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Mets camp report: GM Alderson puts smiling face on bleak situation

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One for the 'if' pile: The Mets would love it IF Johan Santana returns to earn his $23M salary. (AP)  
One for the 'if' pile: The Mets would love it IF Johan Santana returns to earn his $23M salary. (AP)  

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Sandy Alderson has his game face on here in Mets camp. He's explaining why it's perfectly OK that the Mets lowered their payroll an unprecedented $50 million or so, that there's plenty of talent in camp and that they are going to be a lot better than most folks (meaning, everyone but them) realize.

However, a friend of Alderson's said the Mets' brand-name GM was surprised to find the team's financial situation as dire as it is once he arrived in Flushing. That friend said Alderson knew there was a Madoff issue when he accepted the job, but had no idea how deep it ran.

"He thought he was going to a place with a head cold, and it turns out, it was cancer," Anderson's friend said.

Alderson seemed to stifle a smile at the analogy but pressed on. "You learn to expect the unexpected," he said. "That's baseball."

Alderson's job is to smile through the pain. And to that end, he has opened a Twitter account @MetsGM that opened with a joke, a poke at the cash-strapped situation and his decision to drive to Florida for spring training, a decision he said was actually made to accommodate his beloved dog Buddy.

"Big fundraiser tonight for gas money ..." he tweeted.

New York Mets
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Jon Heyman
At least the Mets have health to go with their power deficit and that Madoff thing. Likes, dislikes >>
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Mets owner Fred Wilpon complimented Alderson's "wonderful" sense of humor, but Alderson has since decided to quell the jokes on Twitter and put a positive spin on things here. There is no whining in baseball, anyway. So he is putting the best face on an impossible situation.

On another of the back fields here the other day, Wilpon was talking about how he defers to his baseball people and how this is "Sandy's plan." Alderson was famous as the original architect of what became Moneyball, a way for the low-revenue A's to make it against the bigger markets. But the reality is, of course, that the Mets are plum out of extra cash, and nobody's quite sure if they can even afford the $90 million or so payroll they do have, even if it's $50 million less than last year's payroll.

The reality, of course, is that it isn't Sandy's plan at all, but a plan made out of necessity due to a man Alderson has never met, the infamous ponzi schemer and former Wilpon buddy Bernard Madoff, who has made a mess of the finances of Mets owners Wilpon and Saul Katz and put their ownership into doubt. In the meantime, Wilpon has ordered a payroll reduction that contributes to making the Mets the longest of long shots at a time two of their division competitors, the Marlins and Nationals, are augmenting their troops for a run in the stiff NL East. The division has been dominated in recent years by the Philadelphia Phillies and their great pitching trio.

If the drastic cost cuts were unexpected for Alderson, he is hoping against hope for the unexpected on the field this season. In other words, a representative team in a division where they appear grossly outmanned. In the meantime, Alderson is left to explain that this isn't as bad as it looks, that their older players are going to regain lost health and magic and younger players are going to live up to their dreams.

Unintentionally, Wilpon has found the right man for the impossible job of making it all sound OK. (But if Alderson needs any help, there are about a half dozen public relations experts on call for the Mets, including new PR whiz Matthew Hiltzik, who has as clients Alec Baldwin, Tony Parker, Justin Bieber, Christie Brinkley and of course Ryan Braun.)

"Our payroll right now is about where it was at the end of last season. The 50 million reduction is a little misleading," Alderson said, finding a way to make it all look acceptable. The reality is, the Mets were pretty terrible at the end of last season with that $90 million or so worth of talent at their disposal, once Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez were dealt and they were left with a mixture of kids and uncertainities.

"We're spending plenty," Alderson asserted.

Well, they are, but that's only if they had a roster of underpaid, overproducing players. They talk about all the waste that came off the books, but the reality is that Johan Santana at $23 million, Jason Bay at $16 million and maybe even the beloved David Wright at $15 million look like less than bargains right now.

"We also have to properly allocate out payroll. At some point, that will happen," Alderson said.

That may take years, of course. But in the meantime, part of his job is to lead, which means to say nice things even though the middle of their diamond consists of three untested players plus Andres Torres, who hit .221 last year. That means to gush when the rotation, after the returning Santana, looks pretty average.

"We like the team we have," Alderson asserted. "If our guys play to their ability -- their career average ability -- there's no reason we can't be very good. I think we're a lot better than people give us credit for."

Of the $90 million or so he has been allowed to spend, Alderson said: "That's a representative amount. It's not what people associate with New York City. But it takes more than dollars to win."

Asked what that was, Alderson responded, "Good management."

Of course, Alderson and Co. would have to be magicians to turn the few dollars they had into a winner. They beefed up the 'pen with Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Ramon Ramirez, replaced Angel Pagan in center with Torres and will rely on the new DP combo of Ruben Tejada at shortstop and Daniel Murphy at second base after letting homegrown superstar Jose Reyes bolt for a $106 million deal with the Marlins.

Résumés have been replaced with rhetoric, and Alderson shines in that arena, as well. He makes things sound almost workable. Not easy in this case.

When it was mentioned to him that there is no replacing Reyes, Alderson said, "Tejada had a .360 on-base percentage. If we get a .360 on-base percentage and solid defense from him, we're fine."

When it was mentioned to him that the Marlins appear to have overwhelming talent and that Mike Stanton looks like the next big superstar, Alderson says, "You seen Lucas Duda? He had a .950 OPS over his final 250 at-bats (.957 in the second half to be exact)."

When it was mentioned that they appear to be at a power deficit in their division, he said, "We have a lot of power potential, with Ike Davis, David Wright, Jason Bay, even Daniel Murphy. We were sixth in offense last year. And that's with zero power. We scored five more runs than the Phillies and they hit 50 more home runs. If we maintain other aspects of the game and have more power, we should be all right. That said, we have to pitch better and we have to play somewhat better defense."

Alderson is smart enough to make anything sound passable. But at his heart he is a realist.

Reality is, the Mets need a lot to go right.

If Santana returns to health and form, that would help. If Wright regains his greatness and Bay comes even close, that would help a lot. If Josh Thole, Tejada, Duda and Murphy fulfill the team's expectations, that would help even more.

Eventually, they will need to spend to win, though.

"I don't expect we'll operate this way indefinitely into the future," Alderson said, regarding the strapped finances.

Of course, Alderson knows better than anyone to expect the unexpected.

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