Who Should Close For The Mets?

So Francisco Rodriguez joins the Mets annals, to be filed somewhere between Vince Coleman and Pedro Martinez, depending on how his piece-du-exit is completed. That he used his pitching hand to punch the 'grandfather of his children' is probably the climax of his disasterpiece theater, but Mets fans are used to this sort of crap by now. Naw, we're ready to move on already, and start blabbing about the closer position.

As in: who should close? Given the fact that we know Jerry Manuel is a creature of habit, the answer to a different question may already be out there. Hisanori Takahashi did, in fact, earn the first post-Rodriguez save of 2010 last night, and that might be that. But the question at hand uses "should" as the verb, and that changes everything.

For if we are to consider who should close, we have to consider the state of the team. Are the Mets contenders this year? How about next? Last but not least, will this team have Francisco Rodriguez as its closer next year?

It's tempting to avoid the last question because it's a difficult one, and we will of course discuss this further as details come out. But the question of Rodriguez and his contract is important to the question of who should close this year. If he won't be the closer next year, this team may want to discover if they have a future closer on the roster right now. If he will close next year, they only need a stopgap. To cover our bases, we'll split the argument here. It will provide us two separate universes: one in which the Mets will have K-Rod next year and will use the bulk of this team - signed through 2012 - for one last shot at it all; one universe in which K-Rod's departure marks the beginning of a purge that and a rebuilding process.

Is this moment so stark? It's an interesting thing to wonder. Francisco Rodriguez is overpaid. It's true - no closer is worth ten million dollars, even a good one like Rodriguez has been this year. Okay, at his very best, he was once worth twelve million dollars -  in 2004 he accrued four WAR and was a relief monster. But he's been good this year - his 1.5 WAR ranks ninth in the league and fifth among closers. So it seems that he's both underpaid and correctly paid, as far as free agent closers go. If you are going to pay $10 million for a closer, why not one that will usually rank in the top ten at his position? Sure, you'll be overpaying for those wins (probably paying more than five million dollars per win when the 'going rate is around four), but it's the kind of thing a contending team in a large market does.

There's that word again. Is this a contending team that wants a fancy closer next year? Or is this a rebuilding team that needs to find a closer it can control cheaply for years?

If this is a contending team in 2011, then it almost doesn't matter who closes for now. Hisanori Takahashi has enough stuff to take on batters of both handedness, as garik16 showed us this past week, and if he's not going to start, he might as well take the highest leverage innings in the bullpen to make best use of his talents (given the situation). Pedro Feliciano can take the odd shot at a lefty-laden lineup, but really shouldn't pitch to righties too often. His FIP against lefties is 2.64 - against righties it's 4.94 - and this is after facing 700+ batters of both hands. I think it's fairly reliable.

If this is not a contending team in 2011, then the odd two-lefty tandem of Takahashi and Feliciano is not the best option. Sure, they'll close out some games this year, but neither is signed for next year, and both are over 34. Instead, the ideal closer on a rebuilding team would be young, controllable, have good stuff, and reasonable platoon splits.

Perusing the major league roster, the best options with these characteristics in mind are Bobby Parnell and Manny Acosta. Though Acosta looks good now, his career 7.22 K/9 and 4.75 BB/9 are underwhelming, and his minor league rates (7.8 and 5.1) don't really suggest that he should be doing better. Even once moved to the bullpen, his strikeout rate never hit a batter per inning for a full year. He doesn't really look like a future closer, and anyway he has more major league experience and therefore fewer years of control in the future.

Parnell, on the other hand, has slightly better career minor league rates accrued mostly as as starter (8.0 and 3.9 respectively) and struck out a batter per inning once he was moved to the pen for the first time in the minor leagues this year. His career FIP against lefties in the minors was 3.76 and against righties was 4.07, and he faced more than 900 batters of each hand. Since so much of that came starting, it's reasonable to think he can better those numbers in the majors. He hasn't quite shown it yet, but this year he looks promising. And we know he has the gas of your typical closer, as he averages around 96 MPH on his heater.

Short of converting a different minor league starter to the bullpen, Parnell would be the best rebuilding option. And if the team is rebuilding, they should not be converting any starters with promise to the bullpen in an effort to identify future rotation members. No other reliever in the minor leagues seems to be showing sustained strikeout ability, either. Parnell for the future, it seems; Takahashi if they are to contend next year with Rodriguez on the team.

You may laugh at the idea that this is a contending team - the most recent playoff odds have them at .4% chance of winning the division and .5% chance of winning the wild card (notice the decimal point). Ain't happening, sorry folks. But this core is signed through 2011 and all the team can do is make moves around the edges, or go all in with a trade. If you squinted hard enough, you could see bounce-back seasons from Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran combining with David Wright's continued excellence, Johan Santana staving off decline another year, and some development from young pitchers and position players next year. That could actually make them a contender.

It may not even matter if the Mets are really contenders are not, as we have been discussing in our posts and comments recently. This market may require them to act like contenders perpetually. Which is why you'll probably see a cobbled-together closer position over the next couple weeks, some posturing about Rodriguez that results in no sustained or successful legal action, and a "fresh" shot at next year with this same roster and some cosmetic changes. That's Mets baseball folks!

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