"Look, the New York franchise in the National League is one of the flagship franchises in baseball,” Weiner said. “I think everybody would like to see the Mets as a competitive team, and it’s going to require a higher payroll. I trust that the Wilpons, Sandy Alderson, John Ricco, all those people will end up putting together a competitive team shortly.– MLBPA Executive Director Michael Wiener"
Sept 16, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis (29) during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
This seems to be the general consensus in baseball; the New York Mets won’t be able to compete until they bring their payroll back to “New York” levels. In short, this is a bunch of hooey (“hooey” is a technical term meaning bulls–t). For starters, Wiener has a vested interest in the Mets’ payroll rising; for him to say otherwise would be detrimental to those he represents. The past four world champions who weren’t the Yankees have averaged just under $105M in payroll. Current estimates (per baseball-reference) put this year’s Mets team at $90M, the lowest (not-adjusted for inflation) since 2000, when they ranked 6th in the majors at $79.5M.
But this isn’t about that. Teams with lower payrolls have made the playoffs, notably the Baltimore Orioles ($76.7M) and the Oakland Athletics ($61.2M) last season. Though neither made it to the ALCS, the A’s did have the second best record in the AL with 94 wins and the Orioles were only one win behind them. Their combined payroll of $137.9M was only 69.6% that of the 95-win, $198M New York Yankees. Clearly it’s possible for teams with lower payrolls to compete. But this isn’t about that. Today, we’re specifically going to address whether or not the Mets could make it into the playoffs with their current payroll, $90M.
Last season the 10 teams to make the playoffs averaged 45.95 fWAR, which was slightly below the 47.49 average over the past six seasons. Using Fangraph’s baseline of 43 wins (the estimated total for a 0-WAR team), the average playoff team over the past six seasons would be expected to win 90.49 games. In reality, they won 93.44 games; a difference of 3 wins is reasonable factoring luck and statistical fuzz. Below is a chart summarizing the previous paragraph that also shows the averages for each league:
So there you have it. If we place any value in this chart (which I do), the Mets should need to total around 47.5 fWAR in order to be a playoff-caliber club. There’s no guarantee they would make it, as the actions of 14 other teams would come into play, but our goal here will be to get the Mets to that total without exceeding $90M.
First, let’s look at the Mets’ payroll commitments for 2014:
So we now have $56.5M for 23 players. The significant changes here are that Wright and Niese get a combined raise of $11M, and Santana and Bay combine to remove $33.5M, for a net gain of $22.5M in flexibility compared to the 2012 ledger.
The Mets have 7 players who will be arbitration-eligible in 2014 – infielders Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada, and Justin Turner; pitchers Dillon Gee and Bobby Parnell, and outfielder Mike Baxter. Those 7 players will earn a combined $9.75M in 2013. Though it’s unknown how any would fare in arbitration, I’ve attached a chart showing my estimates below:
Feb 23, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (65) throws in the third inning during a spring training game against the Washington Nationals at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Davis, Murphy, Tejada, Gee, and Parnell are the type of positive-value (if unspectacular), cost-controlled players championship rosters are built around. If anything, they represent a solid argument that payroll isn’t necessarily significant going forward, as they (plus Wright, Niese, d’Arnaud, Wheeler, and Harvey) represent a pretty strong core of a team. The outfield may be a mess today, but if the Mets made a play for a free agent next year (say 28-year-old Carlos Gomez, whose play the past two seasons has been worth 4.6 fWAR per 600 plate appearances) and if anyone currently under control (Baxter, Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Collin Cowgill, and Matt Den Dekker) can step up, that could change quickly.
The 2014 team, on paper, is also in need of a fifth starter. Plenty of internal candidates (Jeremy Hefner, Collin McHugh, Jenrry Mejia) exist, but the Mets could look to free agency as well. Should Shaun Marcum stay healthy this season, he could represent a reasonably-priced option for the back end of the Mets rotation.
For sake of completion, I’m going to assume that the Mets sign both Gomez and Marcum, and do so for a combined 2014 salary of $17M. Using the Fangraphs’ “Fans” projections for 2013 (I increased Wheeler’s and Gomez’s fWAR projections and decreased Baxter’s and Nieuwenhuis’ based on their likely playing time) we have a total of 44.5 fWAR from these 20 players, at a total cost of $75M. On paper, the Mets would have a remaining $15M budget with hopes of gaining 3 wins in the bullpen and on the bench. At that point, the roster begins to shake out like so:
March 14, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; New York Mets center fielder Matt den Dekker (68) against the Detroit Tiger during a spring training game at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Now, what this doesn’t prove is that the Mets could consistently compete at this payroll level; the payroll will quickly increase as more players reach arbitration and free agency in the following two seasons. Similarly, it doesn’t guarantee success as it doesn’t account for injuries and aberration. On the other side, it doesn’t account for the significant potential for players like Ike Davis, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and others to continue to climb toward their ceilings.
Ultimately, because of the number of key players the Mets currently have under control and the significant payroll flexibility they’ll have after this season, it does show that Sandy Alderson was indeed correct that the team could very quickly become more than competitive, and wouldn’t have to spend substantially to reach that level. And if players like Lucas Duda or Daniel Murphy can continue to improve defensively and reach their offensive potential, it’s completely reasonable for the team to not just compete, but contend in 2014.
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