Big Apple makes big impact in Vegas
Yanks, Mets come away winners with coffers full of free-agent talent
LAS VEGAS -- There was no scorecard, but you could still tell that the New York clubs won the Winter Meetings.
If the goal of a team is to utilize this gathering to meet its needs, the Yankees and the Mets went further down that road than most over the four days and three nights in Nevada.
The Yankees created the biggest splash with the seven-year, $161 million signing of CC Sabathia, the leading starting pitcher in the current free-agent class. The Mets did some of the most substantive work of the Meetings. Needing to rebuild their bullpen, they signed the leading free-agent closer, Francisco Rodriguez, and then engineered a three-team, 12-player trade to land what should be a top-shelf setup man, J.J. Putz, formerly a successful closer with the Seattle Mariners.
There were other teams that helped themselves here. Cleveland's near-signing of Kerry Wood as a closer comes immediately to mind. Wood, who is healthy again, still has terrific stuff, and he successfully made the transition from starter to closer for the Cubs last season.
But the big impact in these Meetings came from the Big Apple teams. The Mets would have been a postseason team this year, but their bullpen was in tatters, particularly following the elbow injury to closer Billy Wagner. The Mets lost games at the most painful time -- late. Manager Jerry Manuel had a nightly struggle, patching, juggling and trying every available option to find outs from his bullpen. It was an effort that couldn't always be successful.
"For me, it was probably a learning experience, a tremendous learning experience because you had to manage the last out," Manuel said. "You didn't have to manage for six or seven innings, and say, 'Boom, you've got it.'
"So for me to have gone through that particular situation was a tremendous learning experience, in the sense that I had to stay in tune to the very last out. As painful as it was, it was growth."
The bullpen pain should cease for Manuel and the Mets in 2009. Rodriguez was easily the most accomplished closer available, having set the single-season saves record (62) for the Angels in 2008. He has saved 194 games over the past four seasons, and he will be just 27 next season. And K-Rod's price, while steep, was not outlandish in today's pitching market -- $37 million over three years, with a vesting clause for a fourth year at $14 million.
Putz was slowed by injuries in 2008, but in two previous seasons as Seattle's closer, he has done superlative work, with 76 saves in 85 opportunities and a cumulative 1.86 ERA. In essence, with his closer's experience, he's overqualified for a setup role. But that beats the alternative of trying to get late-inning outs from somebody with iffy stuff and an erratic record.
These were aggressive acquisitions, and they should be applauded. The Mets have gone from bullpen chaos to filling the two most important bullpen roles with the best talent available. September 2009 should be a lot less painful for this club than its two predecessors were.
The Yankees were not being applauded throughout baseball for spending a record amount on a pitching contract, but their primary contest is in the American League East, not in the area of peer-group popularity.
Already $40 million and one year ahead of the Brewers, and the only other team with a firm bid in on Sabathia, the Yankees were bidding against themselves at the end of the process. It turned out that one more year and $21 more million was what it took to make Sabathia a Yankee.
There were concerns that Sabathia wanted to reside in his home state of California, and there was his stated preference of remaining in the National League so that he could hit on a regular basis. The Yankees essentially obliterated those issues with the money.
They engender considerable envy, along with various other sorts of negativity, in baseball circles when they act in this fashion, driving up the wage scale for clubs who have nothing like their resources. But this is far from the Yankees' primary concern. Their primary concern is winning, and here they did whatever was financially required of them to land the top starting pitcher in this free-agent class.
Sabathia is just 28, and he encored from his Cy Young Award season with Cleveland in 2007 with a dominant second half after being traded to Milwaukee. He went 11-2 in 17 starts with a 1.65 ERA, seven complete games and three shutouts. He took the ball repeatedly on short rest down the stretch. He carried the Brewers into the postseason for the first time in 26 years.
And, he is regarded as a leader and a positive presence in the clubhouse. The pressure on him pitching in New York with this contract will be immense, but Sabathia is big enough, literally and figuratively, to withstand the pressure.
The Yankees aren't done with their effort to remake their staff. They appear to be closing in on signing A.J. Burnett, whose stuff is indisputable, but whose record of health issues makes him an iffier acquisition than Sabathia. The money in this case won't set any records, but it will still be more than everybody else in baseball wants the Yankees to pay. That won't stop them from paying the money. The Yankees are in Yankee form -- they need starting pitching, and they'll pay whatever it takes to get starting pitching.
As the Winter Meetings end, it is clear that the two clubs that have been most successful in filling their needs were the clubs from Queens and the Bronx. They leave the Meetings, the hotel, Las Vegas and Nevada in much better shape than when they arrived. That is the whole point of this exercise.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.