In defense of the Mets’ flexible payroll **

Recently, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, for the first time in years, met with reporters and willingly answered questions about payroll. The younger Wilpon essentially towed the company line that not everything is about having one of the top payrolls in the league. Additionally, he stated that the payroll for the 2018 club was not set in stone, with the New York Post’s Mike Puma quoting him as saying, “It’s an ongoing dialogue.”

This essentially confirms what we’ve known for a while now, that the budget is flexible. When we first heard this news back in the height of the Bernie Madoff controversy, it was presented as if the owners would change their minds on a whim, deciding one day the budget was XX and the next week it would either go up or down (depending on nothing seemingly baseball-related) to YY, instead.

Now, in at least this offseason and last, it seems like the owners establish a payroll level but are open to the idea of spending more, if the GM and others in the baseball department can make a convincing case on why they should. Last year the budget was exceeded so the club could bring back Yoenis Cespedes. Perhaps this year they can be convinced to up the bar if the price on, say, Jake Arrieta falls to an acceptable level.

The knee-jerk reaction is to claim that everything that the Wilpons do is bad. But let’s try to look at this objectively. Let’s take the Mets and the Wilpons out of the equation and look at this style of management in different scenarios, starting with non-baseball ways.

Let’s say you’re a teenager again. The parents of Kid A have established that his curfew is 11 p.m. and if he breaks curfew, even for a time as little as five minutes, he’ll be punished. Meanwhile, the parents of Kid B have established a 10:00 p.m. curfew. However, if the child comes to the parents on a case-by-case basis, the curfew can be adjusted. If there’s a dance that’s going to run past 10, he can ask for an extended curfew. Or, if a known child with pre-approved parents is having a party, the kid can seek an extension so he doesn’t have to be the first one to leave.

Which is better – the firm guideline with no flexibility or the earlier deadline with allowances for special circumstances?

Okay, you’re an adult again. You have two job offers on the table. The first one requires you to be in your office at 9 a.m. every morning, no exceptions. The second one wants you to be in at 8:30 a.m. but makes allowances for doctor appointments, bad weather or child care emergencies – provided you give your boss some advance notice.

Which offer would you take, assuming all other things were equal?

Let’s say you’re a general manager of a baseball club. The owner of Club A gives you a set payroll, regardless of what your current roster is and how many additions you have to make or which players may be available. Club B gives you a lower payroll but if you can make the case – because of circumstances – why you need more, he can be convinced.

In a vacuum, it seems like most would pick option B in each of the three above scenarios. Assuming that’s true, it means we would value the flexibility and the ability to have input into the decisions over a better initial starting point.

Of course, turning back to the Wilpons, some will never accept anything other than a top three payroll, like it’s a divine right bestowed by the creator. And let’s be honest, it’s hard to imagine the current version of the Mets operating with a budget on par with the Dodgers and Yankees, even if Sandy Alderson was so convincing that he could sell snow to Eskimos.

If you’re one of those “divine right” people, nothing anyone says is going to change your mind. No doubt you’re going to say something about paying New York prices and that entitles you to feel this way, regardless if you’re a season ticket holder or not.

Or maybe you’ll take the position that the best way to make money is to spend money. That’s a much more reasonable viewpoint, so long as the things you are spending money on are, you know, worth spending on. Is Eric Hosmer worth more than the $140 million he’s allegedly already turned down? My answer would be a resounding no.

For the benefit of anyone who may not be clear on the subject, my opinion is that the Mets’ payroll should be higher than it was last year. But there’s a difference in “should be higher” and “woefully inadequate if not on par with the Yankees.” There’s a distinction to be made between spending money and spending money wisely. Just because Jonathan Lucroy was good in 2016 doesn’t mean he’s worth signing to an eight-figure contract in 2018.

