If Billy Wagner didn’t want to win a championship, Tuesday’s trade to the Red Sox never would have happened.
In the end, the left-handed reliever held all the power in the trade that sent him – after the Red Sox claimed him on waivers on Friday – from the New York Mets to Boston, just moments before Tuesday’s 1:30 p.m. deadline to complete a deal. Wagner possessed a no-trade clause that gave him the ability to blow up the agreement between the Mets and Sox, and would have been entirely within his rights to do so.
A no-trade clause can often serve as a form of extortion against a club that wants to acquire a player. The teams have little leverage aside from the threat of walking away from a deal that would net a player whom they want. The players can attach all kinds of conditions to a decision to forgo their right to veto a deal.
In the past, players have used their no-trade clauses to demand contract extensions from the teams that acquired them. In other cases, players have secured millions in guaranteed income or new bonus clauses in order to waive their right to refuse a trade.
Wagner, who is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, did not ask for any of these sweeteners. He sought only two things, both related to the fact that he wants to resume life as a closer next year.
First, he wanted a guarantee that the Sox would not exercise his $8 million option for the 2010 season. That request was fairly easy for the Red Sox to grant, since he’d be a rather pricey luxury item as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon for next season. (Indeed, some in the industry anticipate that Wagner is unlikely to receive a guaranteed salary of $8 million next year.)
Secondly, in an effort to be a no-strings-attached free agent after the season, able to pursue the best closing job available, he wanted a guarantee that the Sox would not offer him salary arbitration. That request was guided by the contract experiences of players such as Jason Varitek, who was a Type A free agent after last season, a classification into which Wagner is very likely to fall following the 2009 campaign.
An offer of arbitration to such a player can be extremely valuable for the club. Should a Type A player depart – and given Wagner’s desire to close, he would appear extremely likely to do so after this year – the team he leaves is compensated with a pair of draft picks. For a Sox team whose success is predicated primarily on scouting and player development, such a payoff seems huge.
But as Varitek’s foray into free agency last winter demonstrated, such an offer can be devastating to the market for a player’s services. Once it became clear that pursuing Varitek would require teams to part with a top draft pick, they steered completely clear of the catcher.
Wagner wanted to ensure that the market for his services would not be crushed by similar factors. And so, he wanted to secure a commitment from the Sox that they wouldn’t offer him arbitration.
The Sox declined to make such a concession. If Wagner wanted to, he could have made that unwillingness a deal-breaker. Indeed, for a time, it was reported that he was ready to do just that. But, in the end, as the moments ticked towards yesterday’s deadline, Wagner decided that his status as a free-agent was not the be-all, end-all.
Instead, he concluded -- in part, thanks to direct conversations with the Sox during a limited MLB-sanctioned window for the player and team to talk directly -- that there was opportunity in Boston that did not exist in New York. Ultimately, the opportunity to go from a Mets club that is 16.5 games out in the National League East and 15 games back in the wild card to a Red Sox team that leads the wild card standings in the A.L. proved too alluring to ignore.
“He had his full no-trade clause, so he had a decision to make, whether he wanted to stay in New York with the Mets or join the Red Sox. Ultimately in the end, he woke up and decided that he wanted to join a team that was in the middle of a pennant race and had a chance to pitch into October and had a chance to get a ring, which he’s never done,” said Sox G.M. Theo Epstein. “I can’t speak for the different ups and downs, the different turns the decision took for him, but in the end, he told us, he woke up today and he really wanted a chance to win a World Series. He’s coming here for all the right reasons.”
The Sox executed a written agreement with Wagner, guaranteeing that they will decline the $8 million option and instead exercise the $1 million buy-out. And with that, Wagner was Boston bound, with the Sox sending a pair of players to be named (one of whom, according to the Boston Herald, will be first baseman/outfielder Chris Carter), no other strings attached.
The 38-year-old will have his opportunity to get back to the postseason. Apparently, that was worth more than money.
Here are four additional lessons learned in the wake of a deal that continued the Sox’ efforts to fortify for the last six weeks of the season.
HE WILL NOT BE CALLED WORKADAY WAGNER
The Sox are not pretending that Wagner is something that he is not.
The initial signs for Wagner have been extremely encouraging. Eleven months removed, he’s delivered a pair of shutout innings for the Mets.
Typically a pitcher who would light up radar guns in the high-90s and even the triple-digits, with a wipeout slider to match, Wagner’s velocity registered at 95 and 96 mph in his two big-league appearances for the Mets. The Sox recognize that something is in the tank. They also recognize that, if they want to take advantage of that fact, they cannot drive Wagner into the ground.
