January is nearly over and the free agency period has basically come and gone. Teams throughout the major leagues have been spending throughout the offseason to add players to their big league roster . . . except the New York Mets. The Mets remain the only team to not sign a free agent to a major league contract, instead relying on minor league deals for several relievers, backup outfielders, and utility men to try and add depth to the organization. The approach is certainly unique as General Manager Sandy Alderson continues to re-iterate that he is not satisfied with the team as currently constituted. As players who could help the Mets continue to sign elsewhere, the question then turns to the team's finances.
The Mets entered the winter with few players under contract. The team then proceeded to buy out Jason Bay, sign David Wright to a long term extension, and trade R.A. Dickey to Toronto in exchange for catcher John Buck and a trio of prospects. The moves all resulted in the Mets having more money available for this season, as the Mets reportedly are only paying Bay six million dollars of the 21 million he was owed for 2012. Wright's salary figure also reduced from 16 million dollars in option money to 11 million dollars in the first year of an eight year, 138 million dollar contract. The team's savings left open the possibility that the club could spend some money for an outfielder to improve the big league club. The Mets made it publicly known that they were willing to give a multi-year deal to an outfielder if it was the right guy. Several months later, the Mets have not signed an outfielder to the roster. For that matter, the team has not filled the fifth starter's spot opened by the Dickey trade or added veteran arms to the bullpen either.
There are several factors to consider when examining why the Mets have not spent any money to improve a team that won 74 games in 2012. One factor is the market for outfielders, which blew up in the team's faces when the San Francisco Giants gave Angel Pagan a four year, 40 million dollar contract. Pagan, as Mets fans know, is not a ten million dollar a year outfielder. Sandy Alderson has shown a sense of value when giving out his contracts, and he has demonstrated that he won't spend money just to spend money. Overpaying for an outfielder who would marginally upgrade the roster, like Pagan or Cody Ross, makes sense financially. The puzzling aspect to this decision involves Scott Hairston. Hairston played very well for the Mets last season and would be a valuable right handed bat in an outfield filled with lefties. Hairston made 1.1 million dollars last season, and after hitting 20 home runs was seeking a two year deal worth 8 million dollars. The Mets have chosen to low ball him, offering only a one year deal worth two million dollars.
The hardball contract tactic has extended to free agent pitchers as well. The Mets have been linked to many different starters to replace Dickey in the rotation, but none of the external options is even close to a contract. There are two theories that can explain why the Mets are not spending any money on free agents. One theory that has been gaining some buzz, and that should concern Mets fans, is that Alderson has been given a strict payroll limit by the Wilpons.
Owner Fred Wilpon has been in hot water financially for a few years after being implicated in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Wilpon agreed to a settlement last March, but the true extent of Madoff's impact on the Wilpon's money is unknown. The team has recently sold shares of the team to minority investers to raise cash for ownership, which has in turn used the money to pay off loans from banks and on the construction bonds for Citi Field. If the Wilpons are truly limited in cash, it is possible that Alderson was hired to help lower the team's payroll and build through the farm, which could take a long time if not supported by the addition of external free agents.
The other scenario to consider is that the decision not to spend money lies solely with Alderson himself. Many Mets fans are still clinging to the infamous "Moneyball with money" quote Paul Depodesta threw out there in 2011, but Alderson has followed a game plan of financial restraint since his arrival. Alderson has not spent big money unless it is warranted, and he did choose to give David Wright an eight year extension worth nearly 140 million dollars. Alderson's ideal roster seems to involve flexibility in nearly all the lineup positions to complement a strong pitching staff, a model that the Giants have used to win the World Series in two of the last three seasons. Right now the Mets have little flexibility in terms of payroll because the Mets have nearly 80 million dollars tied up in five players, one of whom (Bay) isn't even on the roster anymore. That figure drops dramatically in 2014, when the Mets only have Wright and Jon Niese under contract and will be out from under the albatrosses that are the contracts of Bay and Johan Santana. If the money is truly available, Alderson will likely use his payroll flexibility in 2014 to improve the roster's weaknesses. Otherwise, Mets fans may be stuck waiting a long time for a winner.
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