Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Road Not Taken

I spend a lot of time thinking about the New York Mets. Fortunately for my mental health, it's been a much more pleasant experience since Steve Cohen bought the team than it was previously. Sure, 2021 didn't turn out to be the year that Mets fans hoped for, but the club has done a good job addressing the root causes of last season's disappointment — at least until the lockout brought MLB operations to a halt. Conversely, in the final years of the Wilpon ownership, time spent pondering the Mets inevitably brought on persistent feelings of helplessness and despair.

I still think about the Wilpons from time to time, although I obviously don't miss them. They were pretty awful owners. It was sad, really. Fred Wilpon unquestionably loved the Mets and desperately wanted them to succeed. Indeed, after the sale went through, several pieces in the local papers went out of their way to laud Fred as a genuinely nice man who didn't deserve all of the criticism he received for his time running the franchise. This, of course, conveniently ignored the shameless record of failure that characterized Wilpon's tenure controlling the Mets.

The facts speak for themselves. From August 2002, when Wilpon bought out his partner Nelson Doubleday and assumed sole control of the franchise, through November 2020, when he sold the club to Steve Cohen, Wilpon's Mets missed the playoffs an astonishing 16 of 19 seasons. Of course, friendly pundits liked to give Fred slack for what happened after December 2008, when Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme came crashing down upon its investors. But the facts don't argue in favor of letting Wilpon off the hook.

For some background, it's important to remember how dependent Fred Wilpon was on those sweet Madoff dollars when it came to running the Mets. It's unlikely that Wilpon would have been able to buy out Doubleday without those massive returns from his Madoff investments. And once the Wilpons did assume control, the club's indifferent record over the years didn't produce the profits necessary to fund the operation. The only reason the Mets could maintain large payrolls in those years was thanks to the outsized returns from Bernie Madoff.

Infamously, the Wilpons' ability to maintain large-market payrolls ended abruptly when Bernie Madoff's arrest brought those too-good-to-be-true returns to a screeching halt, ending the flow of vital cash into the Mets organization. This is correctly seen as the beginning of the end for Fred Wilpon's ownership of the Mets. However, I've always looked at the years from Madoff's arrest up to the sale of the club to Steve Cohen as a real missed opportunity for both Wilpon and Mets fans.

It's not that the period from August 2002 through December 2008 was a stellar era in Mets history, despite the extra money they had to spend. During those seasons, the team's record was a mediocre 569-563, despite the 97-win 2006 team that made it to the NLCS. While that 2006 season was a lot of fun for fans like myself, there was no foundation for sustained success. The farm system mainly was bare. There was almost no depth, particularly with pitching, which led directly to the heartbreaking collapses in 2007 and 2008. Even before the Madoff story broke, it was apparent that the Mets were not a well-run organization. Without the Madoff cash, things became quite hopeless.

I've often wondered over the intervening years what might have happened if Fred Wilpon had taken the Madoff disaster as a wake-up call. Any objective look at the team's finances would have forcefully demonstrated that things would have to change dramatically for the Wilpon family to continue to control the Mets franchise. Without that windfall from Madoff, the Mets would have to operate in a much different manner going forward. As successful teams in much smaller markets have figured out, it takes adhering to sound business principles and spending money wisely to flourish when you're operating a team on a budget.

What if Fred had taken note of these successful teams and committed to emulating them? Wilpon's money people must have certainly let him know that the club payrolls would be significantly impacted for the foreseeable future. Remember, the team not only was operating without the Madoff windfall but was also responsible for paying money back to the trustee appointed by the courts. Taking on minority partners and receiving loans from MLB would keep the Mets afloat, at least for a while. Still, the payrolls would remain embarrassingly small despite the size of the New York market.

The Mets could have succeeded with much smaller payrolls had Wilpon directed them to pivot and place more significant resources into the farm system. An investment in that area could have paid off in a few years with cheaper home-grown talent that these other clubs have developed, even if it meant the Mets taking a step back in the short-term. Realistically, the only way back to spending commensurate to their market size was by becoming more profitable by succeeding on the field.

Granted, the Mets would have had to run out some bad teams while rebuilding their scouting and development. But it's not as if those early post-Madoff clubs were big successes anyway. They finished fourth in the NL East for the 4 seasons from 2009-2012, winning 70, 79, 77, and 74 games. How much worse could it have been? They failed to produce an actual winning record until 2015, when they won 90 games and made it to the World Series.

Despite Omar Minaya's reputation as a scouting and development guy before taking over the Mets, the team failed to develop a talent pipeline in the years from 2005-2010 under Omar. Minaya signed free agents that cost the Mets picks at the top of the draft and maintained a questionable (and ineffective) strategy of using high draft picks for college relievers. Understandable, given the Mets' desperate need for bullpen help in those two consecutive collapses, but these college arms mostly went bust.

