NEW YORK -- After his hiring rounded out a star-studded front office five years ago, vice president of player development Paul DePodesta forecast that the New York Mets would function with the mantra “Moneyball with money.” As it turned out, the ownership’s losses in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme resulted in the Mets not operating with a big-market payroll at all.
Still, the long rebuild finally is complete.
Nearly five years to the day of the Oct. 29, 2010 announcement of Sandy Alderson assuming the general manager’s role, the Mets will open the World Series on Tuesday against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
“The fans certainly have been patient,” Alderson said Saturday at Citi Field. “And I think it’s because they understood what we were trying to do. We didn’t deviate much from that. As you get into the fourth and fifth year, people get a little impatient. They want to see some results. And that would be true of us. That would be true of ownership. That would be true of fans as well.”
Here’s how the Amazin’s were built:
Former general manager Omar Minaya has resurfaced for some media interviews in recent weeks, taking a restrained bow -- but a bow nonetheless -- for his contribution to the Mets’ first pennant in 15 years. Although it may not have been fully foreseeable at the time of Alderson’s arrival five years ago, Minaya left the talent that forms the core of the Mets’ current National League championship team.
Of the players who will appear on the World Series roster, Alderson’s crew inherited three-quarters of the rotation in the minors: Matt Harvey (first round, 2010), Jacob deGrom (ninth round, 2010) and Steven Matz (second round, 2009). The other young stud, Noah Syndergaard, arrived in an Alderson-engineered trade with the Toronto Blue Jays on Dec. 17, 2012. But the Alderson regime used an asset from the Minaya regime -- reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey -- to pry away Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
Closer Jeurys Familia, who had a franchise-record-tying 43 saves during the regular season, was signed as a teenager by Minaya out of the Dominican Republic. Captain David Wright, NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores, Ruben Tejada, Juan Lagares and Jonathon Niese also predated Alderson.
Minaya’s difficulty was not in identifying talent. The Mets had operated on a different payroll level under Minaya. And in order to come within a game of reaching the World Series in 2006, Minaya had charged up the credit card with high-priced free agents, frequently sacrificing draft picks in the process. It proved a house of cards. By the time the Mets got to Minaya’s final season in 2010, the Mets had dropped to fourth place, with a 79-83. And they were staring at the back end of contracts, including a seemingly aging Carlos Beltran still owed $18.5 million in 2011.
Alderson had some swings and misses early on. Remember Rule 5 pick Brad Emaus as the Opening Day second baseman in 2011? Trading Angel Pagan to the San Francisco Giants for Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres the following winter proved a stinker that helped bring a World Series title to the Bay Area the following season.
Yet three trades -- and one trade that unraveled -- will define Alderson’s tenure with the Mets.
Alderson successfully auctioned off Beltran, in the final year of his contract, at the trade deadline in 2011 for Zack Wheeler. He landed d’Arnaud and Syndergaard from the Blue Jays for Dickey shortly after the winter meetings in 2012. And then he completed the remake of the Mets’ moribund offense this season with the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes on July 31 from the Detroit Tigers for premier pitching prospect Michael Fulmer.
The Cespedes deal came together two days after a trade that would have sent Flores and Wheeler to the Milwaukee Brewers for Carlos Gomez fortuitously fell through once Mets doctors expressed concern about Gomez’s hip. Before landing Cespedes 13 minutes before the trade deadline, the Mets also seriously discussed Justin Upton with the San Diego Padres and had neared a deal that would have swapped Wheeler for Jay Bruce. The Cincinnati Reds got cold feet and backed out of that near-deal.
The trade with the Braves is the one manager Terry Collins credits for jump-starting the club, which was just a modest 49-48 on the day they arrived.
