New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, as profiled this week in Sports Illustrated, provided a blunt picture of the team's finances: The team is "bleeding cash" at the rate of a possible $70 million loss this year and his ownership of the team could be jeopardized by the $1 billion lawsuit against him and his Sterling Equities partners. The suit was filed by the trustee of the liquidation of Bernie Madoff's investments.
What does it mean for the baseball operations? In the short term, the Mets likely will cut payroll next year by about 30 percent and give a voice to a new investor that Wilpon expects to introduce in about three weeks -- an investor he will treat as a limited partner.
Is Wilpon worried that the lawsuit -- in which the trustee wants about $300 million in fictitious profits and another $700 million in principal the Sterling partners put into Madoff accounts -- could cause him to lose the team?
"Not right now, no," he told SI in an exclusive interview last week. "Because I don't think anybody thinks that 700 is realistic."
The Mets are spending about $142 million this year on payroll, including about $22 million to players who no longer play for them. Around $64 million is due to come off that payroll. How much the Madoff scandal and the team's declining attendance have impacted the club will become apparent this offseason with the answer to this question: Will the Mets re-invest that $64 million into payroll or will they tighten their belts?
Wilpon provided that answer to SI when he confirmed the likely scenario is that the Mets will not re-invest most of the money coming off the payroll.
"That's fair," Wilpon said when presented with that assessment. "If you invest your $100 million properly, as most clubs that are competitive are in that range . . . I think that we have to see what Sandy [Alderson, the general manager] wants to do, and Sandy wants flexibility. And I'm trying to give him the ultimate amount of flexibility. He's going to have to make those decisions . . . The answer to your question is yeah, that could happen."
The Mets already have about $78 million committed to the 2012 payroll, assuming raises for arbitration-eligible players Mike Pelfrey and Angel Pagan. To gain "flexibility," New York is expected to steer clear of the kind of expensive, long-term contracts that have blown up on them in recent years.
Spending money elaborately hasn't worked well for the Mets. Over the previous four seasons, the Mets spent more money ($537 million) than any team in baseball except the Yankees and Red Sox and had no playoff appearances, a 326-322 record and 1.5 million fewer paid customers to show for it.
Wilpon originally announced he would seek an investor to purchase 20 to 25 percent of the team, but then amended that chunk of the team up for sale to as much as 49 percent.
When I asked Wilpon why he increased the percentage of the team for sale, he replied, "The need. The team is not drawing well. And the team has an enormous payroll that is not productive. So we have two guys that aren't even here that are being paid an enormous amount of money [Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, released players who are owed $18 million combined]. So we've got to stabilize that. So that's one of the reasons that I needed somebody like Sandy Alderson."
The contracts of Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Reyes all are expected to expire after this season. (Rodriguez's contract has an option.) All are likely to be playing elsewhere next season. Reyes has value as a trade chip over the next two months, though the Mets have studied the success of the Boston Red Sox in letting top veterans play out their contracts and taking the compensatory draft picks. The Mets would trade Reyes only if they obtain the equivalent of a first-round draft pick who is close to the big leagues -- similar to how in July 2009 the Oakland Athletics, in a trade with St. Louis, turned free-agent-to-be Matt Holliday into Brett Wallace, a 2008 first-round pick, along with pitcher Clayton Mortensen and first baseman/outfielder Shane Peterson, a second-round 2008 pick.
Speaking about the Mets' prospects of improving with a smaller payroll, Wilpon said, "If we're fortunate enough, [catcher Josh] Thole can be the kind of player we think he can be. [First baseman Ike] Davis keeps progressing. Whoever is at second base progresses as a young player. The shortstop [Reyes] -- I know there's a great question about whether we can keep the shortstop, so we're preparing for that if that should happen. [Third baseman] David [Wright] we hope gets on track. [Outfielder Jason] Bay is good guy and a professional. Pagan comes back and he's not a totally expensive guy. Beltran will be elsewhere. We hope [Fernando] Martinez can take that spot. Now, he's fragile but he can hit."