Minaya's last two drafts in 2009 and 2010 were more conventional, bringing the Mets future starters Steven Matz and Matt Harvey in consecutive years. Still, Minaya didn't turn over a very productive system to Sandy Alderson. Alderson's era was supposed to feature a "Moneyball with money" approach, but the owners also dictated that the Mets couldn't give the appearance of not trying to compete. The Wilpons desperately needed income from ticket sales to keep their heads above water.

Needless to say, Fred and Jeff Wilpon never showed the vision necessary to reverse the momentum that was inexorably taking the New York Mets away from them. There was a telling story about that era in the New York Post last week (Post Sports+ subscription required).

One change that the Mets organization when Sandy Alderson took over was targeting some international free agent spending to the more expensive, higher-rated prospects at the top of the market. For the most part, this is where a club might find a potential future star. One such potential gem was catcher Francisco Alvarez, in whom the Mets invested a $2.7 million signing bonus. This was a record for an international signing by the organization. Alvarez was signed just before Alderson had to step down in 2018 after a cancer diagnosis.

According to the Post's Mike Puma, Jeff Wilpon and new GM Brodie Van Wagenen were visiting the Dominican Republic in 2019 to evaluate some of the young players in the Mets' Acadamy there, including  Alvarez:

On this particular day, however, Wilpon, then the team's COO, and Brodie Van Wagenen — who had been hired weeks earlier as the general manager — weren’t impressed with the 18-year-old. He appeared sluggish during a workout in front of his bosses, who most notably were concerned with his "fire hydrant" physique. Alvarez was listed at 5-foot-10 and 233 pounds.

Money had been wasted on Alvarez in the duo’s estimation.

Shortly after, the Mets altered course, undoing an international signing philosophy that had been implemented during the previous regime spearheaded by Sandy Alderson.

Following the advice of his top scouts, Alderson in 2016 decided the Mets would narrow the focus of their international acquisitions. They would target a more limited pool of high-end, expensive talent rather than mostly signing players in bulk and hoping a few of those signees might emerge as major league players. Instead of signing dozens of players for a small bonus, the Mets would go big-game hunting. The financial allocation was roughly the same, but for fewer players.

Now it's obvious, if entirely unsurprising, that Wilpon and Van Wagenen were quite wrong about Alvarez, who has become the top prospect in the Mets' system and one of the best in baseball. Neither Jeff nor Brodie was at all qualified for the jobs they held. Alderson may not have gotten everything right in his time running the Mets, but the strategy of investing in top international talent is one followed by some of the most successful teams in baseball.

If Fred Wilpon had the vision and guts to pivot the organizational strategy after the Madoff scandal blew up, trying to get more high-end international talent into the Mets system would have been a goal. Even if there was a thought that one player they invested in was a mistake — which certainly was not the case with Alvarez — that wouldn't stop the team from continuing the strategy. Alvarez's bonus would barely cover the yearly salary of a free-agent low-leverage reliever. Had Fred hired the right people to run his team, rather than trusting his supremely unqualified son and a neophyte GM hiree, they would not have turned away from trying to get more quality into the system.

Besides chasing after more talented international players, the Mets should have invested more heavily in scouting and development. They were behind the most innovative teams in their use of technology, such as the high-end equipment clubs like the Dodgers and Brewers have used to develop their young pitching. Reportedly, the Wilpons were quite resistant when the front office tried to pitch investing in technology. Fred just couldn't grasp the concept that this investment would more than pay off by improving the club's ability to turn raw young players into big leaguers.

Also under the Wilpons, the Mets famously lagged way behind in their use of analytics. It was easier for the front office to talk the Wilpons into paying for mediocre ballplayers who would, at best, marginally impact the club's success on the field than to convince him to hire some intelligent nerds to help the club run smarter and more efficiently.

There's no doubt that if Fred Wilpon had the guts and foresight to change the way the Mets did business, he would have been ridiculed for being cheap and running his team like a small-market club. I'm sure he was afraid of that happening. But spending a few extra bucks on mediocre players didn't make the Mets successful. And the owners' penury became a laughingstock around the game anyway. Ultimately, Fred Wilpon could not hold onto the team that he loved, and his franchise's record of failure is Wilpon's defining legacy as owner.

It may have been quite a different story if Fred Wilpon had hired someone brilliant and put his trust in that person. A well-run team would have been much more successful. Perhaps the Mets could have been a model franchise that other teams looked up to, enjoying a level of success that allowed Fred Wilpon to retain control of the team. It really could have happened.

But instead, Fred Wilpon did what he always did. He trusted the wrong people, especially his abrasive, incompetent son. Thank goodness Francisco Alvarez is still here while Jeff Wilpon and Brodie Van Wagenen have moved on. Fred Wilpon's terrible decision-making can no longer hurt the Mets. The choices that he made — and failed to make — made Fred's ultimate failure as owner inevitable. What a waste.


A quick personal note: I am getting rotator cuff surgery done tomorrow on my right shoulder. It will probably keep me out of action for at least a few days. Hopefully, both I and the game of baseball will be back soon. In the meantime, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

1 comment:

  1. Geez, i didn't catch this article until today . .hope the surgery went well and here's to a speedy recovery ..


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