I like watching October baseball even if the Mets are golfing. Examining the teams that succeed -- as all the playoff teams have -- provides insight into what the Mets could do better or how they should approach their offseason.
I don't need to point out how the principal difference between the four remaining playoff teams and the Mets is the presence of a strong bullpen. This you already know: The Red Sox, Rays, Phillies and Dodgers have good relief pitchers; the 2008 Mets did not.
So the knee-jerk Mets fan says the answer to getting into the playoffs in 2009 is to sign free-agent relievers and patch the gaping hole in a bullpen that's hemorrhaging runs. Simple as that. Bring on K-Rod or Brian Fuentes and Juan Cruz and make reservations for next October. Right?
But take a closer look: Of the four remaining playoff teams, not a single one hands the ball to a big-name free-agent acquisition with the game on the line.
The Red Sox have used five relief pitchers thus far in the postseason: Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Javier Lopez. Papelbon, Masterson and Delcarmen all came up through the Sox' system and all started their professional careers as starting pitchers. The Sox signed Okajima to a two-year, $2.5 million deal with a third-year option before the 2007 season. Lopez, a lefty specialist, was rescued off the scrap heap.
The Rays used Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell, Chad Bradford, Grant Balfour and Trever Miller in the ALDS. Howell joined Tampa Bay in a 2006 trade but first moved to the bullpen in 2008. Miller signed as a free agent before the 2008 season, but there was no bidding war for his services -- he was coming off a down year. The Rays acquired Balfour and Wheeler in trades during the 2007 season while both were struggling. Former Met Bradford joined the Rays in a waiver trade with the Orioles in August.
Starting to see a trend here? The relief pitchers on this year's playoff teams were mostly low-impact free agents, buy-low acquisitions or products of that team's farm system.
The Dodgers developed closer Jonathan Broxton and setup man Cory Wade and first signed Takashi Saito for $500,000 before the 2006 season. Old man Greg Maddux tossed an inning for the Dodgers with a five-run lead in Game 1, but the Dodgers' NLDS roster included valuable 2006 scrap-heap acquisition Joe Beimel and homegrown fireballer James McDonald.
The Phillies bought low on closer Brad Lidge and reaped the benefits of his NL Comeback Player of the Year season. They signed Chad Durbin for under $1 million before 2008, developed Ryan Madson and rescued Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre from the junkyard.
The Phillies, it should be noted, did receive 1/3 of an inning of NLDS work from the biggest 2008 free-agent reliever remaining in the playoffs, J.C. Romero, who was signed to a three-year, $12 million contract before the season. Of course, the Phillies found and revived Romero for the first time in 2007 after he had been released by the Red Sox and left on the same scrap heap where so many playoff-bound relievers are apparently just floundering.
Listen: I am not saying that signing a big-name free-agent reliever precludes a playoff berth. After all, the Mets were one run away from the World Series in 2006 with their shiny new closer. Plus, the current contenders owe a lot of their bullpen success stories to good luck and random chance.
To put together a bullpen, a team needs an open mind, a big heart and a short memory, not necessarily a fat wallet. The 2008 playoff teams have taken chances on scrap-heap acquisitions, converted young starters into relievers and made shrewd, buy-low trades.
Sure, the Mets will be tempted to spend $75 million or so on Francisco Rodriguez, coming off either the best or worst year of his career (depending on whom you ask), and I'm not going to say it's the worst idea in the world. The guy's good, after all. But I can't help but wonder if the Mets' resources wouldn't be best directed elsewhere. If the team follows the path blazed by this year's playoff squads, it can put the money it might have spent on fickle relievers into its lineup and starting rotation and fill the bullpen with low-risk, high-reward options.
The Mets may not have a Papelbon coming up the pike, but they might consider fishing for someone like J.J. Putz of the Mariners, who is coming off an injury-marred, mediocre season by his standards but was a dominant closer in 2006 and 2007. Bobby Howry, Brandon Lyon and Juan Rincon are all coming off uninspiring seasons but all have several good ones in their past and could be worth a shot. Or they could scour the Japanese market for a low-cost contributor like Okajima or Saito. Hard-throwing youngsters Eddie Kunz and Bobby Parnell should get a look as well.
That's not to say any or all of these guys is the answer for the 2009 Mets or that even one of them should be on the team's Opening Day roster. I mean merely to suggest that the seemingly obvious solution -- K-Rod -- might not be the most efficient one. If the Mets can grow and patch together a bullpen like the Red Sox, Rays, Phillies and Dodgers did, they can save their money for a bat to put games out of reach long before the bullpen is needed.