Mets to continue pursuit of closers

Mets to continue pursuit of closers

NEW YORK -- A club not offering salary arbitration to its free agents no longer loses negotiating rights to the players. That revision of the procedure, enacted two years ago, has eliminated much of the intrigue and risk that once existed in the process. The deadline for arbitration offers once made players, their agents and their clients' former clubs squirm.

The Mets opted not to offer arbitration to Ray Knight in December 1986, less than two months after he had been named the Most Valuable Player in their World Series victory, causing angst and unrest among fans and former teammates. The club was unconvinced it would prevail in an arbitration case and believed overpaying a 34-year-old player was likely when it was more likely that Howard Johnson would command more playing time at third base than Knight.

Now, because clubs recognize that higher-profile free agents generally seek more years and more overall money than arbitration will provide, offers routinely are made to those players. The clubs' objective has more to do with gaining selections in the pending First-Year Player Draft than with eliminating the chance that an arbitration panel might determine a salary.

That said, the Angels and Rockies offered arbitration to their respective free-agent closers, Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes. Each player seeks more than arbitration will provide, so little risk exists for the clubs. Greater potential disincentives exist for the Mets as they seek to acquire a replacement for Billy Wagner.

Now, whether the Mets sign K-Rod or Fuentes, a less attractive option, they will forfeit their first-round selection in the First-Year Player Draft in June to the pitcher's former club. The same surcharge would exist if the Mets were to sign Raul Ibanez, the free-agent outfielder the Mets sought to obtain from the Mariners last summer. Ibanez, like the two relievers, is a Type A player offered arbitration.

What the Mets will lose if they sign a Type A never will be known. They alone will know which amateur they would have selected had they retained the Draft choice. And they won't know how that unspecified player might have developed in their system.

The Mets will proceed with their pursuit of both pitchers, playing the win-now-pay-later game they played on a significantly higher scale in February when they dealt four players to the Twins for Johan Santana, three years ago when they signed Wagner and four years ago when they Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran.

They expect to meet with the agents representing Rodriguez and Fuentes during and after the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas next week. The New York Post reported in its Tuesday editions that Fuentes himself intends to attend the Meetings and meet with Mets general manager Omar Minaya.

Hot Stove

Any Mets pursuit of Ibanez seemingly would come much later. Minaya is intent on filling the void in the rotation and renovating the bullpen. The most likely scenario that would move Ibanez to Citi Field involves the Mets trading an outfielder, plus to fill one of their pitching needs and then signing Ibanez to play the outfield.

But they won't know much about their starting pitcher voids and whether they can be addressed via free agency until they have a better sense of what will happen with their primary free agent, Oliver Perez.

The Mets offered arbitration to Perez on Monday, all but certain the offer won't be accepted, but wanting to put themselves in position to gain two choices in the early stages of the Draft should Perez sign with a different club.

In the Mets-Perez case, the offer carries little risk. The club would be comfortable taking its chances in arbitration, if only because Perez would be awarded a one-year contract which would carry far less obligation and risk.

Perez did win his arbitration case against the Mets in February and was awarded a $6.5 million salary for 2008. And chances are he would receive a significant increase in salary -- win or lose -- if he were to avail himself to the process again, even though his '08 performance had touches of the inconsistency that has been his long-standing shortcoming.

But paying Perez for one year seemingly would benefit the Mets. They could address their other needs and gain time to find a more permanent solution to their pitching problem. All that is moot, though, because Perez will not accept.

So now the Mets move forward, to Vegas and beyond, hopeful that the contract Perez seeks is consistent with their sense of his value and with the knowledge the contract fellow free agent Derek Lowe seeks is not.

This refurbishing of the pitching staff isn't going to be inexpensive or easy.

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