This story was written and reported by the Globe’s Tony Massarotti and Nick Cafardo
Whether it was a chance to pitch in a pennant race, a factor based on finances and his future, or simply the assurance that the Red Sox won’t overuse his repaired left arm, this much is certain: Billy Wagner had a change of heart, and he’s coming to Boston after all.
The lefthanded, long-time closer, who was claimed by Boston on waivers from the New York Mets on Friday, waived his no-trade clause this afternoon after the Red Sox and Mets worked out a trade before the 1:30 p.m. deadline. The Red Sox will pay the remainder of Wagner’s salary this season.
The Red Sox will send two players to be named later to New York in exchange for the 38-year-old Wagner, a 15-year veteran who has accumulated 385 saves in his career but who returned last Thursday after missing 11 months following Tommy John surgery. A major league source said it is not expected that any more than one of the two players the Sox are giving up will come from the 40-man roster, and neither is considered an upper-tier prospect.
The source said the Red Sox have agreed to Wagner’s wishes and will not pick up his $8 million option for 2010, the final element of the four-year, $43 million deal he signed with the Mets as a free agent before the 2006 season. Notably, the club will retain the right to offer him arbitration, meaning they would get two compensatory draft picks if another team signs him.
Wagner is expected to return home before joining the Red Sox on Thursday.
“We’re realistic,” said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “He’s less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery. We’re not claiming we won a playoff spot today. We made a move to add a really quality pitcher to our bullpen, and we already have a good bullpen. We’re real happy about that.”
Allowing Boston to retain the right to offer him arbitratrion a major sacrifice for Wagner, who had previously said he would utilize his no-trade clause to block the deal if the Sox offered him arbitration. He is hoping to sign with a club next season that will use him as a closer so he can reach a couple of milestones, including 400 saves and perhaps surpassing former Met John Franco’s record for saves by a lefthander, at 424. With Jonathan Papelbon entrenched as the Red Sox’ closer, Wagner will work in a setup role for the Red Sox, and it would have less appeal on the free agent market with the two picks attached.
“We’re excited to have him, and hopefully he’ll help us win a championship,” Papelbon said before tonight’s game against the White Sox. “We’ll get along great. I know we will. I’m looking really forward to seeing how he works and maybe picking up a couple of things from him.”
Leading up to the 1:30 p.m. deadline, it appeared Wagner would choose to stay in New York rather than join the Red Sox, a decision that received much criticism in New York. A source said the primary concern for Wagner was not his contract status, but his desire to protect his surgically repaired left arm in a low-pressure situation during the final month of the season.
“Unless something changes with Boston, I’ll probably be a Met,” Wagner had said Monday after New York’s loss to the Phillies.
However, according to the source, Wagner this afternoon decided he wanted to pitch in a pennant race rather than remain with the wretched Mets, believing could help his position on the free agent market. In addition, Epstein told the Globe’s Nick Cafardo that, despite reports in the media, the Red Sox never thought the deal was dead, that the Mets and Sox had worked out the players ahead of time, and that the teams knew it would come down to the final hours all along.
“You guys (media) 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, 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.”
Wagner has pitched twice since coming off the disabled list last week. In two innings, he has allowed no hits and a walk, while striking out four. Wagner, who stands just 5-feet-10-inches, was one of the hardest throwers in baseball before his elbow injury, and he has been clocked in the mid-90s in his two appearances since his return.
Because he is coming off serious surgery, the Red Sox will not be able to use him on back-to-back days, but pitching two of every three days is not out of the question. He will give Terry Francona another option out of the bullpen in the seventh and eighth innings, along with Hideki Okajima and Daniel Bard.
When word that the Sox had put in a claim on Wagner initially broke, Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen both expressed concern about what his role might be. Papelbon’s comments were particularly candid, telling WEEI.com, “What has he done? Has he pitched this year?” Is he ready to pitch or is he not? … I think our bullpen is good where we’re at right now. Don’t get me wrong. But I guess you could always make it better. It’s kind of like the [Eric] Gagne thing, I guess.”
Papelbon later backed down from his comments, but not until Wagner responded by telling SI.com’s Jon Heyman, “[W]hen he walks in my shoes then I’ll say something. Let him be 38 and have Tommy John surgery.”
Since Monday, Papelbon has praised the potential (and eventually final) addition of Wagner every time he’s been asked about it.
“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.”
In his career, Wagner, a six-time All-Star, has a 2.39 ERA in 767 appearances, with 1,070 strikeouts in 820 innings.