“We’re excited. I think we have to recognize that he’s (11) months post-Tommy John surgery. He’s had two major-league innings, I think five rehab innings. This is not a guy we will lean on,” said Sox manager Terry Francona. “We’re going to use some very good judgment in how we use him. Saying that, we’re five days removed from September, which makes that a lot easier to do. I think he’s a great addition to our bullpen. We will be very prudent, use a lot of commonsense and have a lot of communication with him.”
For all practical purposes, Wagner will replace Enrique Gonzalez in the bullpen. He was not brought in to displace any of the current primary relievers. His usage will be carefully regulated as he continues to work into shape, just 11 months after Tommy John surgery.
The team has no intention of using him on back-to-back days. He will not be asked to get up to warm several times before entering games. He will remain under fairly strict pitch limits and the team – which has, arguably, the best shoulder program in the majors under the oversight of assistant trainer Mike Reinold – will seek the pitcher’s frequent input to determine his availability.
Because Wagner remains at a relatively early stage in his return from surgery – he made five minor-league rehab appearances, taking anywhere from one to four days of rest between outings – his role is expected to be modest. With the Mets, his usage was going to be completely controlled, kept on a schedule of middle-innings appearances.
He wasn’t in a position to close in New York, and, obviously, won’t be asked to do so in Boston. As such, because his expectations at this stage of his rehab are relatively modest, the Sox are hopeful that Wagner will not face the same transitional difficulties that Eric Gagne experienced in 2007, when he went from closing to an eighth-inning setup role.
“With Eric, we were trying to fill a spot that we needed filled,” said Francona. “Right now, our bullpen is pretty good. We’re looking to help our bullpen. We don’t need to give Wagner the ball in the eighth and let him live or die out there. We’re just trying to supplement our bullpen, which I think he does very well.”
WHAT WAGNER DOES IN 2009 MIGHT NOT BE AS VALUABLE AS WHAT HIS DEPARTURE COULD MEAN
The idea of getting draft-pick compensation by offering salary arbitration to a potential free agent is not a foolproof strategy. A few recent examples in Sox history illustrate the point.
In 2007, when they traded for Gagne, the Sox anticipated that the pitcher would net them a pair of draft picks as a Type A free agent. He flopped, and fell into Type B status, good for one draft pick.
In 2005, the Sox traded for Tony Graffanino and offered him salary arbitration after the year. The market for the second baseman’s services was completely chilled, and so, left without any offers from other clubs (who were reluctant to part with a draft pick), he accepted the arbitration offer and re-signed with a Sox team that didn’t have a roster spot for him. (The Sox were immensely relieved when Graffanino was claimed on waivers by the Royals in spring training of 2006.)
In 2008, the Sox acquired Paul Byrd from the Indians. The right-hander pitched his way into Type B status, and so the Sox offered him arbitration in hopes of getting a draft pick if he declined the offer and signed elsewhere. Instead, Byrd declined arbitration but elected not to sign with anyone, sitting out for most of the year until the Sox re-signed him earlier this month.
Clearly, then, the Sox can’t simply assume that Wagner will give the team’s amateur scouting department a couple of additional picks to play with. Nonetheless, that potential exists. And if the Sox do net a pair of draft picks from the deal, then the payoff could be immense.
The prospect cost for Wagner is expected to be relatively modest. Neither of the two players to be named going to the Mets are expected to be blue chippers. The financial cost is more significant, as the Sox are obligated to pay the remainder of Wagner’s 2009 salary of roughly $2.5 million, as well as the $1 million buyout – a hefty sum, to be sure, for a middle reliever who will be with the club for a quarter of the season.
But if Wagner turns into the next Jacoby Ellsbury or Jed Lowrie or Clay Buchholz or one of the many other players taken by the Sox as compensation draft picks, he will have given the Sox a chance to improve not only in 2009 but well beyond.
“I think the best deals all have present benefit and future benefit,” said Epstein. “But there’s no guaranteed future benefit here. There’s no guaranteed present benefit.
“When you add a reliever, any reliever, no matter how good in the middle of a season, it’s unknown what he’s going to add. We scouted him, we had a number of scouts at his outings and the reports were really positive. We think he’s going to help. There’s no guarantee of present benefit or future benefit, but there’s a chance for both.”
THE BUY-LOW STRATEGY HAD UPSIDE
The Red Sox’ winter strategy has become an easy target of criticism in recent weeks. John Smoltz, signed to a one-year, $5.5 million deal that included many reachable incentives, went 2-5 with an 8.32 ERA for the Sox before he was designated for assignment and ultimately released. Brad Penny (7-8, 5.61), signed to a one-year, $5 million deal, recently lost his spot in the starting rotation.
