Billy Wagner may or may not be the best relief pitcher in the National League. And any declaration that he is the premier reliever in the City of Superlatives undoubtedly will prompt fierce debate. But Wagner throws so hard, some say the hardest. And that is a distinction the Mets and their newest bandwagon jumpers already are celebrating now that Wagner has brought his 100-mph fastball, 284 career saves and a look-you-in-the-eye, rural charm to Shea Stadium.
The Mets identified him as the best closer available in a free agent market that included Trevor Hoffman, B.J. Ryan, Tom Gordon and Todd Jones and then added to his list of superlatives, making him the highest-paid reliever in baseball history, in terms of average annual income. The four-year, $43 million contract could have Wagner pitching in Shea II come 2009.
All this and Carlos Delgado, too, in an effort to make the Mets the -- choose one -- best, strongest, baddest or most formidable team the National League East. More remodeling will be done before they even can begin to pursue that identity on the field. But the heaviest lifting is done with Delgado's left-handed bat and Wagner's left arm in place.
"We felt -- when you look at Billy Wagner and look at what he's done, you look at his stats, you look at the fact that he's a free agent -- he is definitely in our eyes worth that contract," Mets general manager Omar Minaya said. "He deserves to get that contract."
The contract that produced agreement includes a no-trade clause that Wagner termed "critical to us" and a one-year club option, for 2010. The Mets increased the value of their initial offer by 42 percent and added a fourth, guaranteed year Monday morning after Wagner's representative, Bean Stringfellow, told them the figures that "would take Wagner out of the market." Stringfellow, responded Monday afternoon shortly after the Mets had staged a get-acquainted conference for Delgado at the Shea Diamond Club.
Wagner was in the same setting some 27 hours later, reveling in his new identity as the Mets' No. 13, his new-found wealth and his enhanced chances for postseason play. He again distinguished between the Mets who, he said, were intent on winning, and the Phillies, whom he characterized as "trying to be competitive."
The Phillies' trading of Jim Thome last week disappointed Wagner, even though the money the club saved in the transaction made it easier for the Phillies to offer the closer more. Wagner thought it was a bad sign when he heard the Phillies weren't opposed to dealing Bobby Abreu.
He also noted the Phillies were late in launching their pursuit, recalling the club's reaction -- dismissal -- to what he described as Stringfellow's July proposal for a three-year, $24 million contract. The recent change in general managers from Ed Wade to Pat Gillick also was an obstacle, Wagner said. The greatest obstacle was the Phillies unwillingness to guarantee a fourth season.
Billy the 'K' Kid
|Beginning with 1998, the first of the six seasons in which Billy Wagner saved at least 30 games, the Mets' new closer has the highest ratio of strikeouts per nine innings -- 11.7 -- among the Major League leaders in saves.|
SO/ 9 IP
|Wagner is the active career leader in strikeouts per nine innings (11.7) among all pitchers with 500 or more innings pitched.|
The Phillies, it seemed, had backed off while in pursuit -- no easy trick.
The Mets, meanwhile, were quick, persistent and generous. The addition of Delgado didn't hurt either.
Minaya applied to his pursuit of the 34-year-old pitcher the same concepts he had applied in his pursuit of Delgado. The general manager believed other clubs would become involved with the Marlins, seeking Delgado in trade, if free agent slugger Paul Kornerko signed. So he pushed the Marlins. In the case of Wagner, Minaya believed the signing of Ryan by the Blue Jays not only raised the market price for closers but also gave other clubs a greater sense of urgency.
The Mets felt the urgency, too. Wagner had identified them as the favorite last week, and the club didn't want to lose that position or go to Dallas for the Winter Meetings next week without Wagner's signature. The uncertainty about Wagner gone, the Mets now can focus on other entries on their offseason agenda.
The Mets had other factors on their favor, including former catcher Ron Hodges and former third baseman and coach Mike Cubbage, both friends of Wagner who told him playing in New York would be a positive experience. And there was the Plummer factor, as well. Jimmy Plummer, a longtime Mets employee and now director of corporate services for the club, grew up in the same Virginia town, Marion, as Wagner.
"I came to New York to find a guy from home," Wagner said, smiling.
Plummer, 53, was a bat boy for the Mets Minor League affiliate in Marion when Nolan Ryan pitched there. He was the closest friend of the late Tommie Agee and considers Mookie Wilson a friend. Moreover, he knows Wagner's Uncle Kokie and his way around Marion.
It all was part of making the country boy feel comfortable in the Big City. The Mets began that campaign shortly after the World Series, visiting Wagner at home in Virginia and continued it last week when they gave Wagner the wine-dine-and-sign treatment. Tom Glavine, Jeff Wilpon, their wives, owner Fred Wilpon, Minaya and Willie Randolph introduced Wagner to greater New York and put his wife's mind at ease about moving.
"I think we had such a good feeling from the first time Omar came down [to Virginia]," Wagner said. "That was really a determining factor when he came down to our house, because he didn't just speak to me. He really spoke to my wife more than he spoke to me, included her in what the surroundings were like and what the organization would do -- not for me, but for my family. That impressed her and I think she was excited about it from the first day.
"I'm not going to be totally comfortable the first day after Spring Training when we get here. I'll have to drive home in the dark and still don't know where I'm going. But I do know the one place I'll feel comfortable and that'll be on the mound."
All the hurdles are gone now, and the Mets have a closer as intimidating as Armando Benitez and significantly more reliable, perhaps more reliable than any closer since Tug McGraw. A fastball with triple-digit velocity makes opposing hitters blanch, and Wagner's record for reliability makes opposing managers adjust their normal routine, using their best pinch-hitter before the Wagner innings.
Wilpon, the COO, recalled the pain of late-inning losses in the 2005 season -- Opening Day in Cincinnati, the June 26 loss to the Yankees that denied the Mets a three-game sweep in the Bronx and the July 8 loss in Pittsburgh when the bullpen imploded and Tike Redman, acquired by the Mets on Monday, delivered the critical hit.
"I'm here for the tight games and the other ones, too," Wagner said. "I know why they brought me here. They want to win, and I want to win. I want to be in the World Series and I want [to be in] the Hall of Fame. That will take a lot of winning. And that's what I want to be part of.
"We look like a pretty good team now and I know they want to do more to improve what we have. That's what I love to hear. I'm like everyone else now. I expect great things."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.