By Ernie Palladino
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These Winter Meetings are going to be a trying time for the Mets, at least more than usual.
It’s not because the organization will operate without Sandy Alderson, as this season’s Executive of the Year hangs back to begin treatment for cancer. In this age of cell phones and Facetime, one’s physical presence, while advantageous, is hardly necessary.
If Alderson’s chief lieutenant, John Ricco, comes across a deal that lights him up, he need only to pull out the old iPhone and run it past Alderson for the final green light.
So Alderson’s absence adds little tension.
The combination of waiting and listening? That’s another story. It’s the waiting for Kansas City target Ben Zobrist to make his decision on whether to take the Mets’ millions to help the lineup, and listening to what could be some enticing offers for a big bat or a big middle reliever in exchange for one of their young, cheap pitchers that will require some patience.
The two are not mutually exclusive. Zobrist, who had a wonderful season in helping the Royals to the World Series title, does not represent the ultimate piece that will position the Mets for another run next October, but he is the main one. By mounting a full-court, offseason press that climaxed with last week’s visit to the metropolitan area, the Mets seem to have placed all their eggs in the Zobrist basket.
In other words, they’ll worry about an alternative option after Zobrist makes his decision later in the week.
If the 34-year-old Zobrist decides to come, the Mets will turn their attention to getting either a big bat or a reliable someone to set up Jeurys Familia, and they’ll be dealing from a position of strength. All those other GMs looking to steal a Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom will have to fold up their masks and holster their guns. They won’t be robbing anyone from Queens this week.
But things could get interesting if Zobrist heads off to the Giants, Braves, or Nationals, who have also shown great interest. Dangling Jon Niese out there may not be sufficient to draw a decent bat, and certainly not a player with the offensively steady Zobrist’s versatility at second, third, left, and right field. With Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy all but gone, the lineup will look a lot like it did in the pre-Cespedes days.
That’s not a good thing unless one believes David Wright will reverse the aging process, Lucas Duda will straighten out his streaky career curve, and that Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Conforto will become consistent day-to-day forces.
There is too much left to chance there. So Ricco and his helpers will not only have to woo a free agent hitter like Denard Span or Gerardo Parra, but will probably have to work a deal to get that middle reliever.
How good that person is and what comes with him will determine if Niese alone fills the requirement. They can afford to get rid of the left-hander, given his inconsistency in the regular season and his postseason move to the bullpen. But if it comes down to giving up a Harvey, deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, or the rehabbing Zack Wheeler, Ricco had best beg off.
Those guys are too cheap and too good to get rid of. Their salaries alone — a combined Filene’s Basement tag of $16 million — allows the Mets the financial flexibility to afford a Zobrist or, to lesser extents, Span or Parra.
But if Zobrist doesn’t come, the trade route may prove the best way to find that next piece, be it in the lineup or bullpen. Who Alderson’s assistants listen to and what they offer in return could make for some interesting, headache-inducing conversations.
Signing Zobrist at the meetings would make things a lot easier in Nashville this week.
A lot calmer, too.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino