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Make Frankie a relief ace

Francisco Rodriguez is the Mets' closer, but he should be deployed as a "relief ace."

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

It is easy to overlook option years tacked on to the end of baseball contracts. Quite often, these options may be declined by a team, and a small buyout is owed to the player. For instance, Billy Wagner's Mets contract was signed for 4 years, $43 million, with a 2010 club option for $8 million. This option will certainly be declined and the Mets will owe Wagner $1 million. When Frankie Rodriguez initially signed his 3 year, $37 million contract, I didn't pay much attention to the 4th year option. It was only a few months later that I realized how awful that $17.5 million option is. It is not a team option, as it becomes guaranteed if the following criteria are met (all information via Cot's Contracts):

  • 55 games finished in 2011, and
  • 100 games finished in 2010-2011, and
  • doctors declare Rodriguez healthy after 2011

If even one of these is not met, Frankie receives a $3.5 million termination buyout. He has finished 50 games this season with a month and a half to go. Barring injury, these criteria will be met. At that point, the Mets will be on the hook to pay a relief pitcher $17.5 million in 2012. Think for a second how ridiculous that is. He would have to match his bonkers 2004 season or his very good 2006 season to even come close to being worth that amount. He will be lucky to be worth even $5 million this year. With his peripherals steadily declining, I shudder to think what 30(?) year-old Frankie will look like. There is a solution to avoiding paying this option, which will also improve the Mets won-loss record: take Francisco Rodriguez out of the traditional closer role and make him a relief ace.

The idea behind using your best relief pitcher (the relief ace) in the most crucial point in a game, rather than only in the 9th inning with a lead, seems like a simple idea. Who should be brought into a tie game in the 7th inning with the bases loaded? Guillermo Mota or Billy Wagner? Unfortunately, the "closer only pitches the 9th" model is used by most teams, including the Mets.

The concept is hardly groundbreaking, with Bill James a famous proponent. Why hasn't it caught on with most teams? I think part of it is the mythologizing of the closer role. Many closers are actually failed or converted starting pitchers (or, in the case of Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon, a starter who was never really given a chance). They're generally overvalued by the average baseball fan, leading to Hall of Fame induction for the likes of Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter, while Bert Blyleven is left out. This past Sunday night, Jon Miller of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball said this towards the end of the Braves-Phillies game:

There's something about those final outs - they're just tougher to get.

This may be true. I can't definitively say it isn't. However, according to everything I've read and experienced while playing the game, an effective closer is not much different from an effective relief pitcher. This is to say that if a relief pitcher can consistently get people out in the 7th inning, he will probably be able to do it in the 9th inning. Does Heath Bell possess some sort of inner toughness, perhaps from all of his Wii playing, that most pitchers lack? I doubt it. He's just a good pitcher who throws hard and racks up strikeouts. Nevermind the inning.

This takes us back to Frankie. I feel confident in saying he will be the Mets' best or 2nd best relief pitcher over the next 2 seasons. He has strikeout ability and is effective against both lefthanded and righthanded batters. Therefore I would recommend using him as a relief ace. Not only would this improve the Mets W-L record, but an added benefit would be a decreased chance of him meeting his option requirements. Taken out of his current closer role, it would be tough to meet the games finished requirements. This isn't to say he would never finish ballgames or be brought into save situations, but 110 games finished over the next 2 years would not seem likely. The Mets could put that extra $14 million towards a position player or starting pitcher.

Frankie and his agent almost certainly would not be pleased. Closers make more money and hold a certain level of prestige. If actually implemented, I could see point-to-the-sky Frankie become disgruntled Frankie rather quickly. It would probably take some sort of cajoling and convincing that relief aces are more valuable or cooler or something like that to keep him happy. Additionally, I don't think such a move would be illegal, as there is a reasonable justification for it that improves the team. This is not the Pirates allegedly sitting Freddy Sanchez so he doesn't meet his bonus based on plate appearances. It's not Charles Comiskey resting ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte so he doesn't meet the 30-win bonus threshold, as seen in the movie Eight Men Out.  It's using the best pitcher in the most important spot.

There are more issues here than I have outlined. Would Omar Minaya go along with this? How about Jerry Manuel? The answer is likely "no" to both questions, but after season's end it may not even be necessary to ask them what they think.