The Moneyball Mets

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson
Illustration by Bob Gill
Photo: Ben Margot/AP Photo (source photograph)

On the sliding scale of sports-fan optimism, Mets fans’ hopes for this year’s team fall somewhere between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Washington Generals. The Mets’ slow, sad, grueling collapse since October 19, 2006—the day Carlos Beltran watched that Adam Wainwright curveball, motionless, as if he were trying to avoid being noticed by a Tyrannosaurus rex—has been a succession of worst-case scenarios.

Horrible contracts, late-season collapses, devastating injuries, public-relations fiascos, and, just for good measure, an inextricable connection to one of the most notorious financial frauds in American history. Is there anything the Mets could do right now to hurt their brand worse than they already have? The Times story Friday morning that the team lost up to $50 million last year was greeted more with resignation than with outrage: Mets fans have become depressingly accustomed to such bad news. Every night this off-season has been Kick a Fan in the Groin Night at the ballpark. Mr. Met would be crying, had he tear ducts, movable lips, or feelings.

(Just one note on the Madoff-Wilpons mess before I leave such complicated matters to more qualified professionals: If you are one of the thousands of people Madoff defrauded and you are also a Mets fan, you must find it uniquely enraging to realize that Bobby Bonilla, thanks to a deal he signed in January 2000, will be making $1.2 million every July 1 until 2035, quite possibly paid for with money invested with Madoff. That money was protected, but yours wasn’t. Just has to make you feel fantastic.)

If you are a Mets fan, this spring training has not been full of warmth and renewal and the smell of fresh-cut grass. This spring training is rain and wet snow and muddy shoes. The season feels over before it has begun.

But allow me, in the midst of this dreary March, to be a beacon of hope. Because while this spring may have been full of ugly headlines and fears that the Mets won’t be able to keep the Citi Field lights on through extra-inning games, when it comes to actual baseball transactions and planning for the future … the Mets are progressing precisely as planned. The Mets, as a brain trust, are doing everything exactly right. The franchise is in safe, capable hands. Really, I mean it.

Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ new general manager, admits he didn’t initially have any plans to take over the team, saying famously, “Absent [MLB commissioner Bud Selig] asking [me] to go ahead and pursue this, and to some degree urging me to pursue it, I’d still be in Santo Domingo studying Spanish.” (Alderson was in charge of baseball’s operations in the Dominican Republic.) Alderson said this shortly after the Madoff-Wilpons story had broken, and some took it as an expression of regret, the words of a man who thought he would have millions to spend on free agents and realized, too late, that he didn’t. That the Mets’ most expensive off-season acquisition was oft-injured Chris Capuano (whose one-year, $1.5 million contract is only slightly more than what Bobby Bonilla will make next year) wasn’t exactly comforting. Did Alderson get baited and switched?

But it was another Alderson comment, made a week earlier, that showed that things are, in fact, going the way he expected. When asked about the Mets’ payroll in a conference call, Alderson said, “A $145 million and $150 million payroll is probably too high.” Many took this as a tacit admission that the Mets aren’t going to have the payroll flexibility over the next few years that they’ve had in the past, and I suppose it is. To which any reasonable Mets fan has to say: Thank heavens. Considering the decisions of the past few years, a bloated budget is a toy the Mets should have taken away from them. This is to say, if the Mets have to go broke—and remember, they’re not actually going broke—this is the perfect time to do it.

As of right now, the Mets payroll is $133,145,000 for the 2011 season. Obviously, that’s too high, considering the team will be lucky to reach .500 this year. Next year, with Carlos Beltran, Luis Castillo, and Oliver Perez off the payroll, obligations drop to $65.8 million. The year after that: $44.9 million. Sure, that’s still plenty high for two years from now—it’s higher than the Padres’ and Pirates’ full payrolls last year—but it’s manageable. (By comparison, the Yankees’ obligations in two years? $125.9 million.) Barring a sudden splurge on three Albert Pujolses (Pujoli?), the Mets payroll wasn’t going to be $133 million in two years anyway.

