Trying to figure the back end of the Mets' bullpen is no easy chore, considering that three men, Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis, are gone, and three new players have come to take their places. Rodriguez will be the closer. Sean Green will pitch in the middle innings. And Putz, whom the Mets officially introduced at Citi Field on Thursday, will be the setup man -- a role in which he's not altogether unfamiliar.
It was in a setup role, in fact, back in Seattle, where Putz first learned to master his split-fingered fastball -- now the pitch he uses to put away batters. Playing catch before a game with then-Mariners closer Eddie Guardado, Putz was tinkering with a way to put more movement on his ball when his teammate approached him.
"Here, try this," Putz recalled Guardado saying, spreading his fingers to the laces.
So Putz did, and the ball dove toward the ground.
"And that was that," he said, laughing.
Now, the split-fingered fastball is perhaps Putz's greatest weapon, one that he hopes will allow him to hand leads over to Rodriguez with regularity. Though when the Mets traded for Putz last week in a three-team deal with the Mariners and Indians, that last bit was a point of curiosity, if not downright disappointment.
Putz had been a closer for each of the previous three seasons, and -- excepting last year, one spent largely battling injuries -- he had become a marked success. Ninety-one saves over that span helped establish him as one of the league's foremost closers, and his 1.38 ERA over 71 2/3 innings in 2007 certainly didn't hurt.
Putz knew that new Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was looking to trade him and his $5 million salary this offseason. He also knew that the Mets, Tigers and Indians were his leading suitors, at least until the Mets signed Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract.
A self-proclaimed "baseball fan," Putz heard the news and assumed that the Mets, now boasting baseball's single-season saves king at the back of their bullpen, were no longer interested.
Then, only hours later, Mets general manager Omar Minaya gave him a call.
"It happened so fast. I thought for sure I was going to be a Detroit Tiger," Putz said, "and then I got the phone call that I was going to the Mets."
The caveat is that he will be a setup man rather than a closer -- something he never even considered this offseason while he listened to the trade rumors swirl. And although Mets manager Jerry Manuel has said in recent days that he expects to give Putz some save opportunities, the odds of him earning more than a smattering are low.
That realization shocked Putz more than it irked him, he said. And now that such surprise has faded, he's ready to embrace his new role and new teammate, Rodriguez.
"He's a lot of fun to watch, I'll tell you that," Putz said. "He's been as dominant as anyone in this game the last few years. He's not a bad guy to have to set up, I guess."
It's easier news to swallow, of course, considering the byproduct. Putz will leave the 101-loss Mariners and head to the 89-win Mets, hoping to supply them with at least one more victory. They've been within a win of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, only to fall short both times.
Much of the blame has gone to an underachieving bullpen, but now many of the main culprits are gone. Heilman went to Seattle in the trade that landed Putz. Smith went to Cleveland to help complete that deal. Schoeneweis landed with the Diamondbacks in a trade two days later. And Billy Wagner, the old closer, will miss almost all of next season due to injury.
In their places are Rodriguez, Putz and Green, a former Mariner whom Putz calls "a machine." And they aim to make this new combination a winning one.
"I know what's happened here the last couple years has been disappointing," Putz said. "And hopefully having Frankie and myself here will change that."