My view is that a payroll with a lower baseline but one that is flexible if circumstances are right forces financial discipline that is, quite frankly, much needed in the industry. Again, in case anyone is unclear, my view is that the baseline for the Mets should be higher than it is now. But that’s said from a fan without access to detailed financial statements from the Wilpons, either for the Mets or the rest of their business holdings.

Back in 2010, I wrote an article saying that I wished Nelson Doubleday still owned the Mets. While he passed away in 2015, that sentiment still holds true today. Hopefully the team would have went to a better-funded group or individual than the Wilpons and Sterling Equities once Doubleday passed.

I don’t like the way the Wilpons assumed an equal stake with Doubleday. I don’t like the way they became majority owners. I don’t like the way they partnered with Madoff. I don’t like the decision to build a stadium for the Mets and have it honor the Dodgers. No doubt there are other items on the list of things not to like about the Wilpons.

But the concept of a flexible payroll is simply not one of them. Perhaps this is nothing more than a rejection on my part of totalitarianism. The idea that the owners should deliver a firm payroll with no wiggle room seems … antiquated. The Mets’ flexible payroll encourages smart spending and allows the GM to make the case that this is the right time and the right player to invest in and expand payroll.

Now, if only reporters with access to Alderson could get him to explain his thought process in which players are worth advocating for more payroll and which aren’t – that would be illuminating.

*****

This article is marked with a double-asterisk in the headline, meaning it’s fair game to complain about the payroll and/or the owners. I appreciate how here in the new year everyone has quit complaining about those two things in every thread, regardless if it was on topic or not. But this is the appropriate place for those types of comments. As outlined in the Comment Policy, the double-asterisk is the signal that this is an article where these type of remarks are acceptable.

20 comments for “In defense of the Mets’ flexible payroll **

  1. January 24, 2018 at 10:20 am

    I thought about complaining but there’s no point in doing so. I guess Brian it comes down to how much of a teams payroll is on the field as opposed to on the DL. Unfortunately David Wright’s contract is a burden for this team. Last years final figure of 164 million dollars+ is something I can live with. But there are other options as the Marlins look to dump payroll. Swapping catchers and trying to pry away Yelich could be just as much of an investment as a FA signing.

    • January 24, 2018 at 10:45 am

      I agree about Wright. If they were getting close to $20 million of production from him, it would be a much different picture.

      At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that there’s not going to be “dead money” somewhere on the team. Is there an acceptable amount – like say 5% or 10%? I don’t know the answer but it’s interesting to think about GMs building a team with the understanding that no matter what you do, that X amount will be worthless.

  2. David Groveman
    January 24, 2018 at 10:30 am

    So here’s the thing:

    If the Wilpons say to Alderson you have $140 Mil to spend on 2018 payroll, but… if you find the right player at the right price… let us know and we’ll go up. That’s great.

    If the Wilpons say to Alderson we’d like you to keep the payroll around $120-$140 Million and ask us before you sign anyone expensive. That’s another thing entirely.

    It seems to me that from Steve Phillips to Omar Minaya and now to Sandy Alderson, that the Wilpons don’t give the GM free reign to run the team. It seems that they want to approve the baseball decisions and if that appearance is reality, that’s a problem.

    Personally, the Wilpons can do no right by me at this point and I won’t be happy until they don’t own my franchise.

  3. Steve S.
    January 24, 2018 at 11:28 am

    The Wilpons with more money coming to them wanted to cut payroll and raise ticket prices, but now they are hearing from the fans, some of whom are hurting them in the wallet by not buying season tickets. That’s the only thing that will move them at all.

    A good sign was getting Bruce for three years. They need to sign Walker to play 2B. Spend some money now on Cobb or Lynn to get a good starting pitcher who will give us 25+ starts. And beef up the bullpen more: We need a second decent LHRP (now it’s Smoker?). What do we have now for the pen? Familia, Ramos, Swarzak, Gsellman or Lugo or Wheeler, Robles, Sewald, and Smoker. Not that great; not deep.

