While Prince Fielder was hitting a mammoth three-run homer off C.J. Wilson in the bottom of the fourth, half an inning after Adrian Gonzalez hit one out solo off Cliff Lee, putting the All-Star Game squarely into the National League’s pocket (they won, 5-1), Fielder’s team was doing a little business with the New York Mets, basically fortifying their bullpen by letting the Mets make their own world safer for re-signing Jose Reyes.
Francisco Rodriguez’s too-much-discussed $17 million 2012 option, payable upon the closer’s finishing 55 games in 2011, would have made it difficult if not impossible for the Mets to keep their co-franchise face, stud shortstop, and 2011 MVP candidate, never mind that Reyes hit the disabled list before the All-Star break. A fortnight before the non-waiver trade deadline, general manager Sandy Alderson found a trading partner in need of bullpen fortification and sent Rodriguez to the Milwaukee Brewers for two players to be named later.
Don’t get too excited about those players yet: the Brewers emptied the farm, more or less, when dealing in the offseason for Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke. This deal was a salary dump for the Mets, plain and simple. This deal was really about getting that much closer to keeping Reyes. And it probably wasn’t what Rodriguez had in mind when switching agents to Scott Boras a day or so before the deal, but right now Alderson resembles a genius. Especially bringing the deal off without either the shrewd Boras or his new client suspecting it was coming.
Never mind that the Brewers weren’t on K-Rod’s no-trade list. Boras may have pronounced his new man a closer evermore, but the Brewers—tied for first in the National League Central—are no shrinking violets. They’re not going to demote a youthful incumbent closer, John Axford, with his 1.99 ERA, 23 of 24 save chances consummated since blowing an Opening Day save opportunity, for an established but faltering closer with a 6.38 ERA since 27 May, a 7.17 ERA for the entire month of June, and little enough of the dominance he showed in all those good seasons with the Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels.
The Brewers probably don’t want that $17 million kicking in any more than the Mets did. That’s why their likeliest scenario, so it seemed at first, was to hand Rodriguez—whose struggles with lefthanded hitters mirror those of the Brewer bullpen this season—the setup role he hasn’t had since he apprenticed for Troy Percival in southern California. But the Brewers decided to use Axford and Rodriguez as co-closers, smartly giving them alternatives not dissimilar to those the Mets once enjoyed with Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell, while shrewdly enabling themselves not to let the option kick in.
The Mets, who have six months to pick the two other players, and who are now on the periphery of the postseason chase, probably plan to hand the save opportunities to Bobby Parnell (a 1.34 WHIP but a 3-1 strikeout to walk ratio, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and a 2.92 ERA on the season thus far), Jason Isringhausen (293 lifetime saves, 11 postseason saves, 2.25 ERA this season), or Pedro Beato (3.38 ERA but a 1.00 WHIP this year thus far), and in that order. Isringhausen has had a pleasant season in the setup role, and Beato looks to be at least the setup man of the future. At maximum, there could be a competition to see whether Parnell or Beato shakes out as the inexpensive closing option to come.
If the Mets ended up on the hook for Rodriguez’s 2012 option, Reyes would likely have ended up finding a new home for 2012 and beyond. Injuries or no injuries, Reyes is coveted. But the Mets are still trying to resolve finance issues in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal, in which owner Fred Wilpon took a bath himself but now faces the tenacious tentacles of the team trying to get restitution for other Madoff victims, that team charging that Wilpon either knew or should have known what Madoff was really up to. They may have a new co-owner soon enough, but it may not have been soon enough to keep Reyes while letting K-Rod play out his contract in Queens.
