"We'd be hesitant to give a multiyear contract," general manager Sandy Alderson said Monday, before providing his usual hedge, "but it doesn't mean we wouldn't."
In recapping Day 1 of the Winter Meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort, Alderson mentioned only two potential rotation targets by name: Johan Santana, whose lead agent has been in contact with the Mets, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who ended last season with the team.
Santana, 34, is coming off a second surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, putting his entire career in jeopardy. Though one of his agents, Chris Leible, has expressed optimism about the left-hander's progress, Santana has limited his own public communication to infrequent Twitter updates. At any rate, he seems to be the opposite of what the Mets need -- Alderson wants a pitcher who can provide enough early value to keep the team afloat until top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero arrive, and Santana's status will never be less certain than at the beginning of the year.
Matsuzaka, 33, seems safer from a durability standpoint despite his own injury-plagued history. But the right-hander's upside is limited given his 5.41 ERA since 2009. Matsuzaka could not find any team willing to give him a big league contract last winter, and he may be similarly hard-pressed to do so this year.
They have warts, those two pitchers, and yet they are representative of whom the Mets may ultimately acquire to replace Matt Harvey. In their suite at the resort, Alderson and his lieutenants have divided the free-agent pitching market into two broad divisions: upper-echelon arms who can command big-money deals, and lower-echelon players who may sign Minor League contracts or incentive-based deals.
The Mets are shy about investing in the former group because their funds are limited after investing $60 million into outfielder Curtis Granderson, whose introductory news conference should take place Tuesday at the Winter Meetings. They are also wary of allocating serious resources to pitching when they have Syndergaard, Montero, Jenrry Mejia and other elite young arms either at the Major League level or close.
One alternative would be to place two of those prospects in their Opening Day rotation alongside Jon Niese, Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee. Or, preferably, the Mets could acquire a cheap starter to buoy them while their pitching prospects develop, then serve as depth or trade bait after the youngsters arrive.
"We have the possibility of pushing guys a little harder, but ideally we'd like to follow that prior approach," Alderson said, lauding the Cardinals' recent handling of Michael Wacha and his own dealings with Harvey and Wheeler. "It's not an unusual path. Ideally, we'd like to ease guys in."
Regardless of which route the Mets choose, they are unlikely to find a starting pitcher at these Winter Meetings; the market for lower-tier starters typically does not develop until January. Though Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and others may fly off the board at Disney, do not expect the Mets to be among those bidding on them.
"The availability isn't always apparent until later," Alderson said of the lower wave of arms. "We want to provide for that possibility. The top-tier guys typically are going to go, and the bottom-tier guys are going to be around a while longer. Sometimes, you can find value there."