10:46 am Dec. 2, 20115
Pity Sandy Alderson, general manager of the New York Mets.
Hired in October 2010, he entered a personnel minefield laid for him by his predecessor, Omar Minaya, which combined useless players and overpaid ones with booby-trap contracts. That much, Alderson knew.
Then he found out that as a result of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, the Mets ownership group was running out of money, and fast. The team's payroll for players, which was $146 million in 2011, would have to come way down, likely to less than $100 million in 2012.
Alderson confirmed Thursday what has long been obvious to anyone paying close attention to the Mets, which is that the new austerity isn't a function of any new "Moneyball"-type philosophy of quality-through-thrift. The payroll is being reduced because the owners said it had to be.
In fact, it is Fred Wilpon, the Mets' C.E.O. and president, who has been responsible for Alderson's embarrassing, repeated need to revise his 2012 payroll estimates—$130-150 million in February, $120 million in late May, $110-120 million in early September, and currently, under $100 million.
“Nice to know someone's keeping track of what I say,” Alderson replied dryly to a question about the estimates during a telephone conference call with bloggers on Thursday night.
While both Fred and Jeff Wilpon have found creative ways to avoid speaking to the press about the very financial problems they trumpeted earlier this year, Sandy Alderson has remained out front, dutifully answering questions and speaking as forthrightly as he possibly can, given his position.
He spent a half-hour on a conference call with the beat reporters on Thursday afternoon, providing answers ahead of Major League Baseball's winter meetings, scheduled to begin next Monday in Dallas. That's par for the course. What isn't typical is the 90 minutes he spent patiently answering questions from season-ticket holders Wednesday night at Citi Field, and nor is the hour he spent with Mets bloggers Thursday evening on a conference call as well.
On that call, Alderson cited “intervening events” as the cause of the dramatic in-season drop in expected payroll, even though he'd mentioned earlier in the call that revenues and expenditures generally stay pretty static in-season.
He presumably wasn't just referring to the financial problems frequently attached to a drop in attendance or to the lawsuit filed against Fred Wilpon and his partners by the trustee for the Madoff victims, but also to the fact that the Mets' problems are the result of loans taken out to cover disappeared Madoff assets.
Their debt problem is accute: The on-again, off-again sale to minority owners—first to hedge-funder David Einhorn, more recently to a group of smaller investors, neither one yet consummated—was for money earmarked for short-term debts and to pay down a small portion of the $430 million the Wilpon group owes against the team.
"Well, there’s such a thing as called intervening events," Alderson said on the call. "When Fred Wilpon pushes back, presumably that has some impact. Let me just get to the bottom line here: I think we’ll be around a hundred million bucks, but we could be a little below that as we start that season, as I like to be starting a season, so that there is some money in reserve to do the things you like to do during the season, whether that’s at the major league level or with respect to things at the minor league level."
Presumably these intervening events took Alderson by surprise. He would have had nothing to gain by saying in February that he expected 2012 payroll to run between $130 and $150 million if he knew it wasn't going to be the case. He has a reputation, built over decades, for candor and honesty. And anyway, he would have been setting expectations impossibly, stupidly high by suggesting he'd have more money to play with than he actually had.
So Alderson has been trapped, not just by the ownership team's financial problems but their unwillingness to acknowledge publicly or, apparently, privately, that those problems are going to hobble the team's ambitions. No matter how intently Alderson wishes to be accessible, if the answer to questions is unanswerable without badmouthing ownership, and Fred Wilpon won't talk, Alderson is left to dissemble about things that are hard to defend.
Take the free-agency of Jose Reyes, the Mets' star shortstop who is now a free agent.
Sandy Alderson can't say, Our owners aren't likely to pay Jose Reyes huge money—they need to save every dollar they can right now just to survive. So instead, Alderson has to justify the team's losing posture as it half-heartedly seeks to keep Reyes in New York. Essentially, the team has said that it won't bid on Reyes until other teams have bid for him, and that they also won't get into a bidding war once those others teams join the fray.
So Fred Wilpon hasn't provided Alderson with any cover at all. What the Mets owners are doing is going through the motions—mumbling about hypothetical bids for Reyes rather than making real ones—so they won't be accused by fans of simply letting a key player leave New York because of cash-flow issues. (The Mets' hypothetical bid, incidentally, is already less than what Reyes has reportedly been offered, for real, elsewhere.)
When asked by reporters at the owners meeting last month if retaining Reyes, an enormously popular figure and the team's best player, was important, Wilpon replied, “What kind of question is that?” and walked away.
It is hard to imagine that didn't eat at Alderson, who has continued to say publicly that the Mets really do want to keep Reyes, while in the next breath having to talk about the payroll considerations that make keeping Reyes unlikely. All his owner had to do was say: We sure hope so, but we need to see how things play out.
The great shame here is that Sandy Alderson is precisely the general manager the Mets have needed for the twenty years since Frank Cashen retired in 1991. And as recently as December 10, 2008, the Wilpon ownership group could have provided Alderson with more than enough cash to turn the New York Mets into a National League powerhouse.
But a day later, Bernie Madoff was arrested, and now it looks like Sandy Alderson will be as wasted on the Mets as Jose Reyes was.