So a payroll between $100 million to $110 million -- the projected range for the New York Mets in 2012 -- in itself is not an impediment to winning a title. Except, in the case of Mets general manager Sandy Alderson's club, two factors will make achieving success at that payroll level far more challenging:
• A sizable percentage of that payroll will be allocated to a small group of players, some of them unproductive.
• The farm system, now an emphasis for the Mets, will not be ready to introduce top-tier talent to the major league club in 2012.
It's a double whammy that threatens to undermine the Mets' ability to compete in the National League East next season ... even before any offseason retooling begins.
Alderson said the final Mets' payroll for this season, taking into consideration factors such as the trades of Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez as well as bonus money earned by Chris Capuano, came in at about $140 million.
The Mets have plenty of money coming off the books. Left-hander Oliver Perez and second baseman Luis Castillo, who collected a combined $18 million from the Mets this year, have received their final checks from the organization. The 2011 commitments to Beltran and K-Rod are behind the Mets too.
Yet much of that money will not be reinvested in 2012.
In a magazine article earlier this season, principal owner Fred Wilpon estimated the team would lose as much as $70 million this year. By other measures, revenue took a hit as well, and payroll is declining as a result.
Despite the Mets cutting ticket prices entering the season, attendance tumbled 8.1 percent from 2010. It marked the third straight season in decline. Since 2008, the final season at larger-capacity Shea Stadium, attendance has nosedived by 41.8 percent, from 4 million to 2.4 million.
If the Mets had a payroll like the Yankees in the neighborhood of $200 million, they could overcome unproductive contracts by spending their way out of the mess until the farm system produced high-end players. But purchasing free agents largely is unavailable to the Mets at a payroll in the $100 million to $110 million range.
"We could get into a free-agency negotiation beyond Jose (Reyes) if, for example, the market is different than we anticipate or we trade somebody," Alderson recently said, painting that as an unlikely route.
Left-hander Johan Santana earned $22.5 million in 2011 without throwing a major league pitch. While the organization is hopeful he will be a regular contributor next season, when he is due to earn $24 million, there is no assurance Santana will rediscover his former Cy Young form given the seriousness of the shoulder surgery he underwent on Sept. 14, 2010.
Dimension changes to Citi Field should help left fielder Jason Bay, but he nonetheless is seriously overpriced for his production at $16 million in 2012. In fact, the Mets may have set themselves up for another K-Rod-like vesting-option drama during the next two seasons. If Bay has 600 plate appearances in 2013 or 500 in each of the next two seasons, his contract kicks in for 2014 at a whopping $17 million.
Add in $15 million for third baseman David Wright, $4.25 million for knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and about $5 million for arbitration-eligible right-hander Mike Pelfrey and that means the Mets have $64.25 million tied up in those five players alone in 2012.
That is before a resolution with Reyes, without the signing of a free-agent closer, without a center fielder assuming Angel Pagan is let go and without the re-signing of Chris Capuano or the addition of a comparable arm to compete for a rotation spot. (If Pagan were to remain, his salary would rise from the $3.5 million he made in 2011 since he is eligible for arbitration.) Those salary obligations also omit smaller commitments, such as the $1.2 million owed to reliever D.J. Carrasco in 2012, whether or not he makes the team.
"If you look at where we are currently, with or without Jose, we have a very small number of players and a large amount of money tied up in those players," Alderson said after the season. "Adding Jose would contribute to that same situation and create less flexibility for us than we would like to have. That's something we have to take into account. But there are pluses and minuses to every situation. We'll just have to weigh those."
The salary commitments will be offset to some extent by several players who have not yet accumulated three years of major league service time and who will make a sum at or close to the major league minimum -- a figure that will be set by the next collective bargaining agreement. That group includes Ike Davis, Jon Niese, Josh Thole, Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Bobby Parnell and Josh Stinson.
Still, further notable reinforcements from the farm system are not foreseeable until 2013, complicating the hope of competitiveness next season.
Sure, 2010 first-round pick Matt Harvey could be pressed into major league service at some point next season, but the ETA for Harvey and his high-level pitching peers -- Zack Wheeler and Jeurys Familia -- really is 2013. Jenrry Mejia, part of that group as well, underwent Tommy John surgery in May, so any major league contribution likely would be limited to the second half of next season if at all.
And forget the fruits of this year's draft, such as 18-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo, for a few more years.
In the end, no notable free-agency infusion this offseason coupled with no notable introductions from the farm system, likely means the return to postseason contention will have to wait for future seasons.