The hoopla of a massive three-way trade that had enlivened the winter meetings just hours before their conclusion was just dying down when the Mariners' new general manager, Jack Zduriencik, looked at an old acquaintance and grinned. "How about that for a first trade?" he said. "This one might be hard to top."
Zduriencik might make better trades as a GM, and he might make worse, but he may go an awfully long time before he helps engineer another 12-player extravaganza like the one he pulled off with the Mets and Indians late Wednesday night to end the third day of the winter meetings. When it was over, the Mets had strengthened a bullpen whose collapse had played a large part in their finishing one game behind the Phillies in 2008 for the second straight season in the race for the National League East title. The Mariners, coming off last season's 101-loss debacle, increased the depth of their roster significantly, and the Indians added a reliever with promise.
The Mets sent right-hander Aaron Heilman, outfielder Endy Chavez, left-hander Jason Vargas, and three minor leaguers (right-hander Maikel Cleto, first baseman Mike Carp and outfielder Ezequiel Carrera) to the Mariners. The Mariners returned right-handed relievers J.J. Putz and Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed to the Mets. The Indians then sent outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners for Mets right-handed reliever Joe Smith and Mariners second baseman Luis Valbuena.
The Mets will feel the most immediate impact after also officially signing record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez to a three-year, $37 million contract as a free agent earlier on Wednesday. Putz, who was the Mariners' closer, will replace Heilman as Rodriguez's primary set-up man, and Green will pitch in the middle innings. The Mets finished one game behind the Phillies in the NL East in both 2007 and '08, with the bullpen taking the brunt of the blame. The Mets were 13th in the NL with a 4.27 reliever ERA last season, as they lost closer Billy Wagner to Tommy John elbow surgery for the final two months. Wagner is expected to miss all of 2009 as well.
Rodriguez will step into Wagner's role after setting a major league record with 62 saves last season for the Angels, while finishing third in the major leagues in WXRL with a 5.635 mark behind the Phillies' Brad Lidge (7.609) and the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (6.174). Putz had a -0.528 WXRL in 2008 while bothered by ribcage and elbow injuries, but he led the majors with 7.419 in 2007. Green's WXRL was 1.020 last season.
"It's about winning championships," Mets GM Omar Minaya said. "To win a ring, you've got to sacrifice yourself. If you look at the teams that win championships, they have closers and set-up guys. A lot of times the set-up guys are good enough to be the closers. All I keep hearing in the streets of New York when you go to get the bagels in the morning is to please address the bullpen. Well, we've addressed the bullpen. I cannot think of a better reliever we'd be able to sign than Francisco Rodriguez,. The stats speak for themselves, not only the record in saves but the consistency that he has shown, his drive and his youth. We're excited to have K-Rod join the New York Mets."
There had been much talk about Rodriguez's fastball slipping in recent years; his heater averaged just 91.7 mph last season (at least according to FanGraphs). However, Minaya said he is not worried that Rodriguez might be losing arm strength at the tender age of 26. "His fastball is not the same fastball that it was when he came up in 2002, but by the same token, his changeup, according to some of the hitters we talked to, was as good as any changeup in the game," Minaya said. "I think, like anything else, he's found a way to make adjustments because the league adjusted to him. He's smart enough to make adjustments, and he has different weapons with which to get you out."
The Mariners got a top-flight defensive centerfielder in Gutierrez, which will enable new manager Don Wakamatsu to leave Ichiro Suzuki in rightfield. Gutierrez, 25, had 15 FRAA last season while primarily playing rightfield for the Indians, helping to offset a sub-par .255 EqA. "We think this guy can play centerfield exceptionally well," Zduriencik said. "We think he's one of the better defensive outfielders in the major leagues. He's still young and there's upside to him. We look forward to watching this kid play every day in centerfield in a big ballpark like Safeco Field, where he's really going to have a chance to showcase his skills."
Heilman had a team-worst -0.350 WXRL last season for the Mets, and has said repeatedly that he wanted to be traded to a team that would let him start, but Zduriencik said it is too early in the offseason to determine what his role will be in 2009. Likewise, Zduriencik wasn't ready to commit to right-hander Brandon Morrow as Putz's replacement as closer.
The Indians are hopeful that Smith will be part of a bullpen bridge between the starters and newly signed closer Kerry Wood. Smith, 24, had a 1.745 WXRL last season, just two years after being taken in the third round of the first-year player draft from Wright State. "He's had an extremely fast path to the major leagues," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. "To get there as quickly as he did and pitch in that kind of environment, he has a good heartbeat. He'll give us a different look [as a side-arm pitcher] and complement our guys well. I think he'll continue to improve and develop."
After only two trades were made during the first two days of the winter meetings, there were two others consummated on Wednesday in addition to the Mets-Mariners-Indians mega-deal. The Tigers acquired right-handed starter Edwin Jackson from the Rays for outfielder Matt Joyce, and the Pirates sent Ronny Paulino to the Phillies for minor leaguer Jason Jaramillo in a swap of catchers.
Jackson, who threw 183 1/3 innings, allowing 199 hits and 77 walks with 108 strikeouts last season, will help shore up a Tigers' rotation that finished 11th in the American League with a 5.03 ERA. Jackson is likely to be the Tigers' fourth starter behind Justin Verlander, Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman, leaving Dontrelle Willis, Zach Miner and Nate Robertson to battle for the last spot in the rotation during spring training. "Edwin is only 25 years old, and we're hopeful he can grow with his consistency," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. "Adding him makes me feel a lot better about our starting pitching."
The Rays were looking for a rightfielder after their surprise march to the AL pennant, and they believe that Joyce, 24, could fill the role after hitting .252/.339/.492 with a .282 EqA in 277 plate appearances as a rookie last season. The Rays will continue to look to add right-field/designated hitter types, and holdovers Gabe Gross and Fernando Perez will be in that mix. "It's not clear yet how it's going to play out," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "Matt provides depth for us. We always have to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future. So while we expect this trade to impact us in 2009, we think it will also pay dividends for us down the road."
Rookie left-hander David Price figures to fill Jackson's spot in the rotation next season, though Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot will also get a chance to make a case in spring training.
Meanwhile, Paulino will battle incumbent Chris Coste for the backup job with the Phillies behind Carlos Ruiz, and Jaramillo will compete with fellow rookie Robinson Diaz to back up Ryan Doumit with the Pirates. Paulino, 27, lost his starting job to Doumit in spring training last season, hitting just .212/.277/.305 with a .212 EqA in 130 plate appearances, and then posted a translated .279 EqA in 112 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis. Jaramillo, 26, hit .245/.316/.346 in 425 at-bats with Triple-A Lehigh Valley with a .234 translated EqA.