In recent days, a number of Mets fans have taken to Twitter to remind me of a column I wrote about the team last February.
The column said that commissioner Bud Selig should persuade his friend Fred Wilpon to sell the Mets if the uncertainty about the team’s finances lingered into this winter.
“One more season of this,” I wrote, “and no more.”
Well, that season has now passed. And uncertainty remains.
The Mets’ financial picture seemingly improved last March when the team’s owners settled with a trustee for Bernard Madoff’s fraud victims, raised $240 million by selling 12 minority shares and paid off $65 million in debts.
But the true test for the Mets will be how they manage their payroll — a payroll that has dropped from $149.4 million at the start of ‘09 to $93.3 million at the start of last season.
When will the Mets spend again? Are they in a strong enough financial position to spend again?
Such questions will linger until the Mets resume acting like a team that plays in New York, not Milwaukee (and actually, that’s an insult to the Brewers, who had a higher payroll and better record than the Mets in 2012).
I’m not saying the Mets must re-sign third baseman David Wright and right-hander R.A. Dickey at any cost; a case can be made that they should trade both players rather than keep Dickey through age 40 on a two-year extension and award Wright a six- or seven-year extension starting at age 31.
No, what I’m saying is that the Mets need to do something they have rarely done since the Madoff scandal broke in December 2008 — invest significantly in their team.
Some Mets fans on Twitter want me to act upon my column from last February and demand that Selig pull a McCourt-style intervention, wresting control of the Mets in the best interests of baseball.
Problem is, I seriously doubt that Selig would seek to oust Wilpon, who is the game’s second-longest tenured owner and in an outwardly more stable position than he was nine months ago. Other clubs — the Marlins, Astros, Rays, Indians and Athletics, among them — face seemingly more pressing issues.
But tell that to Mets fans.
Tell them why, in a year in which the Mets will host the All-Star Game at Citi Field, the team still appears to be operating rather tentatively, as if re-signing outfielder Scott Hairston will bust the budget.
Why aren’t the Wright and Dickey extensions finished if the Mets truly intend to keep them? Why aren’t the Mets aggressively trying to upgrade their catching, outfield and bullpen?
More to the point: Why the heck should anyone believe that anything better than a fifth straight fourth-place finish is in the Mets’ immediate future?
Granted, it’s early. The Mets are negotiating with Wright and Dickey, and GM Sandy Alderson said Friday that the team will need to gain “a little more clarity” on those talks between Thanksgiving and the winter meetings Dec. 3-6.
In other words, those negotiations soon could produce some type of resolution, enabling the Mets to proceed with the rest of their offseason plans.
Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that Dickey will accept an extension of two years, $22 million and Wright will take one at seven years, $126 million. Such deals, particularly Wright’s, would signal that the Mets were back in business.
And yet, they still wouldn’t be enough.
The funny thing about the Mets is that they already have built the most important part of a contending team — a quality starting rotation. Dickey, who is under contract next season for $5 million, would be the ace, followed by Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Matt Harvey and Dillon Gee (assuming he is healthy), with top prospect Zack Wheeler next in line.
The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and ’12 by pouring resources into their rotation and piecing together the rest. The Mets aren’t close to being that competitive, but with a few strategic moves — and we’re not talking about Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez redux — they might be.
Alas, such things take money.
The Mets’ financial burden for ‘13 eased when outfielder Jason Bay deferred part of his remaining $21 million in exchange for his release. CBSSports.com reported that Bay will receive $6 million this season, lowering the Mets’ commitments to $62.175 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Not terrible. And that’s only for ’13.
The Mets’ commitments for ’14, according to Cot’s, are a mere $13.55 million. Bay’s deferral will add to that; he will be paid a combined $15 million in '14-'15. Arbitration-eligible players such as first baseman Ike Davis and shortstop Ruben Tejada are not included in the total. And remember, Wright and Dickey are not currently under contract in ’14.
Still: $13.55 million. The number is so low, the flexibility so enticing, the Mets can practically start over. In fact, they can start right now, extending Wright and Dickey, back-loading free-agent contracts, playing their get-out-of-jail-free card a year early.
But that doesn’t appear to be their plan.
Meanwhile, the team’s attendance has dropped from 3.15 million in ’09 — the first year of Citi Field — to 2.24 million last season. The Mets’ total ranked 17th in the majors, just behind the Reds and just ahead of the Marlins. Both of those clubs play in much smaller markets, and were disappointed by their respective figures.
The All-Star Game could help the Mets’ bottom line, but in the end the team will need to produce a better product. A better product costs money. And the doubts will linger, until the Mets start spending again.