Plenty has changed for the New York Mets since Sandy Alderson assumed the general manager's helm in 2010.
Nebulous finances. Roster shakeups. An abundantly talented division is still on the ascent to boot.
Organizational uncertainty has marred much of his three year tenure in Queens. Sometimes it felt like ambiguity was a Mets' philosophy—where would it end?
"2014" became the default answer until an unpredictable and devastating injury managed to muddy those waters as well. While the Mets waited for a clear prognosis on Matt Harvey's elbow, the future was put all-too-familiarly on hold.
Is that a light over there in the distance?
Major League Baseball's Fall Classic is imminent, but it's the winter that's drawing all of the Mets' focus. How about a look at the state of the franchise entering this 2013-14 offseason? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
The books are clear, with the exception of some tough arbitration decisions to make and raises due to David Wright and Jonathan Niese. This should free up anywhere from $30-40 million—a range the team expects to prudently reinvest in talent this offseason, though doubts and estimates vary.
Team revenue, however, continues to flounder. It's an issue ownership is quite keen on—and justifiably so.
Settled or not, the lawsuit against owner Fred Wilpon in connection to the Madoff-scandal demands acknowledgment. The notion that Wilpon would be inevitably forced to sell the franchise proved to be premature as well as false, but the debt is real and acutely present.
Ownership's message has been ambiguous throughout. Time took a difficult situation to follow and made left its details even murkier. AmazinAvenue.com does a great job clearing up the early facts of the convoluted mess.
Forget whatever the narrative of the hour might be. Promises to begin spending are nice, but don't expect a return to the top of MLB's payrolls anytime soon. Not until some of Wilpon's personal debt is relieved. And the Mets brand hasn't lent much help itself.
It has been seven years since the Mets' last postseason appearance. For a fifth consecutive season, the franchise finished with a losing (74-88) record. Positive memories are few and far between in the history of Citi Field, quite frankly. Consequently, attendance figures are dwindling.
New York expected around $234.3 million in ballpark-related revenue last year. They raked in about half as much. After entering with a payroll close to $94 million, the 2013 figures appear equally grim. Ticket sales are anticipated to fall shy of the team's original projection by about 10,000 per game.
According to Newsday's Jim Baumbach and Randi Marshall, fallout from a poor on-field product reverberates well beyond the Citi Field gates.
With smaller crowds than projected lately, companies have been less willing to advertise at Citi Field. Records show revenue from stadium advertising and signage has averaged $46 million per year since 2009, about 25 percent short of the team's annual average projection of $62 million.
Concessions' revenue has also dropped each year, from $15.2 million in 2009 to $11.4 million last year, well short of the Mets' annual projection of about $21 million.
This much is certain:
Until the team begins to spend money, they will wallow in mediocrity. A dramatic reversal of fortunes will no doubt take an influx of talent. Even Alderson and owner Fred Wilpon have admitted as much.
But it isn't a dearth of marquee names plaguing the Mets' revenue stream. It's a total absence of prosperity. Nothing drives revenue like winning.
Some clever maneuvering helped Alderson narrowly escape from financial ruin with a few extra promising pieces, but it's easy to fall into the same trap without a sensible approach. To quickly build a contender in New York is no small task. To do so without rolling the likely ill-fated dice on high priced free agents is another impediment entirely.
Just a single upper-echelon free agent ties up a minimum of $10 million a year—a precarious distribution of wealth considering the depths of ownership's pockets. Alderson may be best served pursuing the production that slips through the cracks every winter. A 'Moneyball'-esque strategy that the general manager personally helped popularize during his years in Oakland.
For 2013 alone, the Red Sox saved $58.25 million in salary by trading Gonzalez, Crawford, Beckett and Punto to Los Angeles. With those contracts off the books, Boston signed seven free agents who totaled $53.1 million in salary for this season.
That's an average of about $7.5 million for seven free agents. The talent is there. The key is being the first to locate it.
Let's get something out of the way. Alderson has some expansive roster flaws to grapple with. And payroll expenditures are still limited.
If contention still feels distant, it's because it probably is.
