In October 2000, the New York Mets beat the St. Louis Cardinals to advance to the World Series. It was a new era in Queens—the first time the Mets had gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons—although one that was not to be. For reasons not worth reliving, the Mets slipped into third placed in 2001 and had cratered by 2003, finishing with a 66-95 record. After a 2004 season with dead-man-walking Jim Duquette at the helm in the front office, the Mets brought in Omar Minaya as GM. On Opening Day 2004, payroll was at $96 million. Minaya was given VIP access to the Wilpons' wallet, and by 2007 the team's payroll had grown to $115 million. In 2008, it was $137 million. To Omar's credit, the 2006-2008 Mets had the makings of a dynasty, and they might have fulfilled that promise if things went the Mets' way a bit more often than they did. But Omar went too far, as the team once again cratered, falling to 70-92 in 2009, while putting up a franchise record $149 million Opening Day bill.
And then the Wilpons' finances fell apart.
If you look at the Mets' Opening Day salaries from 2001 on, available here, you'll notice erratic jumps and dramatic plunges, evidence that the front office lacked a set budget from year to year. That's not terribly unusual for a large-market team, but for middle- or small-market ones it's lunacy. Contrast that payroll inconsistency with the Cardinals', for example, who have been much more successful since the two teams met in 2000. It's not really close.
Over the last few months there's been talk that the 2013 Mets should follow the Red Sox model or the Cleveland Indians model. Neither are good for this team. The Red Sox model is, basically, "spend money," which the Mets don't have a lot of. The Indians model isn't really a model at all, unless "play the Twins and White Sox instead of the Nationals and Phillies" constitutes a roster development strategy.
The good news for the Mets is that the Cardinals' strategy is pretty straight-forward and the Mets are well-positioned to copy it, maybe even improve upon it. Here's the "Cardinals Model" and how the Mets can execute it.
To start, I'm going to posit a few things here, some of which are steeped in rank speculation with a dash of blind hope.
1) At some point, the Mets should be able to match the Cardinals' annual payroll, if not exceed it by 10%.
The Mets play in New York and were capable of carrying a total of $556 million in Opening Day payroll over the four-year period ending 2011. The Cardinals play in St. Louis and took six years (again ending 2011) to spend roughly the same amount. The Cardinals will likely have a payroll close to $115 million in 2014, and while I don't think the Mets can get there this year, that's mostly because of the debt the team (via the Wilpons?) is carrying, which should be a temporary and hopefully short-term problem. When financially healthy, the Mets probably aren't going to match the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, or Angels when it comes to budget, but they should be able to match the Cardinals, at least.
2) The Mets can invest in, and show positive results from, amateur scouting and professional development.
Basically, the Mets need to find guys in the middle rounds of drafts who can be useful major leaguers and develop guys like Brandon Nimmo into starting-caliber talent.
3) Ownership is patient.
I thought that this was the year where the Mets put up or shut up—and then crazy stuff happened. Jason Vargas got four years. Jhonny Peralta got $53 million over four years, and Brian McCann got an average annual value rivaling that of David Wright's contract. The Mets should be priced out of this market, but you could see some stupid stupidity from the 7th Circle of Stupid happen. Nelson Cruz for $80 million over five years? Rafael Montero and Wilmer Flores to Anaheim for Erick Aybar? Let's hope not.
On to the Cardinals' model.
1) Spend dollars, not players.
The Cardinals' current GM, John Mozeliak, took the helm after the 2007 season. To date, he's surrendered a grand total of zero draft picks on free agent signings while making one deal—the 2009 in-season trade to acquire Matt Holliday—which cost the team actual prospects. (A few others included younger relief pitchers with little to no MLB experience.) On its face, that goes against conventional wisdom, which suggests that sure things are better than the potential of unproven prospects. But that's not what the Cardinals are doing.
Mozeliak seemingly overpays for players who do not cost him picks or players. He gave Carlos Beltran the $26 million over two years after everyone's favorite former Met left the Giants for unencumbered free agency. He made an $8 million bet that Lance Berkman had something left (he did) and followed it up with a two-year, $14 million bet that Rafael Furcal did, too (meh). Both Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook got big contracts. And then there was the HUGE one to Holliday.
This is critically important because when you spend players on players, you also end up spending a lot of money on the acquired players. That should go without saying, but it's often overlooked.
2) Find players with future value whenever you can.
The Cardinals got very lucky when the Angels outbid them for Albert Pujols, not just because they didn't have a $22 million yearly salary on the books for the next decade, but also because of the draft picks they received as compensation. Starting with the 2008 draft, the Cardinals have received six extra first round (including supplemental) draft picks, and they'll receive another in 2014 as compensation for losing Beltran.
This is surely by design. The Cardinals' qualifying offer to Kyle Lohse was a bit aggressive, with many thinking he'd accept it. The Beltran qualifying offer was less risky, so no extra credit will be given there. But the David Freese-Peter Bourjos deal included Double-A outfielder Randall Grichuk, adding another bat the the potential future of the St. Louis outfield. Even two relatively minor in-season trades—Mitchell Boggs to Colorado for international slot money and the impossible-to-spell Marc Rzepczynski to Cleveland for this guy—roughly follow that plan. (Note that few competitive teams dump relievers at the deadline.)
