Six months: Sandy Alderson gives notice to the Wilpons

Sandy Alderson. (SNY)
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On Saturday afternoon, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said this: "I do believe that over the next six months or so we will be in position to make some significant acquisitions, whether it's through free agency or trade. We're certainly looking forward to that possibility."

Exactly who was he talking to?

Don't be fooled. Alderson may have been speaking to a group of season-ticket holders on Saturday, people tired of seeing the Mets continue to gut their major league roster in the name of rebuilding, as if the mere presence of major league quality outfielders on short-term deals would in any way inhibit the construction of a long-term contender.

But Alderson's real audience was the ownership group of the New York Mets.

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Alderson was giving Fred Wilpon and his partners notice that they have six months to get their financial house in order, and provide him a reasonable budget, and more to the point, a stable budget for planning purposes, so Alderson can aid his admirable attempt to restock the Mets farm system with the supplementary talent every team needs from other avenues, such as free agency and trades, to actually contend.

Consider that for roughly as long as Alderson has been the general manager, dating back to October 2010, it has been his job to publicly declare what payroll would be, how long the temporary period of austerity would last, and then, when it lasted longer and payroll shrunk, to provide a new, hazy time horizon for a new and wealthier day.

Meanwhile, the supposedly catalytic events allowing the Mets to spend, such as roughly $50 million in salary off the books after the 2011 season, or the settlement of the lawsuit against the Mets owners by Irving Picard, the trustee for the Bernie Madoff victims in March 2012, haven't changed a thing, because of debt service on enormous debts against the team, due in 2014, and the Mets owners' stake in S.N.Y., due in 2015. 

At times, Alderson's frustration with his financial handcuffs has been obvious, such as when he spoke in an utterly disassociative fashion this winter with Mike Francesa about how the outfield he joked about in November remained stubbornly joke-worthy in January, and eventually, in April.

When that didn't go over so well with his bosses, Alderson said this less than two weeks later: "The reason we haven't spent the money is not because of Fred Wilpon. It's because of me."

To believe that, it required accepting that Alderson, unlike basically every general manager ever, preferred to work with less money to avoid fixing a team he'd repeatedly acknowledged had cavernous roster holes. And yet, that's been the public line from Alderson and the Mets in the subsequent months.

Back in January, here's what Alderson said about when that might change: "Am I going to recommended that we sit here in New York City and function like the Oakland Athletics for the next 10 years? No I'm not... I'm not asking you to believe me until you see some manifestation of that, which I hope is sooner rather than later."

But the problem Alderson faces is exactly the same as before. Ownership's assurances, that he's dutifully repeated, haven't come to fruition. And as Alderson enters the final year of the four-year contract he signed in October 2010, essentially the last chance he'll have on this deal to shape the major league club, rather than just restock the farm system, will come this winter, or roughly six months away, and/or he can make a big trade in the intervening months.

Alderson's $90-100 million payroll for 2014, which he referenced with Mike Francesa last week, is aspirational until ownership can provide him with new money to spend. And providing him with new money to spend, as I've previously reported, is no simple task for Fred Wilpon and his partners.

Instead of backing Alderson up on the specifics, both Fred and Jeff Wilpon have endorsed Alderson generally, while calling for Mets fans to be patient, as if those still backing this team have been anything else.

Here's Jeff, back on June 4, sounding nothing like an chief operating officer about to let his general manager start spending freely. “You can’t change the plan every year. OK? Sandy, it’s taken him two or three years to get the plan into effect, and we have to wait and see it out.

“You can’t just say it’s not going as fast as we want, we’re six months behind, two months behind, whatever it might be. You’ve got to let the plan go all the way down the line. If you’re going to buy into something, you got to buy into it. You can’t change midstream because if you’re constantly changing, there’s no chance you’re going to succeed.”

Note the subtle assignation of blame to Alderson, a general manager without the basic level of financial support, or even the knowledge of what his budget will be month-to-month, for a delay in Alderson's plan going into effect. 

Two weeks later, Fred gave an interview to Newsday. Like his son, Fred Wilpon said nothing of the specifics Alderson described to Francesa last week or fans on Saturday. Instead, he sought to assure the public that he was emotionally invested in the Mets--an odd assertion to have to make from someone whose financial well-being has a great deal to do with the Mets, but necessary when Wilpon has spent the past five years pretending he has plenty of money, but is just declining to spend it on the Mets.

"We're coming to the end of the time when we have had an overhang of players who got hurt or didn't play well, and I think that Sandy Alderson and his staff have a plan," Wilpon said Monday. "I know some people are impatient about it. But they do have a plan and they're executing on their plan and I think things are in the right direction. It's hard to say that when the team loses four, five in a row."

But whatever nebulous things either Wilpon is saying these days about Alderson's plan, everyone understands, including Alderson, that he's performing triage unless and until ownership reaches a financially viable state once more. He's done good work when allowed, such as getting Zack Wheeler for two months of Carlos Beltran back in 2011. But he's been forced to handle the rebuilding of the New York Mets on a case-by-case basis, rather than getting to plan a year or more into the future.

And this time, rather than simply letting shifting Wilpon declarations of financial health play out under cover of darkness, Alderson is providing a timetable, and a minimum amount of new money to invest, with the clear alternative that Alderson, and whatever legitimacy the Wilpon regime could still pretend to have, would disappear.

It has now been 14 months since that famous case settled, the trustee, given access to Wilpon finances that Alderson could only dream of, determining that Wilpon and his partners were circling the drain financially. Instead of taking the $83.3 million already won in pretrial motions, Picard settled for, effectively, nothing, preferring to focus on other cases where actual money could be won for Madoff victims.

In that time, Alderson has managed to re-sign one key player, David Wright, with a massively backloaded and deferred contract (necessary as a result of that 2014 debt against the team), while overall spending on the team, in real terms, declined once again.

Alderson's public line in the sand is a fascinating one. If the words coming out of Fred Wilpon's mouth are more reliable than the cold analysis of Irving Picard was back in March 2012, he's got roughly six months to prove it to Sandy Alderson. If he does, a major league roster badly in need of an "infusion of players, productive players" (as Alderson put it last August) will start to get the help it desperately requires.

What happens if he doesn't? It's likely to get ugly, fast.