With news Tuesday that New York Mets closer Billy Wagner is out indefinitely with increased inflammation in his left elbow, manager Jerry Manuel and the National League East leaders are left scrambling for options at the back end of the bullpen.
Aaron Heilman was thought to be the other guy in the bullpen with "closer stuff." Since Aug. 2 (the last time Wagner pitched), Heilman has allowed six runs in 7.1 innings, converting three of four save opportunities. The rest of the 'pen has pitched to the tune of a 5.45 ERA without Wagner, converting only 70 percent of its save opportunities.
Who else could help? Guys available through waivers (Colorado’s Brian Fuentes or Oakland’s Huston Street) will surely be claimed before they fall to the Mets. Other guys (Cincinnati's David Weathers or Milwaukee's Eric Gagne) would not be upgrades, just different bodies.
The other idea Manuel has bandied about has been to move one of his starters (either John Maine, Oliver Perez, or Mike Pelfrey) into the closer's role for the time being. However, Maine's balky right arm has eliminated him from the discussion for fear of putting his arm through the up-again, down-again life of a reliever warming up. Perez has been too good lately (the Mets have won each of his last 10 starts) and is still a little too erratic to be depended on at the back end of the bullpen. Pelfrey is just gaining momentum as a starter and, like Perez, has been a cog in the rotation in the second half, having lost just twice in 15 starts since May 31.
However, Pelfrey remains an interesting option for the bullpen come playoff time. He keeps the ball in the park (nine home runs allowed in 145 innings), keeps the ball on the ground (1.52 ground ball to fly ball ratio), and is just 7.2 innings away from the highest innings total of his professional career.
If the Mets have a little wiggle room in the standings come late September (yes, I remember what happened at the end of last season), and can afford to tweak their rotation a bit, they may be able to experiment with Pelfrey out of the bullpen to see if he can be better used there when only four starters would be required in the playoffs. This only works if the Mets get to the postseason, of course, and believe Pedro Martinez and Maine are healthy enough to be relied on in the rotation.
What to do in the interim, then? Although not the glamorous choice, Manuel is best suited sticking with the girls that brought him to the dance. The Mets are 11-5 since Wagner's been out and have gained 4.5 games in the standings going with a bullpen-by-committee.
The answer to the Mets' bullpen questions lies somewhere within that clubhouse, not in somebody else's. Manuel seems to be waiting for somebody to grab hold of the reins.