  4. Name
    January 24, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Everyone thinks that their owners are the worst in the game, but really, what fans are consistently happy with their current team owners?

    The Dodgers, for sure.
    Red Sox, probably.
    Giants have 3 rings recently and spend a lot so i can’t imagine any complaints.
    Yankee fans? Maybe? But a lot of fans still miss the old days of George.

    Everyone else? You can probably find a decent lengthy period in their history when fans weren’t content.

    The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

  5. Chris F
    January 24, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    Interesting article, as always, but Im going to take a bit of a “spurious analogy” perspective, followed by what I see as the issue.

    Neither example you offer carries the same situation except at the high flying level that being flexible is generally more advantageous than being rigid. I think for most real world situations, that is true. In your analogies, a carry over plan is not a critical contingency. Each event is isolated, and the system resets each time consequence free. However, I would argue that could not be further from the truth in running a baseball team. A GM by obligation must be outward projecting such that decision made today impact tomorrow, and *far* beyond. In that case, having sudden changes is availability of resources is quite complicated, particularly if that has a high frequency of change. You cannot have the capacity to sign Harper in January to a 10/400 deal, and then see no capacity to sign a reliever in February. Is it worth trading that blue chipper for a star 1.5 year rental? It places the GM in an impossible position not to know exactly what is happening for the future or to even know if he/she is building a team for win now, win later, or never win? As a result, this “flexibility” is a major hindrance. Suppose as a kid your parent says have half a slice of pizza for dinner tonight while you sister is out, then offers your sister a whole pan pizza the following night while you go hungry. Does that flexibility sound good? stable? consistent? I would say capricious, whimsical, and nutty. Unfortunately, that is what Mets GMs face with ownership. This has been articulated by Phillips and Duquette many times on MLB radio. Basically, it is near impossible to plan for the future when you have exactly no idea how to plan. Make no mistake, a GMs job is more about the future than the present.

    Anyway, the payroll absolute number is a distraction from reality. Everyone knows that the Astros budget was less than the Mets. But it hurt like hell to get high drafts, and offer aging vets lots of money for clubhouse glue. The goal is not just compete with the Dodgers financially. The number of Dodgers WS wins says that baseball is not like other sports where you can just buy a ring. The point is effective allocation of resources to build a winning team, such that finances are not the talking point, but winning games is. If a GM is hamstrung for planning for the future, you are stuck with short term deals, often relegated to lesser players. You hang on to things you control cheaply because that is easy. But all this is distraction from winning. What I see in the ownership is the words about liking to win, but meddling in baseball operations to the point of being an obstacle. By contrast, look at the Cubs who just said we are giving the keys to someone like Theo Epstein and saying, bring me a trophy.

    • January 24, 2018 at 6:48 pm

      You’re making the assumption that the GM is hamstrung for planning for the future, which I think is far from a sure thing.

      And the industry as a whole is avoiding long-term deals. Which is a good thing.

      The reality is that each team is a billion-dollar business. If you believe that ownership isn’t going to be involved in major decisions that affect a business of that size, I don’t know what to say.

      As for the Cubs, my belief is that it’s much more likely that discussions between Epstein and the Ricketts occur on a regular basis than that they don’t happen at all.

      • Chris F
        January 27, 2018 at 11:05 pm

        Everyone should read this Davidoff piece in the NYP. It confirms what many of us think, that ownership is meddling in baseball operations to the hindrance of the team. I believe this extends to payroll obfuscation as well —- we should all re read the work of Howard Megdal on this topic.

        Ken Davidoff NYP:

        “Conversations with 10 people possessing first-hand knowledge of the Mets’ baseball operations produced the picture of an ultra-intense environment, created by Mets ownership, in which the daily pressure to win, not only the games but the daily media coverage, has compromised the decision-making process and, hence, led to poor moves on multiple fronts. On the medical front, that has made the Mets the butt of many an industry joke,”

  6. David Groveman
    January 24, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    For what it is worth,

    When Brian gives me a budget for the GM project. I find that to be extremely helpful in making a plan for my team.

