PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Over his first 29 months as general manager, Sandy Alderson has transformed the Mets' roster, jettisoning expensive veterans in favor of bright young pieces for the future. That turnover is nearly complete, and perhaps just in time; over those same 29 months, the Mets have won 151 games and lost 173. And "ultimately," Alderson said, "we're judged on whether we win or lose."
As he spoke those words in his Florida office last week, his golden retriever, Buddy, napping near his feet, Alderson stared up at a white board listing the names and positions of every player in big league camp. The roster included several obvious holes -- in part due to injuries, and in part because the GM's rebuilding project is not quite complete.
For the most part, fans seem to understand, accept and embrace Alderson's long-term plan for the Mets. But even in the most optimistic Queens quarters, the GM's grace period won't last forever.
"I kind of have a sense of what they're thinking, and that's motivation in itself," Alderson said. "My goal ultimately is for a lot of Mets fans to be happy with where we are -- not where we're going, but where we are."
Where the Mets are is a complicated place. Alderson did his best to explain it to David Wright last autumn, flying to Virginia for a round of golf and conversation with the franchise third baseman. For the first time, Wright truly saw Alderson as a person -- not as a lawyer or a businessman. He witnessed Alderson's competitive side on the golf course, the GM outplaying Wright over 18 holes. He came to understand that Alderson wants to win as much as -- and perhaps more than -- any fan.
Wright also peeked beyond Alderson's whiteboard, at visions of rosters yet to come. Give Alderson this: he is not afraid to take risks, trading away expensive veterans Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez and R.A. Dickey over his first two seasons, and allowing the popular Jose Reyes to leave via free agency in the middle of his prime. Wright admires such chutzpah and considers it necessary for the future.
"It's obviously a difficult position when you're trading Carlos Beltran, when you're trading R.A. Dickey," Wright said. "Sometimes it's not the most popular thing to do. Fans are very expressive about how they feel. But in the grand scheme of things, he has a vision and a plan, and he stuck to that, whether it's been a popular move.
Backlash was inevitable when Alderson traded away Dickey after a National League Cy Young Award-winning season, or allowed Reyes to leave the organization fresh off a batting title. The GM wasn't phased.
"That's what you want out of a leader," Wright said. "That's what you want out of a general manager."
But Wright also wants to win, and the Mets have done precious little of that over Alderson's first two seasons. The GM's tenure is littered with the bad contracts of D.J. Carrasco, Frank Francisco and others; just because his mistakes have not been as expensive as those of his predecessor, Omar Minaya, does not mean they have been nonexistent.
Alderson has also irked some fans with off-the-cuff comments, from his non-pursuit of Reyes ("If you're asking whether I should have sent him a box of chocolates…") in 2011 to his criticism of his own outfield ("What outfield?") this past winter, and hasn't helped his image by slashing tens of millions of dollars off the payroll.
"Are there things I would have done differently? Absolutely," Alderson said. "In this business, you have to keep in mind that you're not going to be right every time. But you have to be right often enough so that the team is successful. We haven't been right often enough."
To be fair, the payroll minimization was, in part, out of Alderson's control; ownership's Madoff litigation limited the GM's budget shortly after he took the job in 2010. But even with carte blanche to add payroll this past offseason, Alderson lowered the Opening Day figure below $85 million for the first time since 2000. His only explanation was a promise to begin spending soon, once top prospects Zack Wheeler and Travis d'Arnaud establish themselves in the big leagues. Plenty of fans have groused at the delay.
"Many fans are not conditioned to think long-term, and you would expect that to be especially true in New York," Alderson said. "I don't know if this is a majority or a minority, but I've actually found from day to day that a lot of people have bought into what we're doing. That does not mean that the average Mets fan has unlimited patience. But my sense is that they have some understanding at least of what we're trying to do."
At least in one corner, support for Alderson has not waned. Principal owner Fred Wilpon praised the GM earlier this spring, labeling his job performance "excellent" and calling him an "independent thinker."
So with ownership's support, the long grind continues -- at least for now. If Alderson does accomplish his goals over the next 2 1/2 years, it is easy to see him moving onto another challenge once his contract expires in 2015. Throughout the latter part of his career, Alderson has never stayed in one place for particularly long, jumping from his role as architect of the A's to stints with Major League Baseball, the Padres, back to MLB and finally to the Mets.
Sitting in his office last week, Buddy at his feet, Alderson was unwilling to discuss any potential next move. Too much in New York remains unaccomplished.
"I'm enjoying what I'm doing," Alderson said. "If I'm healthy and so forth, I don't see an end date. I don't think about that. I'm not looking for another job.
"I want to do a good job, but not because of a contract or what have you. That's not what drives me. I want people to be happy. And people in baseball are only happy if they're winning."