Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 9, 2008
No formal confirmation yet, but the Mets appear to have signed Francisco Rodriguez for 3 years and $37 million. This is good news for the Mets, and of course much worse news for the Angels, who have a fairly big budget of their own to throw around but have a lot of holes to plug.
First, the Angels. They exceeded their Pythagorean record by 12 games in 2008, which means that (1) they're due to fall backwards next year and (2) they relied heavily on a deep bullpen in 2008. Take K-Rod out of the picture, and that will be stretched thinner (Darren Oliver is returning, but he's not cut out to be more than a fifth man in the pen). I assume Jose Arredondo will eventually take over closing duties, though Scot Shields will probably get first crack. And that's before you deal with the challenge of re-signing Mark Teixeira, as well as clearing out Jon Garland and Garret Anderson and Juan Rivera also free agents - all guys (other than Tex) that you can spare, but it's harder to replace them all at once.
From the Mets perspective, I've always liked K-Rod, but I've been suspicious of him as a long-term investment. Some of that may just be a matter of listening to the Baseball Prospectus people fretting about his mechanics for years, of course. But there's also history: as I have noted before, by far the most similar pitcher to K-Rod through age 26 is Gregg Olson, who flamed out at 27, and #3 is Bobby Thigpen, who did the same at 28. Looking at the all-time leaders through age 26, K-Rod is one of 3 relievers in the top 10 in games pitched (the rest are 19th century starting pitchers), and the others are Mitch Williams, finished at 29, and Terry Forster, who threw just 58 innings between age 27 and 29. The top 10 in saves is K-Rod, Olson, Thigpen, Chad Cordero (who was hurt most of this season at age 26), Rod Beck, Williams, Ugueth Urbina, Bruce Sutter (who had his first off year at 30 and broke down starting at 32), Billy Koch, who hit the wall at 28, and Forster. Even bearing in mind that K-Rod has none of Williams' mental problems or Forster's conditioning issues, basically there's two guys on that list who didn't really suffer a sudden loss in effectiveness (Beck and Urbina, although Beck basically never recovered his high strikeout rates) and one (Sutter) who lasted into his 30s before the wheels came off. Turning to the top 10 in games finished, we get most of the same crowd plus Goose Gossage, whose broken hand at 27 was the only bump in the road, Byung-Hyun Kim, who missed most of his age 25 season and hasn't been the same since, and Jorge Julio, who at any rate has come down in the world from when he was 23, was terrible at 26 and 28 and was hurt this season at 29. We may not have a very lengthy track record to evaluate the durability of young relievers who throw a lot of games in their early twenties, but what we do have presents pretty grim odds.
Statistically, there's also K-Rod's declining K rate; although it was still over 10 this year, the trend combined with his high walk rate are worrisome signs.
All of which is why a 4-year contract would have scared me, a lot, and why I still regard K-Rod as a risky acquisition, much as Billy Wagner and BJ Ryan were big injury risks three years ago, and both of them went down. But the Mets needed a closer; Wagner's out most or probably all of next year, and K-Rod was better than the other options on the market. If he stays healthy for two of the three years of the deal, it won't be a bad investment. The Mets took advantage of the fact that there were more closers on the market than demand for them, and played some hardball. They will need more relievers to overhaul the bullpen after the last two seasons' fiascoes, but this was the logical place to start.
One guy they were rumored to be considering: Trevor Hoffman, who would give them three pitchers under contract with a total of 1147 career saves. Hoffman's close to finished and can't carry a huge workload - he threw 45.1 innings this season - but he may have enough left to contribute as a setup man. He had a 2.88 ERA from April 13 to the end of the year, including a 41-5 K-BB ratio. Over the past two years, righties have batted .167/.188/.292 (Avg/OBP/Slg) against Hoffman compared to .295/.355/.472 for lefties, which suggests that he might be more useful in a situational role (of course, I said that earlier this year about Schoenweis - guys with those splits tend to get exposed sooner or later). I'm not saying Hoffman's a good idea, but if he's not too expensive he may have his uses.