The Mets would be slashing payroll over the next two years even if the Wilpons won 50 Powerballs. The rot that set into the Mets over the final few years of Omar Minaya’s reign required a total overhaul, one that even the Wilpons knew was necessary. “Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” Jeff Wilpon proclaimed during the October press conference to announce Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel’s firings. “Of course there will be changes in how we do everything.” Alderson is here to do the same job, essentially, that Donnie Walsh was brought in to do when he took over for Isiah Thomas three years ago: Dump the old, expensive, bad players and find some young, cheap, and (one hopes) good new ones. That doesn’t require money. That requires time. By the time the flotsam from the end of the Minaya era is jettisoned, there should be cash to spend, whether it comes from the Wilpons or a new owner, minority or otherwise. That will let the Mets follow the Red Sox’s “Moneyball with money” model—develop a base of homegrown talent, then supplement it with free agents—that Alderson seems to have planned on in the first place.

Alderson will take some shots for a time. But the truth is, he has already brought in an impressive amount of turnaround talent, most famously the former general managers (and Alderson pals from the Billy Beane era in Oakland) J. P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta, the latter of whom is about to become famous as the inspiration for Jonah Hill’s character in the upcoming Moneyball movie. Bringing the three men back together has been cast as a Moneyball reunion, but it’s more, as one observer put it, a “team of rivals.” Each brings his own particular skill set to the job: Ricciardi is the talent evaluator; DePodesta is in charge of reconstituting the nearly empty farm system; incumbent assistant G.M. John Ricco provides an insider’s view of the organization; and Alderson, a Vietnam vet and a Harvard Law grad, is in charge of it all. These are men who have lifetimes of baseball experience among them and have come together, Voltron-like, to use their talents to tackle the not inconsiderable problem of fixing the Mets. This is the team you want in charge. This is better than an expensive free agent. And cheaper too.

If their moves so far have been minor, they’ve also been telling. The first order of business was taking a cold look at the expensive “talent” on hand and politely telling it to go away. The releasing of Oliver Perez ($12 million in 2011) and Luis Castillo ($6.25 million) was done prudently and respectfully; each was given a legitimate chance to make the team and then cordially shown the door when it was clear the Mets had better options. (Castillo was then signed by the Phillies, providing Mets fans the hard-earned opportunity to boo him nine times this season. The Nationals did Mets fans the same favor with Perez.) They immediately sent top prospect Jenrry Mejia, whose progress the previous administration stunted so dramatically he could probably sue, to the minors to work his way up to being a starter, something he should have been doing all along. They’ve allowed young players like Lucas Duda, Nick Evans, and Josh Thole to compete for big-league jobs rather than stick with past-their-prime veterans to provide “leadership” or, more likely, “losses.” Perhaps most intriguingly, they handed the second-base job not to Castillo or Luis Hernandez or Daniel Murphy (players with obvious limitations but more “experience”) but to Rule 5 pickup Brad Emaus, who has never faced a major-league pitch. Emaus, a patient hitter with power potential who has been compared by some to Braves second-baseman Dan Uggla, is precisely the type of player the Mets need to be taking chances on and giving at-bats to.

It was the type of decision that a franchise with a fresh set of eyes makes. It was the move a franchise that is not worried about the present, but has a plan for the future, makes. The Mets have countless issues to resolve—with their roster, their farm system, and their organizational structure. Alderson & Co. are here to fix them. Frankly, money is the least of their concerns. They’ll deal with that later. There’s a franchise to fix fundamentally first.

What does that mean for this year? A younger team, in transition, with young stars being filtered up through the system, more money spent on the draft, more importance placed on development. This won’t be a team that wins the National League East—though with all their injuries, the Phillies look more wobbly than anyone might have thought—but it won’t be a team that trots out Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and Fernando Tatis either. (That’s addition by subtraction right there.) Fans will get a good look at promising young players like Emaus and Thole and the entertaining knuckleballer R. A. Dickey. Let’s not forget that David Wright, Jose Reyes, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana are still on this team. Each of them has had issues, but if they were to play even close to their expected levels, a long-shot wild-card run might not be out of the question. Even if this year is a write-off, the team will be more enjoyable to watch than it has been the last four years, if only because the franchise is finally moving forward. It’s going to get better, soon. I promise, this isn’t a scam. You are forgiven for fearing otherwise. This is, after all, the Mets.

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The Moneyball Mets