Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why Whine Over Wagner?

Has a season-ending elbow injury to a playoff contender's All-Star closer ever seemed less anti-climactic?

Billy Wagner's Met career is over, unless he's willing to take a one-year, incentive-laden deal for 2010. (Wagner has talked before about retiring from baseball at the end of his Mets deal, but I don't think he'll allow his career to end like this.)

Well, Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care. The Mets bullpen hadn't given up a run in its last 22 innings before Philadelphia tacked one on at the end of last night's win. The Mets are 22-11 since Wagner last pitched on August 2. Despite the odds being against them, the Mets are not only surviving, but they are also thriving.

Now look, it's obviously not a good thing that Wagner is out for this season and all of 2009. He's still the best reliever in the Mets' bullpen by a country mile (pun intended). The Mets' bullpen is still a carnival sideshow these days, hot streak notwithstanding. The Mets may well hold off the Phillies to win the division, but I find it very hard to believe they can win a playoff series without a legitimate reliever in the bullpen.

(Notice I didn't say a "legitimate closer," because that underestimates the state of the Mets' bullpen now. A closer is important in today's game, but it's much more important to have several multi-inning relievers who can get lefties and righties out at a reasonable rate.)

Wagner wasn't bad as a Met; he saved 101 games and kept an ERA under 3.00 in all three seasons. But his WHIP in 2006 and 2007 was in the 1.100 range - far behind his performance in six of the seven previous seasons and a strong indicator that Wagner's most dominant days were behind him. That's the problem with signing closers in their mid-30s - you're paying for past performance, and it's extremely likely that the future performance won't match up.

He also blew seven saves this season and has developed a reputation among Mets fans for being unreliable in big games. I generally don't put much stock in playoff stats - sample size is a very big issue - but Wagner has a career 9.58 postseason ERA and has given up runs in six of 11 appearances. Mets fans won't soon forget how poorly he pitched in 2006 against St. Louis, blowing Game 2 and very nearly blowing Game 6.

The Mets will survive without Wagner, one way or the other. Now the question is this - who is the closer, both short-term and long-term? Luis Ayala's high-wire act will continue for the rest of the season, with Brian Stokes perhaps next in line if Ayala regresses to the mean. It is a scary thought - the Mets with a one-run lead and three outs to go to clinch a playoff series, and here comes Ayala or Stokes out of the bullpen to try to nail things down. At this point, what else can you do? Pray hard, my friends - and not for an oil pipeline in Alaska.

Long-term, Luis Ayala is not your closer. The Mets will unfortunately go out and invest too many years and too much money in a closer in the off-season, because that's what they do. The Mets never groom young guys to take over for the many overpriced veterans who leave the team with a fork sticking in their back. Why not have an open competition in spring training and see which reliever is ready to claim the job? Because that doesn't sell copies of the Daily News.

I am honestly starting to belief that Little Jeffy goes out and buys a few packs of baseball cards, and then directs the general manager to go out and sign the first free agent that isn't stuck to a piece of bubble gum. I guess that means I have to hope that the Francisco Rodriguez cards are under-produced by Topps this off-season. Not much chance of that!


James Allen said...

Relief pitchers seem to be a little like the weather. We can talk about them, but you can't do much about them. And when things are going fine, we don't take that much note, but when they fail, which, by the nature of what they do, they do in spectacular fashion, it's like the thunderstorm that damages your garage. You're pissed and bitch about what should've been done.

OK, that analogy might be a bit tortured, but you get the gist.

Can the Mets go far with this pen? Maybe, if it doesn't have to be overdependent on. But that's the case with all bullpens. You don't want to blow these guys out. And any one guy can get on a roll for 15 innings, which would be about the max workload for any reliever in the postseason. Everything is at such small sample size, that it always becomes a crapshoot. All you have to do is get to the party. Just ask the 88 Dodgers, the 90 Reds, the 91 Twins, the 97 Marlins, the 06 Cards, etc etc.

At this point, starting pitching is of some concern. Pedro has at least 4 starts left, and a fifth guy with have to make at least 2 starts.

tim said...

I shudder at signing a guy like Rodriguez. His whip is a full tenth over that of Wagner. I don't know how he has so many saves. I'm kind of glad that as far as strat is concerned he is Baumbach's problem.