Despite falling short of a World Series title, the New York Mets can reflect on their 2015 season as major success. For an organization that failed to reach the postseason in eight straight seasons, the Mets turned around a 49-48 season and went on to win 90 games, capturing the National League East title, and reaching the World Series behind some of the best young arms in baseball. Once a perennial NL East fourth-place finisher, the Mets quickly emerged as among baseball most envied contenders.
With star pitchers Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and closer Jeurys Familia all on relatively inexpensive deals or locked in the arbitration process, the Mets will pay the group somewhere in the neighborhood of $9.5 million next year. By comparison, the Red Sox will shell out roughly $30 million in 2016 to David Price. In a league where the top pitchers are compensated at about $1 million per start, the Mets have arguably the best rotation in the game at a discount of indescribably epic proportions.
But there is a roadblock standing in the Mets’ way. Even with cost-efficient stars, ownership has shown little interest in upgrading the roster.
The Mets are the seventh-most valuable MLB franchise on Forbes’ list at $1.35 billion but are reluctant to operate like a big-market team. The Mets haven’t ranked inside the top 10 in payroll since 2011 and have not cracked the top 20 payrolls on each of the last three Opening Days. For years, Mets fans have been led to believe that should revenue spike, they would be rewarded with money funneled into the on-field product.
The prevailing sentiment is the Mets front office should strike now to capitalize on this opportunity. But as those familiar with the Mets ownership know, hoping for a player-signing surge seems futile. There are still some available free-agent hitters who can make an impact next season, but there have been no reports the Mets are willing to pay for any of them.
Majority owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon and president Saul Katz are business partners through Sterling Equities, which owns 60 percent of the ball club and 65 percent of SportsNet New York, the regional sports network that broadcast games. In 2008, when Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff was caught operating what’s considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, the Mets owners were famously caught in the line of fire.
According to the settlement, the Mets had invested approximately $500 million in accounts with Madoff. The Wilpons also borrowed against that money, using it as collateral for other loans. Subsequently, the Wilpons were forced to take out a $430 million loan against the team and $450 million against the majority ownership stake in SNY just to remain afloat.
The success of the team in 2015 doesn’t change the fact that the Wilpons and Katz self-imposed a great deal of debt that hasn’t disappeared. So long as that debt exists, it appears entirely possible that given the choices between the ball club and a personal fiscal respite, the Mets still come second. To this point, the actions of ownership has prompted a necessary “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach in terms of any substantial money being put towards the roster.
Last July, Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz refinanced roughly $700 million of debt owed by the team and the network. The Mets’ debt had been most recently refinanced in early 2014 and it had refinanced the SNY debt a year earlier. The new five-year loans against the separate entities are said to carry lower interest rates.
Back in 2010 and 2011, the Mets borrowed $65 million from Bank of America and Major League Baseball, thanks to longtime Wilpon friend and former commissioner Bud Selig, because they didn’t have the cash to make revenue-sharing payments. That money was repaid in 2012 when Wilpon and Katz raised $240 million after selling minority interests in the team.
According to Forbes’ revenue estimates, the Mets were 27th out of 30 MLB teams in percentage of revenue spent on payroll last season. Even with the revenue boost stemming from a pennant run, little is being done to bolster a roster that was just three games from the organization’s first championship since 1986. Despite a nearly 20 percent attendance boost, a potential $45 million of added revenue and arguably the best pitching staff in baseball making relatively little, the glaring holes in New York’s lineup still exist.
Postseason hero Daniel Murphy was too considered too pricey, and slugger Yoenis Cespedes has yet to receive a respectable offer to return after carrying New York to the playoffs. Free-agent power hitters Chris Davis and Justin Upton are still available, but there has been no indication the Mets are making a serious pursuit for either player. Once the attempt to woo Ben Zobrist with a three-year deal fell flat, general manager Sandy Alderson addressed the middle infield with Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker, but the Mets are still minus a couple of dynamic bats in the heart of the order that were essential to their success.
Walker was acquired in a deal that sent pitcher Jon Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the players’ salaries basically matching. The contracts of lighter hitters like outfielder Alejandro De Aza ($5.75 million) and Cabrera ($8.5 million) are almost entirely covered by Michael Cuddyer’s sudden retirement.
After the team’s best season in several years, the extent of the Mets’ free-agent spending in the offseason was just a combined $11.25 million on one-year deals for 42-year-old Bartolo Colon and middle reliever Jerry Blevins. Using calculated estimates for arbitration-eligible players, New York’s payroll is a meager $106.5 million with no sight of considerable increase. Using 2015 team figures, that would put the Mets in the bottom half of the league, behind several small market clubs and barely a tick above where they were on Opening Day a season ago. So when general manager Sandy Alderson said “I do think our payroll will start at a higher level this year than it started last year,” he was splitting hairs more than making promises.
The Mets struck lightning in a bottle with the acquisition of Cespedes. The boost to the lineup provided the Mets with one of the most potent lineups in the final two months of the season and helped carry New York to the World Series. Without that type of impact bat, the Mets may be burdened with another weak-hitting lineup on Opening Day that struggled for a good portion of the season. Because of ownership frugality, Alderson may have no choice but to repeat the strategy to land a big bat at the deadline, and hope the Mets can replicate their 2015 second-half success.
The Mets probably have the pitching to remain competitive next season. But ownership may be forced to spend 2016 deflecting questions as to why after a season of great strides the club has done little to improve.