Plagued by disappointing seasons, bad press and falling attendance, a New York team empties its management ranks, hires one of the game’s most respected front office men to oversee its restructuring and makes plans to free up assets by unloading expiring contracts.
It’s a scenario familiar to fans of the New York Knicks, whose rebuilding began with the hiring of Donnie Walsh and continued through last summer’s free agent bonanza. Central to Walsh’s remodeling: enduring a pair of losing seasons while ridding the club of overpriced talent and maximizing payroll flexibility.
Now, the New York Mets appear to have embraced a similar tack, only modestly tweaking a team that has finished a combined 26 games below .500 the last two seasons, while installing Sandy Alderson as general manager and flanking him with Moneyball veterans Paul DePodesta and J.P Ricciardi.
The new Mets brass has not been coy about its plans, signaling little will be done to reshape the roster until after the 2011 season, when the contracts of Carlos Beltran, Louis Castillo, Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez and potentially Jose Reyes all come off the books, freeing as much as $55 million for the club to reinvest.
Oh, by the way, Albert Pujols will be a free agent at the end of the year.
Whether or not New York ultimately makes a serious run at Pujols, who claims he’ll test the free agent waters if unable to reach an agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals by Opening Day, flexibility has become the new buzzword in Flushing, where Alderson and team COO Jeff Wilpon have set their sights firmly on 2012.
An extra year may also bring additional clarity on another front that has dogged ownership: the Bernie Madoff scandal.
When Citi Field opened in 2009 it was supposed to be the crown jewel of owner Fred Wilpon’s baseball legacy in New York, a gleaming new ballpark replete with touches meant to evoke Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where Wilpon was introduced to the game five decades earlier.
But in first impressions, the park’s most notable attraction was not its soaring rotunda named for Jackie Robinson nor the comically expansive outfield spaces, but a pair of seats purchased by Bernie Madoff, the infamous stockbroker indicted months earlier on charges of masterminding the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.
Fred Wilpon had been among Madoff’s most prominent clients.
Irving Picard, the court-appointed trustee to recoup losses suffered by Madoff victims, eventually auctioned off the seats. But as Jeff Wilpon seemed to concede in comments widely reported on this week, the club has struggled to put the Madoff matter fully behind it.
Initial claims that the Wilpons lost as much as $700 million in the Madoff scheme, which at the time sparked talk the family would be forced to sell the club, had already been discredited when news broke in December that Picard is suing Fred Wilpon and a real estate firm under his control for allegedly profiting from the fraud.
With Picard pursuing a $48 million clawback, speculation naturally shifted to whether New York’s recent reluctance to add payroll has been linked to Wilpon’s assumption that he was likely to end up a Picard target.
The Mets are privately held and the Wilpons have been tight-lipped on the subject, saying only that the club will have the resources it needs to compete. That makes it nearly impossible to obtain a clear picture of the actual impact the Madoff affair has had on the organization.
What is evident is that forsaking 2011 is not without risk for the Mets. Attendance at Citi Field dropped precipitously in its second season, a startling 19 percent decline that compelled the club to cut 2011 ticket prices. A third consecutive fourth place finish seems unlikely to help, and Cliff Lee’s move to Philadelphia has only widened the chasm between New York and the division champs.
Still, Alderson can look across the East River and take heart. Despite suffering a recent losing streak, Walsh’s Knicks—powered by free agent signings Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton—are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and once again playing to a sold-out Madison Square Garden.
It’s an outcome the Mets would be happy to replicate.