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Hoping that bringing in the lefty works out

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 26, 2009

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Theo Epstein will be the first to admit that Eric Gagne didn’t work out.

The Red Sox expended outfielder David Murphy, lefthanded starter Kason Gabbard, and outfielder Engel Beltre in the 2007 trade-deadline deal for Gagne - a deal that yielded them nothing. Gagne was awful, unable to adapt to a setup role, but the Sox somehow got their bullpen together anyway and won the World Series.

Two years later, a similar gamble is being made, though this one has far less risk. Acquiring lefthander Billy Wagner yesterday for two mid- to low-range minor leaguers (one of whom is outfielder/first baseman Chris Carter, according to major league sources) was a low-risk deal. The Sox don’t need Wagner to fill a role as vital as the one they had intended for Gagne; he’ll be used in specific situations late in games.

The only risk is the $3.5 million the Sox are on the hook for - the remainder of his four-year, $43 million deal. The Sox agreed to Wagner’s condition to not pick up the $8 million option on his contract for 2010. But they held firm in retaining the right to offer him arbitration; if they offer it and Wagner declines, the Sox would receive two draft picks as compensation for him signing elsewhere. The Sox were willing to pick up the $1 million buyout on his 2010 contract.

Wagner, who will join the Sox tomorrow after going home for a couple of days, should come out as a Type A free agent, even though he has missed appreciable time on the disabled list after having Tommy John surgery. The complicated formula weighs the player’s success and time missed be cause of injury.

“We were going to try to make a move for a second lefty anyway,’’ Epstein said, “and when you can get someone of the quality of Billy Wagner, it’s nice.

“We already had a really good, deep bullpen. We weren’t looking to displace anyone. We certainly wanted to augment what we already had.

“Ownership deserves an awful lot of credit here. We added a couple of starting pitchers [Brad Penny, John Smoltz] who were due to make a lot of money. There have been some developments in recent days where there’ll be some savings. There’ll be bonuses that won’t get paid out, so instead of pocketing that money, they allowed us to pursue ways to improve the club and help us get into the postseason and World Series. So we were able to redirect those savings toward someone like Billy Wagner.’’

Getting to speak to Wagner directly in the last hours before the deadline was a key to getting the deal done, said Epstein. Permission to speak to a player has to come from the team holding the player’s contract. An important issue for Wagner in New York was needing to protect his elbow in a non-pennant-race situation.

Epstein, manager Terry Francona, and pitching coach John Farrell spoke to Wagner after the pitcher arrived in Miami with the Mets for a series against the Marlins. The Sox began to sell themselves to Wagner, bringing up the great care of the medical staff and the reputation of medical director Thomas Gill as a top orthopedic surgeon.

The Sox assured Wagner that he never would be in jeopardy of hurting his elbow and that the team would adhere to the program already put in place by Mets physicians.

Epstein said Wagner has pitched every other day in five rehab appearances, so he’s certainly capable of pitching that much if need be.

There were many reports yesterday that the deal was dead, though the Globe reported shortly after noon that it was still alive.

“You [media] guys had nothing to do during those 48-hour windows, so there have been a lot of stories come out,’’ said Epstein. “Basically, he had a full no-trade clause, so it was up to him whether he wanted to stay with the Mets or go to the Red Sox.

“Ultimately, in the end, he woke up and said he wanted to join a team that was in the middle of a pennant race and had a chance to pitch into October and a chance to get a ring. He’s never done it, so he went over the ups and downs but he woke up today and he really wanted to win a World Series. So he made his choice for all the right reasons.’’

Epstein added that from the time Wagner was claimed on waivers Friday, “I didn’t think we’d know much until a couple of hours before the deadline.’’

One issue the Sox had to deal with was Jonathan Papelbon making comments about Wagner possibly disrupting the bullpen - comments Wagner responded to in the New York media.

“I think Pap feels he was misunderstood,’’ Epstein said. “He’s not a Rhodes Scholar to begin with. When I talked to him directly about it, he couldn’t have been more excited.

“When we had our window [to speak to Wagner], Pap went out of his way to make sure he knew he was more than welcome here.’’

Wagner decided that his free agent value in the offseason would be higher if he pitched for a team in a playoff race. The Mets, who have closer Francisco Rodriguez under a long-term deal and J.J. Putz as a setup man (when healthy), likely would have taken the same approach the Sox will take with Wagner: assess his performance the rest of the year and decide whether to offer arbitration.

Only 15 saves shy of 400, Wagner wants to be a closer again, a chance he is unlikely to get in Boston. But with that desire comes the forfeiture of $8 million on an option.

“He wanted to be part of a pennant race,’’ Mets general manager Omar Minaya said on a conference call. “We were able to get a couple of prospects for him. We felt it was the right thing to do.’’

Wagner’s agent, Bean Stringfellow, echoed that Wagner “desperately wanted to pitch in a pennant race.’’

Apparently, Wagner came to that conclusion after a long night of restless sleep.

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

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