No matter how you feel about closers in general, Francisco Rodriguez's $17.5 million option for 2012 is an onerous black cloud looming over the promise of dropping almost $60 million in contracts once this season is through. Rodriguez is certainly no Mariano Rivera, who is getting paid $15 million a season with $1.5 million deferred, and even if he were, the Mets don't strike most observers as a Yankees-like team that is a mere piece or two away from a championship in any given year. A $17.5 million closer is a fancy bauble at an extreme price on a team that needs to go lean and mean and spend money in a smart way.
This year, all Francisco Rodriguez has to do to trigger that option is finish 55 games. Last year was the first time since he'd become a full-time closer that he didn't finish 55 games. If the option didn't exist, he would finish 55 games this year, and the Major League Baseball Players' Association (MLBPA) will be watching the Mets because they know this. Like the organization came to Rodriguez's defense when the pitcher had his legal troubles and was suspended by the team last year, the MLBPA will be ready to pounce and declare that the team is tampering with Rodriguez' role in order to save money. Remember that the union was ready to file a grievance on Magglio Ordonez's behalf when the Tigers attempted to platoon the outfielder in order to keep his option from vesting.
This, then, is a simple two-step plan to keep Francisco Rodriguez's option from vesting without incurring the wrath of the MLBPA. The beauty of it is that this plan would actually get the most out of the Mets' best bullpen arm as well. Help the team win while helping the team save money? That should go over well, right?
Step 1. Continue to Call Francisco Rodriguez the Closer
Semantics matter. Continuing to refer to the embattled Rodriguez as the closer will help soothe the MLBPA's furrowed brow. Don't push your luck by installing Bobby Parnell and Taylor Buchholz as co-closers and demoting Rodriguez to set-up man because that will incur the wrath of the union as well as future free agents.
Adding up saves and blown saves, you'll find that Rodriguez has only once found himself in more than 55 save situations in one season, and that was his in his Major-League record-setting 2008 run with the Angels. In 2009, he saved 35 and blew seven. If it's a save situation, use Rodriguez most days - you might as well, and it won't endanger the plan to keep him from finishing 55.
Of course, all of this doesn't mean you can't screw with the definition of a closer.
Step 2. Screw With the Definition of a Closer
One tenet of sabremetrics is that your best pitcher should be used in the most important moments at the end of the game. We've seen enough games with the middle of the lineup coming up in the eighth inning to know that it's a little silly to save your closer for the 6-7-8 hitters in the ninth - it's not just some ivory tower proclamation.
In general, the team wasn't terrible in their handling of Rodriguez last year. FanGraphs has a statistic called Leverage Index that tracks how important a game situation is compared to the average situation. Rodriguez had a 1.54 gmLI, meaning that when he entered a game, he found himself in situations that were one-and-a-half times more important than the average game situation. That led the bullpen, at least.
However, other teams managed their closers more effectively. 21 qualified relievers averaged better gmLIs for the season, including two setup men. That's right, Mike Adams (1.55) and Daniel Bard (1.90) were effectively leveraged better than Closer Rodriguez.
What this means is that Rodriguez needs to be used in tight spots earlier in the game if necessary. Up by two with two on and the cleanup hitter on in the eighth inning? Perfect. Tie game with a runner on second and their best hitter at the plate in the bottom of the seventh? Bring him on for three or four outs. This will actually help the team get more value from their closer, while keeping him in the role and keeping him from finishing games.
It will also eliminate the need for Rodriguez to get in a game to 'get some work,' in a way. Rodriguez' first four appearances last season were at the end of games that were either blowouts or losses, but it was probably a good idea to get him out on the mound facing major leaguers at least once before his his first save chance (April 17), so there he was, getting the last three meaningless outs four times before his first save. Let's look at those four appearances to see how the 'new' closer role would work.
April 5, 2010
The Mets win 7-1 but Rodriguez hasn't gotten into a game yet. Well, it was the first official game of the season, so no need to dust the closer off for this non-save situation. Enjoy the victory with Bobby Parnell on the mound.
April 7, 2010
The Mets lose 6-7 to the Marlins in ten innings. Rodriguez pitches a two-hit ninth in a tie game. He strikes out the cleanup and fifth-spot hitters (Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla) before giving up a couple hits that don't come around to score. The new approach may have had him come on in the eighth to face Hanley Ramirez, even if it meant taking him out after the Uggla at-bat, but since he didn't finish this game, it wouldn't have mattered. At least he wasn't saved for the save situation in a tie game - that happened at least once during the season, most notably when he didn't appear until the 19th inning against the Cardinals in the 20-inning marathon later in the month.
April 11, 2010
The Mets lose 2-5 to the Nationals, and Rodriguez gets work in by facing Adam Kennedy, Willie Harris, Nyjer Morgan, Willy Taveras and Christian Guzman. The new approach would have had him come on in the eighth inning to face Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Ian Desmond and Wil Nieves. Those are better hitters and the game is still close enough to argue that the combination of getting work in and keeping the game close would be beneficial.
April 15, 2010
The Mets win 5-0 against the Rockies. K-Rod faces Dexter Fowler, Jason Giambi, Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Stewart - the heart of the Rox order that day. Since it had been four days, it seems like an okay use of the closer... until you look up the Mets' schedule and see that they lost, 5-6, the day before in ten innings. In that game, the Mets went with Ryota Igarashi to face Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Spilborghs and Ian Stewart in the ninth inning of a tie game. Does that really make any sense, even if Igarashi got through unscathed? Use Rodriguez there and he doesn't fnish this meaningless inning the next day, the team gets to save Igarashi for an important tenth inning in a tie game, and then maybe Chris Iannetta doesn't hit a game-winning shot in the bottom of the tenth off of Jennry Mejia. This two-game stretch might be a microcosm of some of the foolhardier decisions made by the last regime, actually.
So that's it - four 2010 appearances for K-Rod and no saves, wins or blown saves, but instead three games finished in a meaningless fashion. Under the new approach, he would finish none of those games and yet still get four games' worth of work - all while helping the team win and retaining his Closer title.
This isn't neuroscience, and it shouldn't be too difficult for the team to manage. Only Heath Bell, Brian Wilson, Billy Wagner, Francisco Cordero and Carlos Marmol finished more than 55 National League games last year, meaning that there were about ten teams in the NL that managed to fill their closer role all year without having a pitcher hit that number that looms so large over the Mets' 2011 season. Because there's a new regime in town, they have an advantage: the ability to frame the changes as part of an overhaul of how the team is run, all the way down to how the Closer is used.
Just call him a "Moneyball Closer," and maybe people will nod sagely and miss the point.