While the Wipons are leveraged to the hilt, this offseason has been a textbook case about how a team and a general manager use leverage (or have it used against them.) While TNT canceled the TV show “Leverage,” that word is still being used more today than I’m guessing any of us would have imagined just five years ago.
So, what is leverage? The dictionary definition is as follows:
a. The action of a lever.
b. The mechanical advantage of a lever.
2. Positional advantage; power to act effectively: “started his . . . career with far more social leverage than his father had enjoyed” (Doris Kearns Goodwin).
3. The use of credit or borrowed funds to improve one’s speculative capacity and increase the rate of return from an investment, as in buying securities on margin.
We’re focused more on the definitions listed second and third, although at this point it shouldn’t surprise us if the first definition makes it into our sports lexicon soon, too.
The Wilpons are leveraged to the hilt – this is explained in the third definition above. But right now let’s focus on the second definition.
Usually we think of a club having “positional advantage” on pre-arb players. The Mets are no different than most clubs in this regard and they will certainly use this power to issue way-below market contracts for the likes of Ruben Tejada, Matt Harvey and a bunch of other young players.
But the Mets have used leverage like perhaps no other team here this offseason. The most obvious example is with R.A. Dickey, a pitcher coming off the best season in his career which resulted in 20 Wins and the Cy Young award. However, the Mets had Dickey signed to a team-friendly contract that included an option for 2013, which they picked up.
In addition to the dirt-cheap option, the Mets had further leverage with Dickey because of three other issues. A) He had very little history of success, a position bolstered by B) His use of the knuckleball, which many people mistrust. Perhaps most important of all was his C) Advanced baseball age of 38.
This leverage prompted Dickey to ask for a 2-year/$26 million extension, which seems really low when you consider he provided $20.8 million of on-field value according to FanGraphs and undoubtedly additional off-field value. While this appeared low to the average fan, the Mets, who enjoyed the leverage in this situation, balked at meeting this demand.
Some did not understand how or why the Mets were acting this way towards such a good guy. But it was business, they held the hammer and they used it. In return for a few days of bad press, the Mets used their leverage with Dickey to complete what has been regarded industry-wide as an outstanding deal with the Blue Jays.
Not only did the Mets have leverage with Dickey, they also held leverage with the other teams in baseball. Sure, there may have been some potential suitors turned off by the knuckleball but there is always a market for a guy with a 4.26 K/BB ratio and a 1.05 WHIP. At the Winter Meetings the scuttlebutt was that teams were only going to offer one top level prospect but because he had leverage – and patience – Sandy Alderson walked away with two top prospects and a highly-regarded international player.
The latest indication of leverage comes in this morning’s report that the Mets offered free agent Scott Hairston a 1-year/$2 million deal.
Hairston entered the offseason with visions of a three-year deal at a substantial raise over the $1.1 million he earned the previous two seasons. And who could blame him? If Hairston was worth $1.1 million following a 2010 season in which he put up a .640 OPS in 336 PA, surely he would be worth significantly more coming off a season with an .803 OPS in 398 PA.
But despite speculation that this year’s free agent market would yield high dollar contracts across the board because of the huge increases in national TV money, reality has written a different story. Sure, some free agents hit paydirt. But many are still left holding the bag and in particular it looks like outfielders have not seen the money they were expecting, from the top of the market on down.
While Josh Hamilton got his money, after the Angels got involved in a bit of a surprise, the others have not fared quite so well. B.J. Upton signed a lower-than-expected deal and Michael Bourn is still available. The trickle-down effect has been the evaporation of a market for Hairston, at least at the terms he envisioned earlier.
Alderson and the Mets did not start out with leverage in the Hairston negotiation but circumstance has certainly given them exactly that. Earlier, there were no reports of the Mets offering a specific dollar amount. My guess is because Alderson did not want to insult Hairston when he could turn around and walk away. He kept the dialogue moving forward until the point he was comfortable that once again he held the proverbial hammer.
There’s little doubt that Hairston felt like the nail when he was hit with Alderson’s offer. If Alderson felt comfortable offering Hairston this, it must mean that other clubs are not offering much, if any, more. This is probably how Alderson hoped the negotiations with Jose Reyes would go, too. But the Marlins ruined that by coming up with their back-loaded deal that blew whatever the Mets might have been willing to pay out of the water.
Of course, leverage works both ways. We saw Reyes had leverage while the Marlins were operating in their “win-now” mode, which unfortunately for this year’s class of free agents, did not last very long. Another player who enjoyed leverage was David Wright.
Having parted ways with all of the other stars from the Omar Minaya era, the Mets were backed into a corner with Wright. Not only was he a star but unlike, say, Carlos Beltran – he was immensely popular with the fan base. On top of that, he was the dull, no-waves personality that the Wilpons have traditionally embraced.
The bottom line is that Wright had the leverage and used it to get a contract that he’s far from a slam dunk to live up to, at least from an on-field production point of view. The Mets balked at paying R.A. Dickey a below-average contract because they had leverage. They willingly signed a deal requiring more than five times the money Dickey was asking for with Wright because they did not have the leverage.
Earlier, many fans were fretting when the Mets did not make any moves. We heard time and time again how they were the only club not to sign a major league free agent. But we’ve seen first hand how being patient and using the leverage he has available has paid off for Alderson. First he exceeded the return many expected with the RA Dickey deal. Now it appears he’s going to get an outfielder at a fraction of the cost many anticipated.
Which leaves one final question: Which outfielder will it be? Offering $2 million to Hairston feels very much like offering the $20 million dollar extension to Dickey. It’s high enough of an offer not to completely piss off the player and agent and low enough that there’s no danger that the player will sign it immediately.
When Alderson made that offer to Dickey, he was simultaneously offering him around to every other club. Now it seems like while Alderson is making this offer to Hairston that he must be simultaneously fishing for a bigger catch. Is it Bourn? Is it Michael Morse? Or is it someone who hasn’t even been previously linked to the Mets?
In this offseason of leverage and patience, all we can do is wait to find out the answer.