When the New York Mets and Oakland A's met up this season, people liked to compare how the two franchises have been built. The Mets and A's both have similarly low payrolls, with the Mets opening the season at 85 million and the A's having an 82 million dollar payroll. Both teams have front offices that believe in developing talent through the minor leagues and finding undervalued assets, so Mets fans hoped that their team could become a consistent contender like Oakland. While the Mets and A's have spent roughly the same money on payroll, their results are dramatically different.
While the A's are fighting the Los Angeles Angels atop the American League West for the league's best record, the Mets are toiling down at the bottom of the National League East once again. The Mets do have some promising talent on the way, but they haven't had a winning season since 2008 and appear at least a year away from being consistent playoff threats. The divide between the success of the Mets and A's is dramatic, and the reason it is so big may come down to how the teams are designed.
Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal did an excellent analysis of why the A's and Mets are experiencing such different levels of success for the same amount of money. While most pundits point to the A's success coming due to their strong farm system, Diamond points out that the A's have only used four home grown players all season, which is the fewest in all of baseball. The Mets have already used 21 home grown players, including seven starting position players and four starting pitchers.
One reason for the difference in success comes down to how the team's payrolls are constructed. The A's have a very lean payroll that isn't top heavy, with no one player earning more 12.5% of their payroll on Opening Day. The Mets top salaried player is David Wright, who earns 20 million dollars to count for approximately 23% of their payroll. When you add in the high salaries for expensive free agent imports Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, the three players combine for nearly half of the Mets' payroll.
The A's don't have that kind of spending imbalance, largely due to their ability to find undervalued talent on the cheap. Diamond cites the two prominent examples of Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson, two middle of the order hitters in Oakland's lineup. Moss was a minor league free agent who the A's picked up in 2012 after he bombed out of three other organizations. Donaldson was a throw in piece in the Rich Harden trade of 2008 who developed into the team's starting third baseman. The two have combined for 48 home runs, 160 RBI's, and an .812 OPS. In comparison, Wright and Granderson have combined for 23 homers, 103 RBI's, and a .701 OPS.
Not only are Donaldson and Moss outproducing Wright and Granderson, but they are doing it at a fraction of the cost. The Mets are getting that production from Wright and Granderson for 33 million dollars this season, while Donaldson and Moss cost the A's a combined 4.6 million dollars. Another example of the A's smart shopping came in the free agent market. Bartolo Colon pitched for Oakland last season and left for a two year, 20 million dollar contract with the Mets. The A's showed no interest in re-signing the 40 year old Colon at that price, instead choosing to sign 30 year old lefty Scott Kazmir to a two year, 22 million dollar deal. Colon has pitched well for the Mets, going 11-10 with a 3.85 ERA this season. Kazmir has been a tremendous bargain, going 14-5 with a 2.73 ERA and is a contender for the Cy Young Award.
This isn't to say that Sandy Alderson can't find low budget talent to help his team. Marlon Byrd was signed off the scrap heap last winter and was the Mets' cleanup hitter for most of 2013, while LaTroy Hawkins emerged from a minor league deal to become the primary setup man. Alderson hasn't, however, been able to hit on any of his low cost young talent acquisitions thus far. Andrew Brown, who some thought might be a diamond in the rough, has been only a AAAA player for the Mets. Another one of Alderson's low cost additions, Collin Cowgill, wasn't given much of a chance in 2013 before being shipped to the Angels. Cowgill now plays a valuable role for the Angels, hitting .274 in 79 games of action.
The A's and Mets have also made significant mistakes in payroll. The A's signed closer Jim Johnson to a two year deal worth 10 million dollars a year, while the Mets signed outfielder Chris Young to a one year, 7.5 million dollar deal. Both acquisitions blew up in the team's face, but the A's were able to jettison Johnson quickly and still add pieces to improve their team. The Mets couldn't do much with Chris Young since half their payroll was tied up in three players.
The Mets aren't going to be able to pull off Moneyball given the way their roster is constructed. The Mets chose to re-sign David Wright to an eight year, 138 million dollar deal that the A's have never given a core players. The A's constantly re-tool their roster, which is something that is harder for the Mets to do in the New York market. If the Mets let David Wright leave in free agency like the A's let Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada leave in the past, they would be immensely criticized by their fans.
Given how the Mets are built now, they have to blend big city spending and Moneyball tactics if they want to contend. The Mets won't be able to sustain a winner with three players taking up half the payroll. The Mets are in a big market and should be able to push their payroll north of 100 million dollars to add the necessary bats to improve their roster. That doesn't preclude them from finding cheap young talent to augment the roster, like they have done in the bullpen now. If the Mets try and follow the Moneyball path with their current roster construction, they are doomed to fail.
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