Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Rod We Trust

The Mets announced earlier today that they have come to an agreement with free agent Francisco Rodriguez. They will pay him $37 million to be their closer for the next three years. The bullpen was the most obvious hole in this team, both in the fantasy land where New York sportswriters and talk radio callers live and in the real world. So it didn't take a lot of imagination to guess what would happen when a young, obviously great reliever in possession of both the single season saves record and a catchy nickname became available. "K"-Rod will not be dramatically more useful to the Mets than Billy Wagner was at the beginning of this year or the end of last year. But he will be significantly more valuable to them than a one-armed Billy Wagner, so this move does a lot to improve the chances of the 2009 Mets. The fact that the deal is short and relatively reasonable in terms of dollars makes the decision even easier. Omar Minaya's job is far from over if he's going to get the Mets back to the playoffs, but this was a fine start to the offseason.

This move is trademark Minaya in that it involved finding a great player and giving him a lot of money. This strategy hasn't always worked out perfectly, as in the cases of Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner. And it took a good trade to get the process started in the case of Johan Santana. But, much like when Carlos Beltran hit the market in 2004, there was a guy out there who everyone agreed was great and the Yankees weren't bidding on him for one reason or another. Beltran's 7-year, $119 million deal seemed enormous at the time and has so far worked out great for the Mets. A closer like Rodriguez who pitches seventy innings a year can't have the sort of impact that Beltran has had on the Mets, but for this sort of contract, he doesn't need to.

Now that the easy part is over, Minaya needs to get a little more creative to fill some other holes in his roster. A common criticism of Minaya has been that he's much better at throwing Fred Wilpon's money around to attract stars than finding cheap but productive players to fill out his supporting cast. There have been a few good finds on the scrap heap like Jose Valentin in 2007 and Fernando Tatis in 2008. But Minaya's huge payroll teams have also given starts to the likes of Tony Armas Jr, Chan Ho Park and Jose Lima.

Minaya's tendency to err on the side of Guys You've Heard Of is especially dangerous when it comes to rebuilding a bullpen. The most predictable thing about great middle relievers is that they won't last very long. If you try to fill your bullpen with guys who have reputations for success at the big league level, you wind up giving the ball to Scott Schoeneweis 143 times in two years. Minaya could perhaps skirt this issue by getting Brian Fuentes or Huston Street to be his setup man. Those two aren't guaranteed to be great for years to come, but will probably be solid and able to get batters out from both sides of the plate. Even that would give the Mets a lot more certainty in the late innings than they have had in a while.

The Rodriguez signing in an excellent first step to rebuilding the Mets' pitching staff but there's a lot of work left to do. Maybe Minaya will throw more money at a closer to pitch his eighth innings. Maybe he'll give a few minor league veterans a chance to show what they can do at the major league level. Or maybe, just maybe, he'll find a starting pitcher or two who can pitch into the seventh inning once in a while.

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