Mets' problems go deeper than Minaya

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One day, maybe soon, the Mets will fire general manager Omar Minaya.

Frankly, they should fire him right now rather than continue treating him as a glorified puppet. But while Minaya's exit cannot come quickly enough for many fans, little will change for the Mets until they  change the way they operate -- from ownership on down.

The Mets, multiple industry sources say, do not function like most clubs. Their unique style would be fine if they were building championship teams. Instead, they're coming off a 70-win season and losing out on free agent after free agent -- except for one, left fielder Jason Bay, who seemingly lacked a better option.

Ownership, rather than giving Minaya a set budget, weighs the finances of each acquisition separately, forcing the team to run down its priority list one move at a time. The paint-by-numbers approach, which inhibits multitasking and creativity, would work against any GM.

Mets officials say that they are operating no differently from the past, that few criticized their decision-making when the team was more successful, that last year's injury-riddled, fourth-place club was an aberration.

Yet, even in an offseason in which the Mets signed Bay to a four-year, $66 million contract, their front office has committed one misstep after another, from its squabble with center fielder Carlos Beltran over his knee surgery to its botched courtship of free-agent catcher Bengie Molina to its failure to address the team's biggest area of need -- starting pitching.

It's Jan. 27. The Mets' rotation ranked 12th in the NL last season with a 4.77 ERA. But free-agent targets Randy Wolf, Joel Pineiro and Ben Sheets signed with other teams, and the Mets never even figured in trade discussions for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Javier Vazquez.

The Mets again figure to field a top-five payroll, but some in the industry believe they are short on cash, pointing to the team's desire to hold down salaries in 2010; Bay, for example, will receive $7.5 million this season and $19.5 million in '11, including portions of his signing bonus. The Mets, however, have structured other contracts similarly in the past, seeking short-term flexibility.

Perhaps the greater reason for the team's newfound caution is ownership's apparent loss of faith in Minaya.

Early in his tenure with the Mets, Minaya was the confident, aggressive GM who signed Pedro Martinez and Beltran as free agents.

He no longer is that guy.

Minaya seems almost like a pitcher who has lost his fastball, more tentative, less bold. These days, he draws more attention for his flops -- second baseman Luis Castillo, left-hander Oliver Perez -- than his successes. His firings of manager Willie Randolph and assistant GM Tony Bernazard became tabloid dramas. His lack of attention to detail remains perhaps his greatest weakness.

Chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon remains supportive of Minaya, but the team's actions speak louder than words. Wilpon has taken a greater role in contract negotiations, sources say. The Mets also are shifting some of Minaya's media responsibilities to assistant GM John Ricco.

If Minaya is no longer the undisupted head of baseball operations, then why is he still GM?

The Mets' inability to sign Pineiro perhaps best summed up the paralysis that often afflicts their organization. Pineiro identified the Mets as his No. 1 choice, but instead signed a two-year, $16

million contract with the Angels. He got tired of waiting for the Mets to sort through their other pursuits, tired of waiting for them to raise their initial offer, sources say.

As negotiations intensified, the Mets were prepared to match and perhaps top the Angels' offer for Pineiro. But by the time they turned aggressive, it was too late.

As recently as last offseason, the Mets seemed relatively nimble, acting decisively at the winter meetings to sign free-agent closer Francisco Rodriguez and complete a three-team trade for setup man J.J. Putz.

But now, the team's chain of command appears in flux; it's as if everyone is in charge and no one is in charge. The Mets are not playing at the proper game speed. They were blindsided on both Pineiro and Molina. They might have lost Bay, too, if another suitor had emerged.

To the Mets, the solution is simple: Win. Win and the questions will go away.

Well, lots of luck.

The Mets have yet to address their chemistry issues and questions about their medical staff, not to mention their rotation. They also play in the same division as the two-time defending NL champion Phillies, who spent the offseason adding pitcher Roy Halladay, third baseman Placido Polanco and several lesser parts while signing a number of their own players long-term.

The Mets suffer as well in comparisons to their crosstown rivals, the World Series champion Yankees, who have become ruthlessly efficient under GM Brian Cashman. Minaya is not going to be the Mets' Cashman.

Kevin Towers and other hot GM candidates will not want to work without a defined budget and greater control. Ricco, in time, could be the next Cashman, but not in the present structure.

Minaya looms as the obvious fall guy, but Minaya is only part of the problem. The Mets need to start over -- completely over. They need to depart their parallel universe and rejoin the rest of the baseball world.