The Boston Red Sox have obtained the services of left-handed reliever Billy Wagner from the New York Mets in exchange for two players to be named later.
Wagner has pitched in the majors since 1995 with the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets. He has saved 385 career games and has saved 30 or more games in a season eight times. Wagner saved 27 games with the Mets in 2008 before an elbow injury last September ended his season and forced him to have Tommy John surgery. He became expendable when the Mets signed free agent Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez to a three-year contract in the offseason.
The 38-year-old southpaw was expected to miss the entire 2009 season but he recovered far faster than anyone anticipated and he did appear in two games for the Mets earlier this month before today's trade.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon is less than enthusiastic about the addition of Wagner:
What has he done? Has he pitched this year? Is he ready to pitch or is he not? I think our bullpen is good where we're at right now. Don't get me wrong. But I guess you could always make it better. It's kind of like the [Eric] Gagne thing, I guess.
Papelbon is, of course, referring to the trade deadline deal that brought Eric Gagne to the Red Sox from the Texas Rangers during the 2007 season. Earlier this decade, Gagne was the best relief pitcher in MLB. He saved 84 consecutive games between 2002 and 2004 and won the NL Cy Young Award in 2003. However, Gagne was plagued by injuries in 2005 and 2006 and the Dodgers eventually released him. He started the 2007 season with the Rangers and appeared to be regaining his old form having saved 16 games for Texas at the time of the trade.
But Gagne had never pitched in a set up role and he was a complete bust. He gave up 14 runs in 18 and two thirds innings pitched and blew the only three save opportunities he was given. Gagne didn't stop the Red Sox from winning the 2007 World Series but his stint in Boston was mercifully shortlived. After a poor season in 2008 with the Milwaukee Brewers, Gagne is now pitching with the Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League.
Now I'm not saying Wagner is necessarily on the road to pitching in Quebec City. Wagner is expected to pitch as a left-handed set up man to compliment Hideki Okajima, the Sox only other lefty reliever. Yet Wagner, like Gagne, is untested as a set up man and might not be suited to it.
Yet I can't help but think that Papelbon is objecting because he's worried the Red Sox might have plans to replace him with Wagner in the closer's role. On the surface that would appear absurd. Paps is healthy while Wagner is just coming off Tommy John surgery. Papelbon is also almost a decade younger than Wagner. Although Papelbon's 29 saves is tied for 4th in the AL (along with former teammate David Aardsma of the Seattle Mariners) he has struggled at times this season. Red Sox fans are accustomed to Papelbon having a one-two-three inning and that hasn't happened a lot in 2009. He's lost a little off his fastball and is learning he can't rely on the strikeout all the time.
Above all else, Papelbon's contract expires at the end of the season. Perhaps he is worried the Sox will not make a great effort to re-sign him and will instead offer arbitration to Wagner for considerably less. Again that assumes Wagner pitches with any kind of effectiveness. But even if Wagner is fabulous in August and September, I think the Red Sox would be crazy to let a 28-year-old closer walk in order to keep a 38-year-old closer who might have one or two good seasons left. On the other hand, perhaps the Red Sox have acquired Wagner in part to light a fire under Papelbon during the stretch drive. If that was one of Theo Epstein's motivations in getting Wagner it's working.