Mets Thoughts

The Mets are a mess, again.

As we enter Memorial Day weekend, the team sits at 23-27, 8.5 games behind the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. People would normally point to the team’s high payroll, and call them a bunch of over-paid underachievers. But these aren’t normal times: the team’s owner, Fred Wilpon, was the subject of a hyped New Yorker article chronicling his relationship with Bernie Madoff and the lawsuit that may force him to sell the team.

Wilpon let Madoff manage his money for over twenty years. His company, Sterling Equities, became one of the investor’s largest clients—in all, there were 480 Sterling accounts. And Madoff delivered like clock-work: in good times and in bad, Wilpon received a 10% return on his investment.

The Mets owner and his partners had $550 million invested in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, L.L.C., on December 11, 2008. That afternoon, it all disappeared.

Madoff was arrested and charged with securities fraud. Authorities described his operation as the largest Ponzi scheme in history.In 2009, Madoff pled guilty to 11 criminal counts and was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

But Wilpon’s troubles were only beginning. Last December Irving Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for compensating Madoff’s victims, sued Sterling Equities. Picard claims that Wilpon and his partners knew about Madoff’s operation and has demanded that the company pay damages of $1 billion to Madoff’s victims.

The lawsuit forced Wilpon to sell part of his team. This week hedge fund manager David Einhorn paid $200 million to become a minority owner of the franchise.

That should help the owner out of some of his Mets debt. Forbes reported in March that he owes creditors $450 million. Wilpon lost more than $50 million on the club last year and was forced to borrow $25 million from Major League Baseball to meet payroll obligations. Recently he told Sports Illustrated that he may lose up to $70 million on the team this year.

Wilpon’s financial woes mirror his team’s on-field decline.

Five years ago, the Mets looked like the team of the future. Homegrown stars David Wright and Jose Reyes were coming into their own and looked like they’d roam the left side of the infield for the next fifteen years. Free agent acquisition Carlos Beltran was flourishing. Veteran pitchers Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, and Orlando Hernandez solidified the rotation And the Braves, division winners every year from 1991-2005, were on the wane.

The Mets won 97 games that year and captured their first division title since 1988. They swept the Dodgers in the Division Series and looked like sure pennant winners. Their opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals, had only won 83 during the regular season.

The Red Birds took the Mets to a seventh game at Shea. The visitors took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Mets loaded the bases. With two outs, Carlos Beltran came to the plate. Mets fans expected him to come through. After all, the team signed him to a massive $119 million contract after he hit 8 post-season homers in the 2004 playoffs. But Beltran struck out on three pitches.

The Mets looked like they’d rebounded the next season. They had a seven game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies on September 12. Then the free-fall began. They lost twelve of their final seventeen, including six of their final seven to the fourth place Washington Nationals (73-89) and last-place Florida Marlins (71-91).

They finished a game back of the Phillies. The fate of the two franchises, and the control of the National League East, changed that day.

Heretofore, the Phillies were perennial losers. They’d only won one World Series in their 125 year existence and, during July 2007, lost their 10,000th game as a franchise- the most in American sports history.

The Mets collapse sent Philadelphia to the post-season for the first time since 1993. The Phils went on to win the 2008 World Series and the pennant the following year. They’ve captured four consecutive division titles and look like they’ll dominate the N.L. East for the foreseeable future with a potent lineup full of star players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard and the best starting rotation in baseball.

The Mets have been a sub .500 team for three years now. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Over the past four seasons, they’ve spent $537 million in payroll, more than any other team in baseball besides the Yankees and Red Sox. But they have little to show for it: they’ve gone 326-323 over that time-span and haven’t made the playoffs.  Their poor performance is due to two reasons:  horrific front office decision making and injuries.

Much of the blame goes to former general manager, Omar Minaya, who assumed front-office duties after the 2004 season. Minaya made Hot Stove headlines that winter when he signed the game’s hottest player, Carlos Beltran, and future hall of fame pitcher, Pedro Martinez. Both players played key roles in the Mets renaissance in 2006, but neither lived up to the big city hype.

