Busy Mets land closer Wagner

Busy Mets land closer Wagner

NEW YORK -- Buttressed by a bold, five-day power play unmatched in the history of the franchise, the Mets on Monday appear to be the strongest team in the National League East and a significantly stronger entry in the New York baseball market. By agreeing to contract terms with Billy Wagner, the prize in the current free agent market, less than four days after they acquired Carlos Delgado in a trade, the Mets seem ready to compete with any team in their league, on their schedule and in their city.

The club had barely completed its introduction of Delgado at Shea Stadium on Monday afternoon when word of a conditional agreement with Wagner became public. The Phillies subsequently confirmed that they had been told of Wagner's agreement with the Mets.

The Mets declined to discuss the matter, as they did last week after the deal for Delgado had been struck, but they scheduled what they called a "major press conference" for 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.

If Wagner passes a physical, the Mets will give him a contract -- four years for $43 million -- and immediately pass the Phillies and, at the very least, move closer to the heels of the Braves. They trailed no other NL East teams in 2005.

The two moves also have reduced the gap separating the Mets from the Yankees in talent, profile and payroll. Adding left-handed power hitting and left-handed power pitching substantially changes the Mets' batting order and late-inning bullpen prowess. Not since 1988 -- when the Mets had Darryl Strawberry in their lineup and Randy Myers in their bullpen -- have they had players with such dominating left-handed skills. Not coincidentally, 1988 was the last time the Mets won a division championship.

Club executives barely acknowledged the pursuit of Wagner on Monday while Delgado was standing before microphones and cameras at Shea. But the club's offices were abuzz with speculation after the club increased its initial offer to the veteran closer by 42 percent, a move prompted not only by the more urgent -- and generous -- pursuit of the Phillies but the specter of the Red Sox joining the chase and the Blue Jays' agreement with B.J. Ryan, the other closer the Mets had wined, dined and wanted.

"We knew where we had to go, and the market was definitely affected by B.J.," said a Mets executive. "We wanted [Wagner] to be the difference-maker. He is the difference-maker."

Bean Stringfellow, the agent representing Wagner, alerted the Phillies of his client's decision shortly after 3 p.m. ET. It was unclear when the Mets learned they had won the race and, for the second straight year, imported the most attractive player in the free agent market. The club signed Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, the best position player and best starting pitcher in the 2004 free agent class. Now it has Wagner, the 100-mph closer, who clearly stands among the elite closers in the game. And through the trade with Florida, it has Delgado as well.

"Those are a couple of great acquisitions by the Mets," said Phillies general manager Pat Gillick in a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon. "They have strengthened themselves. It's going to make them more of a force to be dealt with in the East."

"I echo those comments," said Tom Glavine from his home outside Atlanta. "No question, Wagner has made us a much better team than we were last year. There's no guarantee, we still have to play, but we have to be pleased with what we have. We made two major deals and did as much as I think we could have done. It's awesome. I'm excited. They put together a game plan, a road map to success, and we followed the map very well. Now I just hope the directions are up-to-date."

Now the Phillies have a hole to fill with Ryan no longer available.

"We have to keep plugging along and try to improve our club," said Gillick. "I like our nine players on the field a whole bunch. The areas we have to shore up are the front end of our rotation and the back end of the bullpen. Those are the areas we're concentrating on. We're certainly working at it."

So the Mets not only improved themselves, they undercut the team that finished directly ahead of them -- by five games -- in the standings. Wagner saved 38 games for the Phillies last season, his second with Philadelphia. Six National League closers, including free agent Trevor Hoffman, had more saves. But among closers, no one other than Mariano Rivera (1.38) had an ERA lower than Wagner's 1.51 (0.74 after the All-Star break), and only Brad Lidge has comparable velocity.

The Mets had 38 saves, 28 by Braden Looper and four by Roberto Hernandez -- both free agents -- five by Aaron Heilman and one by Juan Padilla.

The Mets want to re-sign Hernandez and intend to retain Heilman, who is an attractive player to other clubs. They have other personnel moves to make -- adding a catcher and at least one setup reliever (preferably a left-handed one). But the catcher can come from the free agent pool -- they have offered contracts to Bengie Molina and Ramon Hernandez -- and they are not about to deal Heilman for another reliever, if only because Heilman's changeup makes him effective against left-handed hitters.

Once Wagner is on the roster, the Mets can move forward at the upcoming Winter Meetings with far less uncertainty. Mets GM Omar Minaya acknowledged on Monday -- presumably, before he knew of Wagner's agreement -- that uncertainty would have put a straitjacket on his dealing.

Unrestricted or not, its doubtful that Minaya can make any more moves that will have the impact of the two he has struck since Wednesday, when the Marlins agreed to deal Delgado. Not since December 1984, when the Mets traded for Howard Johnson and Gary Carter in a four-day period, has the club delivered such a quick one-two punch to its opponents.

Carter was at the top of his game at that point, but Johnson was a relative unknown. In this case, Delgado and Wagner, each 33, may be beyond the midpoint of their respective careers. But the Mets, confident that each will be a significant contributor, have invested more than $85 million in them.

Wagner's contract provides for annual salaries of $10.5 million and a $1 million buyout of a fifth year, 2010. If the Mets exercise the option, they will pay him $8 million for 2010, when he will turn 38.

The Mets, who negotiated payments from the Marlins equaling $7 million when they acquired Delgado, have assumed the remaining $48 million obligation on his four-year contract. They also are responsible for the difference -- about $1.5 million -- in what Delgado would have netted by not paying state income tax for the Marlins' home games in Florida as opposed to paying taxes for the Mets' home games in New York.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. Ken Mandel contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.