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Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Mets ruled by finances

By Joe Janish

Two years ago Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran were considered three-fifths of the New York Mets' "core" -- the vital keys to the New York Mets' success on the field. In an ironic twist, those three players remain "core" components of the team's financial fate.

Johan Santana
The Mets say ace Johan Santana, recovering from September shoulder surgery, will pitch this season.
Yes, if all three were 100 percent healthy, they'd still be valuable performers on the field. But injuries and extenuating circumstances have changed management's view of this trio, and finances dominate the decisions related to these players.

It's no secret that the Mets are in a financial crisis; a $25 million loan from MLB was confirmed by the Wilpon family, who have also publicly offered a piece of the club for sale. Compounding their economic woes are the impending billion-dollar lawsuit filed by Irving Picard and the team's waning ticket sales. How can the family keep the team afloat without selling out?

Increased revenues and decreased expenses would help -- i.e., ticket sales and salary shedding. And this is where Santana, Rodriguez and Beltran figure prominently.

Santana is coming off major shoulder surgery. Typically, when a pitcher has shoulder repair, the procedure is limited to arthroscopy -- usually, debridement or "clean up" of scar tissue around the labrum and rotator cuff -- and results in about nine months to a year of recovery time. However, Santana's injury required an invasive procedure -- a full incision. Generally speaking, this type of surgery extends the rehab process significantly; for comparison, it is similar to what was done to Chien-Ming Wang and Mark Prior.

Yet Mets management has said from Day 1 that Santana will return by midseason -- an optimistic expectation if last September's surgery was a simple 'scope. But the Mets' postseason hopes rest heavily on the healthy shoulders of Santana. No Santana means no chance of the playoffs, which in turn means fewer fans are purchasing season-ticket packages.

Spinning the story to keep hopes alive is understandable -- and perhaps acceptable -- but becomes irresponsible when "spin" evolves into altered reality. This past week, a NJ newspaper suggested that Santana might miss the entire season -- a charge the team and Santana vehemently denied. Maybe Santana will come back in 2011 -- but will it be because it makes sense for the pitcher's health, or because the team needs to sell tickets? Santana's fierce competitive spirit will motivate him to get back on the mound perhaps earlier than is safe. It's a situation that happens regularly with world-class athletes on the mend: their will to compete clouds their judgment, they return too early, and inevitably suffer a setback (or worse). In these cases, outside forces with cooler heads must prevail -- i.e., doctors and team management. But will the Mets be "cool" enough to make the right decisions in Santana's rehab? With over $70 million committed to him over the next three years, one would think they'd be careful with their ace's recovery. They might "lose" their money on him this year, but it would be to ensure they'd recoup their investment over the final two years. But the Wilpons aren't looking long-term right now; they're looking to survive from month to month.

Similarly, there is the case of Carlos Beltran, who had three at-bats as a designated hitter on March 6 and hasn't been back since because of ailing knees. Yet the team has insinuated that he'll be ready to go on Opening Day -- an unrealistic assumption even if the team played in the AL and used him in a DH role. But again, the team needs to broadcast optimism and to sell tickets.

Further, Beltran is in the final year of his contract, earning $18.5 million. If the team is not looking at the long-term view with Santana, will they make responsible decisions with Beltran? One would surmise that they'll do everything possible to keep Beltran on the field -- even if it's damaging. Beltran has his own motivation as well -- he's playing for a new contract.

In contrast, the Mets will do everything in their power to keep Francisco Rodriguez off the field. Rodriguez has a $17.5 million option for 2012 that automatically vests when he finishes his 55th ballgame (he has reached that milestone five of the past six years). Manager Terry Collins has already suggested that Rodriguez might be used in "high-leverage situations" before the ninth inning -- a concept fully endorsed by the SABR-focused Mets front office. But if Collins follows through with that plan, and it keeps Rodriguez from finishing 55 games, will the true motivation be because of belief in the data, or avoidance of the option? Either way, the MLBPA will be watching the situation closely.

Considering their current financial state, the Mets need to sell tickets immediately and foster the fantasy that the team will play "meaningful games" in September. Toward that end, Beltran will limp out to right field, perhaps when he shouldn't, and Santana might push himself to return more quickly than he should. Meanwhile, Rodriguez could be utilized in a way he's never been used before. We understand that MLB teams need to turn a profit, but in this case, financial desperation might be governing decisions more than they should. Is that a healthy way to operate?

Joe Janish writes for Mets Today, which is part of the SweetSpot network.