PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- New York Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon said his family is free and clear of past financial woes and that general manager Sandy Alderson has the financial flexibility to make major free-agent signings in upcoming offseasons.
Wilpon, 76, favorably settled a lawsuit brought by the trustee trying to recover funds for victims of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme last year.
He added that the family's improved financial complexion also is the result of the rebound of real estate, his primary business, as well as stock-market gains and the thriving of SportsNet New York, the television network in which the family owns a majority stake.
"It's all in the rearview mirror," Wilpon said about past financial woes Wednesday after arriving at the team's spring training complex. "... The family is in great shape. The family really is in great shape. Sometimes luck is the residue of design."
Wilpon originally faced a $1 billion lawsuit regarding the Madoff scheme, but the settlement will result in the family ultimately having to pay no more than $85.7 million -- and likely far less than that.
Wilpon said the payroll, slashed in recent seasons under Alderson, could return to past levels if the team is prudent. The payroll went from a high of $148 million late in Omar Minaya's tenure as general manager to roughly $95 million last year.
Wilpon pointed to bank debt as a primary reason for an un-New York-like payroll in recent years. The Mets have produced four straight losing seasons and have not reached the postseason since 2006.
"It wasn't, as people have written, the reason," Wilpon said about the Madoff issue and payroll slashing. "It was a balance there, because we had to make sure the banks got paid off all of the debt. There's no one in my family -- there's the Katz family, the Wilpon family, kids -- [that now] has any personal bank debt. Zero. Everything has been paid. We don't owe a dollar to anybody. We have mortgages on buildings and stuff like that, but we don't owe a dollar.
"That's what made us tight. We were still getting revenues. Lots of revenues. But those revenues were going to pay off debt. That's done."
The Mets did pursue free agent Michael Bourn until he agreed this week with the Cleveland Indians, so some of the recent financial constraints have resulted from the conservative bidding by Alderson as opposed to an ownership mandate.
Will the team be aggressive bidding next offseason?
"I think we would anticipate being big investors if that were appropriate," Wilpon said. "That depends on what the market is. If the market is such that that's where we have to be to be competitive and winners, yeah.
"This is, to me, a break-even business. I always strive to break even. I'm not looking to make any money. I strive to break even. So if [fans] don't show up, that's hard. So you have to balance it. We fed it pretty good the last five or six years. I think if the market was such, yes, the payroll could go up, but not to just have payroll go up so you can write headlines -- if that, in fact, improves the team.
"I don't know what the market will be at that point. But the payroll will be commensurate with anything we've ever done because we can do it. Remember, the people have to come to the ballpark obviously. If you have a competitive team, they will. Everything that was in the past, that you guys saw the pain that we went through, is gone. It's gone."
On other topics:
• Wilpon said his expectations for the 2013 Mets do not match outside pessimism.
"This team looks like basically a young team with some veterans, and hungry," Wilpon said. "I think Sandy and the staff did a terrific job of getting some real good prospects for the bullpen. ... I'm hopeful and optimistic. The hunger is throughout. And I think we have really good arms. You look at our pitching staff and, on paper, you've got to say they really have a good chance of producing W's. Any of the teams that have surprised people, whether it's Oakland last year -- just go through the last 10 years -- it's pitching that brings it up to that level. So I'm very encouraged about that."
• The Mets do not plan to discuss extending manager Terry Collins' contract until the end of the season, when it is due to expire.
"He's done an excellent job in all respects," Wilpon said. "He handles the public relations side very well. He's honest. You guys believe him. ... I think he knows talent. We will evaluate Terry at the end of the year, not only from where the club lands, but what his overall job was."
• David Wright could be a Met for life. Wright signed an eight-year, $138 million extension in December.
"David is a unique player. He's an All-Star," Wilpon said. "I think David is an All-Star in all things. He's a great person. To me, he's our [Derek] Jeter. And I think you need a core. I don't want to put it all on his shoulders. But he gets it. As far as I was concerned, he was not going anywhere."