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Joel Sherman's Dog Whistle

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Joel Sherman wrote an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Post that was clearly intended to rile up Mets fans. It wasn't so much a dog whistle as a blaring alarm, warning that the team should engage in a full-blown fire sale in order to hasten the rebuilding process. The money line (literally) was the prospect of the Mets having a $70 million payroll, roughly half what it is now.

I realize that opinion pieces are just that: opinions. Folks are entitled to whatever opinions they fancy, so long as their opinion doesn't interfere with other people's ability to have opinions. But I also feel that when advising a course of action, those opinions should be based on something a bit more solid than pure conjecture. And many of Sherman's opinions rest on assumptions, and even those are iffy propositions, at best.

I don't quite understand where Sherman is coming from or his true purpose for writing this column. Because after saying a fire sale would be anathema to Mets fans, he writes:

...it is one of the few gambits the Wilpons have left in trying to retain the team. This is not about endorsing Wilpon ownership. Because it probably would be best for the team and baseball if the Wilpons were to sell the club as a way to restore finances and faith in the Mets.

So he's admittedly outlining a course of action that fans would hate and would do nothing to help the team in either the financial or spiritual sense. Why, exactly? "Of course, it would be in best interests of the Libyan people if Qadaffi stepped down immediately, but here's how he can retain power."

Nevertheless, Sherman continues to describe a plan he apparently doesn't believe in.

Two executives heavily involved in major league finances said it would be wise for the Mets to reduce payroll dramatically; even to, say, the $70 million range as soon as the 2012 season. This hardly would solve all of the Wilpons’ financial problems because they carry hundreds of millions of dollars in debt before even learning their ultimate fate in the Madoff debacle.

But the two executives felt even a stripped-down version of the Mets still would draw no worse than two million spectators to Citi Field. That would allow the Mets to make money, moving banks to feel less edgy about current loans and, possibly, even consider future loans.

So the $70 million figure is based on assumptions from no one connected with the team (otherwise Sherman surely would have said so), but "two executives heavily involved in major league finances." Sherman doesn't say or even imply that this statement is anything more than what it is--a guess, basically--but it's clearly included as flashing red light for the kind of Mets fans who fear their team becoming "cheap."

As for what "a stripped-down version of the Mets" could expect to draw to the gate, I would dispute these unnamed executives' assumptions. Last year the Mets had just over 2.5 million paying customers at CitiField, with an average of about 32,000 per game. This was for a team that still had superstars like Jose Reyes and David Wright all year, fielded Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and Jason Bay for a good chunk of the season, and was in relative contention up until the All Star Break. It was also CitiField's second year of existence, and there were many people who were still coming to Flushing to see it for the first time.

Under Sherman's plan, you'd subtract all the players named above and possibly more while also removing any hope of competing. Add in the exponentially fading allure of a new stadium, and I doubt that even in New York a team could draw 2 million fans. Check out the Mets' attendance in the awful early-to-mid 1990s for a clue as to how that would go over. Not to mention that TV ratings for such teams would plummet as well, which would drive down ad revenues for SNY.

The Mets are not like MSG, whose teams remain cash cows even when they're not very good, thanks to the arena they play in, the relatively few number of home games, and season ticket base that draws heavily on well-heeled corporations. MLB teams have 81 home games, thus making each game less of an event and lessening the cachet of going to a game, particularly when the team playing those games is awful.

Sherman notes that Sandy Alderson is already on record saying next year's payroll will be significantly lower, due to money coming off the books for Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and, in all likelihood, Beltran and Reyes as well.

...why stop there? The 2012 Mets are unlikely to be legitimate contenders with a $110 million payroll, so why not get the long-term benefits — for the talent base and the Wilpons’ finances — of going further? Here is the question: Are the Mets closer to being a champion by continuing to try to build around what they have or by starting over — with the head start that could come from adding prospects through a fire sale?

I am loathe to make predictions about any team for this year, let alone the next. So I don't know how Sherman can say the Mets are unlikely to be "legitimate contenders" in 2012. Who's to say they don't resign Reyes? Who's to say they don't sign some other big free agent? I wouldn't bank on either event, but I wouldn't bank on waking up tomorrow, either. You simply can not say to me in March 2011 that the Mets will be a bad team in 2012.

The Mets long have conned themselves that they are just a player or two away from being of championship timber. But I don’t think any NL East team would trade all the players in their organization for those of the Mets. Even the Nationals can imagine their next three-to-seven years being better than the Mets’ simply by having Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg under control.

I take issue with the idea that the Mets are simply treading water. I don't think this team is as awful as they are often perceived to be, both by the media and fans. I'm not envisioning a championship, and Sherman's assessment that they are more than a player or two away from that level is probably true. But there is talent on this team, and potential as well. You can debate the limit of that potential, but the blow-it-up-and-start-over approach is for teams in much worse shape than the Mets.

While I agree the Mets farm system remains bereft of top-flight talent, this is another example of insisting on the undeniable truth of things that are pure conjecture. Strasburg looked amazing last year, and then his elbow exploded. Tommy John surgery is practically par for the course with pitchers these days, but who says he doesn't get hurt again? As for Harper, he is the best prospect in baseball, but I believe he got his first taste of major league pitching a week ago. You can't say the Nationals' next few seasons will be better than the Mets for sure based on the horizons of two players who've barely played at the professional level.

The Mets do not have a veteran making significant money who is likely to be a member of their next sustained contender, except perhaps Wright. So why not speed up the process of getting to that next strong roster? Because it will upset the fans? Really? Can they be more upset than they have been the past two years?

Can fans get more upset than they are now? Probably not. But they could get apathetic, which is far worse, and would result from dealing away every star they have. Fans who are mad still care, still come out to the stadium, still tune in at home. Take away a reason to care, and all of that emotion--and the revenue it generates--dries up. Thus, the whole purpose of such an austerity plan--to increase profitability--would be negated.

I wouldn't say that trading away some players, or allowing them to depart via free agency in order to pocket the draft picks, might not be in the best interests of the team. Getting rid of all their marketable pieces wouldn't be, for a million different reasons. Especially since, as Sherman argues, it would allow the Wilpons to retain the team, which nobody but the Wilpons seems to want.