Wilpon states the premise, finally: He can't afford these Mets anymore
One day after taking aim at his team's past and present, Fred Wilpon confirmed the worst fears of his fanbase about future payroll in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, as part of what is shaping up as one of the least successful P.R. initiatives in New York sports history.
When asked if the Mets' $142 million payroll could be cut to $100 million next season, Wilpon responded, “That's fair.” He followed with something puzzling about providing flexibility for the Mets’ general manager Sandy Alderson (in real life, more payroll equals more flexibility, not less), then concluded: “The answer to your question is yeah, that could happen.”
The only uncertainty, given the dire financial straits the Mets are now in, appears to be whether Wilpon will even be able to afford payroll at that reduced level. He is, after all, still trying to raise $200 million by selling a minority stake in the team, and he confirmed to Verducci that every cent of that money would be going right back out the door to pay various debts. That hoped-for infusion of cash won't come close to paying the hundreds of millions in debt that will remain, and of course it doesn't make a dent in the $1 billion that the trustee for Bernie Madoff's fraud victims, Irving Picard, is seeking from Wilpon and his partners.
Unfortunately, there's ample reason not to take Wilpon's word on what the team can and can't afford going forward. Remember, even after the Picard suit came to light, the Wilpons consistently maintained that payroll would remain at roughly the levels they'd been at in 2011.
But let's take Wilpon at his word that they'll be able to come up wih $100 million for payroll in 2012. What happens then?
That amount is, as Wilpon hastens to point out in the Sports Illustrated interview, more than enough to pay a winning team. And of course it's true that some teams have enjoyed success with payrolls that size or smaller.
But it's one thing to spend years building a team with undervalued and undiscovered talent, and quite another to cut 30 percent from the payroll of a sub-.500 team with an farm system nearly devoid of talent ready for next year.
The Mets have at least $64 million committed to six contracts next year: those of Johan Santana ($24 million), Jason Bay ($16 million), David Wright ($15 million), R.A. Dickey ($4.25 million) and D.J. Carrasco ($1.2 million), plus a $3.5 million buyout of Francisco Rodriguez's contract. In other words, 65 percent of the proposed payroll will go to a pitcher currently injured, an outfielder who hits like a pitcher (and left Tuesday’s game early with an injury), a third baseman who is currently injured, a starting pitcher with a 4.71 ERA, a reliever who was sent to the minors, and K-Rod, who may actually earn much more than that $3.5 million. With 55 games finished (he's currently on pace for many more), he'll earn an option of $17.5 million for 2012. That's nearly a fifth of the payroll, for a closer. And that would take the Mets up to $78.2 million for six players.
But let's assume the Mets have enough of a survival instinct to get rid of Rodriguez before that option vests, however doubtful it seems at this point. With raises due to arbitration-eligible Mets Mike Pelfrey, Angel Pagan, Ronny Paulino and Taylor Buchholz, the amount committed to expensive players goes up to $78 million, according to both Verducci and MLBTradeRumors.com.
That means a total of around $20 million to spend on 16 more players. The Mets can bring back, at near- minimum salaries, Josh Thole, Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Pedro Beato and Jonathon Niese. Minor leaguers like Reben Tejada and Fernando Martinez will be deployed as well. But they'll also need to fill slots in right field, much of the starting rotation, the bullpen ... and shortstop.
So look: Jose Reyes, who is arguably the most vital Met, and who is certainly the most exciting one, is gone. That much may already have been clear, the fact that Wilpon has essentially acknowledged it here squanders whatever leverage general manager Sandy Alderson might have had in extracting values from the financially sound teams that are now going to be bidding for Reyes' services.
And everyone else the Mets sign will necessarily have to be retained or acquired on the cheap. Their only player likely to be both well-paid and excellent is David Wright, but the decision may well be made to trade him away for the type of low-cost prospects the Mets need right now.
Other than Fred Wilpon, who seems determined to hang on to the team for as long as he can, regardless of the negative impact that has on the team's on-field fortunes, the only people whose actions might avert a calamity are Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and ... Irving Picard.
If Picard's case can move forward—a judge is expected to rule soon on the effort by Wilpon to have it dismissed—perhaps it will become clear that this Mets ownership team can't survive, which would in turn compel Selig to take control of the team from Wilpon, as he has from Frank McCourt in Los Angeles.
The only thing there, which we have known for a very long time, is that Selig and Wilpon are friends. And apparently, that's all the security Wilpon needs to bleed the Mets dry on his way out the door.