Here I put on my GM hat and do an off-season’s worth of work in one post.

The Mets enter free agency with plenty of questions.  However, the great unknown is how much money the club has to spend.  When news of the Madoff scandal broke last year, the Wilpons assured everyone that the Mets were a separate entity and that it would have no bearing on how the club operated.  Whether that is true is still up for debate a year later, but for this exercise I am going to assume that the club can carry a payroll similar to the $149,373,987 that Cot’s shows the club for last season.

There are $94.6 million already allocated for 2010, including $1 million to buy out the option on J.J. Putz.  Here is the break down for those who will be on the team in 2010, with numbers in millions and rounded to one decimal place:

Johan Santana $21

Carlos Beltran $20.1

Francisco Rodriguez $12.2

Oliver Perez $12

David Wright $10.3

Jose Reyes $9.4

Luis Castillo $6.3

Joey Cora $2

Mike Pelfrey $0.5

So, I have roughly $55 million to fill out 16 roster spots.  To me, the biggest concern is pitching.  There are already three SP under contract and I re-sign John Maine, who made $2.6 million last year.  Put him down for $3 million.

I really like Jon Niese, who I extend at $0.5 million.  But with all of the injuries to the 2009 staff, I want Niese in Triple-A to open the season.  So, I look to the free agent market.  The best starter available is John Lackey, who is my top target.

On a club filled with injury concerns, it is worrisome that Lackey has missed roughly 15 starts over the past two seasons.  But the fact is that he throws strikes, keeps the ball in the park and is the best option available to slot in as a #2 starter behind Santana.  FanGraphs shows him with a 3.9 WAR last season, even missing six or so starts.

Then the question is how bad do I (or any other club) want Lackey.  FanGraphs gives him an “earned” salary on the free agent market of $17.6 million last year.  The year before he earned $9.1 million.  Lackey will obviously be looking for a multi-year deal and probably hopes for five years.  I am willing to go five years, but not at an average rate of what he earned last year.

Hopefully, the willingness to go five years convinces Lackey to sign for a total of $80 million or $16 million per season.  Last year, A.J. Burnett, coming off a season in which he won 18 games and led the league with 231 Ks, got five years, $82.5 million.

For the bullpen, I bring back Pedro Feliciano ($2.5), Bobby Parnell ($0.5), Brian Stokes ($0.5), Fernando Nieve ($0.5) and Elmer Dessens ($0.5).  I want another LHP for the pen and settle on Will Ohman ($2).  I think this is a solid pen, assuming Rodriguez returns to the pitcher he was in the first half of the season.  Stokes, Nieve, Dessens and Parnell are each capable of pitching multiple innings while Feliciano and Ohman allow multiple lefty matchups, especially with the LHB of the Phillies.

This puts me with 17 players at $120.6 million, roughly $29 million for the remaining eight players.

I am quite comfortable with a starting lineup that includes Josh Thole ($0.5), Daniel Murphy ($1) and Angel Pagan ($0.75).  Potentially, that would give me enough cash to sign either Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, if they are willing to sign a contract around what I gave Lackey.  But I think Holliday is going to get more money than that and I don’t know if Bay is worth that much, given the questions about his defense.

So, the one starter I add is OF Marlon Byrd, who last year put up a .283/.329/.479 line for the Rangers. That’s better than the combined line for Jeff Francoeur (.280/.309/.423).  Byrd has the added benefit of being a very good defensive outfielder.  An OF of Pagan, Beltran and Byrd would be outstanding, perhaps the best one in Mets history, and an important factor given Citi Field’s dimensions and the fly ball tendencies of the Mets’ SP.

Texas offered Byrd arbitration, which should cut down on the number of clubs interested in him and the dollars it takes to sign him.  I hope to get him on a two-year, $10 million deal, an average of $5 million per season.  Last year, Byrd received a little over $3 million.

I fill out my roster with Omir Santos ($0.5), Fernando Tatis ($2.5), Cory Sullivan ($1) and Nick Evans ($0.5).  I wind up with an Opening Day salary of $132.35, well under last year’s Opening Day output.  This allows room for a mid-season acquisition along with increased spending in the amateur draft.

Both free agents I signed are Type A, but with the Mets having a pick in the top 15, they will not lose their first-round selection.  So, the Mets can go after the best player available in Round 1 and make up for missing their second and third-round picks by drafting (and signing) players above slot in the later rounds.

My lineup:

Reyes-Castillo-Beltran-Wright-Byrd-Murphy-Pagan-Thole

Rotation:

Santana-Lackey-Maine-Perez-Pelfrey

There are still a fair number of question marks for the money spent with this lineup.  Can the injured stars make it back to previous year’s levels?  Can Thole cut it defensively in the majors?  Can Murphy avoid the two-month slump that happened in 2009?  Can Byrd and Pagan duplicate their 2009 numbers?  Does Maine’s September prove he’s worth a roster spot?  Will Perez be motivated to show up to camp in shape after last year’s lost season?  Can Pelfrey pitch like he did in May (2.92 ERA) or is he nothing more than a 5th starter?

To me, so many of these questions revolve around people with big contracts that it makes no sense to have a wild spending spree on what is not a banner year for free agents.  Long-time readers will know I believe in Murphy, so I see no point in spending more money to get equivalent production (or less) out of Nick Johnson or Russ Branyan.

Additionally, I think the questions about Thole’s defense are over-blown and as much as I think spending on a first baseman would be a waste, I would rather they do that then bring in some old catcher like Bengie Molina or Rod Barajas to stink.

And the last thing I want to do is spend money to bring back Francoeur.  I am resigned to him coming back, but I hope they go one year at a time through arbitration, rather than signing him to a multi-year deal.  Even with his surge with the Mets, Francoeur was a replacement-level player last year.  It makes no sense to commit to both multiple years and multiple millions based on 289 ABs in which he basically posted the same numbers as Murphy.

Yes, I said it.  Francoeur had an .836 OPS after joining the Mets in 289 ABs.  Murphy had an .825 OPS in his final 252 ABs.  I’m amazed by how many people want to replace Murphy and extend Francoeur.  And when you factor in defense into the equation, Murphy was more valuable.  Francoeur had a -8.8 UZR with the Mets while Murphy was 4.7 in 101 games at first base.

Finally, if the Mets miss out on Lackey, I hope the pitcher they get is Jon Garland.  The veteran got off to a terrible start with the Diamondbacks last year but rebounded to put up numbers not far off from what he has produced the previous seven seasons.  Garland had a 5.29 ERA at Chase Field last year.  In all other parks he had a 3.13 ERA.  My second choice would be Randy Wolf.

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