Imagine looking back on the forthcoming offseason this time next year. Was it decidedly strong? Did the team drastically improve? Because that hinges on a front office pushing all of the right buttons and plenty of luck.
Hitting will deservedly draw the majority of the focus despite ranking near the middle of the National League pack in terms of both runs scored (11th) and allowed (8th).
The table below illustrates the Mets' offensive capacity—or lack thereof—around the diamond.
Third base, catcher, second base and center field—those are the only positions presently locked up. Don't look to the minors for a cheap, quick fix either.
As strong as the system's pitching is, Travis d'Arnaud was the last adequately seasoned position-player left in the upper levels of the farm. Outfielder Cesar Puello could conceivably prove otherwise, though a link to Biogenesis raises some reasonable concerns. Those remaining are long shots and shouldn't be counted on to contribute much in 2014.
The major league roster has few areas of relative strength and an offense-starved lineup. David Wright makes up for plenty of the ineptitude himself, but the Mets plainly possess little else in the run scoring department. Center fielder Juan Lagares derives most of his value—and plenty of it—from exemplary defense. His .633 OPS, however, spells just another easy out.
What the Mets could really use is some serious outfield help and a new starting shortstop. So where better to start?
After a revolving door of four-A quality players failed to produce any longterm solutions, the team will be active in the market for corner-outfielders.
A glaring inability to reach base at a respectable clip, however, will substantially limit value. Even his base-stealing proficiency is inadequate compensation for a non-slugger with an on-base percentage of .310. The New Jersey native rarely walks. That's something that needs to change in order to warrant a starting job. For now, he's a 28-year-old fourth outfielder with his best tool—speed—certain only to diminish with age.
Among several prominent holes, the numbers indicate just how sorely an upgrade at shortstop is needed. Ruben Tejada has fallen out of favor within the organization and his failure to produce at any level in 2013 did nothing to stem the flow of bad blood. Management seeks a replacement—a fact they aren't shy about either.
If only the problems ended there.
There's no guarantee that Daniel Murphy will still be donning blue and orange come Spring Training, truthfully. It's admittedly fairly curious. Considering the frugal offseason expectations, there must be a bevy of needs more pressing than a second baseman with an above average .757 career OPS for his position.
Still, even the most ardent supporters of Murphy's endearing hard-nosed style must understand he is one of very few attractive assets the Mets own. If he can help net the team a couple of established major league regulars, it's probably the franchise's most efficient means of improvement.
Creativity is crucial—even if it means saying goodbye to a fan favorite. Without the monetary capabilities to cover up each blemish in a single offseason, priorities reign supreme.
Add first base to the Mets endless list of question marks while you're at it.
Current candidacy is comprised of Ike Davis, Josh Satin and Lucas Duda. And they all leave plenty to be desired. Of the three, only Satin can hit lefties. Davis and Duda are substantially more effective against righties. Whether the Mets decide to stick with what they've got remains to be seen. The same can be said for choosing to go the platoon route in general.
If—and it's another huge if—their career lefty-righty splits translate predictably, they just might be able to form a formidable platoon. Even so, it's unclear how strict implementation and irregular at-bat opportunities will play out over a full season.
Pitching depth is a concern for every team—Harvey's injury only exacerbated it for the Mets. A portion of available funds will be allocated to replacing their staff ace in the starting rotation. Or at the very least, adding some necessary depth.
Of additional importance is the inexact science of building the bullpen. Individual performance fluctuates wildly from year to year for relief pitchers. It's the reason relievers are always in demand. There's no reason for Alderson's interest in the department to be any exception.
Lucky for the Mets—scratch that, they're due some credit—a few sound pieces are already in place.
Bobby Parnell, Vic Black and Gonzalez Germen are hard throwing right-handed assets with closer-potential. A little premature, sure, but all three are entering their prime and will render the process considerably less daunting.
Some help is waiting in the wings regardless. If only the starting lineup was so fortunate.
