By Ernie Palladino
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The Mets did a fine job last week at the Winter Meetings. Better than fine, actually.
Now they have to finish it.
They have to get that big bopper in the middle of the lineup.
It’s not a luxury, or the cherry on top of the sundae. It’s a necessity. If Sandy Alderson, John Ricco, and the other helpers who landed Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker don’t find that consistent home run hitter, all the optimism and good will that flowed out of Nashville the past week will vanish faster than a mutual fund with Bernie Madoff.
And so might the Mets’ prospects for an NL East championship repeat.
The targets are obvious — Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton. They‘d also be wise to test the Chris Davis waters.
The ever salary-conscious Mets now have some money to play with, thanks to the one move they had nothing at all to do with. The retirement of Michael Cuddyer may have left as much as $10 million in their 2016 coffers, depending on how generous a buyout the Mets gave the injured 36-year-old. The Mets should neither save that money for a rainy day nor blow it on importing anything less than top-line hitting talent.
They have an opportunity here to finish a lineup that can come out of the gate fast and leave no doubt about their standing as the class of the NL East. But they won’t do it with that long-ball hitter in the middle.
Cuddyer’s bucks should pay about half what they’ll have to hand over to that person.
Who that is remains to be seen. But the list is a short one.
Anyone who paid attention to the last two months of the regular season knows the contributions Cespedes made. With a super hot run of 17 homers, virtually all of them important ones, the Mets pulled out of the offensive doldrums of their first four months, made the playoffs, and wound up in the World Series.
Cespedes did precious little during the postseason, and wound up kicking a ball in center that turned into an inside-the-park home run. But don’t judge him by that, or by his obsession with game day golf, or the fact that he’s played with four teams in a four-year career. He has all the signs of becoming a consistent 30-homer, 100-plus RBI hitter who plays a solid outfield.
As great a story as Michael Conforto proved to be following his promotion from Double-A for the last 56 regular-season games, the sample is too small to say with certainty that his nine homers and 26 RBI project to steady, important production. Cespedes represents not only proven power, but his experience in center and left would provide Terry Collins with the flexibility to develop Conforto at a pressure-free pace.
OK, so maybe the golf, the doubts about commitment, and the overall price tag have scared the Mets off Cespedes. But Upton and Davis are still out there, and they’re certainly worth looking into.
Upton went for 29 homers and 102 RBI in Atlanta two years ago, and hit 26 with 81 for San Diego last year. He has improved as a fielder, having made only three errors in left in 2015.
He’s still got a lot of baseball left at 28, and the Mets would have to pay as dearly for him as for Cespedes. But remember, they’ve got that money.
Davis is the stretch here. The Orioles want to keep him, but they apparently were frustrated enough by agent Scott Boras’ foot dragging to pull a seven-year, $150 million offer away to explore other options.
Davis is a wonderful left-handed bat who would be right at home swinging at Citi Field’s Pepsi Porch, or whatever they’ll call it in light of Coca Cola’s recent coup d’etat. The name may change, but the inviting dimensions will still be there for a popular All-Star who has hit 159 homers and won two AL home run crowns over the last four seasons.
The Mets could plant him in right and move Curtis Granderson to center. It’s a bit of a comedown defensively, but it’s a small accommodation for someone who is coming off a 47 homer, 117-RBI season.
The question is whether the Mets have had their fill of Boras after he started the whole Matt Harvey shutdown controversy down the stretch. Davis won’t come cheap, but he’s certainly worth looking into.
Only after the Mets make legitimate offers to those three should they look for lesser, cheaper options like Denard Span or Gerardo Parra.
Cuddyer’s retirement is the Mets’ opportunity to finish what they started in Nashville.
Now that they are dealing from a position of financial strength, they can’t afford to waste it.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino