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10/29/11 11:09 AM EST

Reyes at forefront of Mets' free-agent plan

Bringing back star directly affects New York's offseason budget

NEW YORK -- When Sandy Alderson took over as Mets general manager roughly one year ago, he spoke about creating flexibility within the team's financial structure. To date, Alderson has kept his word, trading away the unwieldy contracts of Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez and bringing the Mets closer to financial freedom.

Still, work remains.

Sometime between now and February, Alderson will need to make the most significant decision of his Mets tenure, perhaps of his entire career as a baseball executive: He must decide whether to re-sign shortstop Jose Reyes, one of the game's most talented players and one of the foremost fan-favorites in franchise history. Reyes officially becomes a free agent five days after the end of the World Series, setting into motion a decision process that could affect the Mets for a decade or more.

Rebuilding the Mets was never going to be a one-year process; Alderson hopes simply to keep the team competitive in the short-term while building a more powerful club for the future. That process is not yet complete, meaning the Mets must gauge not only what Reyes can provide them next season, but also what he might be able to offer in two seasons. In three seasons. In five.

The Mets remain as enamored with Reyes' potential as they were when they first signed him as a Dominican prospect more than a decade ago. They also remain as wary as ever of the risks that accompany his injury history.

But parting ways with Reyes would not be easy. Though both integral parts of the club, Beltran and Rodriguez never captivated Mets fans in quite the same way as Reyes, a homegrown shortstop who developed into one of the most exciting players in baseball. Letting him walk could affect the franchise in the same way that trading Tom Seaver once did.

It is hardly the only decision that Alderson must make this winter. The Mets must still decide whether to offer arbitration to starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey and outfielder Angel Pagan, two talented players whose salaries now threaten to outweigh their performances. New York must also figure out how to reshape its bullpen.

But nothing will weigh more heavily on Alderson than thoughts of Reyes, who -- despite his injury history -- is all but certain to land a nine-figure contract somewhere. With respect to Albert Pujols in St. Louis and Prince Fielder in Milwaukee, Reyes will dominate a significant portion of free agency with his unique skill set, personality and history in New York.

Sidestepping questions about his situation all summer, Reyes noted only that all things being equal, he wants to return to the Mets. His family lives here. He has played nine seasons here. He is comfortable here. He may even be willing to take a discount to stay here.

But the Mets have money issues, with no end in sight to ownership's Bernard Madoff litigation and a reduced payroll on tap. Meeting Reyes' demands may not be possible.

In any case, the chase is about to begin. Reyes is about to enter free agency for the first time in his career, and the Mets are gearing up to make one of the most significant decisions in franchise history -- for better or for worse.

Contract issues
Free agents: Chris Capuano, LHP; Miguel Batista, RHP; Chris Young, RHP; Ryota Igarashi, RHP; Jason Isringhausen, RHP; Scott Hairston, OF; Willie Harris, OF; Jose Reyes, SS

Eligible for arbitration: Manny Acosta, RHP; Taylor Buchholz, RHP; Mike Pelfrey, RHP; Ronny Paulino, C; Angel Pagan, OF

Contract options: None

Non-tender possibilities: Buchholz, Pelfrey, Paulino, Pagan

Areas of need
Bullpen: Alderson has been on record saying he will direct many of his available resources this winter to the bullpen. His ability to do so will depend largely upon whether the Mets re-sign Reyes, but relief pitching -- specifically, finding a closer and at least one reliable middle reliever -- will remain a priority in either case.

Starting pitching: The Mets have the makings of a workable five-man rotation returning in Johan Santana, R.A. Dickey, Pelfrey, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee. But the organization boasts precious little pitching depth at the upper levels of the Minors, meaning even if the Mets do not sign a middle-of-the-rotation starter, they should at least ink a back-end type for insurance.

Outfield: Regardless of whether the Mets decide to replace Pagan in center field following a down season, they need to shore up their outfield bench. Expect at least one veteran to be a part of that mix, much as Harris and Hairston were Alderson's choices in 2011.

2012 payroll
Alderson has stated publicly that his budget should fall somewhere in the $100-110 million range, a significant decrease from what the Mets spent last season. Roughly half that money ($55 million) is tied up in guaranteed contracts for Santana, David Wright and Jason Bay, with another $6 million or so earmarked for pitchers Dickey, D.J. Carrasco and Tim Byrdak. Factor in arbitration raises to multiple players, and the Mets should have about $20-30 million to play with this winter; how they use it will depend largely upon whether the team brings back Reyes. If the Mets do, at approximately $20 million per year, it will severely impact their ability to import any free agents of value. If they do not, the Mets may reinvest much of the resulting capital in new players.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.