“He slept, he stole, he was rude to the customers. Still, there goes the best damned employee a convenience store ever had.”
—Apu, on Homer, “Lisa’s Pony”
I doubt there’ll ever be much nostalgia for the Francisco Rodriguez era of New York Mets baseball, an epoch officially declared over in the minutes following the National League’s second consecutive All-Star victory in Phoenix. Rodriguez and his harrowing vesting option are on their way to Miller Park, transferred from Queens along with a reported $5 million in exchange for two Milwaukee Brewer minor leaguers to be named eventually. Not as excellent a way to end an era as the third out of a ninth inning of a fourth win of a World Series would have been, but definitely classier than locking the guy in the clubhouse after he finished his 54th game of the year in the middle of September.
Our closer of 2009-2011 recorded 83 saves as a New York Met. Can anyone describe any three of them in any kind of detail? Not the games he blew or let get tied, but big Mets wins preserved by the dominant and/or courageous pitching of Frankie Rodriguez, possessor of the seventh-most saves in Mets history?
As Dwight Eisenhower told a reporter in 1960 who wanted to know what “major idea” his vice president, Richard Nixon, contributed during his administration, “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
Granted, I can recall a save here and a circumstance there, but not that many and few that were compelling, considering there were 83 of them and they all took place within the past three seasons. Part of that is a function of the times we live in. Met times haven’t offered compelling competitive circumstances since K-Rod arrived, and even though Met times have become better times of late, they didn’t exactly rise to the baseball version of crucial as the Francisco Rodriguez era drew to a close.
The irony here is Francisco Rodriguez was signed to close New York Mets games because that’s what the Mets perceived they needed more than anything else in the aftermath of 2008: someone to slam the door that was left disturbingly ajar down the stretch in the absence of Billy Wagner and throughout the August and September presence of Luis Ayala, Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, Brian Stokes, Joe Smith, Duaner Sanchez, Eddie Kunz for five minutes, Ricardo Rincon for five seconds and Pedro Feliciano before he became lovably perpetual. Those names give you chills and not the good kind, don’t they? Plus, it’s not like Billy Wagner was a serenely calming presence before he went out, either.
So in came K-Rod, he of the more saves than any closer compiled in any one season ever. And in came J.J. Putz, a closer in his own right, to smooth the access road to K-Rod. And, oh yes, Sean Green, with the live right arm and no culpability for what went wrong in 2008. He came in, too.
None of them is here any longer, you might have noticed. Green was atrocious, Putz was mostly injured, and K-Rod…well, we’ll get back to him before letting him go in a moment, but the fellas brought into renovate the bullpen had a fairly benign impact on the overall fortunes of the post-2008 Mets. There were nights when the late innings blew up, and those occasions surely added to the sense that the Mets couldn’t do anything right. But that was the thing: the Mets of 2009 and much of 2010 and the earliest stages of 2011 really couldn’t do anything right. It was a team effort. Now and again you could blame your relievers (their mistakes do tend to stand out), but it didn’t seem like the Mets were doing everything right except for pitching near the end of a given game.
That may not have been immediately discernible in advance of the great Met implosion of 2009, but I think we learned that the Mets were probably destined to head downhill as a unit, and not just because they lacked a dependable closer and set-up crew in August and September of 2008.
Of course, you do have to win the games that are there for the winning, even if all they’re determining is fourth place, and from that perspective, I thought Frankie Rodriguez did OK by the Mets. His disasters were, naturally, disastrous, but no worse and no more pervasive than any of his predecessors from the previous two decades. John Franco, Armando Benitez, Braden Looper and Billy Wagner all gave away games in cringeworthy fashion. They didn’t do it as often as memory insists (which is to say almost always), but when they did, it was horrible. When K-Rod did, it was horrible, too, and a little showy, not to mention scarily inefficient the way he fell off the mound and practically into Little Neck after just about every pitch…but it wasn’t worse. I’d dare say he was the best, most consistent, least nerve-wracking closer we had around here since Randy Myers.
That’s not to say he was fantastic. He wasn’t. Or that he couldn’t be erratic. He could be. Or that blood pressure medication claims didn’t spike at insurance companies all over the Metropolitan Area when “Sandungueoso” played. They did. Yet for one big Met ninth inning, I think I’d take him over Franco, Benitez, Looper or Wagner. It’s just a shame he didn’t have too many big ninth innings to test such confidence.
As for the elephant in the bullpen, the one who had to be led away in handcuffs by the cops last August, enter a plea and undergo anger-management, that’s hard to forget, though most of us managed to exile it from our minds when three outs needed to be nailed down this year. As sports fans, we make those types of deals all the time, probably, yet don’t know it. I’m sure I’ve rooted hard for real jerks over the years; they just managed to keep their jerkdom out of the papers and weren’t necessarily violent about it. K-Rod, on the other hand, gave recurring indications that he was quite the a-hole and then he left no doubt when he punched out his girlfriend’s father (whether he was goaded into it or not). He underwent his rehabilitation, he got in no more trouble, everybody vouched for his latent good-guyness and we moved on. Like Putz pitching eighth innings in ’09, it didn’t make for an ideal set-up, but Rodriguez seemed to have saved himself there, and good for him on that count.
I wasn’t actively wishing Frankie traded away, though like any sentient Mets fan, I knew the meter was running on that ludicrous 55-games-ended clause, and as much as I liked (or at least didn’t mind) having him around, I didn’t want the Mets on the hook for $17.5 million in 2012. It’s to Frankie’s credit he himself didn’t feel like the kind of albatross Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez each became, but his contract status loomed as far more onerous than theirs upon their respective departures. Kudos to Sandy Alderson for playing this one as well as he played those two. Alderson had to delete Castillo and Perez physically from the Mets organization (have you even once this year missed either of them?). Even with the ugliness of the assault episode hanging over Rodriguez’s head entering Spring Training, the Mets didn’t need to devour another contract. They didn’t, and it paid off. The Mets got valuable mileage out of Rodriguez, made him more attractive on the trade market and now, unlike with the pariah twins, they’re not stuck paying him for nothing.
Maybe the Brewers to be named later will amount to something useful. The more significant amount, though, will be the $17.5 million (minus whatever had to be sent to Milwaukee to make this happen) the Mets save next year. One can only hope Mets ownership — including, soon enough, Brewers/Mets fan David Einhorn — will work with Alderson to include that sum in an offer to Jose Reyes. But that’s for later.
For now, who closes? The temptation is to say “who cares?” Who closes should be whoever Terry Collins deems capable of getting the next three or four or five guys out as situations dictate. That doesn’t seem likely, however, because in contemporary baseball, somebody winds up closing on a basis so regular it could be mistaken for obsessive-compulsive. As silly as it seems that one man is designated for a particular inning, this is the business of the sport in 2011 and has been for about as long as Randy Myers has been an ex-Met. “I just want to know my role” is the common refrain of the reliever (and his agent), and perhaps you’d have to be in the bullpen trenches to appreciate that. Pitching the ninth is a skill unto its own self, one Frankie Rodriguez mastered in Anaheim, one that got him paid in Flushing, one that now has him warming up in Milwaukee.
Some pitcher will take his place here. The one who gets the hang of it will do it most often and then be assigned to do it exclusively. He’ll be good most of the time, a little too terrible some of the time and make us nervous all of the time. It comes with the territory.