What if Billy Wagner never got hurt?

Posted on August 18, 2010 by

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The Mets’ impossibly long odds of making the playoffs just got longer with the news that closer Francisco Rodriguez will miss the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his thumb.  Monday night we got the answer to the obvious question of who closes: Hisanori Takahashi.  I still think Takahashi belongs in the rotation but I suppose I would rather see him closing games than any other option the Mets currently have.

But seeing the Mets scramble to fill in for an injured closer makes me think of 2008.  That year the Mets were looking to put the collapse of 2007 behind them.  Instead they added to the misery by losing down the stretch in a different way.  Wagner went down with elbow surgery in the beginning of August and ended up needing Tommy John surgery.

The Mets lost 29 games in 2008 when they led after six innings, an indication of how shaky the bullpen was.  But things really fell apart when Wagner went down.  Omar Minaya went all out and imported Luis Ayala to be the team’s closer.  Who?  Ayala went 1-2 with a 5.50 ERA for the 2008 Mets.  And he was one of the bright spots in the pen after Wagner went down.

But instead of dwelling on what actually happened, I’d like to thing about what might have been.  If Wagner does not get hurt, the Mets like make the playoffs in 2008 and potentially win the N.L. East.  While the Phillies ended up winning both the East and the World Series that year, let’s say the Mets did not enjoy the same success.

But 2008 ends up as a disappointing year, not as a painful failure if Wagner did not come down with the injury.  Just as important is what happens in the off-season of 2009.  After the bullpen meltdown of 2008, Minaya spent the off-season fortifying the bullpen to make sure that the biggest weakness of 2008 was rectified.  To that end he signed Rodriguez and traded for J.J. Putz.

The Mets ended up spending 15.5 million on Putz and Rodriguez in 2009 (counting a $2 million bonus for Rodriguez but not a $1 million buyout for Putz) to form the back of the bullpen.  If Wagner is healthy, the Mets could have used that money elsewhere.  Many people wanted to see an outfielder or starting pitcher signed.  Here is a partial list of players they might have been able to get with that money and the contracts those players did end up signing:

Bobby Abreu – $5 million

Adam Dunn – $8 million

Jon Garland – $7.25 million

Carl Pavano – $1.5 million

C.C. Sabathia – $14 million

None of these players would have made a huge difference in 2009.  But if they signed Abreu or Dunn they would not have signed Jason Bay to what at this point can only be described as a bad contract heading into the 2010 season.  With Bay’s money freed up, perhaps another quality free agent would have been signed for this year.  Garland and Pavano again would have been good choices.

We have seen how good Wagner has been this season.  If Wagner had not been injured in 2008, the Mets probably have an additional playoff appearance under their belt, the team is probably better in 2010 (subtracting Bay for Abreu/Dunn plus other addition) and now the team would not have to be gearing up for a fight with Rodriguez and the Players’ Association over plans to weasel out of part or all of the remaining money they owe the injured reliever.

Wagner certainly would have been better in the 2nd half of 2009 than the 1-5, 5.52 ERA that Rodriguez actually posted for the Mets.  And he most likely would have been less agita-inducing than Rodrgiuez was this year and last when he did actually get the job done.

So, instead of Rodriguez, Bay and Chris Carter (the main piece received in the Wagner deal with the Red Sox last year), the Mets potentially could have had Wagner, Dunn and Carl Pavano plus a playoff appearance in 2008.

Ah, what might have been.

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Posted in: Perspectives