- Adam Rubin, ESPNNewYork.com
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ST. LOUIS -- Bobby Parnell had a short-lived audition as a starting pitcher two seasons ago. In eight late-summer starts with the New York Mets, though, he produced a 1-5 record and 7.93 ERA, prompting team officials to abandon sending Parnell to winter ball to prepare for a spring-training rotation competition. Parnell ultimately opened 2010 in Triple-A Buffalo's bullpen.
The window on Parnell as a closer has not similarly been cemented shut. But a late-summer closing cameo once Jason Isringhausen reached 300 career saves has not gone as hoped. So as the organization prepares for 2012, indications are the Mets will look outside for their next closer.
Asked if Parnell's struggles crystallize the need to seek external help, GM Sandy Alderson dryly said: "I'll let you speculate about that."
Said pitching coach Dan Warthen, rather directly: "I think alternatives will be certainly discussed."
Alderson employed Trevor Hoffman while CEO in San Diego. And the Padres paid the deposed all-time saves leader handsomely, even if that compensation partially was a premium for Hoffman's meaning to the franchise.
Alderson remains by no means in lockstep with the "Moneyball"-espoused closers-are-overpriced mantra. In an offseason with Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge and, yes, Francisco Rodriguez among a bevy of closers due to be free agents, Alderson does not dismiss signing a big-ticket closer.
"It's possible," Alderson said. "It just really depends how we allocate our resources otherwise. But I do think it's an important position for us to keep in mind as we go into the offseason.
"I think it has a real impact on not just team success, but also team outlook, team attitude, team confidence. Blown saves from time to time are part of the game, but blowing them at an inordinate rate can have, I think, a real negative impact on a team. So it needs to be a point of concentration for us."
Since K-Rod departed at the All-Star break, the Mets rank second in the majors with 10 blown saves, one behind the Colorado Rockies, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Alderson agreed, with limited exceptions such as Rafael Soriano's three-year, $35 million deal with the Yankees, that spending on closers has trended downward since the Mets signed K-Rod before the 2009 season to a three-year, $37 million deal (with the infamous 55-games-finished vesting option).
"But some of those closers were not nearly as accomplished," Alderson added about recent signings compared with the upcoming crop. "I think the other thing we've seen over the last few years is the emergence of young guys. There are a lot of young closers in the game. And I think it's because more clubs have been willing to give young guys a chance, which we have done over the last few weeks.
"In some cases it works. In some cases it doesn't."
Alderson has no interest in employing a stopgap closer, which might be justifiable if you accept the Mets are rebuilding. As Mets payroll nosedived from $119 million to $83 million during the 2003-04 offseason, Alderson-predecessor Jim Duquette signed underwhelming Braden Looper as closer, recognizing the team was not a contender.
"There are no concessions from me," Alderson said.
Alderson has implied next year's payroll will fall between $100 million and $110 million. With Johan Santana, Jason Bay and David Wright collecting a combined $55 million in 2012, it is logical to suggest the dollars available for closer will depend upon whether Jose Reyes re-signs.
"I think we'll know early on which direction it's headed," Alderson said about Reyes. " ... I think everything will be contingent on how that turns out -- not just financial issues, but how we construct the club. But that doesn't mean you can count on an early resolution, or that you can expect one."
As Alderson noted, the trend seems to be for young, homegrown, cost-effective closers, particularly in the NL East.
Rookie of the Year favorite Craig Kimbrel has 45 saves for the Atlanta Braves, surpassing the previous MLB rookie record-holder, the Texas Rangers' Neftali Feliz, who had 40 last year. Drew Storen is entrenched as Washington Nationals closer. And while Lidge remains on the Philadelphia Phillies' books for a few more weeks, Madson is amassing the saves, with Antonio Bastardo also having demonstrated competency.
There is no closer in waiting with the Mets. Mike Pelfrey was internally discussed and dismissed. He is capable of logging 220 innings, and Warthen maintains hope things click and Pelfrey emerges as a frontline starter.
Warthen believes Josh Stinson has closing capability, but the Mets cannot go into spring training banking on that.
