Commentary

Mets get their ninth-inning man

Originally Published: December 9, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Francisco Rodriguez's new contract won't become official until he passes a physical exam, at which point New York Mets fans can look forward to three years of fastball-flinging, fist-pumping, ninth-inning contentment at Citi Field.

From now until the introductory news conference, you'll have to color manager Jerry Manuel theoretically euphoric.

Manuel earned raves for his player and media relations skills in guiding the Mets to a 55-38 record after taking over for Willie Randolph in June, but he could only do so much in the face of all those bullpen hijinks. Once closer Billy Wagner was lost for the season and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery, the Mets relied on Aaron Heilman and Luis Ayala to close games down the stretch, and Manuel was subjected to more stress than one man should have to endure.

"It was a tremendous learning experience for me, because you had to manage to the last out," Manuel said Tuesday. "You didn't manage six or seven innings and say, 'Boom, I've got it set up this way.' I had to stay in tune until the very last out. And that's growth. As painful as it was, it was growth."

The pain should ease and the horrific memories should abate by Opening Day, when K-Rod comes out of the 'pen to the accompaniment of Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina." Now there's a closer with an edge.

Is this the way Rodriguez envisioned it? Hardly. In June, when Rodriguez was well on his way to breaking Bobby Thigpen's single-season save record, his agent, Paul Kinzer, was looking at a five-year deal for at least $14 million a year.

Time and circumstances conspired to put a crimp in Rodriguez's dream payday. First the U.S. economy went in the tank, and then a glut on the closer market put all the principals and their agents on edge.

Rodriguez's negotiating clout was undermined by the presence of Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood and Trevor Hoffman on the free-agent market and the availability of J.J. Putz, Bobby Jenks and Huston Street through trade. Mets general manager Omar Minaya prudently lined up the candidates and made it clear: Here's what we're prepared to offer, and if you want to fool around, we're ready to move to Plan B.

"The Mets did a good job of leveraging the market," said an American League official, "and K-Rod was probably smart to take the deal even though it might not have been as much money as he expected."

While Rodriguez took a haircut financially, his three-year, $37 million deal comes up just short of Brad Lidge's recent $37.5 million contract with the Phillies. Rodriguez's deal includes a vesting option for $14 million, and according to a baseball source, lots of eminently attainable incentives if he stays healthy.

Rodriguez and Lidge are now tied for the second-highest annual salary among closers behind Mariano Rivera. And since K-Rod is a mere 26 (he turns 27 on Jan. 7) he'll be back on the market again at either age 29 or 30.

Even if you subscribe to the notion that the save is an overrated stat, Rodriguez's overall portfolio is stunning. His 194 saves since the start of the 2005 season are the most in the majors. His ratio of 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings is third-best in history behind Lidge and Rob Dibble. And his career batting average against is .189. According to Stats Inc., if you include every pitcher with at least 400 innings, that's the best in the game since 1921.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Rodriguez
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesRodriguez recorded a single-season record 62 saves with the Angles in 2008. Opponents batted just .216.
Still, Rodriguez comes with some red flags. He labored through some ankle problems this year, and he's a classic "maximum effort guy" whose body parts go flying in a lot of different directions before he delivers the ball to home plate. Control can also be an issue for him; Rodriguez walked 34 batters in 68 1/3 innings this season, so he spent more time walking a tightrope than you'd expect for a guy with 62 saves.

While Rodriguez's declining velocity is also a major topic of conversation, Angels manager Mike Scioscia thinks those concerns are overblown. Rodriguez's curveball is as good as ever, and he's benefited greatly from the addition of a changeup to his repertoire.

"If you look at where he was six or seven years ago, you might be talking about a two [mph] variance," Scioscia said Tuesday. "His stuff is as good as it's ever been. The fastball might not be 94 [mph] anymore, but it's 92. That's not an issue. He's got plenty of fastball."

The consensus in Anaheim is that Rodriguez's temperament is well-suited for the rigors of pitching in New York. As one Angels executive observed, Rodriguez is "driven to perform." Scioscia says he's never seen a pitcher who's better at compartmentalizing bad days so they don't linger.

"I don't know if I've met a guy who's as mentally as tough as Francisco on the mound," Scioscia said. "He can turn the page as well as anybody I've been around and be ready to go the next day. It was important for us and it's going to be important pitching in New York."

There are those who suggest Rodriguez is better suited for Broadway than Flushing. Joe Crede, Brian Anderson and Jack Cust were among the American League hitters who thought Rodriguez was a little too theatrical in celebrating his on-field accomplishments.

For those who think K-Rod's showmanship won't be the topic du jour on New York talk radio at some point, we have two words: Joba Chamberlain.

But as long as Rodriguez is shaking hands with his catcher at game's end, it's all good.

"The people in New York will love him," a National League scout said. "As long as he's getting hitters out, they'll love him."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer