The Mets of 2008 didn't just have a ninth-inning problem. They had a how-the-heck-do-we-get-to-the-ninth-inning problem.
Well, not anymore.
Now, after a stunning 12-player, three-team, winter meetings megadeal Wednesday night, the Mets have transformed their bullpen and transformed themselves.
J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez aren't merely an upgrade on Luis Ayala and Duaner Sanchez/Aaron Heilman/Scott Schoeneweis/insert your favorite other Mets setup villain here.
J.J. Putz and K-Rod are an upgrade on everybody's eighth-and-ninth-inning bullpen-assassin combo.
J.J. Putz struck out 56 batters in 46 1/3 innings with the Mariners last season.
Who beats that tag team? "Nobody," said one longtime talent evaluator Wednesday night. "To me, they're the best. And they're not just a great duo. They're a strikeout duo, too. There won't be many balls in play when those two guys are out there. As big as strikeouts are in the ninth inning, sometimes they're even bigger in the eighth."
True facts: K-Rod averaged 10.14 strikeouts per nine innings this season. Putz, even in a down year, averaged 10.88 whiffs per nine innings. And that was in the American League, where the lineups run nine deep.
Only two National League teams had a closer-setup combo in which each pitcher racked up that high a punch-out rate in 2008 -- the Cubs (Kerry Wood/Carlos Marmol) and the Dodgers (Takashi Saito/Jonathan Broxton/Hong-Chih Kuo). Not coincidentally, those staffs ranked third and first, respectively, in the league in bullpen ERA.
But now Wood is gone in Chicago. Saito is hurt in L.A. And it's the Mets who have assumed the throne.
We asked around Wednesday night in a lobby packed with baseball people. Nobody could come up with an eighth-inning/ninth-inning combo as formidable as the Mets' new twosome.
The reason is simple. As long as these two are healthy, there isn't a better tandem.
"They can play a 21-out game now," the same evaluator said of the Mets. "I give them a lot of credit. They just made a $13 million investment [in K-Rod], and now they've bolstered it with a character guy whose character is so good, he'll be willing to pitch the eighth inning."
Putz, of course, will have to be healthier than he was in 2008, when his 3.88 ERA was nearly triple his 1.38 mark in '07. But if he is, he changes the Mets' whole persona.
Just consider the bullpen disaster that did in this team this season:
The Mets were 13th in the league in ERA from the seventh inning on and 13th in bullpen ERA overall.
They blew 29 saves -- second most in the National League, behind St. Louis.
They gave up 61 home runs from the seventh inning on, tied with the Giants for the most in the league.
And those aren't even the most devastating numbers that defined the Mets' season. Consider these numbers:
If all games had ended after six innings this season, the Mets would have finished the year 11 games ahead of the Phillies (aka, the team that won the World Series).
If all games had ended after seven innings, the Mets would have finished six games ahead of the Phillies.
And if all games had even been just eight innings long instead of nine, the Mets would have finished five games ahead of the Phillies.
But the rules are the rules. And the rules say they had to play all nine. And it was those final innings that crushed the Mets.
The Phillies lost no games they led after eight innings. The Mets lost seven of them -- and lost 13 games they led after seven innings.
That's how seasons slip away. That's how one fatal flaw can undermine everyone and everything. That was the story of the 2008 Mets.
So one miraculous trade later, this doesn't just look like a whole new bullpen. It looks like a whole new team.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.