LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - General manager Sandy Alderson warned about the dangers of channeling too many resources into too few players, the repercussions of which have been all too familiar to the man tasked with rebuilding the Mets.
"If you want to look at the data and the way we look at data and associate winning teams with payroll concentration," Alderson said at last month's general managers' meetings, "you realize that there are limits to how effective an overall team can be with their payroll concentrated in a small number of players."
For the Mets, Johan Santana and Jason Bay represented Exhibits A and B. But in the last month, the Mets have taken steps toward getting payroll distribution closer to what Alderson called the "sweet spot," perhaps the most encouraging sign for the team at Thursday's conclusion of the winter meetings.
In baseball, success has become less about total dollars and more about how those dollars are distributed, a conviction that Alderson said is based on "historical fact." Recent history provides a guide. Of the 10 clubs that made the playoffs last season, none employed a player who accounted for more than 20 percent of his team's payroll.
Yes, budgets range wildly, from the more than $200 million spent by the Dodgers to the less than $60 million spent by the Rays. Yet on those two teams, only one player, Rays ace David Price, accounted for more than 10 percent of total payroll. It's a trend that's generally reflected in the remaining eight teams that made the playoffs.
One rival executive likened the approach to diversifying a portfolio, a tactic that guards against underperformance while preserving enough flexibility to adjust on the fly. The Mets have taken a step toward that.
The Mets have 24 percent of payroll devoted to one player, but at least that cash is going to the team's best player, third baseman David Wright.
Said Alderson: "We're closer to the sweet spot than we were."
Some of it was a function of time, with the expiring contracts of Santana ($25.5 million) and Bay ($18 million). The two combined gobbled up nearly half of the team's dollars in 2013 even though neither played an inning for the Mets. But the club took things a step further, replacing those contracts with ones that fall more in line with contenders.
By the end of the winter meetings, the Mets had doled out more than $87 million in new contracts, but they seized on factors that kept prices within their range. In the case of Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million), two freak injuries last season kept him from a payday that some MLB executives estimated would have been about $100 million. For Bartolo Colon, no other team showed an appetite for handing a 40-year-old a two-year, $20-million deal despite his strong recent performance.
So the Mets emerged with a three-time All-Star outfielder and a former Cy Young Award winner, and neither will command more than 16 percent of total payroll. Factoring in projected arbitration raises and the salaries of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration, the Mets' payroll stands at roughly $83 million.
The Mets still have plenty of work to do. Ike Davis remains on the roster despite the club's efforts to deal him, though Alderson is encouraged by a market that's more well defined than it was a week ago. Alderson said the Mets are unlikely to pursue free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew, and that any upgrade over Ruben Tejada most likely would come via a trade. They also could use a proven arm in the back end of the bullpen.
Yet Alderson left the meetings with evidence of meaningful progress, especially in the area of resource management.Alderson stopped short of saying that payroll reshuffling has guided the Mets' moves, saying "you can't be constrained by those things." But he acknowledged that redirecting resources has been a factor.
"We have all those things in mind," he said.
This shows the 10 playoff teams from 2013, the player with the highest salary, and the number of players on each team that accounted for 10 percent or more of total payroll.
The playoff teams
RED SOX: 10.6 percent (John Lackey), 1
TIGERS: 15.5 percent (Prince Fielder), 3
A'S: 14 percent (Chris Young), 3
RAYS: 16.3 percent (David Price), 1
INDIANS: 14.1 percent (Nick Swisher), 1
PIRATES: 12.72 percent (Wandy Rodriguez), 3
REDS: 17.25 percent (Joey Votto), 2
CARDINALS: 14.59 percent (Matt Holliday), 5
DODGERS: 9.8 percent (Adrian Gonzlalez), 0
BRAVES: 14.6 percent (Dan Uggla), 5