Mets owners blame their stinginess, bafflingly, on the general manager

Jeff and Fred Wilpon. ()
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While Mets fans were enjoying Matt Harvey, David Wright and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Citi Field, Fred and Jeff Wilpon were busy assuring the public, as they've done periodically since they fell hopelessly into debt, that some spending from ownership was just around the corner.

This time, what they said effectively pitted them against their own baseball operations department, and against general manager Sandy Alderson's declaration of principles last month.

Within the owners' generically positive comments were some clear indicators that these promises to spend aren't any different from those that came last year, or the year before, or the year before that. 

“I think Sterling’s position is excellent,” Fred Wilpon said in reference to the Mets' parent company, Sterling Equities. “The Mets’ business is excellent.”

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Of course, Newsday had published an article that very day pointing out that the Mets' business is not, in fact, excellent. Revenues are half of what was projected back in 2009. Attendance is well below what even Standard and Poor's had projected when they lowered their bond rating on the team's stadium debt last December. The Mets' business has pretty much been the opposite of excellent ever since Bernie Madoff wrecked the Wilpons' finances.

But that article only put some specific numbers to what we already knew. The team lost $23 million last season. And despite offering access to the All-Star Game as an incentive for season-ticket holders, overall attendance in 2013 is down nearly eight percent over last season at this time. The drop is likely to get steeper without the All-Star Game carrot.

But while this doesn't help on issues like revenue to increase payroll next season, it is a separate question from the larger picture of Sterling as a whole, which looks much worse. 

As Wilpon told Richard Sandomir in the Times on Monday, the Mets have not re-financed the $320 million debt, taken against their ownership stake in  the team, which is due in June 2014. The problem, beyond an inability to pay it back, is that JPMorgan Chase has a clear incentive not to push back the timeline of the loan, which could put them in line behind the more than $600 million debt Wilpon and his partners now owe against their ownership stake in S.N.Y., and which is due in 2015.

Previously, JPMorgan Chase pushed back against allowing David Einhorn's proposed deal to put Einhorn ahead of them in line among the Sterling debt collectors. A similar objection led to the Mets structuring David Wright's contract extension last winter so that the invaluable third baseman's compensation actually went down between the date signed and the June 2014 due date.

So yes, significant money is coming off the payroll this winter, just as more than $50 million did following the 2011 season. But ownership's position makes payroll money-in/money-out a largely irrelevant question. Instead, with that principal coming due, any spending needs to happen in conjunction with, or following, JPMorgan Chase allowing it to happen. The true hurdle for ownership: saying to their creditor, We can't pay you $320 million next June. But in the meantime, we'd like to pay Shin-Soo Choo $80 million.

In the meantime, Wilpon and son seem to be laying the groundwork for blaming Alderson, rather than their precarious finances, for the coming winter.

They are apparently sticking with the cover story that unlike every general manager in baseball history, Sandy Alderson prefers not to have a larger budget to improve his team.

“We haven’t turned him down on anything," Fred Wilpon said of Alderson, who last August described a need for "an infusion of players, productive players" and then repeatedly joked about his outfield before adding a total of two free agents on major league contracts totaling $5 million, both pitchers, both no longer on the active roster.

In a recent background conversation about the owner's comments, a source close to Alderson told me they were "ridiculous," and expressed bafflement that Wilpon had appeared to lay blame for the Mets' lack of spending on the general manager. 

"I think we all know he’s turned down more than one move," the source said. "Not even sure what he means."

Wilpon, for the record, didn't just say that Alderson had chosen not to spend more money.

When asked whether he would return the payroll, currently at approximately $90 million (by counting deferred money to Wright and Jason Bay as a 2013 expense) to the $140 million mark of a few seasons ago, Wilpon said this: "I asked Sandy about that. He said he couldn’t invest that much money.”

Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer of the New York Mets and son of Fred, piled on in an appearance on Mike Francesa's show, where he said that the Mets, under Alderson, are "a little behind where I thought we'd be."

This, despite the fact that overall payroll size hasn't just limited Alderson's options, but has shifted so frequently that Alderson's department can't plan for the medium-term, instead forced to make each move in a vacuum.

"We haven't set a payroll for next year," Wilpon told Francesa, pushing back against Alderson's $90-100 million figure from last month. "But I can tell you, we're ready to invest. With those big contracts coming off the books, we have the money to invest."

That was precisely the argument the younger Wilpon made a few months into Alderson's tenure, back in January 2011. It was never about team payroll, and that hasn't changed.

As team ownership heads into a winter when it needs to account not just for service on its mountain of debts, but the coming due date for a debt itself, what happens next won't be determined by baseball operations, which still hasn't gotten the particulars for winter budgeting more than a month into the six-month timespan Alderson described last month as critical.

As another member of the Mets' hierarchy put it to me when I suggested I'd like to write more happy stories about the team, like the kind Matt Harvey has provided every fifth day, he held up his hands and said, "One day at a time."