Braves get a new closer in Wagner
Left-handed reliever agrees to join Atlanta on one-year deal
ATLANTA -- Throughout his career, Billy Wagner has occasionally reminded manager Bobby Cox that he would like the opportunity to be a part of the Braves' bullpen. When Cox flew to Wagner's rural hometown in Virginia last week, the accomplished closer was thrilled to realize the legendary manager wanted to make this wish a reality.
General manager Frank Wren, Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell quietly slipped into Wagner's hometown of Crozet, Va., last week for a recruiting trip that proved fruitful on Wednesday, when the Braves announced that they signed the successful closer to a one-year, $7 million contract that includes a $6.5 million vesting option for the 2011 season.
"We're thrilled that it worked out, and we're very excited to get to this point today to have him sign as an Atlanta Brave," Wren said. "We don't have any doubt that he can still be a top-notch closer."
With the signing of Wagner, the Braves lose their slotted first-round selection to the Red Sox in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. But with relievers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez also standing as Type A free agents who are expected to exit Atlanta via free agency, they could still end up being compensated with a pair of first-round and sandwich-round selections.
As Wren looked at the potential cost of re-signing either Soriano or Gonzalez to serve as his closer next season, he focused on the belief that it was in his best interest to make an aggressive and early pursuit of the much more accomplished Wagner, who had quieted some concerns when he made a successful return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery during the final two months of this past season.
"I think we felt, even considering the good job our guys did last year, we had Billy ranked higher," Wren said of Wagner, who was pleased with the rejuvenated strength that he found during the 17 appearances he combined to make for the Mets and Red Sox when he ended his long rehab process earlier this year.
With offers from the Rays and Nationals seemingly only standing as fallback options, Wagner also entered the free-agent market with the Braves at the top of his wish list. His desire to pitch in Atlanta dated back to his childhood days when he and his grandparents would take advantage of every opportunity to watch TBS' coverage of those forgettable Braves teams that were led by Dale Murphy.
"When you truly love a team, you love a team through the thick and the thin," Wagner said. "Around the era I started being able to know baseball, it was through the thin with the Braves. When I got into college, they were making their run into the playoffs. Then once I got drafted, I helped them get further."
While being introduced during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Turner Field, Wagner displayed his sense of humor with comments like that one, which referred to the fact that he was part of those Astros teams that the Braves bounced from the postseason in 1997, '99 and 2001.
Active saves leaders
Through his distinct southern drawl, Wagner also displayed humor when asked about what it meant to see Cox choose to visit his hometown last week.
"[For Cox] to offer and come and speak to me, I was impressed," Wagner said. "Plus, he said he knew a guy who could make good cowboy hats. So I thought that was a heck of a deal."
While providing some laughs, Wagner also sincerely expressed that he was thankful for this opportunity to join the Braves at a time when he still has the capability to prove to be a key piece in their attempt to return to those days when postseason baseball was an annual tradition in Atlanta.
"It's just one of those things that's a once-in-a-lifetime situation, where you honestly get to go somewhere where you've grown up watching them," Wagner said. "They've got such a great tradition here of winning, competing and having great guys. You want to be a part of that and I'm excited about the opportunity."
Wagner comes to Atlanta with the intent to enhance his already impressive credentials. The veteran reliever's 385 career saves rank sixth on Major League Baseball's all-time list. He stands 39 saves shy of matching the record that John Franco set for left-handed closers.
"He's always a guy that you want on your side," Cox said.
Wagner has converted 86.1 percent of his 447 save opportunities. This mark ranks fourth among the 21 pitchers who have compiled at least 300 saves.
"When you look at a closer who has 86 percent efficiency, that's an extremely high number for a closer," Wren said. "Any time you get over 80 percent, you're really good. [Wagner] is everything you want him to be. He's fearless. He's the guy that goes out there and has quality stuff."
Wagner returned from the Tommy John surgery on Aug. 20 with a perfect inning that included a pair of strikeouts against the Braves. As Wren boarded the club's charter plane that evening, Cox stopped him and commented about how impressed he had been with what he'd seen from the then-Mets left-hander.
"We liked everything about him," Wren said. "We felt his ability matched very well with what we needed."
Interest in Wagner grew as he posted a 1.72 ERA, limited opponents to a .154 batting average and recorded 26 strikeouts in the 15 2/3 innings he completed for the Mets and Red Sox this year. As a bonus, the rejuvenated left-hander found himself pitching without discomfort and with some of that strength that had evaporated over the course of the previous few seasons.
"If I had known it was going to work out this well, I think I'd have had this Tommy John about five years ago," Wagner said. "My body was able to recover, and I just progressed so fast. I can't remember the last time that it felt that good. I think it had a lot to do with having that time off and building that strength."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.