NEW YORK -- There was a time when the Mets were interested in Justin Upton, going as far as to kick around preliminary trade ideas with the D-backs. Arizona insisted upon Zack Wheeler or Matt Harvey in any deal, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The Mets balked, and that was that.
What happened next could come to define one of baseball's most challenging divisions for years. The D-backs dealt Upton to the Braves earlier this week in a seven-player deal that drew rave reviews in Atlanta, further skewing the balance of power in the National League East.
It makes for a particularly tricky situation in Flushing, where the Mets are concentrating on a long-term plan built around Wheeler, Harvey, Travis d'Arnaud and the rest of their vastly improved farm system. Tricky because the Nationals and Braves, perhaps already the two best teams in the division, are also built to last.
"I would agree that the Nationals and the Braves appear to be very good teams for '13 and beyond," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "But many teams have been described as set up well for the long haul, and it hasn't always worked out as described.
"I think the National League East is very competitive. It's going to continue to be competitive. We're not going to be successful until we can match the teams in our division player for player. That's our goal. And yet we don't think we're that far away from doing it."
Alderson described his own talks with the D-backs as "more than casual … but they weren't extensive."
In other words, not enough to even approach a deal for Upton.
"We're disappointed we didn't get a little more traction in our conversations with Arizona," Alderson said. "They made a trade that they thought was in their best interest. There were certain players we were not going to part with. So it's understandable to some degree."
Now the Mets must deal with the fallout. This week's hot rumor centered around Michael Bourn, the game's top-ranked free-agent outfielder both now and at the beginning of the winter. The Mets have reportedly discussed petitioning Major League Baseball to allow them to keep their 11th overall Draft pick if they sign Bourn, who would normally cost his new team a first-round selection.
But Alderson said that he has not made an official request because he does not yet have a deal in place with Bourn. And he may never, considering Bourn's contract demands -- he is represented by Scott Boras, who is notorious for extracting megadeals for his clients -- and the Mets' conservative offseason approach.
Though Alderson declined comment on his team's specific interest in Bourn or any other free-agent outfielder, he did acknowledge the perception that Draft picks remain more of a priority than big leaguers.
"It's legitimate," he said of the Mets' reluctance to forfeit a first-round pick. "I think it's a fair understanding of where we have been and where we might continue to be."
Still, for the Mets, it may be Bourn or bust. There's a decent chance that no unsigned free-agent outfielder will command a big league contract from any team, meaning that the next-best alternative for the Mets could be simply signing another competitor for a bench job.
"If that's the way we have to go in, we will," Alderson said, noting that he has narrowed his other area of need, veteran bullpen help, to a short list of possibilities. "I'm still hopeful we'll be able to add a player or two, and at least add to the list of candidates we have now. I can't promise significant additions, but we'll continue to work on the names available."
Answers will come soon. They have to. Pitchers and catchers, after all, report two weeks from Monday.