Bargain-basement Mets miss out on Michael Bourn

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Michael Bourn. (MLB.com)
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Like most of the moves the Mets have made since Sandy Alderson took over as general manager in October 2010, the decision not to sign Michael Bourn makes sense on a certain level.

Bourn, who agreed to a four-year, $48 million contract with the Cleveland Indians on Monday night, is 30 years old, with his value tied up in his legs and the elite speed and defensive ability they provide him. Furthermore, signing Bourn likely would have cost the Mets the eleventh pick in the 2013 draft, along with approximately 40 percent of their league-allowed allocation money to sign draft picks.

But this is the Mets. So there's a lot more to the story.

The 2013 Mets have a substandard outfield. Don't take my word for it. Take the word of Alderson himself, who joked about it in November ("What outfield?", he asked reporters in response to a question about his unit) and complained about it on WFAN in January, as if he was just another disgruntled fan and not, you know, the general manager.

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This weakness was a carryover from 2012. The presumption was, if Alderson was so comfortable joking about it, he'd also do something about it. The situation is such that even some low-cost, short-term free agents could have improved the outfield significantly.

So once the Mets began to publicly declare their interest in Michael Bourn, who is likely to produce more in 2013 than the entire outfield under contract to the Mets, fans got excited. Not because Mets fans are in love with Bourn, but because he would have made the team significantly better.

Raising the stakes further, Alderson publicly declared that the Mets would either sign Bourn or go into spring training with the current outfield, the one he'd disparaged all winter.

Bourn was, then, the last helicopter out of Saigon, not just as far as the hot-stove media was concerned, but according to the Mets themselves.

But even as this reality took hold, the Mets were playing their usual games. This ownership group likes its bargains, to the extent that they sometimes appear incapable of arriving at any other kind of deal. They don't just make agreements; the Mets have to "win" them.

So they'll invest all of their money with Bernie Madoff, then borrow against the investment and invest with Madoff some more. They agree to a deal with financier David Einhorn to inject capital into the team, then go to the commissioner to try and get a better deal behind Einhorn's back. They try to defer so much of the money they offered to David Wright, the franchise icon nearly walked away from $140 million in guaranteed money.

Even the offers they ultimately make so often turn out to be laughable in the context of the actual baseball marketplace. They offered Vladimir Guerrero $30 million of guaranteed money after he'd been offered more than $70 million by the Baltimore Orioles back in 2003. They reached out to Jose Reyes with parameters of fewer years and less money than he'd already been offered by the Miami Marlins. They responded to R.A. Dickey's team-discounted offer with an even lower one, then traded him when he understandably didn't accept it. Particularly in the latter two cases, the team's dire finances likely mean the offer was for public consumption only, and not meant to be accepted.

Bourn was no different. The Mets worked overtime the moment he signed elsewhere to declare that they, too, had offered four years, $48 million to Bourn.

Ah, but. The Mets offer was conditional upon an independent arbitrator interpreting the collective bargaining agreement to mean that the Mets could keep their first-round draft pick.

That process could have taken weeks. Spring training has begun. Bourn needed a team. And he certainly didn't need to wait weeks to find out if the Mets' offer really was an offer.

The Mets could have initiated this arbitration weeks earlier, it has been reported by Adam Rubin.

They declined to comment last week, via email, when I raised the question of whether they could have done so, and why they hadn't.

According to Rubin's source, the Mets chose not to do this so they wouldn't lose leverage with Bourn in negotiations, raise expectations of fans, and have to follow through with their phantom offer.

But the Mets had no leverage. Only if Bourn truly had no other suitors could their ploy have worked. But the Mets are still negotiating like they have all the leverage, even though they are in poor financial shape and aren't close to contending. That's why Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, David Einhorn, now Michael Bourn are all elsewhere. Only David Wright, after public pressure forced the Mets to improve their offer to him, has been willing to bother negotiating under Wilpon rules for years now.

And the shame of it is, if the Mets had simply resolved the draft-pick issue (assuming they were negotiating in good faith to get Bourn in the first place) they apparently could have gotten him for the four years, $48 million they say they intended to offer. 

Given what other outfielders signed for this offseason (Angel Pagan, older and far less durable, went for four years, $40 million, while B.J. Upton, not at Bourn's level as a player, signed for five years, $75 million) 4/48 for Bourn is better than market value for a center fielder. Even a modest aging for Bourn probably means he'll be worth his contract. His past four seasons, per Fangraphs, were worth $88.1 million. He could be half the player he was and still be worth the money.

If it feels like an overpay, that's because the Mets are still living year-to-year just to stave off the reckoning of debt. How they've done so each of the past two winters is by tapping into their only remaining asset with some collateral left in it: S.N.Y.

In March 2012, the Mets sold minority shares in the team. Most of these went to S.N.Y., where the Mets owners have a 65 percent interest. And as part of that deal, the Mets extended their deal with the network to carry Mets games at a rate that is quite favorable to S.N.Y., keeping the network in the black while depriving the ballclub of the cash infusion locL television money has given, or will shortly give, every other team in M.L.B.

In December 2012, that minority share money spent to pay back some (but by no means all) loans and service debt on others, the Mets' owners borrowed against their ownership share of S.N.Y., this time to clear $160 million in money to again, service debt and pay day-to-day expenses.

The $320 million owed against the team, due in 2014, still looms, as does the even larger debt,  which had been $450 million prior to the additional borrowing against S.N.Y., due in 2015. These are the numbers that will dictate whether ownership can spend on players, or even hold onto the team. Nothing else.

And what did the Cleveland Indians, in one of the smallest markets and rebuilding, do while the Wilpons cannibalized their television network to stave off a financial reckoning? They went out and got Nick Swisher, then Michael Bourn. And they can thank the money they got when Indians ownership purchased Fox Sports Ohio. It allows them, like virtually every successful rebuilding team, to improve the major league roster and the farm system at the same time.

That's the real problem for the New York Mets. In this era of massive television money and league-limited draft spending, the options are to spend $12 million per year for a center fielder, or go without a center fielder until your scouts come up with one.

At the moment, there isn't any such player in the Mets' system. Perhaps the Mets can draft one with their eleventh pick, but if so, it probably won't be a player to help them until 2016 at the earliest.

In the meantime, the Mets still have the outfield they had when Sandy Alderson joked about it back in November. Helpfully, the incumbents are already forced to answer questions about why their own team's general manager believes they aren't legitimate major leaguers. Maybe they'll use it as motivation, but the problem is that Alderson was probably right.

And the so-called rationalists can debate the merits of not signing Bourn, or anyone else, since many free agents don't age well. If a team never signs a free agent, it will miss out on numerous poor contracts each year. Also, all the good ones.

The problem isn't that the Mets missed out on Michael Bourn. The problem is that ownership's extraordinary money problems mean the Mets have missed out on everybody this winter who could have fixed a part of the team their own general manager considers a joke.

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The Red Bulls acquired Eric Alexander, a creative midfielder, from the Portland Timbers for allocation money.