By MIKE FITZPATRICK, AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) _ David Wright got engaged last winter to his longtime girlfriend, model Molly Beers.
By then he was already married to the New York Mets– for better or for worse.
In their most reassuring move of a pivotal offseason, the struggling Mets committed to building around their All-Star third baseman by signing Wright to an eight-year contract worth $138 million, the richest deal in team history.
Now, he’s banking on their pledge to surround him with a playoff team.
Sooner rather than later.
“I’ve been here long enough to experience a little bit of good, some bad and some ugly, but I am 100 percent confident and just crazy excited about the direction we are going with some of the young players we have,” Wright said. “It’s going to be sweet to watch these younger players develop and see the direction we’re heading. It’s going to be something special.”
Wright always knows the right things to say, a big reason he recently was anointed the fourth captain in club history and first since John Franco in 2004.
But the unavoidable truth is, besides their cornerstone at the hot corner, the Mets have major question marks all over an injury-riddled roster. Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was traded to Toronto for prospects, and not much is expected this year other than a fifth straight losing season and another fourth-place finish in the top-heavy NL East.
The entire outfield is an experiment.
The bullpen and bench include castoffs and aging veterans brought in at bargain prices.
Two ailing starting pitchers, Johan Santana and Shaun Marcum, were expected to miss the beginning of the season.
“You can’t replace a Cy Young winner like Johan, but we’ve got five of us going up there and we’re itching to win,” said Matt Harvey, a hard-throwing beacon of hope after compiling a 2.73 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 10 rousing starts as a rookie last season.
The current condition of these meandering Mets is largely the aftereffect of blindly chasing a championship in the late 2000s at the expense of a thinning farm system.
Stocked with stars like Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Pedro Martinez, they signed free-agent busts to bloated contracts and squandered draft picks in trying to get over the hump.
They went all in and fell short. Now, they’re paying the price.
Analytical general manager Sandy Alderson, however, has focused on the future since taking over in October 2010. And after a couple of key trades netted elite minor leaguers like pitcher Zack Wheeler and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, better days could be ahead.
Both are ticketed for Triple-A to start the season, and much is riding on their success. So patience remains important, for the front office and frustrated fans alike, as New York waits for some promising prospects to blossom.
“We have a ton of talent. It’s just, with us, we’re very young,” the 30-year-old Wright said at spring training. “You’re going to have some guys learning on the job, learning on that level. As far as talent goes, we have the talent _ no question in my mind.
“If you go out to the back fields, you’d see a bunch of young arms pitching 100 mph. So I think that’s the quickest way to get things turned around, is that young power pitching everyone has heard about and written about, and well beyond the Matt Harveys and Zack Wheelers,” he added. “We’re a lot deeper than that.”
Jeremy Hefner and newcomer Aaron Laffey, both essentially spot starters last season, were in line to fill in early for Santana and Marcum (neck).
Jonathon Niese (13-9, 3.40 ERA) gets the opening day assignment in place of Santana, who pitched the first no-hitter in franchise history last year but then collapsed after June. He was still trying to rebuild strength in his surgically repaired left shoulder, and it’s uncertain what he’ll be able to provide in the final season of his $137.5 million contract.
With closer Frank Francisco still recovering from elbow surgery, setup man Bobby Parnell gets promoted to a role he has faltered in before.
Mets relievers ranked 29th in the majors last season with a 4.65 ERA.
“Our bullpen has to get better,” said manager Terry Collins, entering the final year of his contract. “We sat here last year and said, `Hey, we improved our bullpen.’ We had problems. We think we’ve improved our bullpen again, but we need to see it.”
On offense, right fielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck are stopgap solutions. Both were All-Stars in 2010.
Wright appears to have little protection in a strikeout-prone lineup other than first baseman Ike Davis, who recovered from a dreadful start last year to finish with 32 homers and 90 RBIs.
And without much star power on display, Citi Field could be a cavern of empty seats throughout its fifth season.
Still, owner Fred Wilpon says he’s ready to spend again now that the Bernie Madoff mess is behind him. The Mets have a lot of money coming off the payroll after this year and Alderson insists that increased flexibility means one or two big moves could quickly make them a contender.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people, just because of the strength of our pitching,” Buck said. “Seeing the quality of arms, we’re better than I anticipated. Sprinkle in some of the veterans and we’re a step or two ahead of what people may think. If we get David, (Daniel) Murphy and Ike doing what they’re capable of doing, it definitely makes you feel like you’ve got some optimism and it’s not just hogwash.”
AP freelance writers Laurel Pfahler, Jon Santucci and Bill Whitehead in Port St. Lucie, Fla., contributed to this report.
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)