The game has no December roster requirements, though, so the Mets need not fret, at least not yet. They have four months to add some meat to the skeleton that their rotation has become. As the Mets prepare for the Winter Meetings, they have more than enough time, but seemingly less than sufficient means.
General manager Omar Minaya and his staff will travel to Nashville on Monday with an urgency to deal for a quality starting pitcher, but with less ammo than likely will be necessary to affect the change.
Their urgency is evident in this way: As recently as August, when the Mets were still looking down at the rest of the National League and looking ahead to the postseason, they had little interest in dealing the young talent they had developed -- namely outfielders Carlos Gomez, Fernando Martinez and Lastings Milledge (who was traded to the Nationals on Friday), and pitchers Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber.
Minaya thought then -- even before the return of Pedro Martinez -- that he would address the envisioned pitching needs without mortgaging the team's future or dealing only a small part of it, or with Pelfrey showing enough in the season's final six weeks to offset the need for acquisitions altogether. But the thin free-agent market, the departure of Tom Glavine, the improvements made by the Braves and the Phillies, the performances of Pelfrey and Humber and the team's September free-fall have worked together to increase the need and limit the available options.
So the Mets leave for the country music capital singing "We're Itchin' to Get Some Pitchin'" and prepared to trade anyone other than Pedro Martinez, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Billy Wagner.
The state of the rotation isn't so bad that acquiring Johan Santana wouldn't fix it or that bringing in Dan Haren from the A's or Erik Bedard from the Orioles wouldn't give the Mets a sense of genuine improvement they need to experience to get past 2007. With either pitcher in place at the top, the identity of the Nos. 2-5 starters -- some sequence of Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Orlando Hernandez -- hardly would be an issue. If Martinez is considered capable of 25 starts, the least of the remaining three would be quite acceptable as a No. 3 starter.
Santana, though, is being targeted by a number of other clubs, the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox among them. And that will again raise the issue of whether the Mets have sufficient means or means comparable to that of other clubs, especially now with Milledge no longer available to deal.
And if Haren and Bedard are made available, the Mets won't be alone in pursuing a deal for either. Moreover, the Mets' need -- some might consider them desperate to make a splash -- may lead to their being overcharged, further taxing their resources.
The Mets had expected more from Pelfrey, Humber and, of course, more from September. Now the aura of success doesn't surround the players they think they will have to trade. As GM emeritus Frank Cashen said two decades ago, "All your players look more attractive when you've won."
Minaya's mantra now is "Our premium prospects are very well-liked." What general manager doesn't express the same sense at this time of year?
Two weeks ago, Minaya asked and answered his own question: "The question is whether we'd trade them," he said.
"We could be players in some of the pitching that might be traded," he said, then added, "There's no doubt, if you're going to trade for pitching in this market -- the way pitching is right now if you look at the free agents -- you're going to have to part with some premium guys."
Minaya considers Pelfrey and Humber "premium guys." But this is where Pelfrey's unfulfilling season and Humber's underdevelopment undermine the Mets. A time-release component is at work here. Neither contributed enough to the '07 season to make it successful, and now neither appears to be sufficiently accomplished to be a primary chip in a package for a pitcher of Santana's caliber.
Pelfrey won three of his four decisions in September, but those victories came in a four-start sequence that also produced a 5.32 ERA. And they put his final record at 3-8, hardly one that a new general manager would enjoy defending when trading away a 28-year-old, left-handed, two-time American League Cy Young Award winner.
The inclusion of Humber in a package wouldn't help much either. Pitching 139 innings at Triple-A New Orleans last season hardly guarantees that he is fully recovered from his Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery in July 2005. At 25, Humber has yet to pitch 150 innings in one season as a professional. His value probably is greater to the Mets than it is in a trade, though they will not retain him at the cost of a deal for Santana.
If the Mets measure their three young pitchers by how other clubs see them, then Mulvey is on the same level as Humber, with Pelfrey more highly regarded than either.
The two young outfielders appear to have greater value than the pitchers. It's nearly implausible that the Mets could bring in a front-of-the-rotation starter without dealing Gomez or Martinez -- even if the package included big league talent, such as, say Perez, Maine or Aaron Heilman.
Minaya indicated that he considered Gomez too great a talent to deal for Brad Lidge, after the Phillies acquired the reliever and moved Brett Myers to their rotation. A chance to import Santana, Haren or Bedard probably would loosen the Mets' grasp on Gomez, but probably not Martinez, and never both.
The Mets are not inclined to include more than two of their five remaining prospects in any one trade. And if they were to include two or three in one package, they would limit themselves in this way: Gomez and either Pelfrey or Humber, or Gomez and either Mulvey or Humber.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.