Wagner lays out challenges ahead

Wagner lays out challenges ahead

NEW YORK -- Part of the Mets' introduction to Billy Wagner two years ago was a warning. "I'm blunt," he told them. And he suggested if candor were upsetting, the club might be better off looking elsewhere for a relief pitcher. Undaunted, the Mets pursued Wagner, and now, in the middle of their four-year contract with him, they have a full-disclosure closer.

Wagner's thoughts about the Mets past and present -- their futile stretch run in 2007 and their upcoming campaign in 2008 -- came out unvarnished on Tuesday. Still hurting from a final-month collapse that cost the team a place in the postseason, he said the Mets, as presently constituted, could be a third-place team. He wondered whether they could compensate for the departure of Tom Glavine without weakening themselves, cautioned against including Aaron Heilman in a trade, questioned the logic of not re-signing catcher Paul Lo Duca and reiterated his concern with what he considered a lack of competitiveness among Mets players.

"Someone asked me what I thought of our team," Wagner said in an interview with MLB.com. "I said, 'What team?' We've lost 13 games [Glavine's victory total], and now we are going have to give up something to get those games back. I'm afraid we're just going to create other holes if we give up a [Lastings] Milledge, a [Mike] Pelfrey or a Heilman."

Like every other team at this time of year, though, the Mets are obviously a long way from settling on their final roster. Over the next four months, there will be trades made, free agents signed and rookies and young players who develop. Wagner knows that.

"I'm trying to be positive," he said. "I'm saying we have some good players. But I'm worried. The Braves are getting better, and the Phillies made a move [acquiring Brad Lidge]. We've brought back some people, and that's good. But losing Tom is big. It's a lot more than the 13 games he won. It's what he did for John Maine and Oliver Perez and how professional he was. People want to focus on one bad game or just the day-to-day stats. I do that myself when I read about football. By I'm involved in this, and I know how important [Glavine] was. We don't have him [in 2007], and we don't even get to the last game with a chance. He was one of the few leaders we had.

"The Mets didn't do anything wrong. I know he wanted to be home more. I understand that, but where does that leave us?"

Wagner, who readily acknowledged his own role in the Mets' steep decline, is most concerned about the bullpen, not because it's his area, but because he believes it is the team's most critical component. He is opposed to dealing Heilman, no matter which of the front-of-the-rotation starters the Mets have targeted -- Johan Santana or Dan Haren -- would be imported.

"We're down 13 games already, plus all the games Tom deserved to win," he said. "Without Aaron, it'd be like another 10 or 12. It would be a big chance to take. Without Aaron, [the bullpen] don't even exist. No way you can trade him."

Wagner's concerns go beyond personnel, to the Mets' thoughts of using Orlando Hernandez in relief and other relievers' roles. "[Hernandez] pitches great for five games and then can't pitch for two weeks," Wagner said. "If we put him in the bullpen, we're going to ask him to pitch three times a week. Can he take that?"

Thoughts of El Duque pitching in relief prompted other thoughts of bullpen assignments.

Wagner said: "In Willie Randolph's bullpen, it's different. He wants guys to be able to go 2 2/3 innings or one-third of an inning or in between. That's how he wants it. But guys just want to know, so they can prepare themselves and be comfortable."

Wagner said he and Randolph discussed relief roles several times during the season and that more recently, general manager Omar Minaya and COO Jeff Wilpon subsequently have asked him about roles.

"I understand what Willie wants -- for a lot of guys to be able to pitch whenever they're needed for as long as he needs them," Wagner said. "I'm not sure you can have that. Guys are used to having roles. They'll take the ball because that's what the job is and that's what the manager wants. But the idea is to get them into situations where they can be successful. I mean, you wouldn't ask Carlos Delgado to bunt."

Wagner went to bat for his former batterymate as well, saying he has no problem with Johnny Estrada, who was acquired in trade last week. But he believed Lo Duca was an integral component in the team dynamic.

"Maybe he wasn't the best receiver. I don't know. But Paulie competed," Wagner said. "He battled every day, and we had some guys who didn't show up every day. They were satisfied if they got a hit and we lost. Paul was [angry] if he had four hits and we lost. And every one of the pitchers trusted him. He was a big part of what we did [in 2006], and now he's gone, too. ... It just worries me that we're missing some important guys."

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