Within the past week the Mets were revealed to have the seventh-lowest payroll in Major League Baseball to start the 2014 season. As it stands now, New York’s National League ball club will dole out $82 million in 2014, although midseason expenditures and sweeteners from Jose Valverde’s deal could bump it up to the $87-88 million range.
Fans anxious for a winner may look at the Mets’ #24-ranked payroll with (what has become chronic) pessimism. After all, with the Wilpons’ finances finally in good shape, shouldn’t a team in America’s largest media market have a payroll seven slots from the top as opposed to the bottom?
While some may point to the Mets’ finances lack of resemblance to the Yankees’ as a bad thing, the situation is far from bad. In fact, the Mets could have much more to gain by trying to reach the 90 wins Sandy Alderson keeps talking about with $82 million on the books than with $182 million on the books.
New York is in the rare position of operating as a small-market team in a large market. The only teams ranked below the Mets in 2014 payroll going down the line are the Indians, Athletics, Rays, Pirates, Astros, and Marlins. Even in an era where every team takes a Moneyball approach to front office management, over half of those teams made the playoffs in 2013. They once again prove that it may be trickier to win with a low payroll, but it can be done.
What makes the Mets’ fortunes so unique is that while they may operate as a small-market team now, they have the resources to go from small-market to large-market at fairly quickly. If the $82 million team is good, the $92 million team can be better, as can the $102 million team and $112 million team, et cetera. Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh are perpetually small markets; their teams can’t become big-market teams without divine intervention. If their teams are good, they have little flexibility to improve on those teams; their resources are spent trying to keep the good team together.
On the flip side, if the Mets field a poor team with its $82 million payroll, the team can spend the resources it has to field a better team. While it would make for a disappointing season, the team’s outlook would be far better than those of other small-market organizations. If Cleveland or Oakland locks their resources in with a bad team, there is little they can do aside from waiting for the money to come off the books.
In general, the two most expected outcomes for baseball teams are to win rich and lose poor. One of the remaining options is to win poor, which is unexpectedly good and in extreme cases becomes the stuff of legends (the movie wasn’t Too Much Moneyball). The other is to lose rich, which is unexpectedly bad and in most cases downright embarrassing (2003 Mets, anyone?).
Trying to win poor has the most potential upside, and the Mets can afford to in 2014 and the next couple years. It also allows the team to keep its momentum going when its young pitchers eventually turn from prospects to veterans and the team needs to be rich again.
One of the things that made Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland ball club so remarkable is that the A’s were able to win 103 games the year after losing Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen to free agency. Much is made of Beane’s use of sabermetrics, but Oakland owes much of its success to young starters Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. The Athletics’ Big Three combined for 57 wins and a 3.05 ERA. Zito won the Cy Young that year and Hudson was robbed by not getting any consideration. Anchored by their young arms, the A’s won one more game in 2002 than they did in 2001.
Within four years, however, Beane’s post-2001 problem repeated itself. By the end of 2006, his Big Three arms were all gone. Hudson and Mulder were traded after the 2004 campaign, and Zito left via free agency after Oakland’s lone Beane-era ALDS victory in 2006. The small-market A’s could simply not afford to keep the band together.
The Mets could be on the cusp of their own Big Three with Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, and Noah Syndergaard. As their careers progress, they may wish to eventually test the free agent market. Were the Mets a perpetual small-market team, they may have had to trade one or more of the litter out of fiscal constraints, and that still may not have been enough to keep even one arm. However, because New York has tightened its belt in 2014, in five years’ time it can afford to put on a few more pounds for the sake of keeping Harvey, Wheeler, and Syndergaard together. Oakland could not afford such a luxury for the sake of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder.
Mets fans still feel the sting of seeing Jose Reyes skip town because of money. Now that the organization’s fiscal house is in order, New Yorkers won’t have to see repeat defections. Before the team’s expenditures live up to its city, though, fans should be excited to see what the small-market Mets can do. They have a chance to turn their “woe” in the payroll into “whoa” on the diamond.