Sandy Alderson AP

Springtime Storylines: How long will the Mets spend in baseball purgatory?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The New York Mets.

The Big Question: How long will the Mets spend in baseball purgatory?

How much hope can there be for a team who is coming off three straight losing seasons, slashed payroll by a record amount and let their best player, Jose Reyes, sign with a division rival? Not a whole lot. The Marlins and Nationals are on the rise while the Braves are bringing back most of the same players and the Phillies still have “The Big Three.” Realistically, finishing in fourth place would be both a surprise and a significant accomplishment.

Most Mets fans have resigned themselves to this gloomy short-term fate, but this month’s settlement with Irving Picard in the Madoff case has at least changed the tone a little. The Mets’ owners were also able to close sales of 12 minority shares in the team, repaying loans to MLB and Bank of America in the process. The focus is back on the players on the field for the most part. However, this infusion of cash doesn’t mean the Mets will sign Cole Hamels or Matt Cain next winter. The intention was to cover team debt and operating expenses (or losses). And with expectations pretty low, attendance is likely to suffer once again. There’s also the team’s annual interest bond payments on Citi Field. I’ll admit there’s a lot we don’t know about their situation — for instance, what impact will the Dodgers’ sale have on their ability to refinance? — but it doesn’t look like the Mets’ owners are out of the woods yet.

I don’t think that the Mets need a mega payroll to contend again, but Sandy Alderson’s flexibility figures to be limited in the short-term. Johan Santana and Jason Bay are still owed a total of $90 million on their contracts. That’s a tremendous amount of payroll dedicated to just two players, so it’s unlikely they will make any major signings until those players are officially off the books. Of course, doling out massive long-term contracts is what got them into this mess in the first place.

The Mets will probably remain in this weird state of baseball purgatory until around 2014, but this is still a very important period of evaluation for the on-field product. This is the time to find out whether homegrown players like Lucas Duda, Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy, Jon Niese and Josh Thole will play significant roles on the next contending team in Queens. With top prospects like Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jeurys Familia inching closer to the big leagues, the Mets may actually have a pretty good (and cheap) core for the future.

What else is going on?

  • The Mets altered the dimensions and heights of the fences at Citi Field over the winter in an effort to make the park play more neutral. David Wright’s old sweet spot in right-center field was moved in by 17 feet while Jason Bay will no longer have to put up with the 16-foot high “Great Wall of Flushing” in left field. I’ve heard the argument that Mets’ hitters will get a psychological lift with the changes and I suppose that’s true to a certain degree, but I’m not sure that gives them any real advantage. If the Mets’ pitching is bad and the opposing hitters are better, well, it doesn’t matter where the fences are.
  • I wouldn’t have believed this if you had told me even a month ago, but it appears Johan Santana will take the ball on Opening Day. While his velocity was down in his most recent outing, the rehabbing southpaw has a 3.44 ERA and 13/7 K/BB ratio over 18 1/3 inning this spring and hasn’t had any setbacks with his surgically repaired shoulder. He probably isn’t anything more than a six- or seven-inning pitcher right now, but it would be a huge boost if he could make even 20-25 starts.
  • You know how Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez were discussed as trade possibilities last year? Now it’s David Wright’s turn. The only difference is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to deal him. At least right now. Wright can void his $16 million option for 2013 in the event of a trade while the new CBA stipulates that the acquiring team would not be able to offer him arbitration as a free agent. However, if the Mets pick up the option and trade him next offseason, the acquiring team would be able to offer him arbitration since he would spend the full season with his new club. In other words, don’t look for a trade unless the Mets are blown away by a desperate contender. I still think there’s a chance the Mets will keep him for the long haul, though.
  • The bullpen was the only area of the team that was improved over the winter. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch were added as free agents while Ramon Ramirez was acquired from the Giants in the Angel Pagan deal. Francisco has looked terrible this spring and Rauch is on the decline, but they should be better than a group which was 28th in the majors last year with a 4.33 ERA and was a complete disaster after the All-Star break.
  • R.A. Dickey. That’s all.

How are they gonna do?

Oddly, for a team that is projected to finish last by nearly every baseball writer out there, the Mets entered camp with every spot in the lineup and rotation pretty much settled. The big issue, aside from a very shaky defense, is that they have little-to-no depth beyond those projected starters, especially in regard to the rotation. The Mets actually look like a pretty respectable team at the moment, but injuries at key positions could set them back in a big way. And I don’t think they have the reinforcements to compete in an improved division. I’m predicting 70-74 wins and a last-place finish.

The Marlins have made a “monster offer” for Kenley Jansen

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 18:  Kenley Jansen #74 of the Los Angeles Dodgers delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning of game three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 18, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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OXON HILL, MD — The morning after Aroldis Chapman signed for a record $86 million, the Miami Marlins are reported to have made similarly lucrative offer to the other top free agent closer, Kenley Jansen.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo says that the Marlins have made “a monster offer” of five years and more than $80 million to Jansen. This despite the fact that the club is coming off of a 79-win season and, tragically, lost their top pitcher Jose Fernandez in a fatal boating accident, which will substantially harm their competitive prospects. While it seems like a stretch to say that the Yankees will compete for a playoff spot, thereby making such an historically large investment in a closer a bit suspect, the Marlins doing so is even more questionable.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are said to be interested in Jansen as well, though Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post says the Nats are “uncomfortable” with the financial commitment signing him would require.

Jansen most recently pitched for the Dodgers and there have been no reports that they’re totally out on him, but there has been nothing to suggest that they are pushing hard for him either.

Jansen, 29, finished this past season with 47 saves, a 1.83 ERA, and a 104/11 K/BB ratio in 68.2 innings. That’s not quite Aroldis Chapman good, but he seems poised to collect something close to Aroldis Chapman money.

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.