So, yea, this happened. Billy Wagner will undergo left elbow surgery and miss not only the remainder of the 2008 season, but most-if-not-all of the 2009 season. I think most of us were prepared for the former; Wagner had been showing some signs of progress in the days leading up to his most recent setback, but even the most optimistic fan couldn't have expected much out of him this month (or next, Jebus willing). The Mets now have some decisions to make that will affect the final three weeks of this season and six months of next and beyond.
First things first: What does Wagner's injury do for the Mets' Septemeber outlook? Look at the last four weeks and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the coming weeks will look like. Losing Wagner means losing the best reliever the Mets had this season. I'm told that this was one of the worst -- if not the very worst -- season of Wagner's career. Aside from the blown saves I don't really see it: his WHIP is under .9, his strikeout and walk rates were both superb. But whatever, in a sea of Heilmans and Sanchezes, Wagner was at the very least a PVC life raft with copious cup holders and a DVD navigation system (if you're searching for a hidden analogy there don't waste your time).
Wagner could very well have thrown his last pitch as a Met, and he certainly has his share of vilifiers. He had a proclivity for running his mouth and alienating himself from his teammates, but he is one of the handful of best relivers the Mets have ever had (that's a topic for an offseason post, I think), and the Mets will miss him very much during this and next regular season, even if his somewhat limited career postseason track record left much to be desired.
In Wagner's absence the Mets will continue to do what they've done in.. uhh.. Wagner's absence. Luis Ayala is the de facto closer, at least until such time as he implodes and/or otherwise proves himself to be unfit for the job. I hope it doesn't come to that; I've heard nothing but good things about Ayala the person and he was a very good reliever for the Expos/Nationals a couple of years ago. He is still relatively young and has some closing experience, and the Mets got him for next-to-nothing, so if he can be a productive bullpen arm for them, closing games or otherwise, his acquisition will be a major coup.
Behind Ayala, the Mets will look to cobble together a few innings a game for as long as they can. Heilman, Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano, Joe Smith, et al. can't all fail miserably every day, so Jerry Manuel's most important task over the next nineteen games will be to mix-and-match them and to be fairly liberal with the fast hook when he sees that one (or many!) of his guys doesn't have it on a particular day. Brian Stokes has been astonishingly good in his 17.1 innings as a reliever, compiling a 1.04 ERA and a 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Look for Manuel to lean on him more heavily in the season's waning days.
Beyond this year, the Mets will probably look to bring in an established closer to take over in 2009 and beyond. Omar Minaya likes Ayala, but I think he'd be much more comfortable with Francisco Rodriguez or someone else. There are some problems, of course. For starters, Rodriguez may be going through the worst season of his career. Despite gaudy save totals, his K/9, BB/9 and xFIP are all career lows (or highs; whichever is bad). Having said that, K-Rod is one of the elite closers in baseball and just turned 26 this year. He has logged a lot of relief innings for a pitcher his age, throwing 86 innings as a 21-year-old in 2003 and 65+ in every season since. He'll also cost an arm and a leg in both years and annual salary. The Mets got Wagner three offseasons ago for four years and $40 million; Rodriguez will likely be in the 5/$75 range, I'm guessing. That may be a bit high, but I don't expect it to be much less.
Another interesting name out there is Kerry Wood, who has proven to be relatively healthy this year and has performed well as the Cubs' closer. His strikeouts are way up and he has only allowed two homeruns in 58 innings. He turned 31 in June and his arm is always a pitch away from falling off, but if you could get him for 2/$20 million or something, that might be far preferable to backing up the truck for Rodriguez.
The alternatives to Rodriguez and Wood are not awe-inspiring: Eddie Guardado, Damaso Marte, Juan Cruz, Kyle Farnsworth, Tom Gordon, Jorge Julio, Byung-Hyun Kim, LaTroy Hawkins, Braden Looper, Brandon Lyon, Guillermo Mota, David Weathers. Retreads, former Mets, failed closers, crusty dinosaurs, assorted ghosts of Christmases past. Smart money -- brand spanking new Citi Field money -- is on Rodriguez, but the Angels and a number of other teams will be after his services, so even if the Mets are willing to pony up there are no guarantees that he's even theirs for the taking.
The bottom line is that the Mets aren't really any different today than they were yesterday. They have no Billy Wagner, so they're just going to have to make do. Next season is a different story, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.