Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Setting up Wagner to fail?

This could be a common pose for Billy Wagner as he adapts to setting up for the first time in 13 years. Photo from this site. 

Theo Epstein’s great chemistry experiment continued Tuesday, when the longest trade talks in the history of the game came to a conclusion with the Red Sox acquiring Billy Wagner from the Mets for two players to be named later.

That the Sox went ahead and completed the trade for Wagner even though Jonathan Papelbon originally thought it was a lousy idea was no surprise. Any doubt that the Sox don’t care what Papelbon says because he won’t be in Boston beyond 2011 should have disappeared yesterday, when Epstein and Terry Francona—two men who are almost always cautious with their words and complimentary of their players—basically called their closer an idiot, and not in the endearing Johnny Damon way.

Epstein said Papelbon’s comments about Wagner were misunderstood (a phrase echoed, not surprisingly, by Papelbon) and that Papelbon is “…not a Rhodes Scholar to begin with.”

Said Francona about Papelbon: “Not too much filter there.”

Must give some credit here to Bruce Allen, who wondered way back in April if Papelbon’s loose lips made him a bad fit for a team with an increasingly corporate demeanor. Daniel Bard’s struggles over the last few weeks probably assure Papelbon of remaining with the Sox next year, but I’d be surprised if the Sox don’t move him before his walk year in 2011.

One thing is certain: Barring a serious injury this season to Papelbon, his successor at closer won’t be Wagner, who is 38 and desperate to close for someone in 2010. The Sox are not expected to pick up Wagner’s $8 million option for next season, though I’d wager good money on feelings being bruised when the Sox insist on offering Wagner arbitration and therefore making teams reluctant to relinquish draft picks in signing Wagner, who will likely cost his new team two picks as a Type A free agent.

The Sox, of course, care as much about Wagner’s feelings come November as they do Papelbon’s feelings right now. This is about winning it all and adding some valuable and hard-throwing depth to an already solid bullpen. And I imagine the Sox already see this move as a success because it keeps Wagner away from potential playoff foes.

Which is good, because it’s hard to envision him contributing much more than that. Wagner is less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, made just two appearances with the Mets before he was dealt and won’t be able to throw on consecutive days.

The biggest problem isn’t how Wagner will be accepted in the locker room but how he’ll accept his new role. Wagner, who ranks sixth all-time in saves with 385, has been a closer since 1997 and said Monday he didn’t expect to drop his no-trade protection and go to Boston because he was “…too old to set up.” Both parties, of course, are in full spin control mode now that Wagner is in Boston to not serve as a closer.

Wagner’s agent, the awesomely named Bean Stringfellow, said Wagner changed his mind about the trade because of his “competitive nature” and the chance to compete for a championship. And Terry Francona said Wagner won’t have Eric Gagne-like issues in the transition because he’s a situational lefty, not a set-up man. Well, unless that situation is getting the last out of the ninth inning, he’s still a set-up man.

In addition, Wagner doesn’t exactly possess a Papelbon-like playoff resume: He has an 8.71 ERA in 11 postseason games, including an 0-1 mark with a 16.88 ERA in the Mets’ seven-game loss to the Cardinals in the 2006 NLCS. He was so ineffective in that series—particularly in a non-save situation in Game Six, when he entered the ninth with a six-run lead a four-run lead and gave up two runs and allowed the tying run to reach the plate before he finally escaped the jam—that Willie Randolph gave the ball to Aaron Heilman, the human gas can, in a tie game in the top of the ninth of Game Seven instead of Wagner. Not quite the history you want out of a guy who will be setting…err, serving as a situational reliever in the playoffs, is it?

The Sox are banking their World Series hopes on a whole lot of people transitioning on the fly. Fitting five players into four spots (catcher, first base, third base and designated hitter) is working pretty well thus far, and Epstein’s long-term track record earns him the benefit of the doubt. But I still can’t shake the feeling that acquiring Wagner is the equivalent of hitting one too many times in a game of blackjack, and that he’ll be left to wonder this fall if Wagner would have done a lot more to help the Sox in somebody else’s uniform.

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