Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Always Be Closing...

This is #5 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2008 Season.
In 2006, Billy Wagner had what was for him, a normal, outstanding season, replete with 40 Saves, a 2.24 ERA, 94 strikeouts in 72.1 innings, and his usual agita, particularly at some bad moments.

In 2007, Wagner began the season at an even better clip, allowing only 3 earned runs entering June, and not having blown a save all season. Even after he did blow one, annoyingly to the Phillies, Wagner continued on a seemingly dominant clip, making the All Star team and providing little concern.

Then came a game on August 10th against Florida. With the Mets leading and seemingly cruising along, Wagner came in to close out the bottom of the Marlins lineup. No problem. Except that he gave up a hit to Miguel Olivo, walked Jason Wood, and then, out of nowhere, Hanley Ramirez turned around Wagner's best fastball and smoked it off the center field fence, scoring both runs and giving the Marlins the lead and, eventually, the win.

Following that game, Wagner became downright frightening to watch pretty much every time out. Even when he didn't blow the save, he gave me John Franco flashbacks and when he did blow it, well, it was just ugly 10 different ways.

Then, in September, we just didn't know what to expect. Wagner was alternately good and horrible at the same time, ended up missing a key stretch with back spasms, and became more or less an afterthought when things fell apart completely. Billy certainly didn't have a bad season all told, but the majority of his 34 saves and 2.63 ERA were accomplished at early points in the season.
Basically, I don't know what we'll get out of Wagner this year. This is inasmuch as we know what we'll see out of him, which is that he'll do his little Alpaca-hop from the Bullpen as "Enter Sandman" blares, and he'll throw 95MPH fastballs and mix in a slider and whatever that other pitch he was working on but rarely used last season was here and there, but will he? He'll be 37 on July 25th, and he's made a career on throwing the ball hard and with a lot of torque on that small frame.

Yes, yes, I know. He's done it for years, and why should this year be any different? Well, I'm not saying that it will. But last year brought into question whether or not he's going to be able to hold up over the course of a full season, now that he's getting older and the mileage is beginning to take its toll. In '06, he remained consistent throughout the season, with a stinker sprinkled in here or there, so it really wasn't much cause for concern. Last year, the bad outings really clumped up late in the season.

There's one other thing. Every few years, Wagner seems to get hit with injury problems that knock him out for a good chunk of the season. In 2000, he appeared in 28 games and put up an ERA of 6.18. In 2004, with Philadelphia, he again was hurt and appeared in only 45 games. I have this haunting fear that Wagner's about due for another one of those seasons where he's ineffective and injured, and that's not good, especially given the problems with the Bullpen as it is, and with no clear replacement on the team (yes, I am knocking on wood as I write this). At least not a trustworthy replacement.

Granted, a lot of this is all hearsay. But given that Willie and Peterson really count on their Bullpen—and especially their Closer—to carry a lot of the load over the course of the season, it means that everybody that the Mets trot out after their starters are under scrutiny, and everyone deserves to be looked at as a key to the team. But I consider Wagner separate from the Bullpen because his role is clearly defined and isn't going to change if he performs poorly a few times. Come in for the 9th inning, throw strikes, get outs, finish off the opponent. And do it consistently over the 90+ games the Mets will hopefully win this coming season. His track record would dictate that he's not going to fall into a pattern where he gets routinely hammered. But he needs to stay healthy and he needs to finish the marathon if the Mets are going to win, and advance into October, just as much as the guys who will be the bridge between the starter and him need to get him the ball so he can do so.

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