Without Wagner, Mets scramble to fill hole in back of bullpen
With closer Billy Wagner sidelined for the rest of this season and probably all of next season as well, the Mets have two big questions to answer: what to do now, and what to do later.
While Wagner will settle for Tommy John surgery and hoping to one day restart his borderline Hall-of-Fame career, the Mets hope their bullpen hole can be filled by Nationals reject Luis Ayala, the Omar Minaya favorite -- or if Ayala fails, perhaps even by fast-improving, 95-mph-throwing Rays reject Brian Stokes. But of course, the Mets have to know they'll need a more typical big-market closer for next year, so they'll likely go get one of a few name-brand free agents this winter -- though today the less costly Brian Fuentes appears more likely to be targeted by them than the great Francisco Rodriguez.
Regarding a possible Mets run at the vaunted K-Rod, one Mets-connected person said Tuesday, "They're already paying $13 million for Wagner not to pitch next year. Are they really going to invest $28 million on closers?"
K-Rod's asking price is expected to be $15-million annually following his record-breaking season (Bobby Thigpen's record 57 saves is as good as history), and considering his age (he's still only 26) and recent performance, which includes 55 saves so far, there is no reason to think he won't get it. Rodriguez's agent, Paul Kinzer, told SI.com on Tuesday that K-Rod, who seeks at least a five-year contract, "has given me no restrictions on teams'' but also suggestively hinted that "a natural fit is L.A. or New York since he has a lot of star power.''
Indeed, K-Rod -- a man with a big name, talented game and considerable flair -- seems like the perfect Mets solution in many ways. But he's still more likely to wind up elsewhere; the Rangers, Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals are seen as potential suitors, though some in the know believe he'll ultimately stay with Los Angeles of Anaheim, which offered about $33 million over three years last winter but will likely bump that bid by at least a year and many more million once they figure out what's happening with their other big-time free agent, Mark Teixeira, and Milwaukee's CC Sabathia, who's the biggest free agent of all.
Meanwhile, the Mets seem to feel they need to save their spending money on starting pitchers, with Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey the lone 2009 rotation certainties. Oliver Perez and Pedro Martinez are free agents, top prospect Jon Niese is well-regarded but unproven and John Maine, who's pitching style raises concerns one scout called him a "slinger") is nursing a sore shoulder.
Mets people always have liked Perez, and some blame his earlier inconsistencies on deposed pitching coach Rick Peterson (though to be fair, Perez's career was resurrected under Peterson as well). At 27, and on a recent roll, Perez could command top dollar, which may mean $60 million on a five-year deal, perhaps even more than that, potentially leaving little fiscal room to grab K-Rod.
The Mets' most cost-effective closing alternative could be Fuentes, who attracted interest from them this summer before they balked at the asking price, which included the younger, cheaper Aaron Heilman, who could still become trade bait. One long-shot possibility might be Derek Lowe, who appears likely to leave Los Angeles, prefers the East Coast and could consider temporarily returning to the closing role he once manned effectively in Boston.
Meanwhile, the Mets' more pressing question remains who's going to take Wagner's place now in a pen that looms as the Mets' most iffy area as they try not to repeat the collapse of last season.
Very few of Minaya's fellow Mets decision-makers applauded when he acquired Ayala, and even now, after the Nats' former mop-up man leapfrogged the rest of the Mets relievers to become Wagner's surrogate and saved six of seven games, folks within their organization remain wary about Ayala, who came to the Mets with a 1-8 record and 6 ERA. Minaya, who once rescued Ayala from the Mexican League, admires his fortitude and control. But as one competing scout, damning with feint praise, said, "If he just throws the sinker and stays away from the flat slider, he may be OK.''
"He'll be OK,'' said another scout, somewhat more hopefully. "He has plus sink on his fastball.'' That scout likened to Ayala to ex-Yankee middle man Ramiro Mendoza, which was intended as a compliment.