The Mets head to Las Vegas planning to use their big-market status to pay a closer less money than they thought they would have to when the season ended.  And if the free agent relievers think they’re bluffing, they should ask Ramon Hernandez how that play worked out for him after the 2005 season.

The latest word is that the Mets are going to the Winter Meetings planning on meeting with each of the top available closers and presenting them with an offer. Then, whichever pitcher is the first to accept the offer becomes the team’s choice. You might remember that the Mets did this a few years back, except the position was catcher. They extended offers to Ramon Hernandez and Bengie Molina but when neither one signed up, they ended up trading for Paul Lo Duca instead.

Now, this seems a little crazy at first since the top three free agent closers each have different strengths and weaknesses and none figure to get the same amount of years nor dollars. Francisco Rodriguez should command the most dollars and probably the most years. Kerry Wood might get more dollars than Brian Fuentes but probably at a max two-year deal. Are the Mets really comfortable if they get Rodriguez for four years or Wood for two?

Assuming that the Mets have the respective relievers properly valued, it seems like a reasonable way to me to conduct business. Wood on a one-year deal is very attractive because they don’t get stuck on a long-term deal and risk injury and they can always re-sign him to a bigger deal next year if he puts in his second straight healthy season, as the club will no longer be paying Billy Wagner. Fuentes on a two or three-year deal means they don’t get stuck paying for a closer in his late 30s. Rodriguez on a four-year deal makes sense because he’s the youngest guy of the three.

The Mets have the upper hand in these negotiations because it is a buyer’s market and they have the biggest wallet of any of the teams likely to be involved in the bidding. Up until this point, the Mets have let the market come to them, with the idea that agents would always give them the chance to meet or beat whatever offer other teams might have extended. But now it’s time for the Mets to set the market for other clubs.

And in this scenario, the Mets can offer what they feel comfortable with and perhaps even low-ball the players somewhat. Rodriguez has already come down from his reported desire for a five-year, $75 million contract. K-Rod’s stance affects the other relievers in the market since they aren’t going to get more money than he is. On the flip side, if Rodriguez knows the Mets are willing to bypass him to get either Fuentes or Wood, it may make him more likely to accept an even lower offer. Because if the Mets are out of the race, who is going to offer him anything even close to the $40 million he turned down from the Angels?

And the agents for the respective players have to know that the Mets are not bluffing with these offers, given their past history. And since relievers like Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz, Huston Street and Jose Valverde are all available on the trade market means this is a legitimate worry for the free agent closers.

Most people think that big-market teams control the market by issuing large contracts without a second thought. But I really like this way of controlling the market. Refuse to pay top dollar, let more closers come on the market, establish deals for different relievers based on different factors that make each choice relatively equal and play a game of chicken with the players and their agents.

I’d still rather get J.J. Putz in a trade for Grade B/C prospects but I am okay with getting any of the top three relievers at such a discount that it still allows for upgrades in the rotation and possibly even left field. All of the positions are inter-related and a relatively cheap closer makes it more likely that the Mets will eat Luis Castillo’s salary and move Daniel Murphy to second base.

Advertisements