    • January 24, 2018 at 6:49 pm

      Our simulation demands a firm payroll.

  7. Pete In Iowa
    January 24, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    There is one crucial element to the Mets’ overall 2018 payroll that everyone is missing: the total dollars allocated for starting pitching is miniscule compared to nearly every other team. This means that for the Mets payroll to be “top 5” in 2018, they would have to have at least 6 or 7 starting position players earning greater than $10 million per. How many other teams field such a club? Not many.
    For this reason, you can’t look at total dollars, but rather, how aggressive they are in filling needs. Bruce was a good start. I also think Gonzalez is a good move as he is likely to put up a better season than Smith at this point for almost no cost. With the market as slow as it has been this year, I think the next 4 weeks will tell the real tale in how serious this ownership is about winning.

    • January 24, 2018 at 6:52 pm

      I also think Gonzalez is a good move as he is likely to put up a better season than Smith

      Smith put up a better season than Gonzalez last year. I’d so much rather bank on a 23 year old improving in his second go-round in the majors than a 36 year old trying to rebound from both injury and decline.

  8. TJ
    January 24, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    Many good points among the comments above.

    I think it cannot be understand that a major component in agitating the fan base is the combination of raising ticket prices and reducing and/or equally the payroll commitment. Unless you have some major prospects replacing high priced vets, that has a real bad smell to it.

    It is unfair and frankly dumb for them to come out an put a number on what they will spend, so we all get the flexibility, but the Wilpon street cred with the fan base is very low and mostly their own doing.

    It is also very unfair to label any fan that complains about payroll as requiring a top 5 payroll, requiring long term nine figure salary commitments, or spending just for the sake of spending.

    That said, the team still has significant holes and/or weaknesses that, in this current marketplace, can very likely be addressed without major long term commitments. Our beloved owners have a big opportunity over the next few weeks, I hope they take advantage of it rather than sticking to “the plan” while their N L East counterparts continue to improve.

    • January 24, 2018 at 6:56 pm

      But we see plenty of instances of fans complaining about the Mets not carrying a “New York” payroll level. How else to take that besides a top five payroll?

      And people want to throw money at every perceived problem, whether that amounts to 9 figures or not. And that falls into spending for the sake of spending.

  9. Remember1969
    January 24, 2018 at 5:45 pm

    A bunch of thoughts on this. I don’t really care what the $$ total up to be, or if they are in the top 5 or the bottom 8. What I would really look to see is “How do they build the best baseball team?” That has to be a combination of proven veterans and youth. It has to be with an eye on the future. It has to be a good blend of all needs. What does the farm have, and when will anyone be ready to move up? With that all said, I think the Jay Bruce signing is solid. It filled a hole in the line-up, as well as added a solid player in the really thin outfield. In addition, they got what I feel is a good value contract. They did not have to pay 9 figures for 30 HR potential. Next, they have to decide if they can win now (2018) or if the pieces they put together now will help (or hinder) them in the future years. Will signing Walker or trading for Harrison be a block if Guillorme (who everyone is high on his defense) proves to be ready by the end of the year or 2019. If not giving Smith the job in 2018, how do you know if he’ll be there in 2019? Let him grow into it. Gonzalez, to me, does not make any sense either way. Is there any way they can be competitive in the 3rd base market after 2018 (Machado, Donaldson). Do they want to be? What is the value of the open options? I look at a player like Moustakas and think that he is really overvalued in the press. What player is he? Does he 38 homers in him again? He never hit more than 22 before. His defense is not great by most measures. What is he worth? The 3/39 that Bruce got? maybe, but what does that do later? They need to think about the pitchers – several of them certainly have a lot of promise, and if healthy, could be a great staff as early a this year, but spending money on even a 3 year contract for Moustakas may limit you when the bill comes due to re-up a Thor or deGrom.
    That was kind of rambling, but my point is that spending $$ isn’t the whole thing. And yes payroll flexibility does make sense over a hard and fast budget. I would rather see the ‘careful’ way they work now than have them go spend like drunks and get stuck with a bunch of bad contracts.

