For Sandy Alderson, ‘Moneyball’ is playing on a loop

Sandy Alderson. (Photo via mlb.com.)
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Sandy Alderson gave his end-of-year press conference with the beat reporters for the New York Mets Wednesday, prior to a 4-2 win over the Marlins that gave his team a 74-88 final record for the 2012 season.

Alderson spoke for 25 minutes, enumerating well the problems with the current roster, while simultaneously confirming that there will be no increase in payroll for 2013. He also confirmed that the $9 million in 2014 option buyouts for Jason Bay and Johan Santana are considered part of the 2013 payroll.

That alone greatly limits Alderson's ability to do anything; with those buyouts, Santana and Bay will cost $50 million in 2013. Frank Francisco will make $6.5 million, Jonathon Niese $3 million. The options for R.A. Dickey ($5 million) and David Wright ($16 million) bring that total to $80.5 million, for six players. Payroll was $91.6 million in 2012. That means figuring out how to pay the other 19 players an average of just over $580,000 apiece, in a league where the minimum salary in $490,000. Keep Ike Davis at what he'll likely earn in first-year arbitration, and the rest of that roster is minimum-salaried players.

This isn't simply a problem for 2013. Alderson spoke repeatedly of making every effort to extend Dickey and Wright beyond their current contracts, which end after 2013. He jokingly responded to a question about when negotiations would commence by asking, "How long does [this] game last?", and reiterated that the two situations should be resolved "from our standoint, the sooner the better."

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But if Alderson is taken at his word that the Mets are prepared to offer significant money to one or both players, what exactly can he offer them beyond that? Both Wright and Dickey have spoken about the need to see the Mets on a path to contending if they are to re-up with the club. And this is Alderson's pitch to them:

"My message would be ‘Look, I think we’re very definitely headed in the right direction. But at the same time, we will not in the near-future have unlimited funds. So recognize what our immediate situation is, what we expect to be our mid and long-term situations, and evaluate us on that basis."

And here's Alderson on what talent he can add to convince Wright and Dickey there are better times ahead: for now, nothing.

"As a practical matter, that’s probably not going to happen between now and the time that these conversations take place," Alderson said. "But I think it will be important for them to hear from me, and again, to some extent, we’ve had these conversations. So I expect there will be further discussions about it."

Now compare that reality to what Wright said he'd need to hear.

"Some of the young arms that have come up have been really impressive," Wright told Adam Rubin. "But, at the same time, of course it's important that we can make a trade or sign a free agent and be able to spend some money. This is my philosophy on it. And that's why I'm going to sit down with these guys at some point and discuss it. Yeah, I'd like to know if it's going to be 'what you see is what you get' and we're going to base it solely on the minor leagues."

So essentially, Alderson and the Mets will be approaching Wright and Dickey with urgency to sign, with the clear alternative, enumerated by Alderson Wednesday, that a failure to reach an agreement will lead to exploring the trade market for both players. And he'll be selling both players on a future vision that's mostly built around "Take my word for it."

What makes that so problematic is how Alderson's words have remained constant, with only the time horizon changing, year after year.

On the day he was introduced in October 2010, he described the team's lack of activity in the upcoming free agent market as a one-year problem caused by contracts that had swelled the payroll above $140 million, and added that he expected the Mets to be active in the free agent market annually thereafter. Or as he told Mets bloggers in December 2010, "So, the problem is not that we don't have resources, the problem is that we have limited additional resources to spend this year. So, what you see today or what you've seen over the last two weeks shouldn't necessarily be representative of what you see over the next two or three years."

But of course, it was exactly representative of what followed. Alderson repeatedly lowered his estimate for 2012 payroll throughout 2011, Jose Reyes was allowed to leave without being tendered an offer, and the newly-freed cash in payroll, instead of being used to improve the roster, went essentially dollar-for-dollar to help ownership reduce its own debt load in 2012.

And now Alderson has made it clear that the same thing will happen in 2013. But in a familiar talking point, Santana and Bay coming off the books will usher in a new era in which the Mets can spend on improving the team, not just subsidizing ownership's debt load, which, by the way, isn't going anywhere.

It's precisely the reason why the trustee's case against the Mets owners, which the Mets retroactively blamed for their lack of spending last year, was such a red herring. Fred Wilpon and his partners were in massive financial trouble before the case, a settlement came about principally because that financial picture led the trustee to conclude Wilpon and his partners couldn't even pay the outstanding judgement already decided against them, and they're still in precarious enough of a position that the P.R. spin of a new, post-Madoff day the Mets tried to sell to the public after the settlement has no relationship with how the team is operating.

As such, it is awfully difficult to take Alderson at his word when he claims the settlement has allowed for greater financial flexibility, considering that payroll remains the same, and he spent the months prior to the settlement insisting the case had no bearing on his ability to spend.

"The first indication will be what happens with David and R.A.," Alderson said Wednesday of how the Madoff case settling had changed things. "Because while those situations may not significantly increase our payroll this year, they will represent commitments on out years. Which I think is a fundamental shift in our situation. If you have the uncertainty that existed last spring, it would be difficult to make those long-term commitments. So I think that’s a fundamental shift. And I think that would be a good indication."

Alderson, of course, has been selling that same vision of better times ahead, while kicking the can down the road in action, since the moment he took over. Whether he can convince David Wright and R.A. Dickey that this time it's more than just talk will fundamentally shape both the offseason and the construction of the team's roster for years to come.

In the meantime, Alderson confirmed that for the third consecutive season, the Mets will be adding almost no salary to a team that has won fewer games in 2011 than 2010, and 2012 than 2011.

He said in December 2010: "I wasn't hired to apply a Moneyball approach to the New York Mets. I would not have accepted the position were I required to run the Mets on a shoestring budget ... But we do have to get through a somewhat difficult period from a standpoint of our payroll because we already have most of it committed."

He said Wednesday: "And right now, we have a lot of money tied up in a handful of players. So what I hope is that we do end up with more flexibility over the next couple of years. But also that we can grow the payroll to some extent.”

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Elsewhere in New York sports:

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The Orioles and Rangers will play Friday for the right to face the Yankees in the American League Division Series.

KNICKS

Rasheed Wallace has officially joined the Knicks, though on a non-guaranteed deal.

NETS

They are very deep.