Tony DeMarco MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
Q: Just what level of misery are Mets fans going to experience this season?
- Sandra Crier, New York
A: Most of the Mets' troubles are Madoff scandal-related, of course. Just follow the payroll here. After three seasons (2009-11) in which the Mets' payroll was $149 million, $127 million and $142 million, that number will tumble to under $100 million this season.
While that remains a lofty number, more than $57 million of it is committed to three players: Johan Santana ($24 million), Jason Bay ($18.1 million) and David Wright ($15.25 million). And we know the struggles - injury-related or otherwise - that trio has gone through in recent years.
So while other NL rivals were signing free-agent talent, the Mets let Jose Reyes go to the Marlins, bargain-shopped for Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Ronny Cedeno and Adam Loewen, and dealt Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez - none of whom will change much of anything.
And that's the way it's going to be until the uncertainty about ownership's financial situation melts away - certainly not in time to help the 2012 season, and probably not the 2013 season either. In fact, I'll be surprised if the Mets can match their 2011 record of 77-85 in either of the next two seasons.
1. The additions of Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and what you figure will be a motivated Carlos Zambrano in a contract year.
2. The healthy returns of ace Josh Johnson (only nine starts in 2011) and Hanley Ramirez (.243/10 HR/43 RBI in only 92 games)
3. Continued developments from possible MVP candidate Giancarlo (Mike) Stanton, and also Logan Morrison, as middle-of-the-order threats.
4. Nothing against Edwin Rodriguez and Jack McKeon, but Ozzie Guillen is a dramatic upgrade in the manager's seat.
5. Finally, we won't know how the new ballpark will play, but there's no underestimating how big of an emotional lift it will provide for the Marlins, who finally will be playing before energized, large crowds.
The Nationals also will continue their upswing, with Stephen Strasburg ready to throw 200 innings, the addition of Gio Gonzalez, a possible breakout from Jordan Zimmermann and an offense that will get a boost from Bryce Harper later in the season.
Q: What's going on with the Pirates? Is the Andrew McCutchen deal a sign they actually are going to start trying to win?
- John Timoney, Pittsburgh
A: They've been trying for a long time, John - just not very successfully. The McCutchen deal is a milestone in that the Pirates finally locked up a star player for a long-term commitment - six years and $51.5 million guaranteed.
If you've been a fan long enough, you certainly know the long list of star-level talent that has gone elsewhere due to the club's inability to pay free-agent-type salaries. For the record, the Pirates' payroll barely has fluctuated since 2001, reached a peak of $57 million in 2002, and has been mired in the paltry $38 million-$49 million range since 2005.
So only time will tell if a) other young players such as Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez and top prospects Gerritt Cole and Jameson Taillon follow McCutchen to an All-Star level, and b) if the Pirates also can lock them up and build a core talent base capable of finishing over .500.
But the Pirates' draft record has been abysmal, especially in the 10-year run from 1993 to 2002, when the club's No. 1 picks were Charles Peterson, Mark Farris, Chad Hermanson, Kris Benson, J.J. Davis, Clinton Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten and Bryan Bullington (No. 1 overall).
That's changed since 2003, when the No. 1 picks list includes Paul Maholm, Walker, McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Daniel Moskos, Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Taillon and Cole. But realistically, there is only so much you can do with a $50-million payroll when the NL Central contenders are spending almost double that amount.
Q: First Hal Steinbrenner says the Yankees will stay under the luxury tax limit. Then Brian Cashman says, 'we'll still outspend everybody else.'' What kind of loopholes are in the new bargaining agreement?
- John Hensley, La Mesa, Calif.
A: As contradictory as those two statements sound, both can turn out to be accurate.
The Yankees perennially have exceeded the luxury tax limits through the years - so much so that they have contributed over 90 percent of all luxury tax money paid since the system was initiated.
The only other teams to exceed the limit in any season are the Tigers, Red Sox and Angels. So everybody else has a lot of catching up to do - even if the Yankees do reduce their payroll enough in upcoming years to stay under the limit, which is set at $178 million for 2012.
The Yankees will exceed that limit again this season, but Steinbrenner has said they will try to get the payroll under the threshold as soon as possible - and that will get easier as high-salaried veterans such as Jorge Posada (now retired), Mariano Rivera (likely in his last season) and Derek Jeter come off the books.
But Cashman's point was that the Yankees still will be at or very near the top of the game's payroll structure, even after they get under the cap because no other teams want to exceed it either - and rarely do.
So the gap between the Yankees' payroll and everybody else's will grow smaller, but they still likely will remain on top.