Mike Gonzalez Can Fill Void Left by Takashi Saito, Billy Wagner

Mike Gonzalez Can Fill Void Left by Takashi Saito, Billy Wagner Last week, the Atlanta Braves took a big bite out of the Red Sox' once-deep bullpen. It may only be a matter of time before Boston returns the favor.

The reliever in question is Mike Gonzalez, the 31-year-old career National Leaguer who appears poised to leave Atlanta and find his true value on the open market. While most teams could peg Gonzalez as a closer, the Red Sox view Gonzalez as a great candidate to serve as a setup man for next year's bullpen.

The Red Sox have every reason to pursue Gonzalez. In the last week, they've seen two of their best eighth-inning relief guys sent south to sunny Atlanta, poached away by Braves general manager Frank Wren. First it was Billy Wagner, who signed a $7 million contract for 2010 last Wednesday. Next, it was Takashi Saito, who signed a one-year deal a day later for $3 million.

The Braves now have too many bullpen arms and not enough innings for them all to share. The Red Sox now have the opposite problem. For much of the first half of the season, Boston's trademark was its deep, star-studded bullpen. With Wagner and Saito gone, that depth is slipping away. Gonzalez would be a superb first step toward getting it back.

Gonzalez first had a breakthrough season as a closer in Pittsburgh in 2006, taking the ninth-inning duties away from an aging Jose Mesa. He quickly proved that he was the real deal as Gonzo gave the Pirates 24 saves, a 2.17 ERA and a filthy 64 strikeouts in 54 innings.

When the Braves first traded for Gonzalez a year later, he had to overtake Bob Wickman, another established older closer who turned 38 early in 2007. And indeed, Gonzalez did overtake him, but it wasn't long before he and Rafael Soriano were sharing closing duties in Atlanta.

Now he has a chance to establish a new identity here in Boston. It won't be as a closer this time, that's for sure — but if Gonzalez wants to set aside his own ego for the sake of the team, he can fit in just fine with the Red Sox.

Gonzalez is perfectly qualified to set up ballgames for Jonathan Papelbon next season. He's armed with great stuff: a 93-mph fastball, a wicked slider and a good change-up. In addition, he's only gotten better with age — in his last season in Atlanta, he pitched a career-high 74 1/3 innings and maintained an ERA of 2.42.

Gonzalez clearly wants out of Atlanta. Reports on Tuesday morning indicated that he's declined arbitration, choosing instead to explore the open market. And the Red Sox clearly want him in Boston — word is that the club has already requested the medical reports on the hard-throwing lefty, meaning there's a good chance we'll see an offer made soon.

Gonzalez made just under $2.4 million in Atlanta in 2008, avoiding arbitration before he was extended with a one-year deal following his first season with the Braves. After re-signing for another year in '09, he got a modest raise to $3.45 million.

If Gonzalez had gone to arbitration, he could have easily expected between $3.5 and $4 million, no problem. But his reluctance to do so indicates that Gonzalez expects more on the open market, which makes perfect sense. But as usual, the Red Sox aren't the only big-spending team that could use an extra reliever or two for next season — the Mets, Angels and of course the Yankees qualify for that list as well.

If Gonzalez is lucky, he'll see a bidding war break out for his services, sending his market value through the roof. And if you know your history with respect to the Red Sox' bullpen investments, you know that doesn't bode well for Boston.

But if the Red Sox are the lucky ones, they can lock up Gonzalez with a reasonable contract for next season. That would be a big step forward for the club's offseason plans and a nice way of taking a Braves hurler after they took two of Boston's.

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