Mets hopeful fortified 'pen will be a strength
Francisco, Rauch and Ramirez to boost 28th-ranked bullpen
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Omar Minaya acquired three relievers at the 2008 Winter Meetings to fortify the back end of his bullpen, a void closed in Flushing. The new closer, Francisco Rodriguez, was fresh off setting the all-time saves record. Setup man J.J. Putz had been a successful closer in his own right. Right-handed specialist Sean Green seemed like a hidden gem.
That the troika ultimately stumbled served as a cautionary tale of bullpen volatility. Though Rodriguez was generally effective over 2 1/2 seasons with the Mets -- his issues were off the field -- both Putz and Green suffered significant injuries and proved ineffective when healthy. The bullpen became a weakness, not a strength, and has remained so ever since.
So consider New York's three newest bullpen acquisitions through that prism of skepticism before acknowledging their merits: Frank Francisco's control has made him one of the league's most consistent relievers over the past three seasons; Jon Rauch's height gives him a natural advantage over hitters; and Ramon Ramirez's slider is one of baseball's best pitches.
Those three do not come to Flushing with the hype or pedigree of Rodriguez, Putz and Green.
Given the inherent volatility of even the priciest bullpen arms, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
"I don't think you can expect to be right in every instance," said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, Minaya's successor. "My own philosophy is you have to have as much depth as possible, provide as many options as possible, recognize that there's a certain amount of inefficiency."
From the dawn of last offseason, Alderson made it clear that this winter would be spent scouring the free-agent and trade markets for relief help. The Mets ranked 28th in bullpen ERA a year ago, their 4.33 mark nearly a run and a half worse than the league-leading Braves. They converted fewer than two-thirds of their save opportunities.
So, much as Minaya did three years earlier, Alderson acquired his bullpen fixes in bulk. Over the span of two hours during one Winter Meetings night in Dallas, the Mets signed free agents Francisco and Rauch and traded for Ramirez, in a deal that also saw the Mets and Giants swap center fielders. The total hit to the 2012 payroll was just north of $12 million.
"I just know that when we started looking at the makeup of this lineup coming in here, we kind of liked what we were looking at," manager Terry Collins said. "So it just so happened that we went out and spent where we thought we needed the most help, and that was in the bullpen. So we went and we got three guys that we think are going to make a huge difference down there."
The most expensive acquisition was Francisco, a 250-pound right-hander with 49 career saves, including 17 last season. Francisco's most promising trait is his ability to pitch in control without sacrificing power. As evidence, he has walked 51 batters and struck out 170 over the past three seasons, a span of 152 2/3 innings.
Only seven Major League pitchers with at least 100 innings during that span boast a higher strikeout and lower walk rate. Three of them -- Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria -- are current or former All-Star closers. The other four -- Sergio Romo, Rafael Betancourt, Joaquin Benoit and Matt Thornton -- rank among the league's best setup men.
"I like the challenge, the competition," Francisco said of his role. "It's more exciting. I haven't pitched a lot in the ninth inning as a closer. But that energy that you feel in the ninth inning as closer, for me, that's the best feeling."
Also boasting closing experience is Rauch, a 6-foot-11 right-hander who teamed with Francisco at the back of Toronto's bullpen last season. Battling through injuries, Rauch posted a 4.85 ERA in 52 innings before undergoing surgery to repair cartilage damage in his right knee.
Now, Rauch is healthy. And eager.
"I just want to get back to where I was years ago in being consistent and doing the job I was asked to do," Rauch said. "If that happens to be in the sixth inning, if it happens to be in the eighth inning, I don't care. My job is to go out there and get outs and keep us in the ballgame."
As it stands heading into Spring Training, Rauch should take care of the eighth inning while Ramirez assumes the seventh. A modest disappointment during his final half-season with the Red Sox in 2010, Ramirez transformed into one of the game's best relievers after a trade to San Francisco. His 2.07 ERA since that time ranks sixth among Major League pitchers with at least 90 innings.
"San Francisco gave me the opportunity to pitch," Ramirez said. "If you don't pitch, how can you show them what you can do?"
In New York, at least, he should not have that concern. That's the whole idea. By slotting Francisco, Rauch and Ramirez at the back of their bullpen, the Mets will be free to push Bobby Parnell, Pedro Beato and others into more comfortable roles -- be that in the middle innings, as long men or in the Minor Leagues.
As it currently stands, Francisco, Rauch and Ramirez are among the five Mets relievers with guaranteed jobs, alongside lefty specialist Tim Byrdak and right-hander Manny Acosta. The final two spots are up for grabs, with nearly a dozen legitimate candidates to fill them.
Already then, the Mets' three new acquisitions have helped, giving them enough depth to turn a glaring weakness into a potential strength.
"At times last year, we ended up trying to go an extra third or two-thirds [of an] inning with our starters," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "We don't have to do that anymore."