PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—In the wake of their fifth consecutive losing season, years of financial insecurity and a payroll that has plummeted at a historic rate, the Mets vowed to invest in the team this winter. They'd spent more than $140 million on players as recently as 2011, but since then their budget had fallen into the bottom half of the major leagues, tens of millions below those of their big-market competitors.
So the Mets went shopping this winter, and on the surface it appeared that they kept their promise: General manager Sandy Alderson committed $87.25 million to new contracts for pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the largest expenditure this off-season by a National League franchise on the free-agent market.
But is the Mets' effort to spend their way back to relevance a mere illusion?
A closer look at the organization's transactions suggests that the Mets haven't added much money at all to acquire new talent. Instead, they reallocated the funds made available by departing players. In fact, their overall payroll will remain mostly unchanged from a year ago—"somewhere in excess of $85 million," Alderson said.
This revelation doesn't necessarily mean the Mets won't improve on their 74-88 record from 2013. They should benefit from a greater return on their dollars, see meaningful development from their prospects and potentially receive better production from at least some of their returning regulars.
But for a fan base desperate for the Mets to start operating more like the opulent crosstown Yankees, anything other than major financial growth will likely be a disappointment.
"Had we not signed the free agents we did, we would have been a lot lower," Alderson said.
If not for their free-agent signings, the Mets' payroll would likely rank among the lowest in baseball this season. Granderson, Colon and Young ensured they would stay afloat.
The Mets saw as much as $55 million come off the books this off-season, headlined by $31 million from pitcher Johan Santana, including his $5.5 million buyout.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson committed $87.25 million to new contracts for three players this winter. Getty Images
Of course, like everything with the Mets' finances, the math becomes complicated and the accounting murky. The Mets still must pay outfielder Jason Bay, even after parting ways in November 2012. As part of their severance, the Mets deferred $15 million of the $21 million they owed Bay to as late as 2015. From a bookkeeping standpoint, Bay's money has already been written off and isn't included in the Mets' 2014 payroll calculations, according to a Mets official familiar with the situation.
But even though the Mets freed up about $55 million, not all of the available funds could go to new players. Third baseman David Wright's contract calls for a $9 million boost this season, jumping to $20 million from $11 million. The Mets owe pitcher Jon Niese an additional $2 million, lifting his compensation to $5 million.
The Mets also needed to factor in salary raises for all seven of their arbitration eligible players, which added up to another $11.3 million of extra money over 2013. Adding those considerations, the Mets needed to spend upward of $32 million in 2014 salary alone just to match last year.
They did, but just barely.
Their three major-league free agents will make $29.25 million this season: $13 million for Granderson, $9 million for Colon and $7.25 million for Young. Their four notable minor-league free-agent additions—pitchers John Lannan, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde—will make approximately $5 million in salary if they all make the Mets' roster.
That brings the total in 2014 to about $34.25 million. The number could climb if any of their smaller minor-league acquisitions—like catcher Taylor Teagarden, for instance—spend time in the majors. Other players, including Farnsworth, have incentive-based bonuses in their contracts.
No matter how the Mets account for Bay's deferred payments internally, it seems clear that, rather than spend major-market money to build a winner, they did little else but replace the money that came off last season's books.
"We'd always like to have more players," Alderson said. "But that doesn't always make you a better team."
Alderson makes a fair point. Teams with smaller payrolls than the Mets win consistently, namely the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics. How a franchise spends usually matters more than how much.
In the Mets' case, they should get more out of their money. Last season, Santana and Bay never took the field in Queens. Barring injury, the players replacing them will contribute rather than simply cash checks.
Johan Santana's $31 million, including his $5.5 million buyout, came off the books. Getty Images
With that in mind, are the Mets truly in position to improve? Wright believes so. "Opening day this year will be 100% better than we were opening day last year," he said.
Ironically, the improvement will likely need to come from within, rather than from the newcomers. Colon, who posted a 2.65 ERA for Oakland last season, essentially replaces ace Matt Harvey, who will miss all of 2014 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Granderson, who slugged 84 home runs for the Yankees in 2011 and 2012, essentially replaces departed outfielder Marlon Byrd, who hit 21 homers for the Mets in 425 at bats last season.
In other words, the money the Mets spent primarily replaces the production they lost. So how do they get better? The Mets' heralded pitching prospects, highlighted by Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, must come to the majors and take steps forward. Travis d'Arnaud, arguably the sport's best catching prospect, must begin to produce.
But most important, the Mets' other players, their underachievers, must rebound from disappointing showings in 2013—young players Alderson said "have the capacity to improve."
First baseman Ike Davis cannot hit .205. Shortstop Ruben Tejada cannot hit .202. If they do, the Mets likely will end up where they did last year.
"There's only so much you can do in one off-season free-agent wise, trade-wise, to plug those holes," Wright said. "Some of that has to be done with the guys that we have here."