3) Understand your budget.
The day the offseason began, the Cardinals had seven guys under contract for 2014, costing the club (with some dead money) about $75 million. Include a bunch of zero-to-two-year players and the team's rotation is locked up and the bullpen is mostly set. Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Allen Craig are all in that group, too, with Kolten Wong, Oscar Tavares, Matt Adams, and Pete Kozma all potentially filling out the lineup card. That puts the team at about $85 million, and it doesn't include arbitration-eligible bats John Jay (estimated by MLBTR to get $3.4 million), Daniel Descalso ($1.2 million) and, of course, Peter Bourjos ($1.1 million). Call it $95 million and toss in another $5 million for Relief Pitcher(s) To Be Determined. That puts the team at $100 million—a high estimate—but basically completes their 2014 roster.
Of course, there are some redundancies. Bourjos, Wong, and Carpenter are three guys for two positions, most notably. There are also some deficiencies. It's unclear if Oscar Taveras, whose season ended in August after falling to injury and has fewer than 200 Triple-A plate appearances, will be in the majors early next year, and Matt Adams can't hit left-handed pitching. And then there's the black hole known as Pete Kozma.
The Freese-to-Anaheim deal, bringing back Peter Bourjos (and Grichuk) fixed a bunch of problems but also cleared an estimated $3 million from the budget. If you assume that John Mozeliak had $115 million to spend, that means he had $15-20 million left, which is what makes the Jhonny Peralta signing so much more amazing.
The Cardinals' biggest weakness, both before and after the Freese deal, was clearly shortstop. Peralta, of all the available shortstops, fits the first criterion above uniquely, at least for this offseason. Of all the potentially available shortstops out there, he was clearly the best one that did not require forfeiting a player or draft pick to another team. The Cardinals paid a premium for this, which is likely why Peralta received one year more than most thought he would and probably an additional $1.5 million or so in annual salary.
But that's not "understanding the budget." That's still part one, "spend dollars, not players."
With about $15 million to spend on a shortstop, Mozeliak spent, well, $15.5 million. Even though Peralta's contract has an average annual value of $13.25 million, Mozeliak front-loaded it, sticking $15.5 million in year one and $15 million in year two. Note how rare this is, especially for a guy who will only be 35 at the end of his contract. The typical M.O. is to backload the deal to maintain short-term budget flexibility while gaining value due to inflation; Mozeliak did the exact opposite. What Mozeliak gets is huge: He makes Peralta tradable if things don't go well, and if he does, Mozeliak effectively accounts for Matt Carpenter's arbitration years.
Say that the Cardinals have $18 million budgeted for shortstop and third base over each of the next four years. (They probably don't look at the books like that, but permit me some editorial license.) In 2014, that goes $15.5 million to Peralta and $500,000 to Carpenter, so a bit under budget. In 2015, it's $15 million to Peralta and probably $2.75 million to Carpenter. In 2016, Peralta gets $12.5 million and Carpenter $5.5 million. And in 2017, it's $10 million to Peralta and $9 million to Carpenter. That's honestly incredible. And those numbers aren't made up—they're the amounts that Allen Craig got when the team bought out his arbitration and first two free agent years before last season.
You can't add 5% or 10% year-over-year to the bottom line for very long, as the Mets learned the hard way. The Cardinals are built to last.
So how do the Mets do this? Let's start by understanding the budget. They're stuck in this low-$90 million hell—at best—for now until they end up with a winning-ish team, one that can excite the fan base and drive ticket sales, etc. Maintaining that payroll isn't hard for the next three years, as the only notable guys getting raises are Daniel Murphy, Ike Davis, Bobby Parnell, and Dillon Gee. (Matt Harvey is also arbitration-eligible in 2016.) The good news is that the Mets have the flexibility to make a bunch of small-to-mid-sized moves.
Right now, the Mets can't spend money instead of spending players too often—so they probably shouldn't be buying. Instead, the Mets should be in this somewhat constant state of retooling, adding young players whenever possible in hopes of putting a solid team on the field. That's the second part of understanding the budget. The Chris Young signing was the correct move because it allows the Mets to to use what little budgetary room they have to improve the team short-term and, if Young does well, long-term (by trading him). It also underscores why guys like Daniel Murphy have to be traded relatively soon.
The good news is that to a significant degree, Sandy Alderson has been following the Cardinals plan very well. That doesn't need to be recounted here. But unfortunately, Alderson has given us many reasons to believe that he isn't adopting the Cardinals' way of baseball. First, there's that strange Angel Pagan trade—not only did Alderson fail to get good value, but he didn't get the right types of contracts/players, either. And then there's the exile of Ruben Tejada, which is a lot like obsessing over a bad haircut when you have pneumonia.
Hopefully, though, the Mets are going down the Cardinals' path. They're actually well positioned to do so, and that could be very good for this franchise for many years to come. Just not next year.