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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets are watching their bottom line as Yankees grab the headlines

Mets GM Sandy Alderson talks with reporters at

Mets GM Sandy Alderson talks with reporters at the annual baseball general managers' meetings, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in Orlando. Credit: AP / John Raoux

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — You wanted to know about the Mets’ payroll. So I asked.

And since Sandy Alderson is the one put in charge of fielding the baseball questions for this franchise, with ownership deferring to more of a background role, the GM had to stand through the type of interview he despises most during Tuesday’s media briefing at the winter meetings.

As interrogations go, this was brief. Maybe three questions, wedged between conversations about Mickey Callaway’s analytics-driven bullpen usage and Matt Harvey evidently staying put. But I was curious as to what determines how much money the Mets choose to spend any given winter, and if that number was affected by how the team performs the previous season.

Honestly, if the Yankees hadn’t just introduced Giancarlo Stanton a day earlier — their newest 10-year, $265-million investment -- maybe the Mets could have sidestepped the payroll question for another time. But as much as we prefer to treat each New York team as its own separate entity, the shockwaves from the Stanton trade couldn’t help but reach the other side of the RFK Bridge, where the Mets seem to be in need of a wakeup call.

Alderson bristled at the sound of that alarm clock going off Tuesday afternoon. The GM hasn’t revealed what the Mets’ expected 2018 payroll will be, other than to suggest at the end of the season that it was likely to be lower than the $155.6 million they opened with in 2017, according to the Associated Press.

That number was the most ever spent by the Mets, eclipsing the $149 million in 2009, which was the second-highest payroll in the sport at the time. And yet, just eight years later, the Mets ranked only 11th overall — slightly above the MLB average — after increasing their payroll more than 12 percent from the previous season, a revenue surge that certainly was boosted by the team’s surprising dash to the World Series.

When asked about the correlation, Alderson initially dismissed it. But not before showing his disdain for the topic.

“I would spend a little less time thinking about our payroll,” Alderson said. “We’re trying to put the best team on the field that we possibly can. We want to fill a number of different roles . . . but we also want to make sure that the team fits right from a roster standpoint.”

Alderson used the uncertain status of Michael Conforto as an example, describing how the Mets were in a holding pattern regarding when he’ll be able to return from shoulder surgery. With Jay Bruce available in free agency, that’s a piece to consider, and presumably the Mets are willing to pay for him, if necessary.

But who really knows what the Mets can afford? Alderson won’t say for certain, other than to cringe at the idea of diving into the “inferno” of an overheated market for bullpen help (not a positive sign). We don’t even consider the Mets in the running for any big-ticket free agents anymore, so scratching off names like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain becomes automatic every winter. Stanton? Please.

The best we can figure, the Mets evaluate what to spend on a case-by-case basis, with Alderson and his staff presenting the players they want to ownership. There’s no preset limit on what to spend. That said, they’re not the Yankees, which makes sharing the same market very uncomfortable during winters like this. Also, Hal Steinbrenner has spoken publicly about the Yankees’ payroll on three different occasions since the season ended, stressing his goal to duck under the $197-million luxury-tax threshold for 2018.

You don’t get killed for trimming payroll when you operate at that altitude, and with Steinbrenner’s transparency, the fan base pretty much knows the Yankees are going to spend big every year. As for the Mets’ faithful, they’re left holding their breath, especially coming off a 92-loss season.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say, hey, if we do well, then we invest more,” Alderson said. “That’s not an equation that I’ve been given. Or that we necessarily even recognize or consider. We’re trying to improve the team right now. And it’s not about what the guy down the hall generating the revenue is doing.”

There’s a simple way to convince everyone of that. But we’re still waiting for it. And history tells us not to get our hopes up.

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