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Mets GM Sandy Alderson's rebuilding plan is taking longer than hoped

Mets GM Sandy Alderson talks to the media

Mets GM Sandy Alderson talks to the media during a spring training workout at Tradition Field. (Feb. 13, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Sandy Alderson's contract is up at the end of next season, with the Mets holding an option for 2015, and no one seems to know what the future holds for the general manager or the team just yet.

Now in his third year, Alderson is getting closer to achieving some of the goals he laid out when he replaced Omar Minaya after the 2010 season. The one that has eluded him is turning the Mets into a contender, or even a winning franchise, for that matter.

Some might settle for respectability, or fewer empty seats at Citi Field. But with the emergence of Matt Harvey -- a Minaya draft pick -- and the ascension of his very own acquisition Zack Wheeler, Alderson sees the plan starting to take shape, a hazy vision only now beginning to come into focus.

Upon further examination, the process probably has taken longer than Alderson initially hoped.

He makes no apologies for 2½ losing seasons, an overall .461 winning percentage (191-223) and still more questions than answers on the field.

The plan, Alderson insists, is being followed.

"The whole approach from the beginning has been predicated on three elements," he said shortly before the All-Star break. "One is stockpiling talent. The second is clearing payroll, and the third has been to be as competitive as possible -- without compromising one and two. That's pretty much the program in a nutshell."

Losing bad contracts

Of Alderson's three elements, the general manager has been an unqualified success at only one: clearing payroll. Principal owner Fred Wilpon made it clear in the months after Alderson's hiring that money was going to be an issue.

During that time, the Mets have treaded water, waiting to shed midrange contracts. The Mets ate $12 million of Oliver Perez's $36-million deal when they released the lefthander during spring training in 2011, three days after swallowing the $6 million left on Luis Castillo's $25-million deal. They also were saddled with payroll drags such as Carlos Beltran ($118 million) and Johan Santana ($137.5 million). Jason Bay, at $66 million, fits somewhere in between. But like Perez and Castillo before him, Bay is cashing his last Mets checks, this year and next, away from Citi Field.

With so much money off the books, Alderson went against most everything he believes in as a GM and gave David Wright an eight-year, $138-million contract last November.

In a similar situation a year earlier, Alderson let homegrown star Jose Reyes leave for a six-year, $106-million contract with the Marlins. Reyes' departure came after Alderson decided not to deal the shortstop at the 2011 deadline, which could have netted the Mets a large return.

Wright falls into the "stockpiling talent" category, or more accurately, retaining it, and keeping the "face of the franchise" had to be included in the Mets' blueprint. Despite all of the belt tightening, Wright could not be a casualty of the Mets' makeover. Plus, he was needed to prop up the Flushing operation, to convince people Citi was not getting completely torched.

"Sometimes the path you take is not always straight, but you've got to believe in the plan," chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said. "Hope is not a good business plan.

"We've tried to put a plan in place. Are there going to be growing pains with it? Absolutely. But I think we're getting to the end of those growing pains."

Getting there? Maybe. But the Mets still have too many holes for them to be considered in the final stages of this process. The most promising aspect of this season -- even at nine games below .500 (41-50) -- is that the Mets have played some decent baseball with an operating payroll of roughly $55 million.

Remember, the Mets are paying roughly $40 million this season to Santana, who was lost again to a second labrum surgery, and the front end of two deferred payments to Bay, who was released last November. Eating that type of cash is not a good habit for a franchise, and the Mets have developed an unhealthy appetite for it in recent years. Finally jettisoning those commitments, however, should position the Mets to spend more generously this winter than in the past two.

Hoping to spend more

Alderson suggested it was reasonable to think the Mets could approach the $100-million plateau again for Opening Day 2014, but would not give a more specific budget yet. It won't be $55 million.

"I know it will be substantially higher," Alderson said. "There's a substantial capacity there and hopefully we can use it."

That's the catch. As Newsday reported in Tuesday's editions, the Mets' ballpark-related revenue has been far below what was expected, dropping last season for the third straight year to $121.5 million, roughly half of the $234.3 million the Mets had projected.

The forecast for 2013 is not great, either, with the Mets seeing a drop in ticket sales of about 10,000 per game this season. That helps explain the team's frugal approach since Alderson took over, but ownership has insisted that won't continue this winter. Back in spring training, Fred Wilpon made public assurances that the Mets' financial woes were behind them, but there's no guarantee of that until the payroll nudges upward again.

