Bay is nice, but not what Mets need

Did the Mets just buy themselves a playoff berth? That’s the burning question in Flushing after the club came to terms with Jason Bay for a four-year $66 million deal. Bay still has to pass a physical this weekend — and that’s less than a guarantee, given the condition of his shoulders and knees — but barring any reversal, the Mets have the home run threat they believe will turn them into at least a wild-card team.

Not everyone agrees, however. While Bay’s credentials as a power hitter are beyond reproach, the real issue is whether the Mets have misspent their money. One major league executive said on Tuesday, “they would’ve been better off finding a front-line pitcher” instead of a corner outfielder.

Another senior official suggested GM Omar Minaya would’ve been wiser waiting for next winter’s ripe free agency crop, which will include, among others, Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Joe Mauer. If the Mets really wanted to use their financial might, they could’ve made a blow-away offer to any of these stars and been better off in the long-term.

The reality, of course, is that the Mets couldn’t afford to wait, not after a disastrous 92-loss season in 2009. The Mets haven’t been to the postseason since 2006 and a restless fan base was demanding some kind of response from Minaya.

For whatever reason, the Mets let John Lackey and Randy Wolf slip though their fingers, and were similarly inert while Mike Cameron and Mark DeRosa signed elsewhere. Obviously they were waiting on bigger prey — Bay or Matt Holliday — but hitting more runs won’t change the Mets’ profile by themselves.

What they need are dependable starters behind Johan Santana — at least 40 wins from the 2-3-4 slots in the rotation. Considering Bay’s contract calls for a mere $10 million payout in 2010, it’s likely the Mets are preparing to reel in another pitcher. Maybe it’s a gamble on Ben Sheets, maybe it’s Joel Pineiro. There’s also a possibility of a deal that would bring Bronson Arroyo to New York.

In the meantime, the Mets are getting an infusion of power that will take pressure off David Wright. The third baseman, once a 30-home run threat, hit only 10 HRs last season, and just five at Citi Field. Bay will be a welcome antidote to the power deficit, although he’s more likely to hit 25 home runs at cavernous Citi than the 36 he slugged with the Red Sox.

The other highlights on Bay’s resume include his ability to thrive in a big market, as well as his familiarity with pennant-race pressure. That means a lot to a Met team that’s gained an industry-wide reputation for being soft, and otherwise no match for their division rivals, the Phillies.

But Bay comes with baggage: he strikes out often (162 times last season) and has hit .300 only once in his career. His defense is also a potential problem, given that he won’t have the Green Monster to cover up his flaws in the field.

Instead, Citi Field could expose him as “a notch above (Hideki) Matsui” in the words of one talent evaluator. The Red Sox were sufficiently worried about Bay’s long-term durability; his knees and shoulders are what could keep Bay from passing this weekend’s physical in New York.

Still, the Mets are banking on Bay as the latest in a steady stream of free agent saviors, starting with Pedro Martinez in 2005, followed by Carlos Beltran, Billy Wagner, Santana and Francisco Rodriguez.

The Mets paid handsomely for each of these stars, and did so again with Bay. Their $16 million annual average was the best offer out there, which Bay discovered after weeks of hunting for an alternative.

He put the Mets on hold while his agent, Joe Urbon, circled back to the Red Sox, asking if there was a way to get Bay back to Fenway. But that path became permanently blocked after Cameron was signed. With fewer and fewer options, Bay needed an exit ramp from a disappointing free agency campaign.

The Mets were just as needy. The fan base was growing increasingly agitated at Minaya’s inertia, having seen the Yankees acquire Curtis Granderson and then trade for Javy Vazquez. The Phillies, meanwhile upgraded their ace from Lee to Roy Halladay, reason enough to pick them to repeat as National League champs.

The Mets needed to prove to their public that a business plan did, in fact, exist — just as invoices for 2010 were being mailed to season-ticket holders. By the end of the day, both Bay and the Mets agreed to this marriage of convenience.

Of course, it remains to be seen how the more important questions are answered next season. Can Santana rebound from his second elbow surgery? Will Jose Reyes ever play without pain? Can Beltran? And can Wright be more than a gap hitter at Citi?

Those are the make-or-break issues for the Mets. Bay’s home runs will obviously help. But for now, consider the Mets a work in progress.