NEW YORK -- Since the day Sandy Alderson took over as general manager in October 2010, this was the offseason he had circled on his calendar. This was the winter he knew the contracts of several key players would expire, giving the Mets tens of millions of dollars of payroll flexibility.
The club's 2014 outlook may have changed when Matt Harvey tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, sidelining him for all of next season. But the resolve to spend did not.
"This doesn't really change our planning at all," Alderson said when Harvey announced his intentions to have surgery. "But it does provide some clarity that we didn't have."
Ultimately, Harvey's decision will affect how the Mets allocate their dollars in an effort to improve as quickly as possible. Though pennant-starved fans in Flushing may look adoringly at top-flight free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano and Shin-Soo Choo, the perception both inside and outside the organization is that they will instead attempt to follow Boston's model from last winter, spreading out their dollars among a half-dozen or so lesser names.
That would certainly make sense considering the roster holes, which are plentiful. The Mets enter this winter in need of at least one starting pitcher and corner outfielder, and preferably more than one of each. They need a whole new bullpen, a pitcher to replace Harvey and possibly another starter to man the back end of their rotation. In a perfect world, they will also acquire a starting shortstop to replace Ruben Tejada.
Though the Mets are eager to fill some of those holes via the trade market, the reality is that free agency will be an important source of talent for them. Unlike during his first three offseasons as GM, which saw Alderson largely eschew the free agent market, the Mets are primed to toss around some dollars this winter.
"Having [financial] flexibility is great, but at some point you've got to put yourself on the line," Alderson said. "I think what we're going to try to do is balance the level of our commitments with the desire to continue to maintain some flexibility going forward."
Free agents: RHP David Aardsma, RHP Aaron Harang, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, RHP Frank Francisco, RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, LHP Tim Byrdak, LHP Pedro Feliciano, LHP Johan Santana.
Arbitration-eligible: 1B Ike Davis, 2B Daniel Murphy, SS Omar Quintanilla, SS Tejada, INF Justin Turner, OF Lucas Duda, OF Eric Young Jr., RHP Scott Atchison, RHP Dillon Gee, RHP Bobby Parnell.
Contract options: Santana ($25-million team option, $5.5-million buyout).
Non-tender possibilities: Quintanilla, Atchison.
Areas of need
Outfield: It was almost a year ago that Alderson quipped, "What outfield?" in response to a question about his team's 2013 makeup, and the Mets have yet to answer the question. Choo is the free-agent outfielder that many Mets fans covet, but team officials have expressed doubt that Alderson will offer enough years or dollars to lure him -- which takes Ellsbury, an even bigger-ticket item, entirely out of the equation. Former Mets Carlos Beltran and Marlon Byrd are both free agents as well, but each is on the wrong side of his 36th birthday.
Shortstop: Though the Mets do not fear the prospect of entering next season with Tejada at short, they would ideally like to upgrade the position. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta are the top free agents available, and the Mets will almost certainly court both of them.
Rotation: With Harvey set to miss the entire 2014 season, the Mets will be in the market for at least one, and most likely two, starting pitchers. Expect them to ignore younger free agents such as Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Masahiro Tanaka, focusing instead on veterans who may require only one- or two-year deals -- Bronson Arroyo, Bartolo Colon and the like. Given the arms at the top end of their Minor League system, the Mets may also add a bargain-priced starter -- a Matsuzaka type, for example -- to fill out their rotation until midsummer.
Bullpen: The Mets will need to rebuild their bullpen for a second straight winter, with nearly all their veteran relievers eligible for free agency. Parnell's questionable health following neck surgery may also prompt the Mets to acquire someone with closing experience, in the event that Parnell is not ready for Opening Day. Re-signing Hawkins, who served as closer in September, is a legitimate option.
Just because the Mets have tens of millions coming off the books, does not mean they are going to reinvest all of that money. It's reasonable to think the payroll will actually decrease for the third consecutive season, though it should remain in the $85-95 million range that it has sat in since 2012 -- likely on the lower end of that spectrum.
That said, expect the Mets to be more active in free agency than they have in years. With just $25 million committed to guaranteed contracts heading into this offseason, plus another $25-30 million penciled in for their arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players, the club could add roughly $30 million in new contracts without even reaching last year's payroll total. The plan is to spread that wealth around to multiple free agents and trade targets.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.