Upon hearing that Sandy Alderson took the job as New York Mets general manager in October, an old friend of his chuckled.
"If anyone's going to find a job worse than cleaning up the D.R.," the friend said, "it's Sandy."
Alderson left his gig as Major League Baseball's sheriff in the wild, wild West culture of the Dominican Republic to play deputy in the stateside equivalent in dysfunction: the Mets, the Mess, whatever you want to call the team that in 2010 played bad baseball in front of listless crowds at an empty-looking new ballpark.
In rides Alderson as no less than savior, antidote to the blunders of predecessor Omar Minaya and, hope of hopes, someone who can return the Mets to where they belong: baseball's upper crust and not some nebulous area for the sport's herpetic minority – big spenders, small winners. For all the gaffes of recent years – the bad contracts, the player apathy, the ownership that let the resulting disasters fester – the team still plays in New York, and its revenue streams are well capable of engorging and facilitating a quick turnaround.
As Alderson tiptoed around big splashes this offseason, he did so with eyes firmly planted on 2012 when the Mets shed the contracts of Carlos Beltran(notes), Francisco Rodriguez, Oliver Perez(notes) and Luis Castillo(notes). That's $55 million, money on which Alderson does not intend to sit, because he sees the Mets as something entirely different than what they are today.
"We want to be like the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Phillies," he said, "and we plan on being like them soon."
New York and Boston and Philadelphia currently occupy an echelon all to themselves: uberteams with uberpayrolls. Short of Frank McCourt selling the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs actually winning, perhaps the only other team capable of joining the big three is the Mets, and so this isn't an unattainable goal for Alderson. The economics are rather simple: re-engage a disgruntled Citi Field fan base and watch the cash rain from ticket sales, merchandise, concessions and media rights.
"It essentially comes down to winning," Alderson said. "But it's also, during the interim, convincing people you have a plan to be competitive and win consistently over time rather than next year. Our goal is to be the organization that can be in the mix every year. When you're talking about the Yankees and Red Sox and Philadelphia, that's what they achieved. That's where we need to be.
"That was one of the attractions of the Mets organization. The more abstract virtues of being in New York – the big city, the excitement that brings and the fact that New York is such a strong baseball city – together with the resources. It's not to say we want to go out and buy our way to a championship. But it does create a lot more options and flexibility. I would not have taken this job a lot of places."
Alderson's trust in owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon is a leap in faith. Jeff is a notorious micromanager whose handling of everything from the firing of manager Willie Randolph two years ago to the dismissal of Minaya could've been better executed by a kindergartener. The Wilpons have bristled at spending in the amateur draft, which leaves the Mets' farm system rather threadbare beyond dynamic right-hander Jenrry Mejia(notes) and 19-year-old Wilmer Flores, a future star at third base.
Allowing Alderson to surround himself with trusted lieutenants J.P. Ricciardi, Paul DePodesta and Roy Smith was a good start. Promising no deep payroll cuts earns some faith, as does taking the restraints off draft budgets.
"We will go over (recommended) slot where we need to," Alderson said. "That's just another way of saying we expect to invest as much as we need to so that we can develop the kinds of players necessary to win."
Right now, they simply don't have those. Ace starter Johan Santana(notes) is out until around the All-Star break recovering from shoulder surgery. Beltran's surgically repaired knees always are a question, as is the rest of the Mets' rotation, their bullpen, Jason Bay's(notes) ability to hit at Citi and plenty of other minutiae not worth plumbing for fear of sending Mets fans to the nearest bridge.
Most harrowing is the National League East, a powerhouse division that's quickly growing into a rival for the American League East as baseball's best. The Phillies are strong favorites to go to the World Series. With a deep rotation, power bullpen, strong core of position players and loaded farm system, the Atlanta Braves should be a perennial threat well into the decade. The Florida Marlins have Hanley Ramirez(notes), Josh Johnson(notes), Ricky Nolasco(notes), Mike Stanton(notes) and Logan Morrison(notes) locked up until at least 2013. And if the $126 million they spent on Jayson Werth(notes) is any indication, the Washington Nationals intend to surround Stephen Strasburg(notes), Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman(notes) and Jordan Zimmermann(notes) with other big-ticket items.
Which makes Alderson's initial machinations all the more imperative. No need for big splashes, for nine-figure money drops and labeling his team the New New Mets. He signed D.J. Carrasco(notes). He signed Ronny Paulino(notes). He may sign a pitcher or two. This offseason is the Mets' makeup. Next year will be craniofacial surgery.
"I'm not sure it's as difficult a job as some might perceive," Alderson said, and, yeah, he did serve a tour in Vietnam with the Marine Corps and make it through Harvard Law and win a championship running the Oakland Athletics and try to fix the Dominican Republic, so it's best to cede to him on such matters.
It's good, too, not to forget: These are the Mets, deities of dysfunction, and even the best have their work cut out.