“It was real big,” Collins said about the Cespedes trade. “He put a big bat in the middle of your lineup. It made a big difference. But, I’m telling you, those other two guys, that’s who shook the clubhouse up. When Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe walked in that clubhouse and guys all of a sudden realized their jobs were at stake, it changed. We got some guys swinging the bats much more aggressively, with much more sense of urgency. That’s when I think we turned things around.”
There was some luck involved before the Gomez-Cespedes debacle in building the current Mets.
Alderson’s staff originally preferred Brandon Belt over Wheeler in the Beltran trade.
And before sending Dickey to Toronto, Alderson pushed hard for right-hander Cody Buckel from Texas, but the Rangers balked.
Cody who? Exactly.
On the deals that acquired Syndergaard, d’Arnaud and Wheeler, Alderson said: “I think they struck a chord with our fans in terms of the plan that we had outlined.”
Of course, had the heavily favored Washington Nationals been on a 90-plus-win pace from the start of the season, the Mets -- waddling near .500 a week out from the trade deadline -- likely never would have acted so boldly. The Mets sat four games behind the Chicago Cubs in the loss column for the second wild-card slot when the deal for Johnson and Uribe took place.
Building from within
When Alderson was introduced as GM, ownership losses in the Ponzi scheme already had been public. So Alderson did not jump into the role fully naïve about the payroll taking a dive from the Minaya years, when it flirted with $150 million. Still, the precipitous drop did catch Alderson by surprise. Only this year is the payroll finally returning to more than $100 million.
It was during Alderson’s first spring training in charge that the trustee looking to recover funds for victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme filed an amended lawsuit against the owners of the Mets, their businesses and charities. The lawsuit sought to recover $1 billion. (A settlement now has the amount owed down to $60.6 million, in equal installments in 2016 and ’17.) Couple that with the existence of bloated inherited contracts to players such as Jason Bay, Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, and Alderson -- even if he was predisposed -- had to primarily build from within.
With the Mets so in need of an infusion of young major league talent, Alderson and DePodesta raised some eyebrows by drafting high school players in the first round during their first three seasons in charge: Brandon Nimmo, Gavin Cecchini and Dominic Smith. None has contributed at the major league level yet, although all are now knocking on the door. Finally, in 2014, the Mets selected Pacific-12 Player of the Year Michael Conforto out of Oregon State. He now is the primary left fielder for the Mets.
“I think what we were trying to do at the outset was develop good players,” Alderson said. “... It turned out that our strength was pitching. The one thing we did was try to protect that over time and not move any of it.”
The patient approach meant the Mets endured a combined six straight losing seasons under Minaya and Alderson before finally breaking through in 2015. That now-snapped streak had been tied with the Houston Astros for the longest active string of losing seasons in the majors.
While there are no guarantees, the Mets are well-positioned for the future. They possess a stable of young arms and no real payroll albatrosses with the possible exception of the 32-year-old Wright. He is signed through 2020 at salaries of as much as $20 million a season.
Even with Wheeler poised to return from Tommy John surgery next summer to join Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz in an electric young rotation, there will be challenges. The free agents include Cespedes, Murphy, Johnson, Uribe and Clippard.
“Our payroll is up quite a bit from where it’s been in previous years,” Alderson said. “We’re playing a [Royals] team that has a comparable payroll. So, if anything, I think this probably is some evidence that money is not absolute king. We’re happy to be there, however torturous the route.”
Compared with the spot where the Mets were sitting in late 2012 -- when Alderson flew to Norfolk, Virginia, to try to convince Wright to sign a long-term extension -- the prognosis for the Mets is quite healthy.
"The first thing that we discussed was our starting pitching in the minor leagues,” Wright recalled about that visit from Alderson three years ago. “I think even Sandy probably would be somewhat shocked with just how good all of them have been. Very rarely do you mention four or five guys in the minor leagues and you fast-forward a couple of years and all of them are these types of pitchers.
“I had faith in Sandy. I trusted that when we're battling for first place come the trade deadline that we would have the pieces to go out and get a Cespedes and make some of those moves that we made."