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Mets have foundation to build on heading to '13

NEW YORK -- Terry Collins does not believe the Mets need to make wholesale changes to their roster this winter.

"I'll stand by the guys in that clubhouse right now," the manager said. "We've just got to get out what the back of those baseball cards say."

What Collins meant is that the Mets simply must play up to their potential. Jason Bay needs to show vintage form. Johan Santana needs to stay healthy. And so on and so forth, up and down the roster, in order for the Mets to become consistent winners.

Banking on a perfect storm, however, may not be wise, so general manager Sandy Alderson and his staff will spend their winter trying to improve the club in any way possible. Alderson will dedicate much of his early offseason time to David Wright and R.A. Dickey, hoping to lock those two down to contract extensions.

From there, it only grows more difficult. The Mets need to improve their offense, but do not want to sacrifice top-flight Minor League talent or future budget flexibility. That means the league's biggest-ticket free agents may be out of the question, while many of its most-coveted trade chips may prove out of their range.

It is a conundrum to be sure, and the only solution may be more time and patience. The Mets do have a growing stable of talented prospects, led by starting pitcher Zack Wheeler -- one of the top young arms in all of baseball. They want to build around players like Wheeler, but until that crop is ready to contribute consistently on the big league level, the Mets may be tentative in spending too heavily for short-term fixes.

That said, Alderson has made it clear that winning in the short-term is important, as well. Had the Mets remained in playoff contention a bit longer in 2012, Alderson said, he would have attempted to reload the roster on a Deadline deal.

Though that never happened, Alderson has already made it his stated preference to explore the trade market over free agency this winter. It could make for an interesting Hot Stove, especially considering the major pieces that the Mets still need.

And as for those already in place? Collins believes they'll be just fine in 2013, as well.

"You'll take an average year from Jason and from David, and then at least you know what you've got to work with," the manager said. "We've got to get a whole year out of Johan. Hopefully we will, knowing that he's healthy. Are we going to get 20 more wins out of R.A. next year? God, you'd hope so. There's no reason to say right now that he can't."

Mix that together with modifications in other key parts of the roster, and the 2013 team should unfold like so:

Catcher: The Mets will have an interesting offseason decision to make with Josh Thole, who will be arbitration-eligible for the first time in his career. Thole's salary figures to more than double through the arbitration process, making him far less of a cost-effective option than he has been in the past -- but hardly prohibitively expensive. With no internal solution available and little of note on the open market, the Mets must weigh Thole's knowledge of the pitching staff against whatever offensive upgrade a free agent could provide.

First base: Though trade rumors have already begun swirling around Ike Davis, the fact is Davis just gave a power-starved offense its first 30-homer season in four years. Dealing him would make little sense unless the Mets received an impressive haul in return. The Mets do believe that Lucas Duda could be an acceptable alternative to Davis at first base, considering it is his natural position. But a miscalculation there could set back the franchise's rebuilding efforts should it decide to deal Davis, a young player about to hit arbitration for the first time.

Second base: Imperfect and hardly slick defensively, Daniel Murphy has nonetheless established himself as a legitimate everyday option at second base. Justin Turner and Jordany Valdespin can also play the position if need be, meaning second base should rank low down on Alderson's list of worries -- assuming, of course, the GM does not consider trading Murphy for a second straight winter.

Third base: No topic will gain as much traction early this offseason as Wright's contract situation. The Mets hold a $16 million option on his deal for the 2013 season, which they will exercise in the coming days. But both sides have expressed a willingness to talk about a long-term extension this winter, before Wright enters his walk year. Whether or not they can agree on a deal will influence the franchise for years to come. In the short-term, it will also factor into the Mets' willingness to explore trades for Wright, who has held down the starting third base job since 2004. Top prospect Wilmer Flores finally began translating his potential into performance this summer at Double-A Binghamton, though his ultimate destination could be the outfield.

Shortstop: This is the only completely stable situation the Mets have in their lineup. Ruben Tejada impressed the team with his contact ability on offense and slick glove on defense, and will return to the club as the starting shortstop next year. Tejada is under team control for four more seasons, meaning he won't even hit arbitration until next winter. To back him up, the Mets could re-sign Ronny Cedeno or any number of similar shortstops on the free-agent market. This year's first-round Draft pick, Gavin Cecchini, is also a shortstop, but at 18 years old remains far away from the big leagues.

Outfield: Nothing is holding the Mets back from playoff contention more than their outfield, which has underperformed offensively for most of this decade. Jason Bay will be back, but even the Mets do not know in what context; right now, a left-field platoon seems the most likely scenario. Duda may also be forced into outfield duty if Davis remains the starting first baseman. Valdespin could earn a look in Spring Training, but questions remain regarding both his offensive and defensive ceilings. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is a better bet to start in center field than Andres Torres, a non-tender candidate. And top prospect Brandon Nimmo is still years away, with Matt den Dekker the youngster closest to making his mark in 2013. Early reports indicate that the Mets will not splurge on any of the top free agents available, including Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton. But without anyone in the farm system knocking too urgently on the door, that may be their only avenue toward rapid improvement.

Rotation: More than perhaps any sub-.500 team in baseball, the Mets are in a strong position with their starting five. Dickey will be back on his expiring contract, if not a new deal. He is coming off a career year and the Mets expect him to be just as good in 2013. Santana will also return, though he is once again the major question mark of this bunch. If Santana can produce at a level somewhere between his early-season success in 2012 and his post-no-hitter struggles, the Mets will take it. Jon Niese is developing into a rock for the rotation and Matt Harvey could be the best pitcher on the staff by season's end. The other question mark is Dillon Gee, who will be coming back from the frightening circulatory issue that ended his season. But the Mets have adequate depth behind those five, including super-prospect Wheeler, meaning this is the one area from which they might draw to make a blockbuster trade.

Bullpen: Expect the Mets to do what they did last winter with their bullpen, loading up on new arms to remake this crew. Alderson considers the bullpen a numbers game, combating the inherent volatility of relief arms by acquiring as many of them as possible. Of course, it would speed along the process if Frank Francisco, who is owed $6.5 million next season, regains the consistency he showed from 2008-11. The only other reliever with a guaranteed job heading into next season is Bobby Parnell, who is about to become more expensive through arbitration. Josh Edgin and Robert Carson should compete for lefty specialist roles, while it's possible that top prospects Jeurys Familia or Jenrry Mejia could crack the Opening Day roster as relievers. Of those two, Familia is the surer bet to wind up in the bullpen long-term, giving him the better chance to start off there next spring.

New York Mets, Ike Davis, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, Johan Santana, David Wright