NEW YORK -- This was never supposed to be a one-year process.
When Sandy Alderson took over as Mets general manager in October 2010, he outlined a plan to generate long-term payroll flexibility while keeping the club as competitive as possible in the short term. It hasn't been an easy task to achieve, and heading into this offseason, Alderson is still working on creating the type of payroll structure he needs to build the Mets back into perennial contenders.
Alderson took over a budget over $140 million, then spent the next year lopping off almost a third of that through trades and departing free agents. But plenty of expensive parts remain on the roster in left-hander Johan Santana (due $25.5 million next season), Jason Bay ($16 million) and others.
Those two monster contracts come off the books next winter, which should move Alderson significantly closer to the type of payroll flexibility he desires. Until then, the GM has made it clear that he does not intend to undermine his long-term strategy by investing heavily in the free-agent market.
"We really have not been able to be involved significantly in the free-agent market," Alderson said last month. "We certainly have brought in players on a free-agent basis. But in terms of significant acquisitions, it's somewhat limited. I can see that changing -- perhaps not immediately, but somewhere in the near term."
Meanwhile, Alderson will keep busy -- both exploring trades and attempting to extend the contracts of David Wright and R.A. Dickey, whose contracts expire after next season. He will also look to free agency for help in the outfield, at catcher and in the bullpen.
But do not expect a free-agent bonanza this winter for the Mets, who will continue to exercise caution while they wait for their homegrown talent to develop. Alderson is not against splurging, but he does rely on the concept of prudence. So with a stagnant payroll and no significant contracts coming off the books this winter, there is simply not much opportunity for him to spend.
This winter will instead be one of subtleties for Alderson, whose top priorities -- Wright and Dickey -- are in-house.
Players can start signing with other clubs after midnight ET on Friday.
Free agents: SS Ronny Cedeno, OF Scott Hairston, C Kelly Shoppach, RHP Jon Rauch, RHP Ramon Ramirez, RHP Chris Young, LHP Tim Byrdak
Eligible for arbitration: C Josh Thole, 1B Ike Davis, 2B Daniel Murphy, OF Andres Torres, RHP Mike Pelfrey, RHP Bobby Parnell, RHP Manny Acosta
Contract options: Wright ($16 million team option), Dickey ($5 million team option)
Non-tender possibilities: Torres, Pelfrey, Acosta
Areas of need
Outfield: The Mets have question marks at every outfield position, with all three starting jobs up for grabs. They will need to acquire at least two outfielders to replace Torres, a presumptive non-tender; and Hairston, who will likely leave via free agency. In an ideal world, the Mets would trade for or sign a power-hitting starting outfielder, though they may ultimately balk at the price tag.
Catcher: There's a slim chance the Mets could non-tender Thole, though it doesn't seem likely -- considering his knowledge of the pitching staff and relatively small expected arbitration raise. But even with Thole back in the fold, the Mets need to acquire a right-handed-hitting catcher to complement him; they were displeased with Mike Nickeas' hitting in 2012 and less than thrilled with Shoppach.
Bullpen: Last winter's bullpen makeover didn't work, with Frank Francisco, Rauch and Ramirez all struggling to varying degrees. Of that bunch, only Francisco will be back, setting the Mets up for a second straight bullpen splurge in free agency.
This year's payroll maxed out right around $100 million, and the Mets expect to be in that neighborhood again in 2013. It's a significant chunk of change -- about average for an MLB team. But with $72 million of that already committed to six players -- and arbitration raises due to Thole, Davis, Murphy and Parnell -- it leaves Alderson with little wiggle room for his offseason machinations.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.