The Closer Conundrum

With yesterday’s article by Ken Davidoff in Newsday, I had to start seriously thinking for the first time that maybe the Mets wouldn’t end up going after Brian Fuentes or Francisco Rodriguez, but rather they’d trade for Bobby Jenks.  I’m still not totally convinced one way or another, but I feel compelled to actually think about things on a more statistical level for the first time.  So I’ve compiled the stats for the three most likely candidates to be the 2009 Mets closer. 

First, I’ve eliminated Trevor Hoffman from the mix because I really don’t see him as a New York guy.  The only reason to even consider him would be as a one-year option to keep the door open to possibly give the closer mantle for 2010 to one of the two young arms in the minor league system, Bobby Parnell or Eddie Kunz. But I highly doubt that the powers that be would allow all the closer on the market right now to go to other teams.

Second, I’ve also eliminated Kerry Wood.  Again, he doesn’t strike me as a New York guy.  He’ll most likely go to a second division team on a one-year deal to show that he can stay healthy.

Third, I’m comparing the three players based solely on the quantitative categories that don’t rely on having decent arms around you in the bullpen. The numbers below are only here to show the effectiveness of the individual closer.  So here we go.

Bobby Jenks:
2008:  57 games, 61.2 IP, 51 hits, 3 HRs, 38 Ks, 17 BBs, 30 saves
2007: 66 games, 65 IP, 45 hits, 2 HRs, 56 Ks, 13 BBs, 40 saves
2006: 67 games, 69.2 IP, 66 hits, 5 HRs, 80 Ks, 31 BBs, 41 saves

Francisco Rodriguez
2008: 76 games, 68.1 IP, 54 hits, 4 HRs, 77 Ks, 34 BBs, 62 saves
2007: 64 games, 67.1 IP, 50 hits, 3 HRs, 90 Ks, 34 BBs, 40 saves
2006: 69 games, 73 IP, 52 hits, 6 HRs, 98 Ks, 28 BBs, 47 saves

Brian Fuentes:
2008: 67 games, 62.2 IP, 47 hits, 3 HRs, 82 Ks, 22 BBs, 30 saves
2007: 64 games, 61.1 IP, 46 hits, 6 HRs, 56 Ks, 23 BBs, 20 saves
2006: 66 games, 65.1 IP, 50 hits, 8 HRs, 73 Ks, 26 BBs, 30 saves

Including saves here is possibly a mistake, because having a high save total is contingent on being placed in games in which your team is winning.  It’s been well reported that Francisco Rodriguez was placed in games only in save situations, whereas the other guys (and all other closers in the game) often find themselves in blowouts or four-run leads.  But it’s worth it if for no other reason than to see how each player responds to pressure. 

Bobby Jenks is young and could possibly be locked up for a couple of years at a very low salary, as low as $1 million per.  With that extremely affordable price tag, you have to consider that it would probably cost the Mets some pretty high-level minor league talent.  Fernando Martinez is the most likely to be traded, but young Wilmer Flores, a 17-year-old who finished the season at Class A Brooklyn could be a target too.  Losing either guy would be a hard blow for the already bereft system.

The big worry with Jenks is that his strikeout total has gone down in each of the last three seasons, and by a pretty dramatic margin. His innings are also down, though not by much, and you have to consider that he spent a good bit of time on the DL in 2008.

Francisco Rodriguez has numbers that speak for themselves.  There’s no need to remind readers that he set the single-season saves record in 2008, or that he’s thrown more innings over the past three years than any of the other closer candidates.  Also, it’s been well-documented that his pitching motion puts a lot of stress on his arm, and that stress worries a lot of scouts about his potential for long-term health. 

With all that said, Rodriguez is undoubtedly the cream of the crop.  His strikeout-to-walk ratio is great and he has proven to be a guy who isn’t bothered by stress.  There is little doubt that he’ll adjust to the pressures of playing in New York, and he will be among the top closers for at least a few more years. 

But despite his agent’s claims that he’s willing to be creative with his contract demands, most in the industry believe that KRod will command the highest annual salary ever for a closer.  He’ll probably ask for something in the neighborhood of $13-15 million per year, and that’s just insane, especially when you add on the $10 million that Billy Wagner will be paid for his rehab time in 2009.  And when you consider all the other bullpen upgrades that the front office will have to pay for, Rodriguez’ price may be too high to make him the first choice.

And that brings us to Brian Fuentes, the free agent who will most likely not be hired back by his old team since the Rockies traded for Huston Street. Fuentes brings a very solid arm and one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the game.  Add that he played for a lousy Rockies team in 2008, and he could easily have saved another 10 to 15 games for a contender. 

The only real downside with Fuentes is that, like Rodriguez, he’ll probably command a huge contract. I’ve not read any expected contract demands yet, but I assume he’ll go for somewhere around $10-11 million per year for maybe four to five years. For all I know, my estimates could be way off, but they’re still high numbers any way you look at it. 

So which of the three would be the best fit for the 2009 Mets?  It’s hard to say.  All three have their upsides, and all three pose certain risks, either financial or health or prospect cost.  It seems that any of them could do the job efficiently, and any of them could be popular figures in Flushing.  I guess all that matters is what Omar thinks is best.

One Response to “The Closer Conundrum”

  1. Chris Wilcox says:

    I want no part of Bobby Jenks whatsoever. Right now, all a closer will cost the Mets is a draft pick in what’s going to be a lousy draft and money (granted, money I’m not paying, but still, money). The White Sox are looking for premium prospects in return for Jenks, which is laughable in a market where there are no fewer than five guys with closer’s experience available, plus guys like Juan Cruz, high strikeout relievers who could probably close if given the opportunity. Plus, Jenks is arbitration-eligible, so he won’t even be particularly cheap. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s really a guy the Mets are interested in, but they will say that they are in order to drive the price of Fuentes and K-Rod down.

    As far as K-Rod vs. Fuentes, I am worried about K-Rod. Forget the save numbers for a minute – look at his peripherals. His strikeout numbers are trending downward. He should be entering his prime here, but his strikeout numbers are down and his velocity is down, and he’s only 26. I’m starting to worry that he’s going to be a lemon. Fuentes will likely be more willing to take a 3 year contract, will come cheaper, and has a better-than-average shot at out-performing K-Rod despite being younger. The more I think about this, the more I prefer Fuentes to K-Rod, and to be honest, I have a hunch the Mets do as well.

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