Do I amuse you?
Are the Mets still a joke? Or will their more sober management team make them less of a punch line for loyal Mets fan comedians like Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld?
Funny guys have always loved the Mets in a self-deprecating way, unlike Billy Crystal’s Yankee drool, but Mets fans would like a little more hot foot humor and a little less closer/manager/general manager/owner/financier gallows humor.
The joy of honest hope, much less real success, seems out of the team’s grasp this season, but it lingers close enough to tease and tempt the team into self-destructive denial. Sandy Alderson, of Moneyball and Oakland Athletics fame, has been hired to steer the team away from the abyss.
But the question fans are asking is, how will he do it? Will he lead the team’s owners away from financial ruin by cutting the payroll to the bone? Moneyball can help a good team be great, but its genesis was as a penny-wise philosophy only designed to keep a team with a bottom-five payroll relevant.
Are the Wilpons bankrupt?
This matters. Some owners see their team as a business. To many fans, business-minded owners imply under-investment and the loss of rising stars to the more “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees. But it also means that, if the team has a viable fan base (unlike the Florida Marlins, perhaps), business-minded owners have every incentive to make sure the team is competitive, or at least not continuously bad.
As a example of a non-business-minded owner, take the Mets’ current ownership. Every team owner, be he firstly a business man or a fan, wants the team to do well—everything else equal, more wins means more season ticket holders, which is a key to profitability. The Mets have not been good for a few seasons, and, more importantly, fans’ expectations of the coming seasons have progressively been ratcheted down, meaning fewer and fewer season ticket holders.
For the Wilpons, this is obviously a concern. But the Wilpons also are due to lose money—potentially a lot—in Bernie Maddoff-related lawsuits and various real estate concerns. If the Wilpons were strictly business minded, probably the best option would be for them to give up some equity in the team in return for cash to invest in payroll, stemming the hemorrhaging season ticket sales.
But the Wilpons, particularly son Jeff, love to control the team. So diluting their stake is a last measure only, especially if it means any loss of immediate autonomy. Surely enough, initial reports suggested that the Wilpons were only looking to sell the minimum needed to maintain solvency.
Apparently they found few investors willing to give the necessary cash with no concomitant control over the team. So, instead, the owners have taken a $25 million loan from MLB, but if they need further liquidity, they may be forced to lose some or all control of the team.
Ownership stakes can take a long time to play out, particularly if Bud Selig and MLB are willing to keep providing the Wilpons with short-term liquidity.
Until things are resolved, payroll will no doubt be capped as much as possible to avoid selling more equity and giving up more control than absolutely necessary, instead of selling enough now so that payroll can be efficiently maintained and fan fever better stoked. Bad contracts, such as those to Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, which a normal healthy team might look to write-off in some manner as a sunk cost and move on from, will continue to be albatrosses for the Mets.
How offensive are the Mets?
No, this isn’t about Francisco Rodriguez’s assault problems. If Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay return to decent (and not recent) form, the Mets could have the best offense in the division. Offensive threats could at least reach down into the seventh spot in the lineup, unlike last season.
Of course, this is a big if. Bay is coming back from a concussion, but he hopefully will be full strength. Whether that also means a rebound in his power, which was subpar last season before the concussion, or just more playing time is the key question. Small sample struggles are nearly impossible to diagnose, though, and injuries can often mask the beginnings of a long-run decline.
While Beltran is clearly past his peak, the question for him is whether he’s still hiking on the same mountain. His loss of speed from his knee problems means a drop in his fantasy value and a move to right field, but the Mets have to hope that the rest of his tools—batting eye and power—remain intact and relatively un-aged. He has already had to take time off during spring training to rest his knees, so even if his tools are intact, he may not be on the field enough to aid the Mets.
Adding in Jose Reyes’ enigmatic health issues, Ike Davis’ unproven upside (and assuming Angel Pagan and David Wright stay on form), the Mets lineup could be as unstable as Beltran’s knee. It would not take a lot of misfortune—just one injury—for the Mets lineup to have deadwood from six through nine.
Is four Jacks a winning hand?
The starting pitching staff is a motley collection. With Johan Santana injured and out until at least June, there is no ace. But it gets worse than that. Mike Pelfry, the pretender to the throne, is not likely to ever wear a crown comfortably. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is on the wrong side of 2.0, and his groundball rate hovers below 50 percent. Jonathon Niese has yet to show any elite skills, but he might be the more reliable and better of the two.
Beyond them, though, are past and present reclamation projects. R.A. Dickey’s upside is likely what he showed last season: remarkably good performances accompanied by a lingering feeling at the end of each game that the team may never get such a good performance out of him again. Given his cost though, he might be one of the league’s best deals for a mid-rotation pitcher. He’s also one of the most likable players on a team that sorely needs good PR.
That leaves two rotation spots, one of which will be filled by Santana once he returns, and a spate of candidates whose cautious upside is replacement level.
From this perspective, the most interesting candidate is Chris Young, particularly for what it reveals about the general manager who signed him, Sandy Alderson. In a sense, Young is a quintessential low-salary, post-injury gamble. But his skill set (or lack thereof)—few ground balls, a borderline strikeout-to-walk ratio, but past success pitching within spacious PETCO Park—means that he is more valuable to a team playing in Citi Field than one playing elsewhere, and that Alderson knows that he shouldn’t value groundball pitchers as highly as the rest of the league.
It is tempting to look ahead to July with rose-tinted glasses. With luck, the Mets could leave the All-Star Break with Santana and three quality mid-rotation pitchers in Pelfry, Niese and Dickey. Anything from Young or Chris Capuano in the fifth spot would be gravy. But these expectations are flimsy. Like Beltran and Bay, Santana’s skills were in question before the injury. Three months of regular-season tryouts in two pitching spots can lead to a lot of losses.
Are we there yet?
Only a paid-for optimist would consider the Mets a championship team. They’re not even “one or two midseason moves” away from being a championship team. It would be quite a coup if they were even in postseason contention come September. The real question is whether the team is going to build on what it has or whether management and ownership is going to dismantle a bit more before rebuilding in earnest.
A lot of salary comes off the books at the end of the season, as Beltran’s, Castillo’s and Perez’s contracts expire. So does Reyes’ much cheaper contract. Reyes, as Wright’s conjoined twin, was once one of the faces of the team, but his future with the team is now in doubt.
The future offers three likely scenarios for the trade deadline (there are many more less likely ones, too, of course).
a) Reyes is still with the team. He’s had a great first half and the team’s ownership situation is resolved enough that future investments in the team are planned to be around Reyes and Wright. Given that they will be entering their peak production years, management decides to take a “win soon” (but perhaps not “win now”) attitude.
b) Reyes is trade bait. He’s performed well, but ownership wants to cut salary and won’t re-sign him at the end of the season. They get a few good prospects for him and try to tout them and the rest of the farm system as the “bright” future of the team.
c) The Mets are near .500 around the All-Star break, but the current ownership is still beleaguered. They decide to keep Reyes but have little intention of signing him at the end of the season. Rather, they hope to stay close to “being in contention” for as long as possible in an effort to keep ticket sales going.
For many of the past seasons, the mantra for the Mets’ on-field performance was “as Reyes goes, so goes the team.” When he scored, the team was likely to win. This season, Reyes is again a leading indicator for the team, both on the field and off of it.