Neither move has worked out as hoped for the Sox. With the Yankees running away from the Sox – and indeed, the rest of the baseball world – after an offseason in which they guaranteed hundreds of millions of dollars to Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, Boston’s winter has come under plenty of scrutiny.
And yet because of their offseason short-term deals that featured relatively modest guaranteed salaries, the Sox retained the financial flexibility to address their needs mid-year. The incentive-laden structure of the deals to Smoltz and Penny also left the Sox in a position where, if the players did not perform up to expectations, the team’s financial commitments would be limited.
And so, the team was able to move on July 31 to acquire Victor Martinez to bolster the lineup. Then, on Tuesday, the team could use money that had been earmarked to pay incentives that could have been earned by Smoltz (who would have made roughly $2 million in roster bonuses had he remained with the Sox) and Penny (who appears likely to miss $500,000 bonuses for reaching the markers of 160, 170, 180 and 190 innings) to acquire Wagner.
“We had a number of players on incentive-laden deals and the thought was if they work out, great, then our money will be well spent and we won’t necessarily need that many midseason acquisitions,” said Epstein. “If they don’t work out, there will be some savings and we can redirect that money and in a couple of cases, that seems to have been the way it worked out.
“I should note that ownership deserves an awful lot of credit here. We had a couple of starting pitchers who were due to make a lot of money in performance bonuses and due to some developments in recent days, and recent weeks, it was clear there’s going to be a savings,” said Epstein. “So instead of just pocketing that money, we were allowed to look for ways to improve the club, improve our chances of getting to the postseason and winning a world series. This was a redirection of those funds.
“I think a lot of ownership groups would have just said, great, let’s come in under budget, let’s keep the money. This ownership group does whatever it takes to win. Redirecting those savings for someone like a Billy Wagner made a lot of sense.”
WAGNER IS NOT THE ONLY POTENTIAL UPGRADE COMING TO THE SOX
The Red Sox hope that the acquisition of Wagner improves the entire bullpen. His arrival may mean less stress on the invaluable Hideki Okajima (for more on the huge load being shouldered by Okajima, click here), who has been the team’s only lefty for most of the year. Indeed, the Sox had made it a priority to acquire a second lefty for the stretch, and couldn't have been much happier than finding a player with the credentials (385 saves, 2.40 career ERA) of Wagner.
Assuming Wagner is effective, his arrival will further help to distribute the innings load among the rest of the core bullpen members – closer Jonathan Papelbon, along with Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Bard, Takashi Saito and Manny Delcarmen – who have comprised, for much of the year, one of the most effective groups in baseball.
But increasingly, it appears that Wagner might not be the only potential late-season upgrade. The lineup has already been fortified with the trade for Victor Martinez, but another glimmer of promise came in Triple-A Pawtucket on Tuesday, where Jed Lowrie hit a pair of homers in his second rehab game. He has now gone deep three times in two games for the PawSox.
Of course, neither the lineup nor the bullpen has been the team’s most pressing recent concern. The Sox are second in the majors in runs (141) and third in runs per game (6.1) since the arrival of Victor Martinez on August 1. The bullpen ERA of 3.61 is currently tops in the American League.
The rotation, on the other hand, has a 4.65 ERA that ranks 20th in the American League. Behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, the second half of the season has faced mostly questions.
“Our starting rotation, the main issues in the middle of the season here have been the stability of the back half of the rotation,” said Epstein. “That’s something that we continue to work through.”
The rotation will alter on Wednesday, with All-Star Tim Wakefield slated to make his first appearance of the second half, displacing the ineffective Penny. Daisuke Matsuzaka, meanwhile, has shown at least some potential to contribute down the stretch (though Epstein was careful to point out that the team “is not counting on him to be a savior”).
“Clay Buchholz has had a pretty good second half of the season. I’d like to see him continue to build on that,” said the G.M. “We have a couple of different pitchers close to coming off the disabled list who have done a lot in their big league careers and I’d like to think they can help stabilize the back half of the rotation as well.
“We’re in the middle of it and we have our work cut out for us. There’s no guaranteed road to the postseason. There’s none in the offseason. There’s not in spring training. There’s not during the year. There’s not now. We’ve got to fight for it and I think we’re prepared to do that and we like the roster we have to try to get that done.”
It remains to be seen how Wagner, Matsuzaka, Wakefield or Lowrie might impact the Sox, if at all. Nonetheless, the apparent raft of reinforcements, which comes at a time of year where attrition is the norm, can do little to hurt the Red Sox in their push for a seventh playoff berth in eight years.
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