Trying to fill wish list

So how will this money be spent? The Mets' biggest need is obvious: a run-producing outfielder, who could be acquired before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, traded for during the offseason or signed in free agency. In the third category, the most obvious names are players such as Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox or the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo; they also will be the most expensive and competitive to attain as clients of Scott Boras.

Rather than invest in another big-money signing, the Mets could do what the Red Sox did last winter after clearing out nearly $250 million in bloated contracts last July.

Boston immediately invested more than $60 million in 2013 payroll for a range of free agents that included a starting pitcher (Ryan Dempster), a first baseman (Mike Napoli), a shortstop (Stephen Drew), two outfielders (Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes) and their current closer by default (Koji Uehara). Of course, the Red Sox already had an All-Star nucleus, with two top-of-the-rotation pitchers in Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, so their Opening Day payroll still grew to more than $154 million.

"I think it has to be sort of a portfolio of players and contracts with varying maturities and obligations that make sense," Alderson said. "With the Red Sox, let's face it, they went nuts before and now they're like reformed smokers, I guess. But that's the approach they took because they too have been burned by some longer-term deals and smartly changed direction.

"The nice thing is we have the capacity to invest, but we need to be creative. We're still going to need to put ourselves in a position where we can get a little bit lucky. It's sobering when Marlon Byrd has numbers that are comparable to Justin Upton's. So just having the money to invest doesn't really guarantee anything."

Byrd and Scott Hairston, who had two productive seasons with the Mets, have been rare Alderson free-agent finds, which brings to light one of his more glaring weaknesses as Mets GM -- investing in the right free agents. At the 2010 winter meeting, when every penny was at a premium, Alderson spent nearly $4 million on Ronny Paulino and D.J. Carrasco. Later, he gambled $1.1 million on Chris Young's fragile right shoulder and squeezed only four starts from him before he was lost to a capsule tear.

By far the worst signing of Alderson's tenure has been Frank Francisco, who before Wright's deal also had been his most expensive free-agent acquisition. Needing a closer, Alderson gave Francisco a two-year, $12-million contract, and he was ineffective in 2012 (5.53 ERA) and on perpetual rehab this season.

In a more recent example of Alderson's missteps, he signed Shaun Marcum last winter to a one-year, $4-million deal. Marcum went 1-10 with a 5.29 ERA in 14 starts and two relief appearances before requiring season-ending shoulder surgery. Alderson can't be blamed for serious injuries, but he does take responsibility for not doing a better job of identifying players that could help.

"Something that has disappointed me," Alderson said, "is the inability to get any real performance out of some of the bigger investments that have been made."

Live young arms on farm

Where the Mets have made gains is in the minor-league system, which Alderson has fortified by dealing the club's few major-league assets. The Beltran-for-Wheeler swap in 2011 was a winner, and Alderson is looking great so far after trading R.A. Dickey for the Blue Jays' bonanza of Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, Wuilmer Becerra and John Buck.

Seeing Syndergaard -- now an untouchable pitching prospect -- face off against Rafael Montero, another top Mets arm, in Sunday's Futures Game was a promising sign for the franchise. But it doesn't end there.

Baseball America's Matt Eddy, who has tracked the Mets' farm system since 2010, said the organization's pitching depth extends as far down as Low-A Savannah, where the Sand Gnats have a league-low 167 walks -- more than 100 fewer than the closest team -- and rank fourth with 772 strikeouts in 800 innings. Ward Melville's Steven Matz, who is shaping up to be the Mets' next-best lefthanded starter behind Jon Niese, has a 2.25 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 76 innings.

The problem is the lack of impact position players, which the Mets have tried to remedy through the draft. With the exception of Purdue catcher Kevin Plawecki in 2012, the top picks for Alderson's tenure have been high schoolers: outfielder Brandon Nimmo ('11), shortstop Gavin Cecchini ('12) and Dominic Smith ('13), a first baseman.

Drafting raw teenagers despite obvious holes at the major-league level seems like a questionable strategy in trying to turn the Mets around, and patience -- along with Alderson's contract -- is running out. But as the team continues to show improvement, it's looking more likely that Terry Collins is managing his way to an extension, even if that decision won't be made until after this season.

The preparation for 2014 continues, and with less than two weeks before the non-waiver trade deadline, Alderson still could go that route. The GM has more young chips than he's ever had since joining the Mets, and it might be time to go all in for next season.

"Was 2014 always a target year? Yeah," Alderson said. "It should be an important year for us."

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