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Winter Closing

In need of relief, Mets sign two top closers

By Dan Israeli

For the real die-hard Mets fan, this week’s signing of Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez was both imperative and insufficient, at the same time. It’s true; Billy Wagner is recovering from Tommy John surgery and even admitted he’s thrown his last pitch as a Met. The door was wide open for a new closer in Flushing, and a max deal to K-Rod was in the cards since he was working on Bobby Thigpen’s saves record. Still, Amazination yearned for more than a ninth inning stopper. In the 2008 season, the problems often started immediately when the bullpen took over, leading to one of the ugliest team relief efforts in the game’s history, capped off by 29 blown saves. Surely, Johan Santana would have his third Cy Young award if the pen didn’t blow seven games for him alone (he finished the season with 16 wins, only needing four of those back for 20). There were many culprits in the 2008 Mets bullpen debacle, but I shall leave them all nameless, since almost everyone had a hand in it. However, when any Mets fan pictures the heartbreak and frustration in their head, one face instantly comes to mind. Aaron Heilman.

A day after K-Rod became official, Aaron Heilman is gone in a three team, 12-player deal, and the trade’s centerpiece, Mariners closer J.J. Putz, is now a New York Met. The feeling is literally instant relief, for an organization and its fanbase that were in desperate need of new arms for the bullpen. To go out and get two guys with 40 save seasons under their belts (one for Putz, four for K-Rod), as their first two big acquisitions of the off-season, is proof that the Mets are serious about righting the ship that went wrong after the sixth, sometimes fifth inning last season. In Rodriguez, they get a proven, top five closer who only turns 27 in January. In Putz, the Mets get a 31-year-old who played his whole career in Seattle, emerging as their closer in 2006. He posted two incredible seasons – 36 saves and a 2.30 ERA in 06, 40 saves and a 1.38 ERA in 07 – but dealt with injuries for most of this year, notching only 15 saves in 46.1 innings. If the disappointing season can be attributed entirely to injury, and Putz is back at full strength, he is a top notch power reliever, who recorded 186 strikeouts over 150 innings in his two-year stint as the league’s best closer that no one heard about.

There hasn’t been any word so far on Putz’s reaction to becoming a setup man, but for someone who played on a struggling Mariners team that lost 101 games this year, the opportunity to setup for the league’s all-time single season saves leader, and on a contending team, has to be appealing. Unless he is someone set on adding saves to his career total, which he won’t do as a Met for the next three years, Putz should welcome a very vital role, which is arguably as important as closing the game out. It’s also arguable that setting up for the Mets is more important than closing for the Mariners, but I won’t get into that. Seattle sports fans have suffered enough.

When you consider that the two big relief innings have now been addressed by the team, the Mets would still be wise to shake up other areas of their pen, early and long relief, with some players on the market or players that can be had through trades. Acquiring names like K-Rod and Putz are great ways to address the bullpen issue head on, but simply bringing in new guys, with stats or potential, is always a smart idea to spice things up. People forget that bullpens tend to fluctuate like the stock market, and that sometimes, a new location and role is enough to revive or kick start a player’s career. It’s a crapshoot really, and now Minaya can go after another accomplished player, say Matt Capps of the Pirates, or get lucky in some other fashion. There is, of course, the relievers still on the Mets roster (now minus Heilman and Joe Smith, also dealt in the trade), and where they stand going into 2009. There are three guys who will most likely be in the picture, lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano, former setup man Duaner Sanchez, and potentially, young Eddie Kunz, if the team decides to add him to the roster for Opening Day. Luis Ayala is a free agent, so it’s uncertain what the Mets plans are after these moves. Scott Schoeneweis could still be around, but won’t be asked to do as much as he did last year, when a hot start turned into a post all-star break swoon.

Breaking down the deals

The Mets signed Rodriguez for $37 million over three years, which averages to over 12 million per, short of the 15 he was seeking to be on par with Mariano Rivera, the league’s highest paid relief pitcher. There is a fourth year option and incentives included, so Rodriguez has the chance to earn over 50 million if he can stay healthy.

Putz comes to the Mets along with two other Mariners, OF Jeremy Reed and RHP Sean “not Shawn” Green. The third party in the trade was the Cleveland Indians, who ended up with Smith, and parted with rookie OF prospect Franklin Gutierrez, now a Mariner. Seattle’s total bounty in the trade was seven players, which aside from Heilman and Gutierrez, also included Endy “the catch” Chavez. The reserve OF was a fan favorite in New York, know best for his heroic, homerun-snagging catch in game seven of the 2006 NLCS, which the Mets eventually lost to the St. Louis Cardinals. He never swung a good enough bat, however, and was always expendable for that reason.


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