When it comes to assessing problems with the New York Mets, don't be fooled by the NL East standings, low on-base percentages throughout the team's lineup or the group of young, inconsistent pitchers learning at the big league level.
The reasons for day-to-day losses, uninspiring play and jeers emanating from the few who still attend baseball games in Queens, New York, have little to do with the players who are actually on the field or coming up through the minor league system.
For the Mets, the issues lie upstairs. Unlike most teams across the sport, simply blaming managerial strategy from the dugout or high-profile moves from the front office isn't enough. With this franchise, the ownership of the Wilpon family has shown an affinity for being completely and totally disconnected from understanding what it takes to win.
When hitting coach Dave Hudgens was relieved of his duties on Monday evening, the cause simply could have been a result of a team struggling to score runs, especially in expansive Citi Field. At first blush, that's what it seemed.
Despite a long, productive relationship between general manager Sandy Alderson and Hudgens—dating back to time their time together in the Oakland organization—New York's head decision-maker removed Hudgens from his position.
According to Howard Megdal of CapitalNewYork.com, that decision-maker wasn't Alderson. Instead, the firing occurred after a series of texts, calls and meetings between Jeff Wilpon and Alderson during Monday's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Alderson may have delivered the news to the assembled media at Citi Field, but it seems clear that the decision wasn't made by an executive who was thought to have full autonomy surrounding baseball moves.
When the smoke cleared, Hudgens made the media rounds, appearing on both the CBS and ESPN radio affiliates in New York. Considering the interest and fervor for baseball in New York, particularly in regards to the downtrodden Mets, those appearances didn't have to become particularity newsworthy.
Of course, they ultimately did.
During an appearance with Michael Kay on ESPN Radio New York, Hudgens pulled back the curtain on one of the worst kept secrets in baseball: Alderson's budget has been hampered by financial constraints from Mets ownership.
Matt Ehalt of the Times Herald-Record tweeted out one of the more prominent quotes from the interview regarding that very issue:
Hudgens on ESPN: "If they want a winner in that town, I would let the purse strings loose and let Sandy do what he wants to do."— Matt Ehalt (@MattEhalt) May 27, 2014
With an Opening Day payroll of only about $85 million, it's clear that Alderson isn't allowed to spend alongside the richest teams in baseball, limiting what the former Athletics and Padres executive can do with a roster that is still waiting for the fruits of a minor league overhaul to arrive in New York.
If I was a Mets fan I wouldn't step foot in Citi Field or spend $1 on the team until the Wilpon's sell. They have no business owning a team.— Joe Casale (@sportsJC16) May 26, 2014
If budget restrictions and the firing of a hitting coach represented the only transgressions from Mets ownership, fans would quickly move on and accept another summer of losing baseball. However, with this franchise, it's just the tip of the iceberg.
As the franchise slogs through a sixth-consecutive losing season, it's fair to question when or how the team will recover in the near future.
The firing of Hudgens, despite an affinity for his philosophy and approach from the executive picking the players, was shortsighted and reeked of the desire to appease fans. If the Wilpons truly believed new hitting coach Lamar Johnson was the missing piece, he would have been in tow since the end of last season.
The offseason spending spree on Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon and Chris Young was meant to serve as proof that the team was willing to spend legitimate free-agent money on the open market, but minimal returns and a lower-tier payroll have overshadowed winter news conferences announcing the newest Mets.
What is the biggest problem with the New York Mets?
Now, after years of losing, the Wilpons were supposed to watch the team use 2014 as a springboard toward respectability and winning in 2015 and beyond. Heading into play on May 28, the team sat at 23-28, good for fourth place in the NL East.
Alderson appeared on Kay's show after Hudgens, referencing the need to win in order to drive revenue to the club, per Adam Rubin of ESPN New York. When that occurs, spending will follow.
"Eighty-five [million dollars] is the payroll this year. It was the payroll last year." Alderson said. "I do believe that the payroll will go up if we're able to generate the kind of revenue that will support that. And that's why we have to win."
That edict—thrust onto Alderson from ownership—has clouded everything the Mets have tried to become over the last few seasons.
Instead of spending to win, bringing back fans and creating a dynamic combination of prime-aged stars and young, ascending players, the franchise has slogged through a rebuilding process, waited on the unpredictability of young pitchers, operated on a small-market budget and, most recently, interrupted the process in the name of results.
Every owner in professional sports seeks to connect with fans, create long-lasting relationships and provide a winning product. As the days and years pass, the Wilpon family continues to move further and further away from that ideal.
Day-to-day results can be instructive, but the problems at Citi Field go far beyond wins and losses.