The Small Market Mets

The Mets came into the off-season poor, with an estimated player payroll of $90 to $100 million. That’s a lot of money if you’re, say, the Oakland A’s, but it’s not a lot of money if you’re the New York team which, by the way, will be hosting this year’s All-Star Game. It’s also not a lot of money when your start off with over $70 million committed to six guys. There wasn’t a lot of money left over. A quick-and-dirty calculation suggests that the Mets had about $5 million extra to spend for the 2013 season.

But that has, kind of, changed. The Mets have made two significant moves so far this offseason:

1) They extended David Wright’s contract. In doing so, his $16 million salary for 2013 became an $11 million one, saving the team $5 million.

2) They released Jason Bay and, in a negotiated settlement, deferred a reported $6 million of the money owed to him.

Now, with R.A. Dickey likely on his way elsewhere (Toronto?) for cheap players, the Mets will probably free up another $5 million. Once that happens, in total, the Mets will be $20 million under budget.

And there are no signs that they’ll spend that.

They’re Broke, We Get It

Here’s a question I’m struggling with:

Let’s say the Mets had a payroll target of $120 million, consistent with 2007-2011, but still on the low end. Before the two done deals, that’d leave them with $50 million to spend. Both of those moves could have happened anyway, leaving the team with $60 million of ammo and needing at least three players in five spots: all three outfield positions, catcher, and probably a bullpen piece.

That’s probably not enough to get there, but they’d try. And this year, they’re not even putting on a show.. There’s not much of a pretense, either, outside of a “we’re not punting” quote from Sandy Alderson.

Don’t get me wrong — this could be a good thing. Assuming the Wilpons are saving the money so that they can invest it in the team’s future, it’s definitely a good thing, because there’s not a lot out there which will make a meaningful difference this year. (That said, a one year contract for Michael Bourn would be good, in that it’d make the team more fun to watch and give us a nice trade chip come July. Update: Oops, forgot it’d cost the team the #11 overall pick in the draft; never mind.) I’d love to see the money used to lock up Matt Harvey, Ike Davis, and/or any of the other younger guys for their first two free agency years, for example.

But I could also see the money going nowhere. Or, more accurately, I can imagine a scenario — one which, retroactive to more facts coming in, may in fact be likely — where the Mets simply don’t spend that $20 million. In that scenario, the Mets just don’t have the $20 million in the first place. There wasn’t $5 million of room in the budget. Coming to a buyout with Bay wasn’t a luxury, but a need. The team wasn’t trying to extend Wright’s contract but rather restructure it, as doing so was the only way to keep him, financially. And even then, it required that the team deal Dickey.

In other words, we know the Mets are bad off financially. But it could be much worse. And if that’s the case, we’re a small market team. At least for now.

The Small-Market Mets

That’s a good thing — assuming it’s temporary.

Teams with smaller budgets can compete, consistently, as demonstrated by the A’s and Rays. And when opportunity knocks, a smaller-market team can answer, if things are set up properly. (Note that a star player is going from New York to Toronto, as rumored, and not the other way around.) The Mets, right now, aren’t in a good position to capitalize on that opportunity. They don’t have the farm system, they don’t have the money, and the NL and NL East are both strong.

(As an aside, the door is wide open for the Blue Jays. The AL East as weak as it has been in recent history: the Red Sox are still putting the pieces back together; the Yankees are good, but old; the Orioles, despite 2012's results, are the Orioles; and the Rays lost Shields, Upton, Davis, and Pena so far this off-season. Meanwhile, there are two wild-card spots — and there are maybe four or five teams outside the East who could compete for one.)

So having a payroll of, say, $85 million this year — less than half of what the Yankees will have — may just be the best way to right the ship come 2015 or so. With a large amount of money clearing after next year, the team can enter the 2014 season with budget room and a better idea of which players are actually good. By 2015, if revenues increase (perhaps due to deals done league-wide?), and other NL East teams start to fade, the small-market Mets may be able to become a large-market team again.

And if they can get there, then perhaps they can stay there. This is New York City, after all.