Brewers, Mets both get what they need from K-Rod trade
Francisco Rodriguez gives Milwaukee some much-needed bullpen help
New York no longer has to worry about K-Rod's $17.5M vesting option for 2012
It's unclear whether K-Rod will become a set-up man or be the Brewers' closer
PHOENIX -- The trade of star closer Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets to the Brewers works well for both teams. The Brewers added a proven closer who's amassed nearly 300 saves before age 30, while the Mets ridded themselves of the vesting option that hung over them like a noose.
The Brewers look like the bigger winner for now, though, as they badly needed bullpen depth in the tight NL Central and did just that by acquiring Rodriguez plus cash ($5 million, which covers about half K-Rod's remaining 2011 salary and the buyout for 2012 on the vesting option, which is $17.5 million for next year if he finishes 55 games this season). But the Brewers also may have bought themselves a bit of an unwanted issue. They already have a talented closer in John Axford, who has 23 saves and a 2.83 ERA,so they could wind up with a closer controversy.
While they're unlikely to immediately remove Axford from that role, and K-Rod's vesting option provides ample incentive to stick with Axford at the end, Rodriguez's position now is that he wants to stay as a closer. "He's a closer, he's one of the game's best closers,'' Rodriguez's new agent, Scott Boras, said before the trade to Milwaukee was consummated. "And he wants to remain a closer.''
Brewers GM Doug Melvin made the trade before checking with K-Rod, but Boras and Melvin spoke about the subject shortly after the trade. Boras made the case that K-Rod should close, suggesting he wouldn't do nearly as well setting up, while Melvin apparently made no commitment, suggesting only that things "will work out,'' or words to that effect.
This is something the Brewers may need to work on to make it work out. Because while K-Rod has behaved impeccably all year, he has a bit of a reputation, and a player close to him said, "You don't want him unhappy.''
For today though, the Brewers are thrilled. Club owner Mark Attanasio burnished his reputation as a small-market owner with big-time moxie and a ready pocketbook. The Brewers under Attanasio have created a serious buzz in a town that's loving its baseball, and this move may at least temporarily stamp Milwaukee, currently tied for first with St. Louis with Pittsburgh one game back, as the favorite in the division. This isn't as big as CC Sabathia coming to Brew town in 2008, but it solves an immediate need for a reliable back-end reliever. Aside from Axford, a couple members of the Brewers bullpen, like Marco Estrada (2-6, 4.71 ERA) and Kameron Loe (3-7, 4.50), have struggled.
The Brewers depleted their farm system to turn an ordinary rotation into a potentially excellent one with offseason trades for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, so they needed to use financial heft (a phrase not normally associated with Milwaukee) to get the reliever they needed. The trade market looks like it will become stocked with relievers, but the Brewers would have had trouble matching prospects with the Cardinals, Rangers, Phillies, Yankees or any of the teams looking for relief.
"There's not much in their farm system so they had no chance to get most of the others,'' one rival GM noted.
The Brewers players are starting to feel they might have something special going in what is very likely All-Star MVP Prince Fielder's last year there. "It's great news,'' Brewers All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks said of the K-Rod trade. "We're trying to bring a championship to Milwaukee.''
Similar excitement was surely heard in Mets offices, though they may temper it a bit. The Mets were determined not to have to deal with K-Rod's vesting option -- which one rival GM termed "scary.'' The Mets will receive two players to be named later in the deal. But the key was ridding themselves of an albatross of an option.
As one rival executive put it, "They were desperate.''
The Mets may actually have a decent in-house replacement for K-Rod in Bobby Parnell, a flamethrower who threw seven consecutive pitches of at least 100 mph in a game earlier this year. So this is not the "white flag'' type trade it would be if All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes were dealt. The biggest downside for the Mets may be the public-relations hit they take for trading their proven closer while a game over .500 and still technically on the periphery of the pennant race, at 7 ˝ games behind the wild-card-leading Braves.
But the Mets just didn't want to take a chance of being stuck with K-Rod at $17.5 million next year. (He has already finished 34 games and needs just 21 more for the option to kick in.) It appears K-Rod's hiring of Boras, which happened only the day before, may have had an impact in this case. It's certainly curious how quickly they traded K-Rod. Boras' presence changed the game a bit, as the agent immediately seemed to set a new course, saying Rodriguez wouldn't be happy to be traded to a team where he'd be a set-up man, in opposition to K-Rod's previous public pronouncements. So the Mets have been concerned some teams would become scared.
One rival said he believed the Mets "took the first deal that came along.'' Though considering the glut of relievers headed to the market, that may not be the worst decision in the end.
The Mets are intent on lowering their payroll significantly next year -- though GM Sandy Alderson has said he didn't believe it would be cut all the way down to $100 million from $140 million, as team owner Fred Wilpon suggested in the infamous New Yorker article -- and so they couldn't take the chance on spending $17.5 million on a closer, even an accomplished one.
K-Rod also had a list of 10 teams to which he could veto a trade. That list did include some small-market teams like Pittsburgh and Oakland, but the Mets didn't have a list with Milwaukee on it.
The Mets talked to some other teams, believed to include the Yankees and Rangers. The Cardinals and Phillies are among other deep-pocketed teams seeking bullpen help. An executive with one interested team said it was the option that ultimately scared them off -- no surprise. "No team wants to touch that option,'' one rival exec said.
Interestingly, it's possible that dreaded option -- as unsightly as it seems -- could be negotiated away. While teams don't want to spend that much for a closer, K-Rod could get a multiyear deal as a free agent, so he might not mind so terribly giving up the vesting option and becoming a free agent instead. He's not having one of his best years but has been very productive, saving half the Mets' 46 victories. He is 23 for 26 in saves with a 3.16 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, which is a bit high by his standards.
Amazingly, his 291 saves at 29 dwarfs the 129 saves the great Mariano Rivera had at that age. Some question whether K-Rod is the same pitcher he was, but he remains a reliable save man.
"This kid has had a great career,'' Boras said, pointing out his unusually high number of saves before age 30. While Rodriguez's velocity is down from a peak of 98 to the low 90s, Boras said he makes up for the lost zip in other ways. "This guy's got movement, stuff and an array of pitches,'' Boras said. "He hasn't seen 98 mph for four or five years.''
The thinking had been that the Mets would most likely trade K-Rod to a team where he'd set up and could possibly avoid the vesting option, and maybe that's what the Brewers are thinking. But if they are leaning that way, they might have one unhappy set-up man on their hands.