Shadows draw near for Minaya, Manuel
GM's payroll mismanagement could pave way for a new regime in Queens
The two times New York Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon has spoken to media this month, his remarks have been brief and bewildering.
Asked during the announcement of a partnership between the University of Connecticut and Wilpon-owned SportsNet New York about whether Omar Minaya would remain as Mets general manager, Wilpon replied with a riddle: "Is the sun going to come up tomorrow?"
Ten days later, briefly cornered by media at Citi Field and asked if he had a moment, Wilpon replied: "Got to go to the University of Michigan."
The latter was a particularly odd response, since Wilpon is 73 years old. (It was later learned the blow-off was a reference to a Citi Field sendoff for soon-to-be freshmen at Michigan, Wilpon's alma mater.)
The sunrise comment, meanwhile, was interpreted as an affirmation that Minaya would still be the GM in 2011.
That, however, is far from assured.
Organization sources tell ESPNNewYork.com that chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon is openly hostile toward Minaya during internal meetings, and that Minaya has far less security than the elder Wilpon appeared to imply.
Despite being under contract through 2012 at roughly $1.1 million per season, Minaya could be reassigned, or even jettisoned. No decision has yet been made about the future of Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel, according to sources.
Still, it is particularly difficult to envision the skipper -- who referred to his team's hitting as "pathetic" last week -- being spared, even if Jeff Wilpon is said to place the blame on Minaya and understands the manager can only do so much with the assembled group.
The root of the discontent: that the Wilpon-funded payroll has been squandered on poor choices.
There has long been a perception among a segment of the Mets fan base that the organization's owners are thrifty. A great deal of that sentiment stems from sharing a market with the Yankees, who disregard luxury taxes and spend freely to field a winner. The Yankees are the only team to spend more than a billion dollars on payroll for their Opening Day rosters since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In some ways, the Mets actually are frugal to their own detriment. For example, they do not spend wildly for international amateur free agents. They also do not exceed Major League Baseball's recommended signing bonuses for drafted players as much as other big-market clubs.
Despite having a recruiting asset in Minaya -- the game's first Hispanic and only Dominican-born GM -- the Mets went three years without spending seven figures on an international free agent. The streak ended when the Mets signed 16-year-old Venezuelan left-hander Juan Urbina, the son of former major leaguer Ugueth Urbina, last year for $1.1 million.
As for the draft, Baseball America -- long respected for its coverage of up-and-coming players in high school, college, Japan and the minors -- computed the Mets' draft spending over the past three years at $14.3 million, which ranks 25th in the major leagues during that span.
Yet there is an incontrovertible fact that overwhelms any suggestion the Wilpons don't pony up the required dollars to field a winner.
In their six seasons with Minaya as GM, the Mets have committed a National League-high $739,212,752 on payroll for their Opening Day rosters.
Overall, only the Yankees ($1,209,473,096) and Boston Red Sox ($804,214,530) have spent more from 2005 through the present, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The next-highest NL spender is the Chicago Cubs, at $680,891,597.
Barring a miracle run, the Mets will have made just one postseason appearance in six years despite that financial commitment. Under Minaya, they are tied with the Cubs for having played in the fewest postseason series since 2005 among the nine highest-spending organizations. The total? Two apiece.
One of the big beefs with Minaya from ownership, according to team insiders, is fairly obvious: how the payroll has been allocated.
Left-hander Oliver Perez's three-year, $36 million deal and second baseman Luis Castillo's four-year, $25 million deal are the major examples of bloated contracts that have pushed the team's payroll to roughly $130 million. Both players are signed through 2011.
Meet The Mess
Here's a look at the highest combined Opening Day payrolls from 2005 to the present, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with winning percentages and postseason series appearances over that span.
|Club||Payroll||Win %||Playoff series|
The Mets have played with essentially a 24-man roster during the season's second half because the ineffective Perez has been used only three times since his July 20 return from the disabled list.
Fans fault ownership for not eating the contracts and jettisoning at least Perez, but ownership has a different take. According to sources, the Wilpons blame Minaya for being too friendly with Perez, and failing to forcefully convince the southpaw to go to the minors. (Perez has veto power over any attempted demotion.) He did make four rehab starts in the minors while on the disabled list, but he has never formally accepted a trip to the farm and returned without his pitching issues having been remedied.
At the end of the 2008 season -- despite Minaya still being under contract for the following year -- the Wilpons extended his contract through 2012. The extension came despite the Mets having suffered consecutive September swoons.
Ownership now may be willing to pay for that mistake by swallowing the money, or at least reassigning Minaya.
According to team sources, the intention -- even in more successful times -- had been to eventually bump Minaya to a scouting and advisory role and give assistant GM John Ricco the title of GM. That could ultimately be realized, although names such as that of former San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers likely will be bandied about should Minaya be displaced from his current role. At the least, the Mets may bring in a strong voice from the outside, who will not hesitate to offer dissent in internal meetings.
"You can't think about that," Minaya said regarding speculation about Manuel's future as manager and his own role as GM. "I'm not a person to pay attention to what rumors are. You can't do this job in New York paying attention to rumors."
Minaya noted the team's state is not as dire as it is portrayed.
Still, given the corner the Mets have boxed themselves into with payroll commitments for 2011, and the amount expended over six seasons for one postseason appearance, it's not exactly where team officials envisioned themselves.
"It's a .500 team," the GM said. "They're eight games out of the wild card. That's what it is."
As for the managerial role, Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine automatically will be linked to the Mets because of their existing New York ties. However, both would command the type of hefty salaries the organization may not be willing to expend, even if all the other factors fell into place.
As a result, the conventional wisdom is that former '86 Met Wally Backman could emerge as the leading candidate to succeed Manuel.
Until Jeff Wilpon hired Backman to manage the team's New York-Penn League affiliate this season, the former infielder had been exiled for five years from affiliated baseball. The belief is that Backman would work for among the lowest managerial salaries in the majors just to have the opportunity. And salary requirements might be a primary criteria. Backman's first managerial job lasted only three days, when the Arizona Diamondbacks reversed their decision to hire him once past off-the-field transgressions came to light.
Backman reportedly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge and received probation in 2001 after a domestic incident. He was convicted of driving under the influence in Kennewick, Wash., the previous year. His current contract to manage in Brooklyn includes strict language leaving little tolerance for transgressions, and in an ideal world he would have a few more years in the minors to re-establish himself.
If the Mets -- who already have roughly $130 million in payroll committed for next season before pursuing any free agents -- don't spend lavishly this winter, what else can they sell to the fan base besides Backman and a youth movement? Even if the bottom line is the talent of the players on the field, Backman would figure to be wildly popular with the fans because he was a hard-nosed player on the Mets' most recent championship team. He also has a propensity for ejections.
One thing is for sure: As Fred Wilpon suggested, the sun will come up tomorrow.