Billy Wagner Building the Perfect Bullpen Bridge


Sep 2, 2009

Billy Wagner Building the Perfect Bullpen Bridge So far, all is well in the Billy Wagner era here in Boston.

Red Sox fans got another glimpse at the newcomer Wagner on Tuesday night, and this time, the results were even better. The newest member of the Sox’ bullpen has now faced seven batters and retired six of them, five via strikeouts. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So much for Wagner being “like the Gagne thing.” This surpasses Theo Epstein‘s wildest dreams about his 2007 trade with the Texas Rangers for Eric Gagne. This is the absolute best-case scenario.

When Epstein traded for Gagne two summers ago, his goal was to build the perfect bridge from the sixth inning to the end of the ballgame. From Gagne to Hideki Okajima to Jonathan Papelbon — lights out. As long as the starter gives you six good innings, you can cue up “Dirty Water.”

That was how it was supposed to work out. And while the Red Sox won a World Series without that perfect bridge, that doesn’t mean they’re not still trying to build it.

With Wagner, Okajima and Papelbon, the Sox have found something. That’s the bridge that got them from Jon Lester‘s solid six innings to a victory in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night. If this keeps up, the Red Sox may have found their secret to getting through October.

The Sox should enjoy it while they can. Wagner makes for a great seventh-inning guy — probably the best in all of baseball — but you can’t expect him to fill that role forever. In all likelihood, he’s not much more than a hired mercenary for this season.

Wagner has said publicly that he wants to be a closer next season. He stated last week that “I don’t want to end my career as a setup man,” explaining that he’d rather be cut loose to find a new gig in 2010 than be kept on a team that won’t let him close.

In picking up Wagner from the Mets, the Red Sox acquired a contract with an $8 million option for next year but a $1 million buyout. It’s a low-risk move — if Wagner’s good, bring him back, and if he’s not, cut him loose cheaply. But unfortunately for the Red Sox, they’re probably going to end up cutting him loose either way. Wagner asked the Sox to promise not to pick up his one-year option, and the club obliged.

It’s only fair this way. Wagner may be 38, but he’s still a great pitcher — his fastball’s not going anywhere, and he’s still one of the most dominating power pitchers in the game. He deserves to find another opportunity to be a closer before it’s too late.

There have been pipe-dream ideas circulating lately about swinging a deal that keeps Wagner around as the Red Sox’ closer next season, but none of them seem realistic. What makes more sense is keeping him from now through October and then letting the six-time All-Star find work elsewhere in 2010.

At the moment, the Red Sox are spoiled. They lucked into a coup of an August pickup, stealing an elite reliever away from a team with $88 million worth of talent on the disabled list. They have taken the American League’s best bullpen and made it even better, and all they had to do was take advantage of a crippled team that was forced to give up on 2009.

Great teams are built not just on explosive lineups and solid starting rotations but also on deep, reliable bullpens. The Red Sox have one, and there’s a chance it could propel them to the Fall Classic this year. But they can’t bank on keeping that ‘pen intact forever.

Enjoy this while it lasts, Boston. You’re looking at the best relief corps money can buy.

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