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Wagnerian drama plays out

By Nick Cafardo
August 24, 2009

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First of all, it really doesn’t matter what Jonathan Papelbon thinks about the Red Sox possibly getting Billy Wagner. He is a pitcher for the Sox and not the general manager, thank goodness.

Fact is, if the Red Sox and Wagner’s agent, Bean Stringfellow, can work out some contractual issues, and barring a change of course by the Mets, there’s a good chance the 38-year-old reliever will become a Red Sox tomorrow.

The Mets could either trade the lefthander to Boston, which was awarded the waiver claim on Wagner Friday, or award him to Boston outright. Wagner also could be pulled back, but given the financial mess the Mets are in and the limited payroll flexibility they have this offseason, it makes sense that Wagner will be let loose by the team, which already has Francisco Rodriguez as its closer.

The Sox and Stringfellow were trying to work out a couple of things, one being that Wagner does not want the Sox to pick up the $8 million 2010 option on his contract and that the team not offer him salary arbitration. Why would Wagner do this? Basically it gives him the ability to sign wherever he wants after this season. But he’d be giving up the $8 million, which would seem tough for him to obtain elsewhere after Tommy John surgery.

Wagner, who always has admired the Red Sox from afar, will be happy to accept an assignment to Boston if his conditions are met. With a full no-trade clause as part of his four-year, $43 million deal, he had the right to squash a deal, but he’s just about had enough of the Mets after years of being the team’s go-to guy for the media after virtually every major subject, positive and negative, came up.

The feeling is Boston will give the Mets a marginal player or prospect to appease New York management.

Wagner warmed up in yesterday’s Mets loss to the Phillies, but didn’t enter the game. The Mets should make sure he doesn’t pitch the rest of the way. Wagner, who has returned ahead of schedule from that Tommy John surgery, threw a successful inning Thursday, and the Sox liked that he hit 96 miles per hour once and was throwing around 92-93 consistently.

The Red Sox probably could use a setup man for Papelbon because young Daniel Bard’s inexperience could become an issue. His numbers have become more human over the last seven games; he’s allowed runs in five of them.

Could Wagner be that setup man? GM Theo Epstein would at least like to find out.

But Papelbon said he thinks Epstein has a tricky decision ahead, and the closer is concerned about redefining roles in the bullpen if Wagner comes aboard.

“When you acquire somebody you have to get rid of somebody,’’ reasoned Papelbon. “I like the way our bullpen sets up right now. So that’s the tough situation.’’

Told of Papelbon’s comments, Wagner told reporters in New York yesterday, “I don’t have any thoughts on somebody like him. When he walks in my shoes, then I’ll say something. Let him be 38 and have Tommy John and come back.’’

Papelbon thinks the Red Sox have a “good dynamic in the bullpen, I think we have guys who know how to work together. Is Billy Wagner a good pitcher, would he bring some more depth to our bullpen and make our bullpen better? There’s no question about it, but you also have to think about what we have now and what we’ve been able to accomplish to this point in the season and how good we’ve been.’’

Papelbon wanted to make it clear; it’s not that he doesn’t want Wagner, it’s just that his presence would move the pieces around and might become disruptive.

“It’s not that it shakes the balance,’’ he said, “you have that little bit of time of getting used to it, but how are we going to use this guy now, what situation is he going to be best in, who’s going to leave our bullpen? It’s a multitude of things, it’s not just one specific thing.’’

Papelbon said it’s Epstein’s duty to make the Sox better and he’s often complimented the GM’s work in that regard, such as when he acquired Ramon Ramirez last offseason.

“That’s the GM’s job to make this team better,’’ he said. “By acquiring [Wagner] it will make our team better. I don’t know if he’s pitched this year. I don’t know what he’s done. I know nothing about him. I’m trying to follow my own team. That’s totally what [Epstein’s] job is to do. That’s what he’s great at. Theo’s great at making teams better. Ultimately the decision is up to him, not me.’’

Papelbon was asked whether this would be akin to the Sox getting Eric Gagne in 2007. He agreed and said Gagne, who struggled in his tenure with the Sox, “was one of the best teammates I’ve had, point blank.’’

“It was a great acquisition to get him, no question about it,’’ Papelbon said. “It’s a tough decision. Do you disrupt it or do you make it better? It’s tough, and I’m glad I don’t have to [decide].’’

Papelbon then praised Wagner some more.

“No question [he could improve us],’’ he said. “Wagner has been an All-Star-caliber pitcher. Phenomenal pitcher. No denying that. It’s just not that simple. It’s not cut and dried. We get Wagner, somebody is in and somebody’s out.

“Watching him in the past, Billy is a professional and he knows what it takes to pitch in the league. He’s a competitor. I’ve seen him at All-Star Games and seen what he’s done in his career.

“It’s just not that easy. You’re talking about roles changing. There’s a lot that would make our bullpen better. It’s just not that easy of a decision. Theo has a tough decision to make. The best thing about it is Theo is here to make our team better. All you can ask is for him to be on your side and be in the trenches with you. If that’s what has to happen, that’s what has to happen.’’

Acquiring Wagner would give the Sox a lot of flexibility. It even ensures they’d have another closer in case something happens to Papelbon. It may also give the team more leverage in future contract talks with Papelbon. It might even protect them if they ever thought of dealing Papelbon.

Barring unrealistic compensation demands by the Mets, the Sox soon could have a once-prominent closer who loves the tough moments and who is as standup a guy as you’ll ever see.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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