The Mets were one bullpen away from being in the postseason in 2008. With the incumbent closer, Billy Wagner, down, there was reason to start the rebuilding process with the single most important addition, a closer of the first rank.
Rodriguez is that. He set the single-season saves record this year with 62 for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He has been heavily utilized -- 76 appearances in 2008 -- but he will be just 27 when the 2009 season opens.
And by the standards of today's inflated pitching market, the price the Mets will pay will not be outrageous. The Mets and Rodriguez have reached a tentative agreement on a three-year, $37 million deal, contingent upon Rodriguez passing a physical. There is also a vesting option for a fourth year at $14 million that would bring the total value of the deal to $51 million.
For Mets manager Jerry Manuel, who had a nightly struggle attempting to patch together a workable bullpen down the stretch last season, the prospect of adding Rodriguez was a downright gleeful one.
"He's an exciting guy to talk about," Manuel said with a broad smile. "Obviously, he's a tremendously skilled closer. I was impressed with the energy that he had, and along with that energy came confidence. He's a very confident young man."
Manuel was forced to use the word "theoretically" to discuss the acquisition of Rodriguez, because the trade has not been finalized.
"That's the word on the street, right?" the manager said with a chuckle.
"In the way that we lost so many close games late, I think it was critical for us to theoretically address this thing. And we have addressed it very well. The word on the street is good."
But the impact of Francisco Rodriguez will be more than theoretical when he appears in the ninth inning for the Mets.
"Any time you acquire somebody at that level, it raises the level of everybody else," Manuel said. "It's almost the same as saying, 'Johan [Santana] is pitching today.' You feel a different spirit."
The Mets have acquired Rodriguez for considerably less than what Rodriguez's agent had initially been looking for, reportedly $75 million over five years. The chances for this kind of windfall were diminished by the fact that the current free agent class has a glut of closers, and by the grim outlook for the general economy that has made at least some clubs more financially cautious.
As the market developed in this case, it also became apparent that the Mets were the only deep-pocket operation in the hunt for Rodriguez's services.
Rodriguez's deal with the Mets is not dramatically different than one from the Angels that he had earlier rejected. But the economic circumstances have changed. Those changes turned out to be, in this one case at least, fortuitous for the Mets.
With Wagner undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in September, it was imperative for the Mets to find a new closer. And given the state of the Mets' bullpen late in 2008, the new closer had to be someone of real value.
Rodriguez fits the bill. Even before his record-breaking 2008 season, he had moved into the ranks of elite closers. In the previous three seasons, he had saved 132 games in 147 chances. Over that same period, he struck out 279 in 207 2/3 innings. He is a power pitcher with a slider that can be devastatingly effective.
While his strikeout ratio decreased in 2008 -- 77 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings -- and there were reports that he had diminished velocity, the overall quality of Rodriguez's record-breaking work cannot be disputed. And he has been durable. In six-plus seasons in the Majors, he has had one trip to the disabled list, in 2005.
In terms of closer quality, in the current free-agent class, the Mets could not have done better. And while the contract Rodriguez has accepted is obviously substantial, it is not stratospheric. The Mets appear to have done well on both sides of the free-agent signing equation -- finding the best available talent, but not breaking any records while paying for it.
General manager Omar Minaya's work is not done in remaking the Mets' bullpen. But he has taken the first and most important step, obtaining a quality closer. It's a long way from Luis Ayala to Francisco Rodriguez.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.