Strategy for Turning Mets Back into a Contender with Financial Issues 'Over'
Beware the New York Mets. More specifically, their checkbook.
The Mets' money troubles are over, meaning they could soon be back up there in baseball's high-rent district upping the ante with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the league's other big spenders.
Not that they should want to, mind you. The Mets need to have a plan for how to use their new riches, and it needs to be more focused than something like "[Bleep] it, let's make it rain!"
It's not clear what the Mets themselves have in mind. All principal owner Fred Wilpon told the media this week is that the club's financial problems, which were brought about in part by Wilpon's involvement in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme mess, are officially a thing of the past.
"It's all in the rearview mirror," said Wilpon on Wednesday, according to Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com. "... The family is in great shape. The family really is in great shape. Sometimes luck is the residue of design."
As for how Wilpon is hoping to take advantage of his team's refreshed finances in free agency next winter, he failed to get into specifics or make any promises.
"I think we would anticipate being big investors if that were appropriate," Wilpon said. "That depends on what the market is. If the market is such that that's where we have to be to be competitive and winners, yeah."
Rubin wrote that Wilpon indicated the club's payroll could return to "past levels" if the circumstances call for it. If so, the Mets could return to the $140 million neighborhood where they lived from 2008 to 2011 (see Cot's Baseball Contracts).
The Mets presently have about $33.5 million in salaries committed to the 2014 season, and they're going to be able to get out from under Johan Santana's contract by paying him a $5.5 million buyout.
So if Wilpon decides that he wants to spend in order to improve his ballclub next winter, GM Sandy Alderson could go on a major spending spree. The Mets surely wouldn't go up to $140 million in one fell swoop, but they could go back up over $100 million again with room to spend more in the future.
But Wilpon doesn't sound like he's about to channel his inner Jeffrey Loria and commit himself to making big signings for the purpose of generating some buzz. Nor should he. That's a dangerous game, especially when it comes to longer contracts.
For example, the Mets could afford to be a serious bidder for Robinson Cano next winter. He'll be hitting the market after his age-30 season, and Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote way back in October that the bidding could reach 10 years and $200 million.
If it does—and it will—the Mets should have no part in the Cano derby.
It's not the dollars Wilpon should be afraid of. It's the years and Cano's age. Anything even close to 10 years for a player on the wrong side of 30 is scary business.
Case in point, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols were both given 10-year contracts after their age-31 seasons. A-Rod's contract is a calamity. Pujols' got off to a disconcerting start in 2012.
The league seems to have gotten the gist. This offseason featured only one new contract for longer than five years, which was Zack Greinke's six-year pact with the Dodgers. Even B.J. Upton, a solid everyday player coming off his age-27 season, could only get a five-year contract.
The Mets have had their fun with long-term contracts in the past, with mixed results. They're pushing their luck trusting David Wright to stay healthy and productive for the next eight seasons. They shouldn't push their luck anymore by signing Cano or any other free agent close to or over 30 to a long-term contract. Getting in line with the rest of baseball is the right thing for them to do.
The Mets should favor shorter contracts that won't hurt as bad if they end up bombing. The four-year contract offer they made Michael Bourn is a good example (Andy Martino of the New York Daily News has the story). They weren't going to overpay him, nor were they putting themselves in a position to be screwed when Bourn's speed vanished.
The idea with contracts like these is simple. The Mets will be able to pile them on top of one another and stand to get value from several players rather than value from one player. Instead of one big fish, they can catch several good-sized ones.
To this end, their offseason shopping list next season should include names like Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, Carlos Gomez, Phil Hughes and Jason Vargas. These guys won't be the top players available on the market, but they'll be in line for contracts that will neither be dirt-cheap nor potential payroll cripplers.
But the above list of players shouldn't just appeal to the Mets because they could benefit the club from a financial perspective. They would benefit the club from a baseball perspective as well.
The Mets should understand by now that there are certain challenges that come with playing at Citi Field. They tried to make it a more offense-friendly ballpark by moving the fences in, but it didn't really have the desired effect. ESPN.com Park Factors show that Citi Field was about as friendly to hitters in 2012 as Tropicana Field and Dodger Stadium, two notorious pitchers' parks.
The Mets shouldn't fight their ballpark's unfriendliness towards hitters. Instead, they should embrace it and tailor their roster to fit their ballpark.
They can take after the San Francisco Giants. GM Brian Sabean has crafted a ballclub based around pitching, a wise plan given the pitching-friendliness of AT&T Park. Last year, Sabean put a reliable offense together that didn't need to hit the ball out of the ballpark to succeed. Line-drive hitters like Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro found themselves right at home in San Francisco.
Though not quite as extreme, Citi Field is similar to AT&T Park in that it's more of a park for gap hitters than home run sluggers. Gap hitters, then, are what the Mets should favor.
The Mets' pursuit of Bourn suggests that they get it, as he's a speedy hitter with mere gap power who would have been a good fit for Citi Field. They'll make it even clearer that they know what they're doing if they avoid pursuing sluggers like Curtis Granderson and Corey Hart in free agency next winter. Hitters like Choo, Pence and Gomez would suit them better.
Building a deep pitching staff is another thing the Mets can borrow from the Giants. The good news is that they don't need to go back to the drawing board to do so.
R.A. Dickey is gone and Santana will be gone soon as well, but the Mets' pitching staff is in solid shape. Jon Niese is locked up for a few more years at team-friendly rates. Dillon Gee is arbitration-eligible for the first time next year. Matt Harvey won't be eligible for arbitration until after 2015. Zack Wheeler will be along soon, giving the Mets four cheap, controllable starters for their rotation.
Adding a quality starter should be a priority next offseason, and the Mets will have options.
Vargas and Hughes both stand out as affordable mid-rotation options who would fit well on the Mets because they're both fly-ball pitchers who would do well at Citi Field. Matt Garza would be more expensive, but he'll be an option for the Mets if his market stays more in Edwin Jackson territory and less in Anibal Sanchez territory.
If there's an ace out there the Mets should have their eye on, it's Tampa Bay Rays lefty David Price. He's due to hit free agency after 2015, and there's no chance of the Rays keeping him with his value rising and the value of ace pitchers in general rising. He's going to hit the trade block either this summer or next winter.
The Mets should be bidders for Price when he hits the block. Their farm system has been strengthened over the last couple seasons, and they could pique Rays GM Andrew Friedman's interest by offering him arms for Price. The Mets have some quality arms in their system, and they can afford to part with a couple with Niese, Gee, Harvey and Wheeler set to be locked into their starting rotation for a while.
The Mets will also have the funds to give Price an extension that would buy out his last two arbitration years and extend a few years beyond that. They'd be giving him a long-term contract, sure, but a relatively safe one seeing as how the 2013 season will only be Price's age-27 campaign. A long-term contract would only take him to his mid-30s. It's the late-30s that the Mets want to avoid.
All things considered, avoiding potentially crippling long-term commitments to free agents and tailoring their roster to fit Citi Field is a simple plan. It's a little more complex, however, than the plan the Mets had under Omar Minaya, which basically consisted of collecting as many superstars as possible.
It's going to be very tempting for the Mets to go that route again now that they're out from under their financial rock, especially if Wilpon senses an opportunity to grab some front-page space with the New York Yankees looking to cut costs to avoid paying the luxury tax.
But don't do it, Fred. You've been down that road. It's time to try another one.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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