    • TJ
      January 25, 2018 at 12:22 pm

      69,
      I agree with your payroll perspective as well. The number is less important than how talented and deep the roster is. As you say, the best blend is a steady influx of young talent, which mixed with vets, keeps the payroll costs under control.

      However, when the system doesn’t deliver as much as is needed, and a team intends to compete in the current season, acquisitions and expenditures are required.

      The great thing about the current market is that a team like the Mets has a better opportunity at adequately filling remaining holes without losing draft picks or guaranteeing large amounts of future year salaries that hamper competitive flexibility going forward. Who knows what future markets will be like, but this is really a time that they can seize the moment, solidify the team, and win back some street cred with the fans, without breaking the bank.

  10. January 24, 2018 at 5:58 pm

    I’m glad one of the Wilpon’s came out of hiding and addressed the fan base, concerns with the team. I hope they really do address the needs of the team. When they resigned Jay Bruce, my optimism was increased. They still need a right-handed power hitter and more help in the bullpen.

  11. Eraff
    January 24, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    I’m no admirer or Owners/Management…they’ve sucked for a long time…. but the addition of Major Talent and Major Payroll is a “Going For It” move. When they’ve been able to identify their core, they’ve done that twice in the past few Years…Both times with Cespedes. I need to recognize that.

    They have no idea about the core of this team right now…there is not a move or two or three that would spell “Ready to Contend” before they See Their Starting Pitching, Cespedes, and Conforto.

    This is a wait and see team, and they are being extremely smart in keeping their player assets and their money gathered in the hopes that this team will play well enough to indicate additions to payroll and personnel.

    I expect an infield move or two…and I hope for strong pitching from any 3-4 starters (at least), and strong recoveries from Ces and Conforto. Then, I’ll howl about adding players and payroll

  12. Mike Walczak
    January 25, 2018 at 5:31 am

    This is an excellent thought provoking article. The Mets have needs. Most fans see a need for a 2B/3B who could solidify the top of the lineup, a solid starting pitcher and maybe another decent relief pitcher. That is what I would like to see.

    But, when I go to the store to shop, I don’t like the items on the shelf or the prices. Arrieta, Darvish, Moustakas and more. They just dont feel like the answer. Especially, with the price. This years free agent class feels like a mediocre class. The owners probably feel the same way. Not worth the money. Why overpay for a subpar product. The real pain with deals like this are down the road when the player does not perform and the team is stuck with dead weight. Imagine if the Mets had Jacoby Ellsnury, ouch.

    I don’t advocate having the highest payroll. I would be very hesitant to even think about 40/500 for Harper. A half billion for one player, not worth the risk.

    That being said, every fan wants their team to win. It has been 32 years since a WS victory. I just want the Mets to make some reasonable moves to address the glaring needs to be able to compete with the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers. I like to shake it up. I like to see new players on the team. I like trades. Carter and Ojeda. Great additions added to help deliver a championship. Theo Epstein is a genius. WS titles for the Red Sox and Cubs. He shook it up. C’mon Sandy, let’s make some good moves. Spring training is a few weeks away. We fans want to win.

  13. Eraff
    January 26, 2018 at 7:25 am

    If they get Pitching Health and Performance , they will be back onto the model that Pays pitchers and Rotates toward “reasonable position player costs”. If the team succeeds, they will add massive payroll just re-upping and extending their SP’s………you’d be looking at 2019 SP Payroll that is $20-40 million higher than it is right now.

    Looking at the moves for 2018, I agree totally with what they’re doing…. it preserves their ability to move ahead quickly with or without on-field success.

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