The franchise holds one of baseball's brightest starting pitching prospects in Noah Syndergaard. A host of other projectable young farmhands are emerging behind him—albeit it a little more quietly. Syndergaard is running out of things to prove at the minor league level. He'll make his Queens arrival sometime in 2014 barring unforeseen circumstances.
Mets starters finished the final month of the season with an ERA of 3.78 in 169 innings—a September stretch without three-fifths of a rotation riddled by injury. Could New York already be set talent-wise? If everything breaks their way it isn't impossible. But finger-crossing is not the ill advised route management plans on taking.
Bronson Arroyo is a name that continues to be connected to the franchise. He, himself, actually expressed openness to the idea. The interest is mutual and it's no surprise. The somewhat under appreciated veteran looks like an ideal fit. Arroyo can be depended on for 200 solid innings (career average: 208 innings) and, at the age of 36, should come with a reasonable price tag. He seeks a two-year deal according to the latest reports.
Over the full course of 2013, the ERA of Mets starting pitchers was a very respectable 3.68. The roster features plenty of areas that are cause for concern. Starting pitching happens to be the least of them.
National League East Outlook
A traditionally strong National League East division in 2013 it was not.
The Braves were the division winner and lone postseason representative, finishing a victory shy of the league leading 97-win Cardinals. For the Nationals, it took a tremendous late run to rise somewhat comfortably above .500—settling for second and not quite indicative of the talent comprising their roster.
With that said, it's irresponsible to assume that Atlanta is the only team to beat in 2014.
Washington's superb stretch highlighted how misleading the final standings seem to be. The Nationals have put together a gifted group of players. As a matter of fact, the majority of analysts were ready to crown them National League champions prior to Opening Day. Their strong finish may have served to validate such opinions.
The weak showing in 2013 also masked another important fact. No division has a greater wealth of young pitching than the NL East. For those failing to take notice, it's only a matter of time before the secret is out.
Even the Marlins could pose their triennial rebuilt threat. Don't be fooled by Miami's familiar ranking near the bottom of baseball in terms of payroll. They already feature a stadium with dimensions that pitchers dream about and a plethora of talented young hurlers. Rumored interest in Cuban slugger Jose Abreu is enough to leave division rivals feeling uneasy—and it should.
If Miami's ballpark is a pitchers' dream, respectively, the potential of Abreu in the middle of that lineup is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Should his talent successfully translate at the major league level, there isn't a pitching staff in the world that can consistently contain he and Giancarlo Stanton—even in the massive expanses of Marlins Park.
The Phillies committed upwards of $173 million to payroll last year, yet were still edged out by the Mets in the standings. Sound familiar Mets fans?
Philadelphia owes a ton of money to a roster of aging veterans with diminishing production-levels. As far as divisional threats go, the Phillies might not pose much of any. It could take a Mets-like shedding of salary before they can do what's necessary for a return to prominence.
Is the division up for grabs? Similar to Miami, the Mets have talent. Even if a lot of it remains untested. A division title is improbable, but not impossible. The Nationals and Braves will present an undeniable hurdle next year.
So where exactly do the Mets stand in the NL East? What will it take to be crowned division champs for the first time since 2006?
I don't care what moves they make this winter. The Mets have the talent to hold their own in most pitching categories. If pitching fails to live up to expectations, their chances fall to zero. It begins with the starting rotation—their prosperity depends on it.
Despite the team philosophy, they still aren't getting on base enough—an issue expounded by their inability to produce extra-base-hits. Don't fault the strategy. The Cardinals led the National League in runs scored. Not coincidentally, they ranked second in OPS behind the Coors Field-aided Colorado Rockies.
On-base percentage and slugging percentage equal runs—the correlation is irrefutable at this point. And New York could really use some elevated numbers across the board. But fear not, it's not all grim.
How does 162 games of a healthy Wright sound? D'Arnaud, in his first full big league season, is taking a big step forward towards realizing his ultimate potential?
Give Terry Collins a few new productive bats to plug into his everyday lineup behind this exciting young pitching staff—and don't count the Mets out too soon.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
For more Mets info and plenty of other extremely random musings, follow me on Twitter: Follow @jaysteck