Rodriguez’s Met service was pockmarked by a few inconsistencies and a few controversies. In 2010, he complained loudly about not being brought into eight-inning save opportunities, getting into arguments with pitching coach Dan Warthen and a concurrent shoving match with Randy Niemann, a bullpen coach thought to be among the most mild-mannered of the breed. Most particularly, and it may have helped punch his ticket out of New York when all was said and done, Rodriguez got himself into very hot water toward 2010’s finish, when he tore a thumb ligament punching out the father of his estranged girl friend, during a clubhouse family room argument, following a Met loss in which Rodriguez hadn’t even pitched. (Only later did it transpire that the older man may have set Rodriguez off in earnest by telling the pitcher’s mother, standing up for her son, to shut up and butt out.)
The Mets first sought to have his contract converted to non-guaranteed; the bottom line was that Rodriguez’s days as a Met were numbered, period, even though he underwent anger management therapy in the off-season and had no known incidents or outbursts this season. But his Met days may really have been numbered when then-general manager Omar Minaya agreed to the 2012 vesting option in the first place, when signing him as a free agent after the 2008 season.
At the time he scrummed with the grandfather of his children, Rodriguez had rolled up a 2010 ERA of 2.20 and a walks-and-hits per inning pitched (WHIP) rate of 1.15, with 67 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings and a .213 batting average against him. He hasn’t been quite the same pitcher this season—a 3.16 ERA, true, but also a 1.41 WHIP, a .265 batting average against him, and 46 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings through the All-Star break, not to mention falling fastball velocity and increasing dependence on a sometimes-inconsistent changeup. Last season, before the fight and the injury, he’d put up his best statistical season since 2006 with the Angels. This season, he was actually at his most vulnerable.
But he was useful and effective enough, with two fewer saves at the All-Star break than he had all 2010, even if the best of his best remained in Anaheim, where he first made a splash as the 2002 late-season rookie call-up who went lights out during the Angels’ striking run to their first (and, thus far, only) World Series triumph. Still, he had the Mets in a bind: if he finished those 55 games after all (he had 34 finishes at the break), his option would have vested and replaced $18 million coming off the Mets’ books with Carlos Beltran’s contract expiring. Leaving them little if any room to retain Reyes.
This deal could be just the beginning. Beltran’s comeback season, an All-Star one at that, has been pleasant enough to allow the Mets to entertain thoughts of a non-waiver deadline deal. They could keep Beltran for that outside shot at the National League wild card (at this writing, they’re in fourth in the wild card standing, seven behind the Atlanta Braves) and then part company amiable at season’s end; or, they could still flip him at the non-waiver deadline for fresher stretch-and-beyond help. Beltran’s suitors now include the Detroit Tigers, the San Francisco Giants (whose own closing ace, Brian Wilson, has been vocal about liking Beltran joining the Giants), the Boston Red Sox, or the New York Yankees.
The watch begins. Some think the K-Rod deal means the Mets pulling the plug 2011, Beltran or no Beltran, considering they plan to cut payroll for 2012 even with David Einhorn likely to be approved as their new minority owner. Manager Terry Collins isn’t one of those people.
“Part of my job,” Collins told ESPN’s Adam Rubin, “is to make sure they maintain focus. If someone is moved from this club who is a high-profile guy, my job is to make sure they understand that there’s a business side of this game that you’ve got to be able to play through. As we didn’t let some earlier distractions early in the year get in our way, we cannot let this distraction get in our way. Here’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up. And I truly believe as a player all you can do is grasp the opportunities. No matter who it might be, it’s going to be an opportunity for some young player to step up and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s my chance to show I belong here’.”
It’s also going to be an opportunity for Boras and his new client, even though they look to have been out-maneuvered at first. If Rodriguez doesn’t get to finish his 55 games total this season, he becomes a free agent. He may not command an annual salary equal to the vesting option, but all he has to be is a good soldier in a Milwaukee clubhouse players are known to love—not to mention with a manager, Ron Roenicke, who knows him from their days with the Angels, where Roenicke was a coach for K-Rod’s entire career there—and he’ll get a valuable enough pay day. Things could be far worse for Francisco Rodriguez now. And he probably knows it. Once, he wanted to make history. He should probably be grateful now that he’ll still make a baseball living.