Mets know they need more than K-Rod
Players relieved to have closer role filled by one of game's best
NEW YORK -- The Mets' acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez strikes different chords in different people. A new teammate, John Maine, was quite struck by it all, though not by K-Rod's new money or his resume, not even the record 62 saves. Instead Maine's first thought was this: "I guess I won't be closing now." Said with a smirk and no real regret.
No change of roles awaits Maine, not that any was truly in the offing. His repaired right shoulder willing, he will retake a place in the Mets' rotation and leave that relief stuff to the other guys. The question remains "Which other guys?"
Rodriguez replaces Billy Wagner in the Mets' still-teetering bullpen. But the 'pen was ineffective long before Wagner's now-repaired left elbow betrayed him, long before his last appearance Aug. 2. So the remodeling of the 'pen is not close to complete. And that was the primary thought on the minds of several Mets in the wake of the club's agreement with Rodriguez -- "What's next?"
"I think what we did is great," Maine said by telephone Tuesday from Virginia. "With Billy out most of the year, it was necessary. We didn't have too many options. Now what?"
Maine had been mentioned as one -- not for 2009 -- before a massive bone spur in his right shoulder ended his season. And in the weeks that followed his and Wagner's assignment to the disabled list, a sense of how few options the Mets did have was reinforced on an almost nightly basis. Ninth-inning work was assigned, but as Scott Schoeneweis pointed out after a troubling defeat in September: "We don't have a closer. Just because someone's in that role doesn't make him a closer."
Aaron Heilman called Rodriguez a "nice fit" from his home outside Chicago. He anticipated more personnel changes and understood they might involve him.
"K-Rod was needed," Mike Pelfrey, freshly minted as a husband, said from his home in Wichita, Kan. "We couldn't have done much better than we did for a closer standpoint. I just hope Omar [Minaya, the general manager] has more tricks up his sleeve. You look at what happened to us last year. If we have half those games back, we win. He's definitely going to help."
But another question exists, Wagner says. Speaking on his cellular phone as he spread hay on his farm in Virginia, Wagner wondered, "Who's going to help K-Rod?"
Wagner welcomed his successor, saying, "I hope he enjoys his career in New York." But he also said, "They better get him some help."
Not that the new man will need assistance in the ninth inning. The 62 saves Rodriguez converted with the Angels last season are evidence that the ninth inning is his domain. But effective relief in the seventh and eighth innings makes the role of the closer easier.
"You're always going to have some tough ninths. I know that," Wagner said. "Sometimes you make them yourself. But if you can keep the other team quiet in the seventh and eighth, it's a lot easier in the ninth. We had that in '06, Aaron and Duaner [Sanchez] were lights out. I'd come in after they were done, and I didn't have much to do. You kind of protect each other. That's what Aaron and Schoney [Schnoeneweis] did the last couple of years. But things got messy sometimes. But when the setup guys are lights out, the closer can get through it."
Minaya now is looking to find the parts that will darken opponents' seventh and eighth innings. Joe Smith and Brian Stokes are likely to return and fill the respective roles of right-handed specialist and long reliever. But two from among Heilman, Schoeneweis and Luis Ayala are likely to become elements of trades if Minaya accomplishes the overhaul he wants. The general manager does have a sense that change is necessary after the bullpen's conspicuous shortfall last summer.
The Mets continue to say the loss of Wagner was the team's undoing, but poor bullpen performance clearly predated his last performance. Wagner didn't say it, but some of his more stressful appearances followed the struggles of the setup relievers.
"Teams can build up momentum," Wagner said, speaking in a generic sense.
If Schoeneweis is traded, left-hander Pedro Feliciano probably is more likely to return, even though he had his share of unbecoming '08 moments as well. Bobby Parnell, his rookie status intact, and perhaps fellow rookie Eddie Kunz will have chances to find work in the revamped bullpen lineup.
Heilman, the tendinitis in his left knee eliminated, has been offered to the Rockies for Huston Street, the former A's closer traded to Colorado last month. The Mets see Street as filling the eighth-inning role that was Heilman's at times in each of the past three seasons.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.