Martinez signed a 4 year/$53 million deal but went just 32-23 in his time with the team. His era soared to 3.88 over that period, up nearly a run over his career 2.93 era. Other than a splendid 2005 season (when he went 16-9 with a 2.83 era) he was a mediocre starter.

Beltran, meanwhile, has been the poster-child for the big-spending and under-performing ball club.  The Mets believed they’d acquired a legitimate five tool player who’d bat cleanup and play gold glove center field for several seasons. Injuries derailed that dream; Beltran hobbled around in 2009 and 2010, and forced him to move to right field in 2011. He  hit 25 plus homers in only three of his six years with the club.

Recently Wilpon called himself a schmuck for giving big money to the dynamic, but injury-prone star.

Other signings showed the team’s profligate ways. Minaya gave left hander Oliver Perez a 3 year/$36 million deal before the 2009 season. Perez went 3-9 with an era over 6.80 in two seasons, before being released.

Minaya paid $66 million for the services of left fielder Jason Bay a year later, in a desperate attempt to keep his job. The team needed a power hitter after moving into Citi Field the previous season. Slugging third baseman, David Wright, had hit only 10 homers in his first season in the new park. Bay turned into the biggest free-agent bust of 2010, hitting only 6 homers before going on injured reserve in July and not playing the rest of the year. In twenty-two home games so far this season, Bay has yet to homer in Queens.

No player acquisition has caused more grief than Johan Santana. Minaya got the ace pitcher in a sign and trade deal with the Minnesota Twins in 2008. Everyone thought they made a brilliant move, locking up the game’s best pitcher for six seasons/$137.5 million. But the injury-bug hit the talented lefty the next year. He went through arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow in August 2009 and missed the last two months of the season. In September 2010 he had surgery on his shoulder, missing the last few weeks of the team’s dreadful campaign as well as the first half of 2011.

Fan apathy grew as the injuries and losses piled up. The team drew 32,401 patrons a game in 2010, a 19% dip from the year before. Philadelphia, conversely, leads baseball in home attendance with over 45,000 fans coming each night. The Mets expect lower attendance this year as well: through 22 games, they’ve only drawn 28,807 a night. That puts them 11th in baseball. Over 30% of stadium seats remain empty.

It’s no wonder that gate receipts fell over 25% last year. A weak economy and a bad ball club will keep the fans away, especially in New York.

Wilpon cleaned house last fall, firing both general manager Omar Minaya and his skipper Jerry Manuel. He put Sandy Alderson in the front-office and Terry Collins in the dugout.

Alderson was the architect of the 1980s Bad Boy Oakland Athletics. That team won four division titles, three pennants, and the 1989 World Series. After spending a decade plus working for Bud Selig, Alderson went to San Diego and led the Padres to division titles in 2005 and 2006.

The new regime stayed quiet over the winter, making no big off-season splashes. $64 million will come off the payroll this September when the contracts of Carlos Beltran, closer Francisco Rodriguez, and short-stop Jose Reyes all expire. That should give Alderson and his “Moneyball” protégés (J.P. Riccardi who is special assistant to the general manager and Paul DePodesta, the vice president of player development-both of whom rose to prominence due to Michael Lewis’s eponymous work detailing Oakland’s front office) some room to help rebuild the franchise and help them compete with Philadelphia.

Wilpon’s comments to the New Yorker might ingratiate him with fans, but won’t bring them back to the ballpark. He called third baseball David Wright a fine player, but not a superstar and said Jose Reyes won’t command Carl Crawford money when he hits the free-agent market this fall (the Red Sox gave the left-fielder 7 years/$142 million last fall). Most are probably relieved to know he’s seeing the same product they are, and not living in denial.

“We’re snake bitten,” Wilpon said, as he tried to explain his team’s poor play in recent years. Maybe he’s right. One thing’s for sure: his club has miles to go before they’ll factor again in the National League.

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