In five professional seasons, Martinez never has played more than 90 games or taken more than 366 at-bats.
The Mets are looking at a change in their ownership structure regardless of the outcome of the trustee's suit. That's because Wilpon said the new investor will be included in the decision-making processes of the club, and not be treated simply as an investor without voice.
"I'm going to treat the investor as a partner," Wilpon said. "Now, will we still have the last say? Yes. But I'm going to treat him as a partner. There are certain things he will have equal say [in], even if he owns as smaller percentage. For instance, we can't just go and finance something [without input from the investor]. That's not fair to his equity. We can't go sell something. That's not fair to his equity.
"I am today the control person, not just because of my percentage, but I am the control person because Major League Baseball insists on one control person. I'm the control person. In 50 years I've never said to Saul [Katz, a partner] or my brother, 'This is the way we're doing it and that's it.' That's not the way we operate. So I'm the control person. So what I said was, 'I am not going to give up being the control person.'
"What deal we make is dependent on the deal. If someone's going to own 25 percent or 45 percent remains to be seen. Whatever that person owns, they're putting in a lot of money. I expect $200 million to come in. They deserve to sit at the table when you do the budgets. They deserve to have a say [in], 'Here's our philosophy. Here's our business plan for the next five years."'
Wilpon remains as the chief executive officer of the club. His son Jeff is the chief operating officer who runs the daily operations of the club -- a part of the command structure that will not change once the investor is brought in.
"And Jeff is the kind of person and our relationship is such," Wilpon said, "that he never, ever has a problem calling me and saying, 'Dad, here's my recommendation. Here's what it is. It's your call. You have to make the last call.' It happens all the time."
Few teams have suffered more indignities on and off the field than the Mets in recent years, from the arrests of a groundskeeper for gambling operations, equipment manager Charlie Samuels for theft and Rodriguez for assault, to the firings of general managers Steve Phillips and Omar Minaya, who engaged in a news conference meltdown with a reporter -- part of seven Mets managers and general managers hired and fired by Wilpon since he obtained sole control of the Mets in 2002 who have not been hired by another club in the same capacity. Wilpon accepted responsibility for many of the club's problems regarding decision-making.
"Charlie Samuels was someone we trusted," he said. "Charlie Samuels was around here for 30 years or more maybe. We trusted the guy. That's just very disappointing in terms of people.
"Some of the other screw-ups? It was painful to see what Omar did to himself. Why did he do that? He became persona non grata, but here was a guy who in 2007 if you can take a moratorium and run for mayor, he would have run for mayor. He was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He had charisma, he was wheeling and dealing . . . never mean-spirited, by the way. A fine guy, by the way. Great guy.
"So I made a lot of poor choices. I made some good ones, but I made some poor choices. I picked [former manager] Bobby Valentine. Bobby Valentine is still a friend. Very talented guy. I think Bobby was angry when he got fired because he thought Phillips should have been fired at the same time. He wasn't saying, 'I shouldn't be fired.' He was saying Phillips should be fired at the same time. By the way, there was a reason I didn't fire Phillips [at the time]. I thought it would have been much too disruptive to the organization at the time.
"In retrospect, yeah, I made a lot of poor judgments."
Phillips said other owners would have dismissed him before Wilpon did, describing Wilpon as fiercely loyal. Phillips said it was unfair to characterize Wilpon's run in negative terms only because of the Mets' recent troubles.
"I would look at it as he was there when we went to the playoffs back to back for the first time ever," said Phillips, who also pointed out that Wilpon brought baseball back to Brooklyn and built a new ballpark in Queens. "Right now they probably have the best GM they could have. Sandy has lived a life in baseball under tight financial constraints.
"In dire times it's so easy to put the laundry list down, but the important thing is the decency of the man and the positives he brings. I know how important the team is to the Wilpon family. I suspect they will do everything they can to keep the team in the family. I hope for them they can, because this is not of their doing. They don't deserve this. Just like the other [Madoff] victims, they don't deserve this."