David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. - It was 16 months ago the Mets pitched their rebuilding plan to David Wright, a blueprint Sandy Alderson used to kick-start the negotiations that eventually led to his eight-year, $138-million contract.
The Mets made Wright the richest player in franchise history. But with Season Two of that deal right around the corner, has the team made good on its promise to the captain?
After investing close to $90 million on free agents during the winter, the Mets still rank 22nd of 30 teams in 2014 payroll at $89 million. With lingering concerns about Ruben Tejada, shortstop Stephen Drew remains unsigned, and it now appears a questionable bullpen will be leaning on retread Jose Valverde as the primary setup man for Bobby Parnell.
In other words, this group seems to be another year from contention -- especially with Matt Harvey on the shelf -- and Wright, who turned 31 in December, isn't getting any younger. Does Wright believe that Alderson has stayed on message since that recruiting dinner near his Norfolk home?
"As far as the actual spending, we never sat there and discussed that," Wright said Wednesday. "We knew that we had all the money coming off the books this past winter, so Sandy obviously mentioned that.
"But as far as saying, we're going to get the payroll back up to where it was five or six years ago, that topic was never approached. Obviously I was under the assumption that when the money came off the books that we would have money to spend and we did."
To some degree, that is true. And Wright is thrilled by the signings of Curtis Granderson ($60 million), Bartolo Colon ($20 million) and Chris Young ($7.25 million) -- "he's had a ridiculous spring," Wright said of Young. But it's a fair question to ask if that is enough when the other New York team is about to begin its sixth consecutive season with a payroll above $200 million. Or how three of the other four NL East clubs are badly outspending the Mets.
These questions become pertinent to Wright because he committed the rest of his career to playing in Flushing. There's no doubt Wright could have pushed his price higher by testing free agency. He took the safer bet instead.
But Wright also made a few financial concessions to the Mets. With a $16-million option for the 2013 season, he took only $11 million in the first year of the contract -- with $3 million of that deferred. His salary jumps to $20 million in each of the next five seasons, and there's another $12.5 million deferred.
It's not in the Bobby Bonilla stratosphere of delayed compensation, but Wright wanted to give the Mets some payroll flexibility to improve the team around him. For now, he sounds willing to be patient.
"I told them to basically structure it however you want," Wright said. "Whatever helps you guys out. Whatever helps us to put the best product on the field."
For Alderson, the "best product" is never going to be the same as the "most expensive," and with the GM entering his fourth season, Wright is familiar with his baseball philosophy by now. Alderson told him during the contract negotiations he would improve the Mets with a strong core of young power arms, and with the pitching-rich Giants fresh off the World Series win in 2012, Wright was sold.
With Noah Syndergaard expected in July, and Harvey on pace for Opening Day next season, Alderson is hoping that strategy comes to fruition in 2015. Developing players may be the ideal, but it can take a while. "Time will tell whether it's right or wrong," Wright said. "I feel like the moves we made have made us a much better team than we were in this spot last year."
And I knew going into this that it wasn't going to be a snap-your-fingers overnight fix."
"Do I think we can win this year? Of course. We've taken some small baby steps forward and now we're ready for the leap forward."Four of the eight teams that have spent less than the Mets for 2014 made the playoffs last season. The A's won the AL West. It's not always about the money, and with Wright's future inextricably tied to the Mets, he needs to believe that. We'll see if his faith has been misplaced.