NEW YORK -- Though pitchers and catchers are not required to report to Port St. Lucie, Fla., for another month, the Mets' winter, in one sense, is already complete. With the signing of four arbitration-eligible players earlier this week, the Mets -- barring some unforeseen price reduction on a free-agent pitcher or outfielder -- capped their Major League roster. A few more players may still hop aboard on unguaranteed Minor League contracts, but the team is done doling out guaranteed money.

That means that the 2012 payroll, a point of contention all last year, has assumed definite shape. Taking into account 10 players on guaranteed Major League contracts, four on arbitration deals and 11 others who should hover close to the league minimum, the Mets will open next season with a payroll of somewhere between $90 million and $91 million. (The exact figure will not become clear until pre-arbitration players renew their contracts and the team sets its Opening Day roster, but they should not vary by more than a few hundred-thousand dollars.)

From one perspective, that represents a roughly 37 percent drop from the club's payroll last year.

From another perspective, that number still sits in the middle of baseball's financial pack. Last year, it would have ranked 13th.

Had the Mets not hovered so high on baseball's economic scale for the better part of a decade, their 2012 payroll might not seem so meager. The Mets have not posted an Opening Day payroll of less than $100 million since 2002; adjusting for inflation, they have not done so since 1999, when their player budget clocked in at just over $71 million (or roughly $96 million in 2012 dollars). That year marked the beginning of a spending trend for the Mets, who re-signed Mike Piazza and Al Leiter to long-term deals and also acquired Bobby Bonilla, Dennis Cook and Robin Ventura. Similar patterns continued for more than a decade in Flushing, fueled later by Omar Minaya's free-agent dealings and trades.

Payroll At A Glance
Here are the Mets' top 10 earners for 2012
Name Position Salary
Johan Santana SP $25.5 million
Jason Bay OF $16.0 million
David Wright 3B $15.0 million
Mike Pelfrey SP $5.7 million
Frank Francisco RP $5.5 million
R.A. Dickey SP $4.3 million
Jon Rauch RP $3.5 million
Andres Torres OF $2.7 million
Ramon Ramirez RP $2.7 million
D.J. Carrasco RP $1.2 million
But those heady days are over. Payroll projections have dropped markedly since Sandy Alderson took over as general manager 15 months ago, although it remains unclear how much of that is due to the team's ongoing Bernard Madoff litigation, how much to the club's decreasing revenues and how much to a shift in organizational philosophy.

It is important to note that even without lawsuits and financial woes, Alderson almost certainly would have reduced the payroll in his first few years on the job, almost by default. Last year's budget was artificially bloated due to the contracts of Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo and others, just as this year's includes disproportionate chunks for Johan Santana ($24 million), Jason Bay ($16 million) and David Wright ($15 million), all of whom are coming off major injuries, down seasons or both.

It is also worth mentioning that once they add more players to their roster over the summer months, the Mets could well finish with a payroll closer to $100 million. And with smart spending, competing with that amount is not particularly rare.

Of Major League Baseball's eight playoff teams last year, five checked in with Opening Day payrolls of less than $100 million. The average Opening Day payroll of those eight teams was roughly $118 million. (Excluding the free-spending Yankees and Phillies, that figure was $95 million, or just a few ticks higher than the overall league average.)

"One of the things that can often happen -- it doesn't always happen, but it happens from time to time -- is that you outperform your payroll," Alderson said last month, referencing the 2010 Giants and Padres as examples. "And what that does, it almost always generates new revenue. So our job is to outperform our payroll. But, hey, we've got $100 million."

Do not view those numbers as a defense of low payrolls -- in a league without a true salary cap, dollar signs and success rates can be directly proportional. But do understand the extent to which a few large contracts -- Santana, Bay, et al -- have affected the organization's financial flexibility. That will not last forever.

More important for the Mets is the level of payroll come 2014, at a time when the team will shed its big contracts and the Madoff litigation -- one way or the other -- should be well in the past. In that sense, the next 24 months should have a far more significant long-term effect on team finances than the previous 12, even if it is difficult to look past the present.