SportsProf

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Irony

One of the truths that emerged in the off-season was that the Phillies, who finished one game out of the playoffs last season, incurred a significant loss when they failed to re-sign ace closer Billy Wagner and, worse, lost him to the Mets. The cognoscenti (or at least hopeful Mets' fans) figured that the statistical switch would help the Mets greatly.

There is no doubt that the Mets are a better team than the Phillies and the best team in the National League to boot (whether that's like saying they're the best hockey player in Ecuador remains to be seen). The Mets can slug you to pieces, their bullpen before Wagner has been strong (and Wagner hasn't been all that bad, by the way), and their starting pitching has been excellent. Like any good team, they're a few blown wings (Pedro Martinez's and the ancient Met, Tommy Glavine's, come to mind) and a few bullpen injuries (Duaner Sanchez's, were it to have been worse) from falling back to the pack. Still, the odds of that confluence events are small when compared to the odds of the Phillies' starting pitching staff finding consistency and propelling that team into contention for a wild-card spot, not to mention first place in the division.

Put simply, the Mets are the class of the National League. Their players have been rewarded with six All-Star berths, including four position players who have earned the starting nod -- catcher Paul LoDuca (who is hurt and should stay home to mend his injured thumb), shortstop Jose Reyes (the best in the NL), third baseman David Wright (another great player) and CF Carlos Beltran (whose play this season reminds Met fans why the Mets shelled out the big bucks two seasons ago to lure him from the Astros via free agency). Future Hall of Famers Martinez and Glavine round out the squad. It also could be that in the 32nd man on the team vote, Mets' fans will turn out via the internet and vote closer Billy Wagner onto the squad. That would give the Metropolitans' seven players on the team, and few could argue that the runaway best team in the NL deserves fewer. (It also could be that the chatter on WFAN, where many a Met fan has called in to express his disappointment with Wagner, leads Met fans to be happy for their six players and sit out this particular vote; I don't think they will, but if they do, that's probably the explanation).

So where's the irony, you ask?

Well, about four years ago, Tommy Glavine was a free agent, and he was considering remaining in the NL East and had narrowed down his choices to between the Phillies (who wanted him to be their #1 starter) and the Mets (who told him that they wouldn't expect him to be the staff leader -- Al Leiter held that role). The Phillies offered roughly $30 million for 3 years (I believe with a club option for a fourth year) while the Mets offered the 39 year-old lefty $36.5 over three years, with an option for a fourth year (making the total deal worth $42.5 million). Advantage Mets, and Glavine signed with New York.

Phillies' fans, ever impatient for a winner and ever disdainful of ownership, gave the Phillies a relative pass on this one. The Phillies spun it that Glavine, used to being the #2 starting in Atlanta (yeah, right, but with #1 starter's stuff and makeup) didn't want to be THE guy in Philadelphia, which the Phillies desperately needed him to be. They also spun it that four years and $42.5 million was too much for an aging finesse pitcher. The latter point made more sense; the first one didn't take hold. In any event, most Phillies' fans chalked Glavine up to a "nice to have" but didn't mourn because it wasn't as though the team lost out on a flamethrower with many good years left (at least in this instance -- they traded Curt Schilling for a bunch of extras from a Rob Schneider movie two seasons earlier). They lost out on a finesse pitcher, and the deal hasn't borne out as a great one for the Mets until Glavine found the Fountain of Youth this off-season and has embarked upon a tremendous campaign this season.

Fast forward to last off-season. Billy Wagner became a free agent, and apparently the Phillies had been close to signing him during the season, only to have reports come out that then-GM Ed Wade castigated Wagner over the telephone for remarks he made about the hunger of his teammates and soured the relationship between the player and club. (Wagner poured gasoline over that fire before this season began, taking certain teammates to task, even naming a few). Wagner was pretty much "lights out" for the Phillies last season, and with Eric Gagne hurt, was viewed as the premier closer in the National League. The Mets, meanwhile, in previous seasons had struggled with, among others, Braden Looper and Armando Benitez in that role.

It was bad enough for frustrated Phillies' fans to lose Wagner, but it was worse to lose him to the Mets. The Phillies sacrificed Ed Wade to keep the fans happy (lemmings those fans are not), by firing him (and not trying to bunt him with Ryan Howard's bat up the third-base line). Firing Wade, though, did not solve the closer dilemma. Needing a closer but unwilling to go overboard paying for a position that has a short average tenure in the Majors (read: teams switch closers with greater frequency than they change many other positions), the Phillies opted to ink the Yankees' set-up man, Tom Gordon, apparently the second oldest player playing professional baseball in NYC (the first being Julio Franco). And a guy who has had some arm problems in the past.

The response in Philadelphia: "Ugh." Then the Phillies acquired Arthur Rhodes to be the set-up man (having elevated former set-up man Ryan Madson to the starting rotation), and suddenly the two most important men in your bullpen combined to be 76 years old. The response in Philadelphia: "Are you kidding me?" Needless to say, the Pat Gillick era did not get off to a resounding start (okay, the Jim Thome trade was well-received (although a now-healthy Thome is playing great for the White Sox), but signings of Alex Gonzalez, Abraham Nunez and Sal Fasano did little to encourage the hometown fans). It's not, though, that the Phillies' fans didn't respect Gordon. Many of those fans know their baseball, and they knew that Gordon had excelled over the years. But he hadn't closed in about five years, closer is a position that can changes hands a lot, and, well, it was a big leap of faith to ask the fans to accept Gordon as a replacement for Billy Wagner. After all, this is a group of fans that has been fed line after line and questionable roster moves over the past 23 years.

So what happened?

Gordon has pitched better than Wagner and. . .

The players voted Gordon onto the All-Star team, while Wagner has blown four saves and doesn't enjoy the confidence of the Mets' fans that he did a little over four months ago. And, he has 3 more seasons left on his 4-year, $43 million deal. Again, the most practical Phillies' fans agreed that this was a lot to spend on a closer -- Wagner will be in his late thirties when this contract expires, and it's hard to see him throwing 99 m.ph. three seasons from now. Gordon, meanwhile, at the time was overpaid as well, getting $18 million for three years. (Once Toronto has opening up its version of Fort Knox for B.J. Ryan, inflation hit the closer market very hard). Yet, by all objective standards, Gordon looks like a bargain.

It's funny how baseball works. On the one hand, the Mets are winning the war in a big way, running away from the N.L. East the way Secretariat ran away from the field in the '73 Belmont Stakes. On the other hand, in this particular little cubbyhole, the Phillies outdid the Mets -- by accident, of course (because they did want Wagner). It's a small victory in the scheme of things, but one that some in the Phillies' clubhouse will take some joy in because of Wagner's unfortunate utterances in the spring (he blasted his former team before the teams played this year in Philadelphia, and, yet, when he came to the city, he was conciliatory and said there were many guys he missed).

Make no mistake, though: the average Phillies' fan would much rather have his team where the Mets are now, Wagner or now Wagner. And that's one thing that the average Phillie, Met, Mets' fan and Phillies' fan can agree upon.

But deep down, Mets' fans have to be a little bit worried about their pricey closer.

Still, it's a pleasant worry to have when you're team is headed into the thick of the post-season.

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