By Mike Steffanos
While it's admittedly hard for even the most optimistic of Mets fans to foresee a run into October for this year's edition of their team, the local media seems to have doubled down on the pessimism. Over the last few years the Mets coverage in the local papers has been generally quite negative, but this year it has degenerated to apocalyptic. Seriously, sometimes this spring I wonder if I'm reading the sports page or the book of Revelation.
Despite all of the gloom and doom, I suspect that neither the world nor the Mets franchise is really in danger of coming to an end anytime soon. As a matter of fact, although a playoff run seems very unlikely I have to say that I'm not dreading the start of the season.
Despite an underwhelming response to his hiring from the press, the blogosphere and the fans, I think Terry Collins stock has risen the more we've seen of him. Sure, maybe he's a little bit crazy in an over-caffeinated way, but there has been a perceivable rise in the energy level of the team this spring which seems to be accompanied by a level of accountability that we haven't seen in a while.
I keep hearing that Collins has the type of personality that will eventually wear thin on the troops, and that maybe true, but right now he looks like the right man for the job.
While there are certainly injury concerns surrounding Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran and performance questions regarding Jason Bay and Jose Reyes, by far the biggest area of concern is the financial situation of the Wilpon family.
Earlier this spring Joel Sherman of the Post wrote an excellent column suggesting the prospect of a massive fire sale. It attracted a lot of attention, and while I concede some of his points I really think that the possibility of this happening is fairly unlikely.
Sherman suggests a scenario that includes "70 million payrolls for a few years" and a complete rebuilding plan that involves shipping out every asset including David Wright for prospects. He even quotes an unnamed AL exec that "smart fans will get it," and posits that the Mets could still draw 2 million fans to Citi Field even with a team that would obviously lose 90+ games for at least the next few seasons. And while I found that article entertaining and thought-provoking, I thought it was exactly there that the logic broke down.
I think you could have sold a plan like that to the fans when the last regime change happened in 2005. Maybe not quite that drastic, but I think fans were willing to accept some sort of multi-year rebuilding that eventually would lead to a strong multi-year contender. But Minaya went another way, signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and creating instant expectations and a process of spackling around the cracks rather than building a real foundation that eventually earned him his pink slip.
Mets ownership has lost the good will and patience of the fan base over the last few years, effectively closing the door on successfully executing the severe rebuilding plan that Sherman and others have suggested. Faced with 3 or 4 years of 90-100 loss teams, I foresee Citi Field becoming a graveyard in the manner of Shea Stadium in the late 70s and early 80s. The diehard fans will be angry while the casual fans find better things to do.
Citi Field is a nice park, but tickets are expensive. How would you market a terrible team there -- short lines at the Shake Shack? If the fans don't come, the team won't make money even with a payroll lower than that $70 million figure. If you drastically cut ticket prices to lure them back than you cut revenue, too.
If the Wilpons attempt to hold onto their team in this manner they will meet the same fate as the de Roulet family a generation earlier. The franchise will be an embarrassment to baseball itself, and I find it hard to believe that Wilpons will find any strong support from any corner. I believe that the Wilpons will be forced to sell their team if they attempted this drastic of a maneuver.
Once you rule out the nuclear option, and I really believe you can, I think the Mets face a more realistic rebuilding option that involves a reshuffling of priorities and a plan that requires smart decisions on the part of the front office. Fortunately, the Mets do finally seem to have a management team in place that's equipped to lead them forward.
Look, the Mets will probably be fairly mediocre this year and next, but they can still be interesting, and they can compete. I think it's essential that the team plays well enough to win back some good will from the fans -- hard, smart baseball and maybe even some overachievement for a change.
In Part 2 of our season preview we'll look at what's been assembled and what we can reasonably expect from this team.