Sandy Alderson stepped into the hotel lobby at the general managers' meetings and was ready with a quick quip.
"I was upstairs stacking our money," the New York Mets general manager said Monday.
He paused for four seconds.
"Don't get excited," he said. "They were all fives."
And how high was the pile?
"Not as high as some people expect." he replied.
After two offseasons of cutting payroll, the Mets are ready to spend now that Johan Santana, Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and Francisco Rodriguez all are off the active books. But only to a point.
"We have more options available to us. We talk about the money we have to spend, but I think in terms of all of our resources, we're in a better position," Alderson said.
"Free agent-wise, we're in a better position. Trade-wise, our system is better. We have some accomplished players at the major league level, and we have a little cash. So I think in those terms we're better armed this year than we have been to do some things."
New York finished 74-88 for the second consecutive year and has endured five straight losing seasons since moving into Citi Field. The Mets had just three sellouts at their ballpark, and home attendance has dropped in five straight seasons for the first time in franchise history. Their 2.14 million home total was their lowest since 1997.
Payroll fell, too, from $142 million in 2011 to $104 million last year to about $95 million this year.
As the Mets rebuild, they might try to sign some of the top free agents who turned down $14.1 million qualifying offers from their former clubs. The Mets would not lose a first-round draft pick as compensation because they select 10th and the top 10 picks are protected.
"The fact that we only have to give up a second-round pick may give us a little bit of an edge," he said. "We'll see."
New York needs a shortstop, and Jhonny Peralta could be an option. Peralta and fellow free agent Nelson Cruz served 50-game suspensions as a result of Major League Baseball's investigation of the Biogenesis of America anti-aging clinic, which was accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs.
"I think on the one hand you have to be circumspect about performance and what impact that might have had. And then on the other hand I think you may have to look at the fact that they violated the rules," Alderson said.
"But at the same time, they paid price, and we've had our own players who have been in that situation. So is it a factor? Yes. Is it a scarlet letter? No, not necessarily. It certainly hasn't been in the past."
But the Mets are only willing to spend so much. With the team still a distance from becoming competitive, New York will resist any nine-figure contracts.
Detroit's Justin Verlander ($180 million) and Seattle's Felix Hernandez ($175 million) received huge seven-year deals that prevented them from even reaching free agency.
"Let's face it, the agents at this point expect that that is the market and not an aberration," he said. "We on the other hand hope it's an aberration. Only time will tell."