn UCL in his right elbow, the Mets will not need to spend lavishly for a free-agent starter (though they may still import a cheaper veteran arm). If Harvey cannot, general manager Sandy Alderson may need to open his checkbook a fair bit wider.
The sure things in the rotation are Niese, Gee and Zack Wheeler, all of whom are coming off successful 2013 campaigns. Though Wheeler will still be on an innings limit in 2014, it should not affect him until late September.
Beyond those three and Harvey, the Mets will give serious Opening Day roster consideration to Jenrry Mejia, who is also returning from injury. Their other big league-ready arms are Rafael Montero and Jake deGrom, each of whom will state his case for the March 31 roster. And the most highly touted pitching prospect in their system, Noah Syndergaard, should be ready to join the Mets around midseason, a la Harvey in 2012 and Wheeler this past summer.
If Harvey does undergo surgery, the Mets could pursue one of the top free agents available this winter, a group that includes Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett and Tim Lincecum.
Bullpen: As they did a year ago, the Mets will import a whole new bullpen this winter. Though Parnell will be back as closer (provided he is fully healed from neck surgery), the cast of characters around him will change, with Aardsma, Hawkins, Francisco, Byrdak and Feliciano all due to become free agents.
Look for the Mets to sign and invite a handful of veteran relievers to Spring Training, where they will compete for jobs alongside young pitchers Vic Black, Gonzalez Germen and Greg Burke. Following his successful rookie season at age 31, Scott Rice will also be a favorite to make the Opening Day roster.
Catcher: The Mets are eager to see what Travis d'Arnaud can do over his first full big league season, provided he avoids major injury for the first time in three years. Though d'Arnaud struggled to hit during his first two months as a big leaguer, he drew rave reviews for his work behind the plate, particularly in the area of pitch framing. The Mets also saw enough to believe d'Arnaud still has plenty of potential with the bat.
With d'Arnaud primed to start most days behind the plate, the Mets can go in one of two directions with their second catcher. Either they can keep Anthony Recker in the fold, rewarding him for the competent job he did backing up John Buck for most of 2013 or they can invest in a veteran catcher to help mentor d'Arnaud -- perhaps even Buck himself, if the free-agent-to-be is unable to find a starting gig.
First base: As recently as a year ago, it seemed reasonable to think the Mets might consider offering Davis a long-term contract or at least buying out his arbitration years. But Davis' stock plummeted thanks to his second consecutive early-season slump, this one deep enough to earn him a Minor League demotion. By the time Davis suffered a season-ending oblique strain on the final day of August, Alderson suggested that the team's evaluation of him was already complete.
With Davis sidelined, Duda took over at first base and performed adequately at his natural position. Now the Mets face a difficult position, considering Davis and Duda have both performed reasonably well at times without completely distinguishing themselves. The Mets could trade Davis, at the risk of him becoming a late-blooming Chris Davis-type success story. Or they could have those two compete for the job in Spring Training, though there is no obvious landing spot for Davis should Duda win that battle.
All that's clear now is that Josh Satin has at least earned a chance to be the right-handed complement to whichever player wins the starting job.
Second base: Though Murphy was the Mets' lone consistent contributor on offense this season, the underlying statistics suggest his year was actually quite similar to 2012. Murphy did make noticeable strides on defense, particularly early in the season, but his walk rate and on-base percentage decreased at the plate. He also set career highs in home runs and stolen bases, thanks in part to nearly 700 plate appearances.
All that said, Murphy's limitations are the least of the Mets' problems. At worst, he is a proven big league regular who has reached the peak of his abilities. Though Murphy is set for a healthy salary bump in arbitration, he is not yet so expensive as to outweigh his production.
Shortstop: For two years in a row, the Mets entered Spring Training with Tejada's name written in ink. The heir apparent to Jose Reyes, Tejada was supposed to own the job for the better part of this decade.
Instead, continued injuries have made a significant impact on Tejada's status. Displeased with their incumbent shortstop's production and work ethic, the Mets could look outside the organization for a replacement, either through a trade or free agency. If they find one, that would marginalize Tejada.
Third base: The cornerstone of this franchise, Wright has seven years left on the eight-year, $138 million contract he signed prior to this season. Though Wright has missed significant time to injury in two of the past three seasons, the Mets will not concern themselves with acquiring a high-profile backup. Their in-house options are enough.
Outfield: How the Mets address this area will be critical in determining their 2014 competitiveness. Given his standout defensive season, Lagares has likely done enough to earn first dibs at the starting center-field job. Beyond that, there are no easy answers.
With money at their disposal this winter, the Mets would seem to be leading candidates to land Choo, a perfect fit in right field. But given his hesitancy to hand out long-term contracts to anyone, Alderson could balk at a four- or five-year deal for the 31-year-old outfielder.
Left field is another issue. Though the Mets have all but convinced themselves that Duda is not an acceptable solution in the outfield, Davis' presence at first base could force the issue. Young also enjoyed a nice run in left after the Mets acquired him midseason, but may not have done enough to warrant a starting job. On the farm, none of the Mets' top outfield prospects are big league-ready, so the Mets figure to import at least one, and possibly two, outfielders from outside the organization.