PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - As the franchise lurched in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal, the team's payroll stood as the most public barometer of the Mets' overall well-being. As such, when the effects of the financial scheme came into focus, payroll began a downward slide.
Fans cringed as the Mets went from spending roughly $150 million in 2009 to around $95 million by the end of 2012. Even as losing seasons piled up, austerity ruled.
"This is a different era," principal owner Fred Wilpon said on Wednesday, when he declared that payroll could return to more typical levels "if the market is such that that's where we need to be competitive and winners."
That means general manager Sandy Alderson will have free rein to spend on players, even if it means becoming "big investors" in the free-agent market next offseason.
"I don't know what the market will be at that point," Wilpon said. "But the payroll will be commensurate with anything we've ever done because we can do it. The people have to come to the ballpark, obviously. If you have a competitive team they will."
As his team began its first official day of workouts, Wilpon roamed the complex wearing a Mets cap, squinting through the bright sun to catch a glimpse of the players he believes can exceed expectations this season. There would be even more reasons for optimism.
Nearly a year ago, Wilpon and his partners scored a momentous legal victory, settling to repay false profits from the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Madoff. The settlement called for a repayment of $162 million. But the deal also allowed for the amount to be reduced as the trustee in charge of the case recovered more money for victims of the scheme.
Which is why the timing seemed uncanny. Not long after Wilpon painted a rosy picture of the team's immediate future, the Madoff trustee announced plans to make a third payment to victims, a move that significantly would reduce Wilpon's obligation.
It also served to put more distance between the Mets and the financial calamity that has come to define an era in franchise history. But Wilpon contends the scandal was only part of the reason that the team was forced to slash payroll. He also blamed the general state of the economy, which impacted his real estate interests, for playing a role in creating his financial troubles.
"I think there was a balance there," he said. "It wasn't, as people have written, the reason."
Since then, the economy has turned in a positive direction. Wilpon cited a healthier stock market and real estate market. He also pointed out the strong financial performance of team-owned network SNY.
"We benefited from all those things," Wilpon said.
Meanwhile, he said revenues are no longer being channeled toward paying off debt. With that, Wilpon said the focus has shifted toward ridding the sour taste that has developed among disenchanted fans. He praised the job done by Alderson, specifically mentioning the return for trading Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
He called the front office a group of "independent thinkers," speaking highly of their efforts to rebuild the bullpen.
Though he acknowledged gaping holes in the outfield, Wilpon said that the strength of the pitching staff gives him hope that the Mets could be a surprise contender. And if that's the case, Alderson should have the flexibility to make moves.
Wilpon also underscored the importance of signing David Wright to an eight-year, $138-million extension. "To me, he's our Jeter," he said.
It was just one part of Wilpon's larger message, one tinged with optimism.
Said Wilpon: "Everything that was in the past -- you guys saw the pain that we went through -- is gone."