News came this weekend that the Mets and Francisco Rodriguez are close to a settlement over what remains of K-Rod's contract. The reported terms would be for K-Rod to give up part of his 2010 salary, with his 2011 deal remaining intact.
Needless to say, this sets up a fascinating conundrum for the Mets. Rodriguez has a 2012 option for $17.5 million that will vest if finishes 54 games next season. The question becomes, should Rodriguez escape the courts free of jail time: how do the Mets manage to utilize K-Rod without triggering that terrible option?
Fortunately for the Mets, a new management team will be in place, one that ideally will know how catastrophic paying Rodriguez that much money in 2012 would be. After all, this is a problem that calls for a long-term plan in advance. Think of it as the exact opposite of the "daily debate" approach taken with Jenrry Mejia this year.
And although the task sounds difficult given the current way closers are deployed around baseball, there are a number of options that could make sense for the Mets. Here's how I see them, in order of usefulness:
K-Rod as Rich Gossage/closer hybrid: Rodriguez has appeared in an average of 69 games from 2005-09), and Rich Gossage averaged 66 games per season. But that doesn't truly reflect the way both were deployed. Rodriguez, during those five seasons, also averaged more than 61 games finished per season -- for Gossage, that number is the far-smaller 45. And remember, the option vests based on games finished, not appearances.
Using Rodriguez as pure Gossage (multiple innings, every appearance possible) would blow way past K-Rod's usual innings total for the season and deploy the Option of Doom. Simply using K-Rod to finish games as often as Gossage did, but always with multiple innings in the process, could be exactly what optimizes him for the 2011 Mets. And every multi-inning appearance that doesn't extend to the game's final out is pure profit for the Mets.
Consider that both the "K-Rod needs to pitch every day" and "K-Rod can't go multiple innings" ideas that have propagated among the fans and some media members are simply not supported by the numbers.
For his career, Rodriguez has an ERA of 2.47 on zero days' rest, which is impressive. His ERA with one day of rest? 2.31. Two days'? 2.69. Three days'? 1.26. Now, it goes up at four days' (3.91) and five days' (4.24), but keep in mind, he's pitched just 50 2/3 innings with four days' rest and 23 1/3 innings with five days' rest, so that is an awfully small sample size compared to 0-3 days (156 2/3, 136 1/3, 107 and 85 2/3).
Regardless, even working every game on three days' rest, he'd come in below that 54-games-finished trigger.
As for the idea that Rodriguez can't pitch multiple innings, the evidence suggests otherwise. For his career, K-Rod has allowed an OPS of .585 in pitches 1-25. That numbers balloons all the way to .636 in pitches 26-50. Hardly ineffective. If Rodriguez is properly stretched out, that number could shrink further.
In his four best full seasons, Gossage finished 55, 55, 58 and 51 games. Putting Rodriguez on track to do the same thing, around 50 times, seems entirely doable.
The 1986 Mets, as you may remember, had not one, but two closers. Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco combined for 43 saves but split them almost evenly (22 for McDowell, 21 for Orosco). Yes, McDowell was a righty and Orosco was a lefty, but neither one's usage was that of a specialist, with only nine of Orosco's 58 appearances lasting less than an inning, and 21 of the 58 lasted at least two innings.
And with multiple pitchers available to save games, Orosco's games-finished total in 1986 was just 40, McDowell's just 52. Both came in under the magic Option of Doom number of 54.
In other words, combining K-Rod with a second closer doesn't require a lefty to correspond with Rodriguez's right-handedness. So either Bobby Parnell or Hisanori Takahashi will do the job just fine. Better still, rotating Takahashi, Parnell and Rodriguez will make it even easier to keep K-Rod's total games finished under 55.
Even if signing Takahashi costs a few million dollars, there's little reason to believe he is incapable of saving games or that he'll be ineffective. So for the price of a valuable relief pitcher in 2011, the Mets could save themselves $14 million (the option has a $3 million buyout) in 2012. Sure looks like a smart investment.
K-Rod as Mariano Rivera (1996 edition): This one is fairly straightforward. K-Rod would be the Mets' eighth-inning guy. Now, I am not a big believer in defined roles for relievers. But many managers are, and if the next one for the Mets is one of them, he'll have the best eighth-inning guy in baseball and eliminate the possibility of the 2012 option vesting.
For reference, 1996 Rivera managed to often pitch multiple innings, a la Gossage, and appeared in 61 games. But he finished just 14. Given K-Rod's adoration for Rivera, perhaps you could even sell him on the role by pointing to his idol's 1996 season. (Probably not, but if he balks at the idea, he can always walk away from the team, saving the Mets both the $14 million in 2012 as well as his $11.5 million 2011 salary.)
For the record, Rivera proved so valuable in 1996 without managing to pile up the saves total that he finished third in the Cy Young voting, 12th in MVP voting. So it isn't as if K-Rod couldn't leverage a dominant season in that role into big money for 2012. It just wouldn't be $14 million of the Mets' money.
Use K-Rod in each of the first 53 games, then station his father-in-law, Brian Bruney and Andy Dick in front of his locker: This one is pretty self-explanatory.