Riches to rags: A guide to New York Mets decrepitude
It's a bad sign for any business when getting sued for a billion dollars is the narrative—and then things get worse. But that's exactly what happened to the New York Mets this week, with the news that Major League Baseball had provided the team with a $25 million loan, and wouldn't be providing any additional money. The New York Post now reports that the Mets are seeking a new loan elsewhere, this one to cover basic operating expenses. And it is far from clear than anyone will give it to them.
The news provides further evidence that the team has run out of conventional ways to stay afloat financially. Which means that what was unthinkable just a few months ago may soon be a reality: massive cuts in salary.
The Mets are well-positioned to dump salary following the 2011 season, merely by letting expiring contracts go without replacing them. In some instances, the effect on the baseball team will be minimal: Luis Castillo's $6 million annual salary and the $12 million owed Oliver Perez for 2011 will come off the books.
But others will need to be replaced on the field: Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and Francisco Rodriguez can all be free agents following the season (though, should he finish 55 games, Rodriguez's absurd $17.5 million 2012 option will vest).
The team currently has a payroll of around $135 million, but just under $66 million committed for next season. It is impossible to know what the salary restrictions on the 2012 Mets will be, but as long as the Wilpons both own the Mets and face the financial pressure they are currently under, everything is on the table. Here's a look at the diminishing options the Mets will have, depending on where the budget is set.
$150 million: This would represent an increase over 2011, but would keep the Mets in line with their 2010 payroll. At this price, Jose Reyes could be retained, even if a strong 2011 season prices him at around $20 million per season over a long-term deal. If Albert Pujols reaches free agency, the Mets could sign him, and move Ike Davis to right field. That only gets the Mets to around $125 million, including raises from arbitration for players such as Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese and Angel Pagan. Should CC Sabathia opt out of his contract with the Yankees, the Mets could be serious bidders for him as well. And free-agent pitchers Chris Capuano and Chris Young could be replaced by either free agents with stronger health track records, or through trades that take on additional salary. In other words, the sky's the limit. In this scenario, the Mets also have $90 million to spend. Right now, they are pursuing a loan just to meet basic operating expenses. So they aren't likely to increase their payroll 150 percent.
$125 million: This would bring the Mets back to around 2006 levels. Reyes could be retained, either Sabathia or Pujols could be chased, and other marginal improvements could also be made. Having an overachieving GM like Sandy Alderson in charge of making these decisions will maximize what they can do. But once again, this would involve an additional outlay of around $60 million above and beyond the expenses they already are having trouble meeting.
$100 million: Jose Reyes can be retained, but that leaves around $12 million to fill the closer's role, several rotation spots, right field, and second base if neither Brad Emaus nor Daniel Murphy proves up to the task. It will mean another off-season of penny-pinching.
$80 million: Goodbye, Jose Reyes. The Mets would have around $14 million to fill all the positions mentioned above, along with shortstop. The talent remaining on the team would consist of David Wright, Jason Bay, Angel Pagan, Josh Thole, Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, D.J. Carrasco, Ronny Paulino, and that's it. They'd have $14 million to fill out the rest of the roster. And remember: That's still $14 million in additional expense. If they are in receivership, for instance, they may not be allowed to spend that money.
$60 million: With Bay likely untradeable, they could either decimate the pitching staff by dealing Pelfrey and Dickey—Santana could also be immovable, unless he has a monster second half upon returning from shoulder surgery—or they could just free up salary by dealing David Wright.
Clearly, the picture starts to get ugly around $100 million and below. Baseball teams have certainly experienced success below that figure, but they did so on the backs of young, cost-controlled talent. Unfortunately, the biggest liability Sandy Alderson inherited from Omar Minaya was a lack of near-ready minor league talent. Re-stocking that farm system should take several years.
Without an injection of new capital, it's hard to see how the Mets will be able to avoid cutting costs. Then they'll lose their most productive players and, before long, their ability to compete with teams whose owners haven't bet the farm on a Ponzi scheme.
As long as the Wilpons are hanging on, there is no relief in sight.