Billy Wagner's elbow has given the Mets pause to ponder their course for the rest of their stay at Shea, and their first season on the other side of the parking lot. Wagner is one of those rare Mets who's been unafraid to call out teammates, or even himself, for their shortcomings. Even on those nights when he sucked on the mound, Wags wouldn't hide. He'd face the cameras and microphones and say, "I sucked out there, and that's unacceptable". Because of that, you want to root for him to come back from his surgery and close the door for the Mets in 2010. But what if he can't?
The Mets' front office can go in several different directions this off-season. They could stick with what they've got, and hope Luis Ayala is the answer over a full season. Don't get me wrong. Ayala has done well as a stopgap closer since coming over from the Nationals, earning seven saves while blowing only one. Ayala is who we've got, and he's who we're currently succeeding with. But mapping next year's success deliberately with a bullpen plan like this doesn't make good baseball sense. Not when there are better options available.
They could go after a high-priced closer like K-Rod, which would mean Wagner has pitched his last game as a Met. As much as I like Wagner's grit, this is probably the most prudent course of action. Otherwise, you're counting on a complete recovery from a very tricky surgical procedure. You're also counting on making a new contract offer to a player who will not have pitched in a major league game in seventeen months.
The Mets could try this option, though. If the Mets want to welcome Wagner back when he's ready, they need to find a player who's had unquestioned success as a closer, but who has just enough left in his career to bridge the gap to 2010. Someone who'll be a free agent at the end of the year. Preferably, someone who's had experience winning in the postseason. Someone with, say, a career 3-1 K/BB ratio. Someone who might have something to prove to the team who currently employs him, who have intimated they might not want him back next season. Someone who might relish the opportunity to pitch against that team 18 times a year. Someone who's said recently, "If I'm going to bust my butt and if I feel like I'm good enough and it doesn't work out here, I will be pitching somewhere else." While we're fantasizing, how about making this mythical beast an odds-on bet for the Hall of Fame? If only such a person existed.
Well, he does, and his name is John Smoltz.
Before you light the torches and sharpen your pitchforks, hear me out. Yes, Smoltz is a hated Brave. So was Tom Gl@v!n#, but let's be honest. Though we never really warmed up to that former Brave, nor he to us, we didn't really hate him until the last game of his Mets career.
Yes, Smoltz is recovering from the second major surgery in his career, and won't be able to pitch off a mound until next January. But all he's done since his first major surgery, in 2000 (ironically the same procedure Wagner's undergoing this week), is save 154 games in 168 opportunities and go 47-26 as a starter with a 3.05 ERA. Those are better numbers than his pre-Tommy John surgery stats.
Yes, Smoltz is 41 years old. But age has never stood in Omar Minaya's way for a player he thinks can contribute to his team, and Smoltz's effectiveness has not yet begun to tail off with age. A note of full disclosure - one of the reasons I've let this thought rattle around my brain for so long is because I've met John Smoltz, and I liked him. In early March of 2000, I ran into Smoltz at a concession stand at an Orlando Solar Bears hockey game. The Braves' spring training camp at Lake Buena Vista is a short drive from downtown Orlando, and Smoltz is a hockey fan, I guess. I was as gracious as a Mets fan could be when meeting an Atlanta Brave; I told him I admired his success, and wished him well in recovering from the injury he'd just suffered. He thanked me for not booing him, like he said he was used to Mets fans doing for so many years.
I'm not saying John Smoltz in a Mets uniform is the best option while we wait for Billy to heal. I'm just saying it's an option the Mets should examine.