VIERA, Fla. - In a spirited defense of Mets ownership Tuesday, commissioner Rob Manfred questioned the fairness of criticism about the team's sagging payroll in the wake of the Bernie Madoff financial scandal.

Manfred also referred to Fred Wilpon as "a victim" of the scheme, which he views as the primary difference between the embattled Mets owner and Frank McCourt, who was forced out as owner of the Dodgers in 2012.

The commissioner made his comments during an interview with WFAN, just days after a fans group erected a billboard near Citi Field imploring the Wilpons to sell the franchise.

"I do understand that that undercurrent is out there," Manfred said. "I really don't believe it's fair, however."

In many ways, Manfred remained in lockstep with his predecessor, Bud Selig, who also stood by the Wilpons despite constant questions about the Mets' payroll and financial health. Wilpon has chosen not to address those questions, declining interview requests since February 2013.

Just as Selig did, Manfred extolled the virtue of building from within through a strong farm system as opposed to becoming "a winning team overnight by spending money in free agency."

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"If you look at the teams that are winning now, they're teams that have fundamentally sound farm systems," Manfred said. "[They] bring along a cohort of players who are effective on the field, and they may add through free agency to get over the top. But it's really hard to just go out there and rebuild your team by that mechanism because there's just not enough talent available in the market to do that."

This offseason, with the Mets closer to contention than at any point after the Madoff scandal, general manager Sandy Alderson signed only two big-league free agents, Michael Cuddyer ($21 million) and John Mayberry Jr. ($1.45 million). In a trade Monday, the Mets also added lefty reliever Jerry Blevins' $2.4-million salary.

The Mets' payroll is roughly $100 million, placing them in the lower third despite playing in the nation's largest media market.

"I understand that it creates fodder for people to be critical," Manfred said of payroll. "But what I would say to you is this: I think adding players comes at the point in time that you've built your farm system up and you have a really good core of players on the field. And then it's effective to spend. I think the Mets have made great progress in terms of the young talent they have. And I know, at the point in time that they think it's appropriate, they will spend to supplement players."

Citing the basic agreement, Manfred refused to cite an appropriate spending range for the franchise. But he expressed his satisfaction that the Mets are "making decisions directed at being successful on the field" and the Wilpons have "sufficient resources to be successful."

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The team's relatively low payroll has long stoked criticism of the Wilpons while drawing unflattering comparisons to the Dodgers' situation under McCourt. Major League Baseball, concerned over McCourt's management of the team and issues with his personal finances in the wake of a contentious divorce, eventually forced an ownership change.

But Manfred drew a distinction between the Mets under Wilpon and the Dodgers under McCourt.

"The concern with the Dodgers was that the owner was acting in a way that was not in the best interest of the game," Manfred said. "That's what commissioner Selig felt about that situation. In contrast, Mr. Wilpon was a victim of the Madoff scheme. And I think you have to treat somebody who is acting, as opposed to somebody who is victimized, differently."