My friend Matthew Artus over at the Always Amazin’ New York Mets Fan Blog on NJ.com wrote a piece entitled “Billy Wagner in Hindsight.” His point was that of all the different ways the Wagner scenario could have played out for the Mets, the actual transaction that did occur might have been the worst. It is a good piece because even though I do not agree with its conclusion, it did make me think about the different ways things could have worked out. Let’s go through those one by one.
Mets pick up his 2010 option
The contract Wagner signed with the Mets after the 2005 season called for an $8 million club option for 2010. The Mets gave no indication of ever wanting to exercise this once he got hurt. And after last year’s experience of paying J.J. Putz $5 million (plus a $1 million buyout of his 2010 contract), it is highly unlikely they would have repeated the process of paying closer money for a setup guy.
Mets buy out 2010 but offer arbitration and Wagner accepts
Frequently, a contract will include a clause that states if a club buys out the option that it loses the right to offer arbitration. However, Cot’s did not indicate that Wagner’s contract had this provision. The Mets would have gone this route if they thought that an arbitrator would have awarded Wagner a salary less than $8 million. I think it is highly questionable that an arbitrator would have done this. Even more unlikely is that the Mets would have pursued this option. The club usually bends over backwards to avoid arbitration with its players. Between David Cone in 1992 and Oliver Perez in 2008, the Mets did not have one single arbitration case.
Mets offer arbitration and Wagner declines
After the trade to the Red Sox, Wagner worked out a deal with Boston where he would decline. Perhaps it could have worked out this way with the Mets, too. But would the Braves have been willing to sign him if they knew it would mean draft picks going to the Mets? I think it is at least a little questionable, but let’s assume they would have. This means the Mets would have gotten two picks, the Braves’ first-round pick plus a supplemental pick.
This would have been the best-case scenario for the Mets. But there’s no guarantee that those picks would have signed, much less panned out. And even if they did sign, it just makes it that much less likely the Mets would have spent money on signability picks, who frequently end up costing less than first-rounders/supplemental picks and have nearly as good track records.
Mets do not offer Wagner arbitration
This was probably the most-likely scenario. The club did not offer arbitration to any of its free agents this offseason, a list that included Carlos Delgado, Fernando Tatis, Gary Sheffield, Putz, Elmer Dessens and Ramon Martinez. Much like the Dodgers, the Mets decided they did not want to risk any of their free agents accepting arbitration. The Mets brought back Alex Cora before the deadline to offer arbitration and eventually re-signed Tatis as well as Dessens, who got a minor league deal. And if Wagner got a $7 million contract when draft pick compensation was in play, he probably would have received more money if there were no such strings attached.
Mets trade Wagner
Of course, this is what did end up happening. The Mets received Chris Carter and Eddie Lora but the big prize was receiving roughly $3.5 million of salary relief, which was the remainder of what Wagner was owed for 2009 plus the $1 million buyout. So they saved some money and got a guy in Carter who will make things better for their Triple-A affiliate. The Mets can’t allow Buffalo to have another dismal season or else they run the risk of having to field another team in the PCL, as their contract with Buffalo is up after this year.
Bottom line is that the Mets got something for Wagner, which was more than the next-most-likely outcome, which had him leave as a free agent with no compensation. To me, the least likely scenario was Wagner returning to the Mets. The team is committed to Francisco Rodriguez as its closer and Wagner was not going to be happy for a full season in a setup role. On a team with too much negativity already, the last thing they needed was a player who is not shy about talking to the media (and there has never been a shortage of Wagner quotes in the paper) having an axe to grind.
Yes, it would have been nice if they put the money they saved with the Wagner trade toward something better than a collection of backups. But that was a predictable outcome after the mainstream media spent most of the 2009 season unfairly criticizing Omar Minaya for not assembling a better bench. Remember that it is not Minaya’s fault that the players who were supposed to be on the bench ended up playing regularly due to all of the injuries.
So, I do not feel bad about how Wagner’s career with the Mets ended. The day they signed Rodriguez essentially ended his tenure in New York. I certainly wish he never would have gotten hurt. Not only would there have been a different outcome in 2008 but his injury signaled the start of the bad luck that culminated with double digit players on the disabled list last year. And if the Mets had not spent money on Rodriguez, possibly they would have been players for one of the elite SP or bats that were available last year in free agency.