NEW YORK -- Back when the Omir Santos honeymoon was in full swing, Mets manager Jerry Manuel spoke frequently of his belief that Santos -- a career Minor Leaguer before this season -- possessed the necessary skill set to become a starting catcher in the big leagues.
Since then, Santos has stumbled somewhat, batting .182 in September and most recently sitting out close to a dozen games with flu-like symptoms. And Manuel, his staunchest supporter, has been somewhat hesitant to anoint Santos the team's catcher of the future.
"Obviously, it's a very important position, so we will have to kind of wait and see what will fit best -- not only from a defensive point of view, but from an offensive point of view as well," Manuel said. "I think the jury would have to still be out on that issue."
Come winter, the Mets may not have much choice. Of the 17 Major League players who have caught at least 100 games this season, only 34-year-old Rod Barajas, 35-year-olds Jason Kendall and Bengie Molina and 37-year-olds Ivan Rodriguez and Jason Varitek are likely to be available on the free-agent market. None are particularly compelling options.
"I think catching is one of those positions that you don't have a lot of things to choose from as far as the industry goes," Manuel said. "Most of those guys are with clubs."
The Mets, who are almost certain not to re-sign Brian Schneider -- their primary catcher of the past two seasons -- cannot afford to look for an offensive standout. None will be available. So what the Mets must decide is whether or not a free-agent catcher would represent a significant upgrade over Santos and his presumptive backup, rookie Josh Thole.
Manuel, citing both Citi Park's spacious dimensions and his team's focus on pitching over power production, noted as much on Wednesday.
"Defense would have to be very, very important for us," he said.
Because Thole has spent more time as a first baseman than a catcher in the Minor Leagues -- and because he will be merely 23 years old on Opening Day -- he is not necessarily the best option in that regard. And certainly, Santos does not have the same defensive or game-calling reputation as Molina or Rodriguez.
But he is more than half a decade younger, would come significantly cheaper and -- at this point in his career -- may not be much of a downgrade.
If nothing else, the Mets are committed to considering him as an option during the winter.
"All that depends on the makeup of the rest of the team," Manuel said. "If you have a team where run production and pitching continues to be an issue, you have to balance that out. But what [Santos] has done is he has played extremely well for us for a period of time. How that would manifest itself over the course of a year is still somewhat unknown."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.