Mets navigating the free agent terrain

Mets navigating the free agent terrain

NEW YORK -- If the Mets succeed in making the repairs they deem necessary for the 2006 season and use free agency primarily in doing so, they probably will be forced to pay a steeper price than they did last winter, when they imported Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.

The cost increase doesn't involve the value of the contracts the free agents the Mets may sign, but rather the club's increasingly Type A personality and its on-the-field success in 2005.

The free agents in the Mets' sights -- closers Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan and Trevor Hoffman; catchers Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez; and shortstop Rafael Furcal -- are ranked as Type A players in the statistical study produced recently for Major League Baseball by the Elias Sports Bureau to determine how a club losing a free agent is to be compensated.

And Type A free agents come with a surtax -- particularly for clubs that produced records among the best 15 in the game the preceding season, as the Mets did.

The complicated rules governing free agency mandate: that a club signing a Type A free agent compensate the player's former club, that a Type A free agent changing clubs warrants greater compensation for his former club than other free agents, and that the level of compensation is dependent on the record the signing club produced the previous season.

Because the Mets' 83-79 record tied them for 11th, with the Twins and Marlins, they must compensate more than they would if their record ranked among the lower 15. And the difference in compensation is significant.

If the Mets sign one of the Type A free agents they're pursuing, they may lose the first-round selection in the amateur draft in June. If they sign two -- and they do want their closer and catcher to come from the 2005 class of free agents -- they may forfeit their selection in the second round. And signing a third Type A free agent could cost them a selection in the third round and make their participation in the draft an exercise with little reward.

The only way the Mets can avoid compensating the free agent's former club is if that club doesn't offer salary arbitration to its free agents next month -- that is, if the Phillies don't offer arbitration to Wagner, or the Angels don't offer it to Molina, and so on. But it is quite unlikely that scenario would develop in those cases or with Ryan and the Orioles or Furcal and the Braves. Those clubs want their players to re-sign, and would want the Mets' places of selection in the first round.

The Padres' intentions with Hoffman and Hernandez are more difficult to read. San Diego might shy away from arbitration, because Hoffman or Hernandez could take a chance, accept the club's offer and, come January -- after Wagner's and Molina's new deals have established a more expensive market for closers and catchers -- win one-year salaries substantially greater than the club is willing to offer now.

The level of compensation the Mets had to pay was of little concern to them a year ago, when they signed Martinez and Beltran, both Type A players, because their 71-91 record in 2004 was among the lower 15 in the game and the respective compensation due the Red Sox and Astros, accordingly, was less.

But this year, restocking via free agency mortgages the future to a greater degree, though not one that scares off the Mets. The team has one stock response to anyone questioning the wisdom of "win now, pay later" thinking -- "It's New York." The Mets believe that the market they share with the Yankees demands such action.

Of course, the Mets could regain a selection in the first round because Mike Piazza and Braden Looper are ranked as Type A free agents, and if either sign with another club, that would warrant compensation for New York. And if the 2005 record of the club that signs Piazza or Looper was among the 15 best in the game, the Mets would gain the signing club's place in the first round. The signing club's place in the second round and a so-called "sandwich selection," to be made between the first and second rounds, would come to the Mets if the signing club's 2005 record was in the lower 15.

The Mets almost certainly will offer arbitration to Piazza and Looper, and be confident that neither would accept it and force them to the arbitration table. Piazza wouldn't want the reduced role the Mets had in mind for him -- especially if Molina or Hernandez signs with them.

And Looper probably wouldn't be comfortable setting up the pitcher who replaced him as Mets closer. Indeed, after the Mets bought out the final year of his contract last month and said they would continue to talk to him about re-signing at a lower figure, a Mets executive said, "We seem to have a lot more interest in him than he has in us."

The fact that Piazza and Looper rank as Type A free agents may be surprising, given their performances of the last two years. The statistical study the Elias Sports Bureau does -- and has done each fall since the terms of settlement of the players' strike in 1981 -- measures all players' performances over the previous two seasons in various statistical categories, then measures those performances against those of other players from the same league and within groups that are based on position.

A player ranking in the top 30 percent of all players in his group is classified as Type A, a player in the upper 50 percent but not in the upper 30 is Type B and players in the upper 60 percent but not in the upper 50 are Type C. Types B and C warrant considerably less compensation for their incumbent clubs if they sign elsewhere.

The Mets' thinking about the free agent and trade markets became clearer on Monday, when people within the hierarchy reaffirmed that:

• Signing Wagner is the club's primary objective, and signing a catcher is the second priority. General manager Omar Minaya and his two assistants have visited with Wagner, Molina and Hernandez, and have no immediate plans to visit other free agents. Furcal, i.e., finding a second baseman, ranks third on the Mets' list.

• Interest in Wagner far exceeds the interest in the other two free agent relievers. The Mets' uncertainty about Ryan stems from his having spent merely one year as a closer. The interest in Wagner is such that the Mets want to be the first club to make an offer to the veteran reliever, even if it means overpaying. They haven't established their strategies for the other free agents -- or a willingness to overpay for their services.

• Overpaying Wagner -- to a degree -- is acceptable, even somewhat prudent, because it would accomplish the primary objective, make an enormous offseason splash -- one comparable to either free agent signing of a year ago -- and reinforce the Mets' image as a club that is willing to do whatever necessary. In effect, the Mets would be buying more than saves.

• That there's room for Wagner, a free agent catcher and Manny Ramirez.

• The club's interest in Molina exceeds its interest in Hernandez, even though their overall skills are considered comparable, because Molina has played for winning teams with the Angels and played a major role in the Angels' successes.

• No offer has been made to any free agent. One person said that the club is waiting for the agents to say "when."

• The run producer that the club believes it needs will play either first base or right field, probably the latter, which is to say that, as the Mets see it, no second baseman or catcher can provide sufficient offense. The Mets also have determined that the dismissal of Paul DePodesta as Dodgers general manager hasn't made second baseman Jeff Kent, a Minaya favorite, more available.

• The interest in acquiring Ramirez remains high -- as high as it was in the summer -- and that Ramirez's presence in the batting order and in right field would improve the chances of Mike Jacobs playing first base, at least against right-handed pitchers. It was unclear what position Ramirez would have played had the trade been made in July. At that time, Mike Cameron was playing right field. Now chances are that if Ramirez comes to the Mets, Cameron will be moved to the Red Sox and create a need for Ramirez to return to the position he played with the Indians.

• Japanese free agent catcher Kenji Jojima and his agent are likely to meet with Minaya this week in New York, and that the language barrier hasn't scared off the Mets but has made Jojima the club's third pick among catchers.

• The likelihood of a deal with the Devil Rays has diminished, and that the Rays player most likely to be with the Mets next season is reliever Danys Baez.

In other news, the Mets will act on the contracts of Kaz Ishii and Felix Heredia, buying out both. They have an option on Ishii's contract for 2006 for $3.25 million. It can be bought out, at the Mets' discretion, for $2.2 million, though the Dodgers are responsible for $1.3 million. Ishii still would be under the Mets' control and eligible for free agency. Heredia, who already has filed for free agency, will receive $200,000, not the $2.5 million he was in position to earn if the option in his contract were exercised.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.