Amidst a flurry of moves, the Mets inked right handed reliever Frank Francisco to a two year, $12 million deal. Francisco will assume closing duties and hopefully help stabilize a bullpen that was in shambles for most of 2011. But did the Mets overpay for Francisco?
Giving relievers a multi-year contracts is risky because their performance tends to vary greatly from year to year (with the exception of Mariano Rivera who is in a class of his own). Throwing lots of money at relievers in addition to multi-year contracts is also a dangerous practice, but something that teams continue to do anyway (see: Jonathan Papelbon with the Phillies and Francisco Rodriguez with the Mets). So why would Sandy Alderson give a thirty-two year old reliever a two year deal at six million per? Because it was necessary.
The Mets needed a closer, and Francisco fits that role. The whole notion of saving your best reliever for the ninth inning, regardless of the situation, is ridiculous to begin with, but that is a sabermetric argument for another day. The bottom line is that the Mets are going to use a closer in the traditional way, and after trading K-Rod last season, the team couldn’t find a viable in-house candidate, despite giving Bobby Parnell ample opportunity to prove himself. The Amazins just didn’t have a lot of quality relievers on the team last year, so Alderson went out and signed Francisco (along with Jon Rauch) because he is better than what was on the roster. Therefore, he gets to close.
But is $6 million per year too much for the former Toronto Blue Jay and Texas Ranger? Probably, but that is what the market dictated. After seeing where the big dogs landed (Papelbon: $50 million over four years with a $13 million vesting option; Heath Bell: $27 million over three years with a $9 million option), Alderson signed two of the better relief options remaining without seriously overspending on Ryan Madson or K-Rod. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have Francisco for a couple million dollars less per year, but given how the market shook out, I’ll take it. Also, he’s been pretty good.
For his career, Francisco owns a 3.72 ERA (3.81 xFIP), 1.290 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 and 2.54 K/BB. Serving as Toronto’s closer for most of last season, he saved 17 games in 21 chances, compiling a 3.55 ERA (3.36 xFIP), 9.4 K/9 and 2.94 K/BB. He actually started off the year in horrific fashion (16 ER, 31 H 14 BB and 29 K in 24.1 IP) before finishing the season on a much higher note (4 ER, 18 H, 4 BB and 24 K in 26.1 IP).
One thing the Mets brass probably likes about Francisco is his ability to miss bats. For his career, Francisco has a swing and miss rate of 11.3%, and an opposing contact rate of 76.0%. His 2011 marks in those two categories were slightly worse last season (swing and miss-10.6%; opposing contact-76.3%), but still exceeded the MLB average (swing and miss-8.6%; opposing contact-80.7%).
Francisco features three pitches in his repertoire, according to FanGraphs: a fastball, splitter and curve. Averaging a tick above 94 mph last season, Francisco primarily worked off his heater in 2011, throwing it 69.9% of the time with a value of 0.09 runs above average per 100 pitches. The splitter was his favorite secondary offering, throwing it 19.9% of the time at 85.8 mph with a value of 0.25 runs above average per 100 pitches. Finally, Francisco threw his curveball last season 10.2% of the time, averaging a speed of 78.5 mph. The curve was his worst offering, worth 1.25 runs below average per 100 pitches. With three distinct pitches that vary speeds, Francisco should be able to keep hitters off balance.
A closer has to handle righties and lefties effectively, and during his career, Francisco has done that. Righties are hitting .228/.296/.388 off the Dominican native, while lefties are batting a similar .229/.326/.344. Last season the split was more pronounced (righties hit just .177/.226/.342 while lefties batted .292/.361/.458) but hopefully that will even out.
Despite the two year contract, I would have a hard time believing Alderson views Francisco as the team’s long term solution at closer. It would be ideal if the Mets could develop a closer from within, such as the Nationals did with Drew Storen and the Braves with Craig Kimbrel, but with Parnell faltering last season, a home grown closer is likely two years away. Still, Francisco is likely viewed as a stopgap until such a closer develops. If the Mets plan on trying Jenrry Mejia in the bullpen with the hopes of closing, he will need much of this season to rehab and recover from Tommy John surgery before pitching in the Major League relief corps in 2013. Similarly, if the team is thinking about Jeurys Familia as a potential closer (which I hope they aren’t, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility), officials will want to see him first as a starter in 2012 and 2013 before converting him. And the Mets don’t really have any top relievers in the upper levels of their farm system, so they need time to develop in the lower levels.
So for 2012 and 2013, Francisco is the Mets closer (probably). He won’t be lights out all the time, but what closer besides Rivera can really say that he is? And while his salary might be a little more than Alderson wanted to spend, there is no denying that Francisco should improve the bullpen’s quality.