Commentary

K-Rod, Putz give Mets bullpen new look

Originally Published: February 15, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The list for the Mets' first spring training bullpen session of 2009 was posted in the clubhouse Saturday. It included 17 pitchers, ordered alphabetically, but also symbolically: J.J. Putz followed by Francisco Rodriguez. Get used to that sequence, you'll see it often.

And it might just determine the fate of the Mets, and the National League East.

[+] EnlargeKROD
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Mets needed bullpen help, so they went out and signed Francisco Rodriguez, who saved a record 62 games for the Angels a season ago.

You know the numbers: the 2008 Mets had the best record in the major leagues if games ended, as they do in Little League, after six innings. But over the required nine innings, the Mets tied for the seventh-best record in the major leagues, which wasn't good enough to make the playoffs, making them the first team in major league history to have a three-game lead in September two years in a row, and not make the playoffs in either year.

There were various reasons for each collapse, but none more damaging than bullpen meltdowns. In the meantime, the Phillies won not only the NL East, but the World Series, in part because their closer, Brad Lidge, went 41-for-41 in save chances.

So the Mets signed Rodriguez, a free agent, to a three-year, $36 million contract, and they traded with Seattle for Putz. Last year, Rodriguez set the major league record for saves in a season with 62. Injuries limited Putz to 15 saves, but the Mets still became the third team in the past 20 years to, in the same offseason, acquire two pitchers that were coming off 15-save seasons. And with all due respect to Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell of the 2004 Phillies and Ugueth Urbina and Esteban Yan of the 2004 Tigers, no team in the past 20 years has acquired two relievers of the magnitude of K-Rod and Putz in the same winter.

"Whoooo, I just got a lot smarter,'' said Mets manager Jerry Manuel, laughing.

"This was very important for our team,'' said Mets ace Johan Santana.

"With [injured lefty] Billy [Wagner] out [for the year], when we got Frankie, I thought, 'This is great,' then we got J.J. a few days later, I don't think anyone expected that,'' said Mets catcher Brian Schneider. "We have a great situation now. We have two of them for the end. Now we don't have to worry about Frankie getting tired; we can bring J.J. in for the ninth. Now, if we have a lead after seven innings, we're in really good shape.''

Frankie Rodriguez rarely got tired in '08. He pitched in 69 games, but threw only 68 1/3 innings -- not a significant workload.

"Only once did he come to me all season and tell me he needed a day,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said late in the season. "I've never seen a closer who does so much work on a daily basis to make sure he's ready to go.''

Rodriguez has saved at least 40 games four years in a row, tied for the longest streak in history. He is the first pitcher ever to lead the American League in saves, then switch leagues the following year. A switch of leagues doesn't appear to be an issue for him, nor is the pressure he might feel as being one of the saviors of the bullpen, if not the team. But Rodriguez clearly isn't aware of the Mets-Phillies rivalry, which the past two years has featured Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins proclaiming the Phillies as the team to beat, followed a year later by Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran saying the same thing abut the Mets.

On Saturday, Rodriguez naively said, "I don't want to make no controversy, but with me and Putz and other acquisitions in the bullpen, I think … I feel we're the team to beat.''

And maybe they are.

Putz saved 36 games in 2006 and 40 in 2007 when he threw 71 2/3 innings, gave up 37 hits, walked 13 and struck out 82.

"His stuff is sensational,'' Schneider said.

But now he's a set-up man, not a closer. For some closers, that can be an issue. Two years ago, the Red Sox acquired Eric Gagne from the Rangers for the stretch run. Gagne had been a very good closer for Texas, and for most of his career. For the Red Sox, he was a set-up man, and a bad one. Rangers manager Ron Washington said it was because Gagne's "mentality is that he's a closer. That's what he does.''

Like Gagne, some pitchers apparently would rather close for a bad team than set up for a very good team.

Not Putz.

"This is great for me,'' he said. "The bottom line for me is to win. If they want me in the eighth inning, and I'll get a ring, I'm all for it. It's going to be different for me, but my goal is to close the eighth inning. That's a pretty good guy we'll be handing the ball over to in the ninth. But if they ever need me in the ninth, obviously, I'm comfortable with that.''

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Putz
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesJ.J. Putz has no problem setting up K-Rod in the Mets' bullpen.

Putz said he heard of the trade in December "when I was sitting in my garage tweaking my road buggies with Matt Thornton, who pitches for the White Sox. My wife came out to the garage and said, 'Your new GM [Seattle's Jack Zduriencik] is on the phone.' That's the first I had ever talked to him.''

The attitude in the Mets clubhouse already appears to be different, much like it was this past spring when Johan Santana arrived in camp for his first spring as a Met. But this spring, the Mets added two good pitchers, not one. Most players will tell you that there's nothing more destructive in baseball than losing a game in the late innings that you should have won.

There were several of those down the stretch last year for the Mets. On Sept. 21 in Atlanta, six Mets relievers, four of which are no longer with the team, could not hold leads of 4-2 and 4-3 and combined to give up four runs in the eighth inning of a 7-6 loss.

On Sept. 24, Mets reliever Luis Ayala (no longer with the club) gave up three in the 10th in a 9-6 loss to the Cubs. And in the final game of the season, when a victory would have forced a one-game playoff for a spot in the postseason, the Mets gave up two in the eighth for a 4-2 loss to the Marlins. Scott Schoeneweis was the losing pitcher. He also is no longer with the Mets. In that spot this year, the Mets could use Putz in the eighth to keep it tied, then K-Rod in the ninth.

"Last year, we had injuries, and we had guys called up, and we had guys put into situations that they weren't accustomed to,'' Schneider said. "Managers on other teams managed differently against us than they had. But now we have two experienced, proven closers.''

That's two more than they had in September.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.