‘Check with Sandy’: Mets plead ignorance on plans for next year

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Sandy Alderson. (Photo via mlb.com.)
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If you don't have any idea what the debt-plagued Mets are capable of doing this winter to improve a 55-61 team, you're not alone. Apparently, general manager Sandy Alderson and owner Fred Wilpon don't have any idea, either.

On Saturday night, Newsday's David Lennon approached Wilpon prior to the game at Citi Field and asked him whether the team will be able to improve this winter.

"Check with Sandy," came the reply from the man who will determine just how much Sandy can spend.

Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal asked Alderson on Tuesday what payroll will be going forward. Alderson said he isn't sure.

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"I haven't had any conversations with ownership about it," Alderson said. "I'm still focused on 2012, as is the rest of the front office. Over the next several weeks, that focus will shift, but it really hasn't yet."

That's strange for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Mets just acquired a catcher, Kelly Shoppach, who the Mets view as a possible contributor in 2013. And earlier this year, the team told Costa it was preparing to offer David Wright a long-term contract. So by the team's own acknowledgement, they are thinking about 2013, at least a little. That should be a welcome relief to those who believe a multi-million dollar corporation ought to plan at least two months ahead.

It also flies in the face of Alderson's planning last year. Alderson spoke of payroll projections all year, revealing a number between $130 and $150 million in February, $120 million in May (after Fred Wilpon had asserted in Sports Illustrated that the number would be closer to $100 million), and between $100 and $110 million in September. Ultimately, the Mets clocked in at just under $92 million.

If, as the Mets have maintained, the settlement of the lawsuit against them by the trustee for the Bernie Madoff victims and a concurrent minority sale eliminated the uncertainty they were facing, wouldn't things like payroll be stable enough to be revealed just two months until free agency begins? And if Alderson was willing to discuss it last year, why wouldn't he be willing to this year?

The answer is that stability never made sense as a reality stemming from the settlement and minority sale. The sale paid a number of past-due obligations, and runs out within 2012, leaving ownership with massive debts and a money-losing team to address them. And the settlement, which likely requires the Mets' owners to pay nothing, came about because the trustee didn't believe the owners had any money to pay even the $83 million judgment that served as a floor in the litigation before the trial was to begin.

The reason the payroll question is so massive, as Alderson undoubtedly knows, is that the Mets have a large amount of salary already committed for 2013.

Jason Bay and Johan Santana will make $50 million in 2013, between salary and buyouts of their 2014 options. Without contract extensions or other renegotiation, R.A. Dickey and David Wright will earn another $21 million; any extension would probably have to revise those numbers upwards, to entice either to stay. Jonathon Niese and Frank Francisco will earn another $9.5 million. That's a total of $80.5 million for six players, including two in Bay and Santana who are anything but certain to contribute to the Mets in 2013.

So if Alderson is to do anything but fill out the roster with league-minimum players--that salary is $490,000 in 2013, or $9,310,000 for 19 players, bringing the Mets to around $90 million--he'll need an increased payroll. The catcher he just acquired, Shoppach, a free agent this winter, will require more money than the minimum to be retained.

Yet Alderson's comments yesterday are based on the idea that he hasn't so much as discussed whether he can retain the catcher he just traded for. Of course, at this time last year, Alderson was busy insisting that the then-ongoing Madoff litigation would have no effect on the team's ability to spend, something he then insisted had changed once the litigation had conclded.

With the team eager to lock in its season ticket holders for 2013, pushing that renewal date forward several months in 2012 to August 31, they have a clear commercial incentive to trumpet any newfound ability to spend money on players to the world. The fact that they are instead falling back on the implausible claims, like the owner of the team referring budget questions to a general manager who says he hasn't discussed or thought about them, is as revealing as anything they could have said.

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