We Coulda Been A Contender…

An article by posted on December 23, 2010

Stephen J. Dubner of the NY Times interviewed J.C. Bradbury of Sabernomics.com about his new book Hot Stove Economics. Among a variety of interesting questions this one came up about the Mets:

 The Mets’ poor performance each of the past few years can’t be blamed on a low payroll, as they are almost always at the top of the list in terms of team payroll. They have to be at the top of your list of the most poorly run franchises in Chapter 6, right? I haven’t read the book yet but had to ask.

Right at the top of the list of the worst-managed teams of the 2000s. Not only did the Mets spend a lot, they didn’t win much either. The Mets problem is easy to identify: The Mets have a habit of signing high-dollar stars rather than focusing on building a better internal scouting structure. The Mets have developed some good prospects, but they have a penchant for buying players when they are expensive. Some examples of bad contracts include signing Oliver Perez to a three-year, $36 million contract in 2009, signing Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract in 2009, and signing Luis Castillo to a four-year, $25 million contract in 2008. In 2010, the team was not ready to contend yet signed Jason Bay to a four-year, $66 million deal.  Both Bay and Rodriguez were also huge disappointments in 2010.

I think it’s fun to compare the strategies of the Mets and the Twins, whom I find to be the second best-managed team in the 2000s (the best was the Oakland A’s, but I think that team has been covered enough). During the last decade, the Twins averaged $32 million more in playing value than they doled out in player salaries, while the Mets paid out an average of $25 million more than they received in playing value.

Before the 2008 season, the Mets acquired via trade and then signed former Twins star Johan Santana when his performance was at its peak. Though he has been quite good for the Mets, the Twins had no problem winning and avoided paying the ace starter almost $23 million/year for six years. In the three seasons since, the Twins have made the playoffs twice, and the Mets have missed the post-season every year. How did the Twins do it?

The key to success lies in acquiring young talent when the collective bargaining rules allow teams to pay players far less than their market value. For their first six years of big-league service, the salaries that players receive are restricted by MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Twins exploited these rules by developing talent within their organization, while the Mets concentrated on bringing already-developed talent in. Comparing their 2010 rosters, the Twins drafted 21 of their players, which is equal to the number of players the Mets had signed as free agents. By building a strong farm system, the Twins have been able to survive with young and cheap talent.

The Mets’ market size ought to give them an advantage that allows them to sign better players, but the spending strategy the club has adopted clearly hasn’t worked. If the Mets had adopted the Twins’ method of operation — spending far less for players than they receive in playing value — they might be the most valuable franchise in sports.

Whether or not you agree, you must admit this is a compelling argument. The Mets have had a long standing pattern of paying players the most when they were performing at their least. Eventually that catches up to you and one day you find yourself sitting exactly where the Mets are today; paying huge salaries for players whose best years are behind them.

If Sandy Alderson could change that old way of doing things, then by all means let him.

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