The New York Mets went to the World Series last season and currently boast a young pitching staff that is not only one of the most talented in the game, but also one of the cheapest. And yet for the Mets, perhaps the game’s preeminent struggle-franchise, this is a big problem.
The issue at hand is that the Mets are good right now, and uniquely positioned to get even better. While most teams have to spend tens of millions to get even decent pitching—the St. Louis Cardinals just dropped $80 million and a no-trade clause on the decidedly okay Mike Leake—the Mets employ a stable of thick-necked hurlers who can mow down any lineup in the league and will be earning peanuts next season. This should free up the Mets to start firing potato guns full of cash at big-time free agents and go about assembling a super team.
So far, this is the Mets’ biggest move of the offseason:
Meanwhile, they look ready to let Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy go play elsewhere, they don’t look poised to make a run at any of the remaining stars on the free-agent market—Alex Gordon sure would fill some needs!—they don’t appear to have even bothered making an offer to Jason Heyward, and they are generally not acting like a team in America’s biggest market coming off a pennant.
So why are the Mets seemingly so intent on boning themselves? Because the owners, Fred and Jeff Wilpon, are still paying off the hundreds of millions of dollars in debt they racked up in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme exploding. Howard Megdal summarized the situation nicely at Vocativ:
Ever since, the Mets have managed to get by annually by diverting revenue from their baseball and television operation into the financing of debt. Prior to the refinancing of the past two years, the annual interest on these two loans plus debt balloon payments of more than $43 million have exceeded team payroll itself.
The refinancing of the two loans has extended their due dates out five years, so this arrangement is set to continue for a long time to come. And the debt balloon payments run until December 2045, when currently youthful pitching ace Steven Matz will be 54 years old.
The Wilpons almost never speak to the press, but the last time Fred Wilpon did, he told reporters that team payroll was being slashed in order to pay off his debts:
Wilpon also provided a new explanation for the Mets’ austerity over the past several years, saying that the payroll contracted as ownership paid down debt.
“That’s what made us tight,” Wilpon, 76, said. “We were still getting revenues, lots of revenues, but those revenues were going to pay off debt. That’s done.”
This is bullshit, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that MLB has previously taken drastic steps to prevent. When former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt started using his team as a divorce-court war chest, Bud Selig all but shoved him out of the league and handed the Dodgers over to Magic Johnson. Why the Wilpons are getting a pass when McCourt didn’t is a mystery—though one suspects it’s because Fred Wilpon is one of the longest-tenured owners in the majors—but it’s unconscionable for a big-market team already blessed with an embarrassment of cheap talent to be operating like a small-market upstart. If the Wilpons aren’t equipped to take advantage of the golden opportunity that’s been afforded to this team, then it should be put in the hands of someone who is.