With gaps everywhere and no cash to fill them, the Mets go bargain-shopping for relievers
In the span of about an hour on Tuesday night, the New York Mets went through nearly all of the $10-15 million that general manager Sandy Alderson has been allocated for new spending from Fred Wilpon's financially challenged ownership group.
At first glance, a team that needs help offensively, defensively and in the starting rotation doesn't have any business blowing that money exclusively on bullpen help. But the two free-agent signings and one trade Alderson executed in that hour of hot-stove excitement may have been the best the Mets could do: He has seen to it that the 2012 team will be less likely to blow saves than the 2011 team was.
There are no revelations here, and no undiscovered stars. The fact that this was the height of Alderson’s ambitions simply underscores the fact that the Mets don’t even have enough money to play Moneyball. But it's something.
Let's start with the two free-agent signings. New York signed Jon Rauch to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. Rauch is an enormous presence on the mound, literally. He’s 6'10”, towering over starter Mike Pelfrey, and striking out more hitters than Pelfrey does while walking slightly fewer. He gave up a ton of home runs last year, lifting his ERA nearly a run higher than his career mark. But since his fly-ball rate remained constant, that is likely a statistical blip. He should appear in 50-60 games for the Mets, and perform adequately.
In closer Frank Francisco, the Mets did manage to get comparable performance to some of the better free-agent closers at an off-brand price. Francisco will receive $12 million over two years from the Mets, whereas Heath Bell, who strikes out fewer hitters per inning, got three years, $27 million to close for the Marlins.
Ultimately, the Mets managed to snag a quality late-game reliever for less thanks to his lack of opportunity in holding a full-time closer's job. Like Rauch, Francisco's reasonable contract also means that if the Mets are out of contention this July, New York can flip them both to a contender in exchange for prospects.
That's equally true of Ramon Ramirez, a third relief pitcher acquired within that magical hour, along with center fielder Andres Torres, in a trade with the San Francisco Giants. The Mets sent Angel Pagan to San Francisco. This deal holds the most promise of the three moves.
Let's start with the economics. All three players are eligible for arbitration, but Ramirez and Torres will likely combine to make approximately what Pagan will make by himself. So the trade is salary-neutral, which is one kind of deal the Mets can make these days. (In theory they can do deals that dump salaries, too, but that presumes someone would buy Jason Bay.)
Torres and Pagan have remarkably similar stories: They’re longtime minor leaguers who had little chance to play regularly in the major leagues before break-out seasons in 2009 and even better seasons in 2010, before huge offensive regressions in 2011.
But Torres maintained his work as one of the top defensive center fielders in the game. Pagan, meanwhile, had a season at odds with his previously strong defensive work. And though the Mets need to replace the bats of departed stars Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, they were pretty good at scoring runs last year. They were baseball's worst defensive team, and Torres should go a long way toward helping to change that, even if he spends much of his time in right-center field chasing down balls hit near Lucas Duda.
Ramirez, as a reliever, falls somewhere between Rauch and Francisco in expected 2012 performance, though a bit closer to Francisco. He strikes out around a batter an inning, walks little more than three per nine, and is yet another relief pitcher who is better than anyone the Mets had on hand. For a team that blew nineteen saves after Francisco Rodriguez was dealt to Milwaukee last July—in a salary-saving measure—this was an imperative.
With just $10-15 million, Sandy Alderson wasn't going to replace Jose Reyes or Carlos Beltran offensively. He wasn't going to bring back the kind of depth in the starting rotation that’s necessary to compete in baseball's best division. Whatever noise the Mets make next year will come mostly from things beyond Alderson's control: the medical recoveries of former ace Johan Santana and would-be cleanup hitter Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy's unevolved ability to play second base, David Wright's ability to take advantage of Citi Field's new dimensions, and whether the pod people who stole Jason Bay just after he signed with the Mets give him back. There’s no backup plan.
But what Alderson did in a single hour was make sure that if enough of those things do go right for the Mets—the way so much outside of the bullpen did in 2008, for instance—the battles they win over six innings won’t be lost in the seventh, eighth and ninth.