Mailbag: Signing the In-Between Guy

Andy P in Columbus: “I read your budget breakdown. Why not sign a guys like Cody Ross and Angel Paham, who won’t cost that much, and just spend the extra money, to maybe help the team win 2013? Why is that so difficult to do for this franchise. It doesn’t always have to be Super Stars or Rookies, they should look to sign guys in between as well.”

Matthew Cerrone, Lead Writer

I love this point, and agree in theory, but it’s very idealistic and here’s why I think the Mets are unlikely to do this…

Yes, adding Ross and Pagan will likely cost just under $20 million combined. That’s $15 million over budget for Sandy Alderson, but you’ll probably say that’s the least Ownership can do to help make them team more successful in 2013, especially considering what fans have put up with over the last five years. I get that. It’s a fair argument.

However, it’s not just about 2013…

According to reports, both Ross and Pagan will likely sign three year deals worth slightly less than $10 million per season. The thing is, in each case, the player loves his current city and team (and the feeling is mutual, meaning they’re both likely to resign where they are), which means Sandy Alderson would need to overpay to bring them to Queens.

Let’s imagine Alderson overpays and signs both players to three year deals (with options) worth $10 million per season. Great, you have an outfield of Ross, Pagan and Jason Bay. However, Alderson’s goal has been to create “payroll flexibility,” which I realize some people misinterpret to mean ‘cheap,’ and ‘cut payroll.’ But, it’s about being flexible, being able to rotate contracts in and out because you are never bogged down, it’s the same philosophy being practiced by the Yankees, same as the Cardinals, which allowed them to sign Carlos Beltran after losing Albert Pujols and still have Matt Holliday. It’s about balance, always being around the same number, with staggered contracts, some coming off, new ones coming on, and so on, all while your young players grow and get paid as they perform better and their value increases.

I love the idea of guys like Ross and Pagan to fill out the middle of the roster, but those three-year deals get in the way of that ‘flexibility,’ at least right now. Instead, the plan when Alderson arrived was simple: Shed as many long-term commitments as possible and have a total clean slate after 2013 (when Bay and Santana come off the books), while simultaneously getting a good read on young, homegrown talent (like Davis, Duda, Matt Harvey and Jon Niese). Then, after next season, when the team will have only $40 million or so in commitments, and a good sense of who in-house is worthy of locking up long term and who is not, Alderson can begin stacking free agents and staggering contracts where needed, like a Ross or Pagan, or even a more expensive ticket, to help round out the roster in a ‘flexible’ way.

So far, he’s been successful at that, but mostly at the expense of the standings and attendance. Time will tell if it was worth it…

The advanced statistic WAR suggests Pagan and Ross could combine to add 6 or so wins to your team more than two replacement-level players.

So, the question is, is it worth all of the above (blocking positions (from prospects or other future free agents) and cluttering up the line for future seasons) not to mention adding $20 million to payroll) to go from 74 wins to 80 wins, which, by the way, still would have missed the playoffs by 14 games?

The point is, the problem Alderson is trying to solve is much deeper than just two mid-tier, free agent outfielders. Also, answering that problem incorrectly in the short-term, while it might get a few extra wins, could throw off what’s best for the long term.

It’s the right approach, though risky. I mean, what if guys like Harvey or Zack Wheeler end up being a bust? What if the free agent market just gets weaker and weaker, at which point having a flexible payroll will be meaningless? Alderson is in a tough spot, because he’s close to his goal, but you and I are more frustrated than ever.