Can the Mets make 2011 interesting?

The Bernie Madoff scandal is one reason the Mets' finances are under the microscope. AP Photo/Richard Drew

Man up, New York Mets fans.

It doesn't necessarily get better next year.

The problem: Just as the New York Knicks had to tank a couple of seasons while clearing cap space for a free-agent run at LeBron James, the Mets may have to bide their time until 2012 before resuming relevance.

Only then will the Mets potentially have cleared $51.5 million in salary off the books from four players alone.

In the interim, the Mets may be forced into a budget-induced youth movement and will be at the mercy of whether current rookies Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Jenrry Mejia and Ruben Tejada thrive as sophomores -- a big if.

A team official said, "I don't think anything will not be explored." The organization may even consider the possibility of a trade involving shortstop Jose Reyes.

Still, it's difficult -- at least right now -- to envision the Mets getting the pieces in return to justify such a blockbuster swap.

In 2011, center fielder Carlos Beltran will be in the final season of a seven-year contract and will earn $18.5 million. Left-hander Oliver Perez will be paid $12 million in the last year of a three-year deal. Second baseman Luis Castillo is due $6 million. And closer Francisco Rodriguez could clear another $15 million off the books (from an $11.5 million salary and a $3.5 million buyout) if he is reinstated to the roster following the Mets' disciplinary action and his contract does not vest for 2012.

Because of bloated contracts awarded by GM Omar Minaya in recent years, the amount the Mets already have committed to the 2011 payroll before spending a dime this upcoming offseason is staggering.

Even if the Mets simply allow for routine raises for arbitration-eligible players Angel Pagan, Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey, while cutting loose Jeff Francoeur and John Maine and allowing free agents such as left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano to walk, the organization already will have a 2011 payroll comparable to this season's $130 million.

A team official noted the Mets "usually do what we need to do" to land a big piece, from Pedro Martinez and Beltran at the outset of Minaya's regime during the 2004-05 offseason, to Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, Jason Bay and Rodriguez in recent years. And, at least in an academic sense, the Mets could bring in another big piece this winter by signing a free agent to a backloaded multiyear contract with a low base salary in 2011.

Still, deferring the big payments to the back end of the contract is like running up a credit card while already overwhelmed by debt -- it feels good now, but will only make it more crippling to maneuver when the serious payments are due.

Consider: Bobby Bonilla, who last appeared in a Mets uniform in 1999, is about to come back on the payroll next season at $1.19 million annually for 25 years because of negotiated deferred payments.

A team official already acknowledged to ESPNNewYork.com that there will be no run at a pitcher the caliber of free-agent-to-be Cliff Lee. The Mets will not have a pair of $20 million-plus pitchers in their rotation. Santana already is due to make $22.5 million in 2011. He has two guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract beyond next year.

In reality, wide-ranging monetary issues suggest the Mets will be conservative in their offseason spending:

1. Even discounting any losses by the team's owners related to swindler Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, attendance has steeply dropped this season. That may be more attributable to a predictable drop in attendance in the second season in a new ballpark than any disappointment about the decline of the team, but it is the same revenue hit regardless of the cause.

The Mets drew 3,168,571 fans last season, in Year 1 at Citi Field. This season, the total is 1,921,259, with 23 home dates remaining. That's on pace for a 14.9 percent attendance decline. And given the Mets' current mediocrity, there is no assurance attendance will continue the remainder of the season at the current pace of 33,706 per game.

While steep, the current drop is not historically bad. In 1977, the organization saw a record 24.6 percent freefall from the previous season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Still, further erosion in ticket sales in 2011 should be on the way coming off a failed season in which the Mets are drifting aimlessly near .500 and have endured a string of off-the-field controversies. Holding the line on payroll to offset the revenue hit is a reasonable expectation.

2. While the finances of the Wilpon family, which owns the Mets, are not public knowledge, their primary business is Sterling Equities, a real estate company. That sector of the economy has taken a particular hit in recent years.

3. The Wilpons are the majority owners in SportsNet New York, which launched in March 2006. While the network appears successful, it generally takes years to recoup initial investments and pay off the debt involved in starting such an endeavor. The Wilpons also bought out co-owner Nelson Doubleday eight years ago for a reported $135 million, which could be a drain on liquidity, at least when combined with all the other factors.

Of course, then there's the Madoff mess, which is a double-whammy:

At least one Mets-related fund reportedly is recognized by the court-appointed trustee overseeing the disbursement of Madoff assets to victims as having profited from the scam -- meaning more money was removed from Madoff funds than invested over the years. Yet the Wilpons undoubtedly believed they had accumulated vastly more on their balance sheet than they actually possessed.

Using hypothetical numbers: If a person invested $10 million over 20 years with Madoff and had withdrawn $12 million over that span, technically they are net gainers. It probably does not feel that way if the investor believed he had $100 million.

Secondly, the Wilpons already have been on the receiving end of litigation related to the Madoff mess. The widow of a former Sterling Equities employee filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on July 30 alleging the Wilpon-owned company is responsible for employees' lost 401(k) funds invested through Madoff. A company spokesperson has dismissed the validity of the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status.

If the Mets do not spend lavishly this winter, will 2011 be a reprise of the second half of this season, when the Mets have drifted into irrelevance? Perhaps so.

While a team official suggested the discussions have not yet advanced to this level, he acknowledged one possible course of action is to sell a youth movement to fans and trumpet the home-grown players.

It is very possible that the 23-year-old Thole is paired with a low-cost, righty-hitting catcher next season. And the 23-year-old Davis is the everyday first baseman. And the 20-year-old Tejada gets the bulk of the starts at second base (assuming he can hit at even a modest level the remainder of this season). And the 20-year-old right-hander Mejia is part of the rotation. And 21-year-old Fernando Martinez is in the outfield mix with Bay, Pagan and Beltran.

As the second-half results for the Mets have demonstrated, those young players may be serviceable but not elite pieces.

In reality, the bulk of the Mets' winter activity may be concentrated on trying to dump unsavory contracts.

They logically will shop Beltran, most likely to no avail. After all, Beltran is making $18.5 million next year in the final season of a seven-year, $119 million deal. Because Beltran has an arthritic knee, is wearing a brace and has been underwhelming since returning from surgery after the All-Star break, a trade likely would require the Mets to kick in money. It's hard to imagine, given the organization's track record, that the Mets would be willing to subsidize Beltran playing elsewhere.

The most likely departures are no secret: Perez and Castillo.

The Mets essentially are playing with a 24-man roster during the second half because they refuse to eat Perez's contract, which calls for him to earn $12 million this season and the same amount in 2011. In Perez's case, there seems no way he can be on next season's Opening Day roster, even if the Mets just have to outright swallow the remaining amount owed.

Any energy from the fan base heading into a new season would be negated by Perez's continued presence.

As for Castillo, his departure seems probable, but is less assured. The Mets may be able to match the $6 million the second baseman is owed with another team's bad contract and at least perform a swap.

Whatever their fate, it may get worse for the Mets before it gets better.

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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