The good news: we're about to find out if it's true.
The Mets spent about $90 to $95 million on player salaries last year. They spent roughly the same amount the year before. They won 74 games in each of those two seasons.
You can't really make the argument that front office and ownership were cheapskates, at least not fairly. Everything was broken and the amount of money it would have taken to quickly fix things would have been enormous -- and resulted in a bunch of really bad carry-forward contracts, too. It really didn't matter if the team could, financially, support carrying a $120 million roster -- even if they could, it really didn't make a lot of sense to spend that additional $25 to $30 million, as it wasn't even going to buy you a set of meaningful games in September.
But at some point, that has to change. Payroll comes under control. There's enough talent present where simple variance -- the development of youngsters, a guy or two has "a year," and simple luck -- catapults a 74-win roster to 78 or 79 wins. When that happens, expanding payroll makes a lot of sense and, for an excitement-starved fan base, may even be a requirement -- if you can afford it. This is one of those years, and I think how the team approaches this off-season will speak volumes about its financial health.
Let's start with a conversation on Twitter between Patrick Flood and Brian Erni, both of whom should be familiar names to you all.
Right now, we have about $65 million committed to the 2014 team, assuming most of the arb guys come back. We could very easily coast by, winning another 74 games, by spending around $80 to $85 million. Or we could do as Flood suggests and take a shot at .500 or so team with significant upside. And if you've been following baseball over the past few years, you know that every year, there's a team like that who scratches at a playoff berth.
Some back of the envelope math suggests that Flood's hypothetical team costs us about $100 million. The lineup runs about $55-60 million. Wright makes $20 million, I'm putting Drew in at $11 million, and Flood later suggested that the Dodgers would eat some of Ethier's salary, putting him at $10 million per year. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Daniel Murphy will get about $6 million in arbitration and Ike Davis gets about $3.5 million, while Travis d'Arnaud and Juan Lagares are making the minimum. Add Byrd at $6 million and you're in that range.
The rotation is pretty cheap. Haren and Vargas probably each make in the $10 million range, and both on short-ish contracts. Niese is $5 million next year, Gee about $3 million, and Wheeler the minimum. That's another $30 million, charitably. If you can fill the bench and bullpen with relatively inexpensive guys -- and that shouldn't be all that hard -- we come in with a pretty solid team at about $100 million. Does this team make the playoffs? Maybe, if enough things break the right way. Is it good enough to make September interesting? As Erni says, "probably."
This isn't to say that the Mets should be creating the team Flood proposes -- I don't think it's fair to say that Flood was suggesting that, even -- but that given our current framework, something like this is possible. A lot of the details are fungible -- Haren could be Josh Johnson, Ethier could be Carlos Beltran, Drew could be Jhonny Peralta, etc. -- but the idea is clear. The team should be able to improve the corner OF spots, shortstop, and two rotation spots with relatively short-term contracts, none of which break the bank but none of which are "sure things." Things could do terribly wrong and we'd be a $100 million team with 74 wins again, just like we were (minus a few million) the last two years. Or things could go incredibly well and we're at 87 wins and potentially looking at a playoff spot.
There are only two reasons I can think of not to do this. One is because strategically, the front office wants to buy things now in hopes of making a more solid, lower-variance run in 2015. That'd mean investing in a higher-end free agent or two, in hopes that those two players plus the return of Matt Harvey and the development of our emerging youngsters (or trades thereof) can vault us into contention. I think that's a perfectly reasonable approach, but note that it, like the above, has us spending closer to $100 million this year than $80 million.
The second reason -- and the scarier one -- is that the team simply can't afford to spend $100 million while shouldering the risk that the team could, once again, win 74 or so games. As fans, that shouldn't be our problem, especially not in the New York media market. The team should be able to afford to take that risk, and unlikely the two years prior, there's little reason to think that spending that much money is fruitless. If the Mets don't start spending this off-season, is there any reason to believe that they're actually able to?
I, for one, don't think so.