PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Nearly a full year after settling the Madoff lawsuit that hovered over his team's baseball operations, Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon said he envisions the payroll returning to its pre-Madoff heights.
"I don't know what the market will be at that point, but the payroll will be commensurate with anything we've ever done, because we can do it," Wilpon said upon arriving at the club's Spring Training complex Wednesday. "Now the people have to come to the ballpark, but if you have a competitive team, they will. Everything that was in the past -- and you guys saw the pain that we went through -- is gone."
The Mets' Opening Day payroll decreased from more than $142 million in 2011 to just over $93 million last season, a nearly $50 million drop that was the largest in Major League history. Wilpon said the decline was due in part to uncertainty over the Madoff situation, in part to conservative baseball-operations decisions and in part to bear financial markets in the country at large.
Now, Wilpon says, his other businesses are thriving, including his real estate holdings and the cable network SNY. As a result, he has given general manager Sandy Alderson free rein to add as much payroll as he sees fit over the coming months and years.
"Ownership does not have a strong parameter on the payroll," Wilpon said. "This is a different era."
The Wilpon family and partner Saul Katz settled their Madoff lawsuit, which once sought up to $1 billion, out of court last March for $162 million. They may ultimately need to pay only a fraction of that money, and none of it until 2016.
"It's all in the rear-view mirror," Wilpon said of the Madoff litigation and resulting financial issues. "The family is in great shape. The family really is in great shape. Sometimes luck is the residue of design."
Wilpon said the fact that the Mets did not sign free-agent outfielder Michael Bourn had nothing to do with dollars and cents, and everything to do with Alderson's baseball-operations blueprint. The GM echoed those comments earlier Wednesday, saying he cut short his pursuit of Bourn due to uncertainties over Draft pick compensation, as well as the free agent's demand for a fifth-year vesting option.
"The thing about Bourn, it wasn't about dollars," Wilpon said. "It was about, 'What's the plan?'"
Since Alderson took over as GM following the 2010 season, the plan has been for the Mets to remain competitive in the short term while building a stable long-term core group of players. They may not have succeeded as much as they hoped on the former front, finishing in fourth place in each of Alderson's first two seasons. But with top young players Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Travis d'Arnaud in big league camp, they believe they are on the right track for rapid improvement.
Tacking those players onto what he considers strong foundations in the infield and starting rotation, Wilpon offered a bullish view of the 2013 season.
"This team looks like basically a young team with some veterans, and hungry," Wilpon said. "I'm hopeful and optimistic. The hunger is throughout."