Prospects Jenrry Mejia and Jeurys Familia are viewed as starting pitchers "for the moment," Alderson said. Mejia will not be ready until at least May 2012 anyway after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Jack Leathersich, a 2011 pick out of UMass-Lowell, amassed big strikeout totals at Brooklyn (26 of 47 batters faced), but Coney Island to the majors is a long way.
"I don't think there's anyone I would identify now as a possibility," Alderson said. "But, look, anybody that has a good arm and has success from level to level at some point could emerge -- somebody who is starting now who might get converted."
The Mets tried drafting closers in 2007. They unconventionally used picks in the first two rounds for Pacific-10 closers, Oregon State's Eddie Kunz and UCLA's Brant Rustich. That failed, with Kunz traded to the Padres this spring training in a change-of-scenery swap for former Paul DePodesta first-round pick Allan Dykstra, a first baseman.
Washington has received a return for using the 10th overall selection in 2009 on Storen, who closed at Stanford, but earmarking a top draft pick for a relief arm is not widely practiced.
"It's not what one does typically in the first round, but bullpens are important," said Alderson, who used a fifth-round pick on Leathersich.
The development route often involves using promising arms as starters and reassigning them to closing later if warranted.
"The John Wettelands and guys like that, they were starters throughout their minor league careers. It allows them to learn how to pitch," Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren said.
"You learn on a given night when you have one pitch working, 'How am I going to get through six innings?'"
Before Kimbrel, the Braves spent big on veteran Billy Wagner. Wren noted there are no absolutes in the optimal path to identifying a closer. The pieces just have to fit into the payroll.
"You can allocate money to any position if your team is balanced well enough in other areas," Wren said. "For us, we've got some money allocated to a couple of our starting pitchers. We've got some young starting pitching. Then our bullpen is primarily young guys. And then we've got money allocated to veteran players in our infield.
"You've got to have balance. You've got to have younger players coming on all the time. You've got to have guys going off all the time. Sometimes you get into -- and we all fall into this trap, and I'm not referring to any particular team, all of us -- that we try to keep guys around too long and their contracts grow beyond their everyday value."
As for Parnell, he still is young -- even among comparably aged peers. So even if closing is not planned for 2012, it is not forever precluded. At 27 years old, Parnell still is learning to pitch.
Parnell nearly exclusively was a corner infielder in high school in Salisbury, N.C. During fall ball, his prep team was short pitchers one weekend for a tournament at Charleston Southern University. His future college coach, Gary Murphy, observed Parnell registering 91-92 mph during an inning on the mound. Murphy offered a scholarship that day.
"I was long and lanky," Parnell recalled. "I didn't have much muscle. I didn't have much control of the ball, but I could sling it a little bit."
Asked when he finally felt like a pitcher instead of thrower, Parnell deadpanned: "I still feel like I throw sometimes."
He was kidding, but there is truth to Parnell still growing into pitching because of the lack of a foundation. Manager Terry Collins noted earlier this season that when Parnell studies video, he is not yet capable of picking up the nuances someone with equivalent age but more experience might discern.
"I'm definitely still learning," said Parnell, who registered 100 mph for the first time at Fenway Park in May 2009. " ... I guess you can look at it as a disadvantage, but I've still got a fresh arm."
It has not been a smooth year. Parnell struggled early while dealing with finger numbness caused by a blood clot. (He now takes Excedrin daily to guard against recurrence.) After being physically ready to be activated from the disabled list, the organization left Parnell at Buffalo longer because of struggles. Now the closing opportunity is slipping away.
"Bobby actually has improved every year," Warthen said. "His strikeout ratio has gone up. Do we want to see a three-up, three-down inning? Absolutely. Do we want to see two punchouts and a pop-up? Absolutely. But is he ready for that? No, probably not.
"Manny Acosta was asked to do the same thing for the Braves at the same age. He failed miserably. A lot of times it just takes some maturity. Bobby still has the ability. I think he still has a large learning curve. But I don't think he is afraid of the job."
Said Parnell: "I don't think they've given up on me as a closer. To say that I failed at closing, I don't think that would be fair, because I failed at everything this year so far. I feel very comfortable in the ninth. I feel very confident. I feel I have the stuff to be there. And I've told Terry that -- not that I deserve to be there, but that's where I want to be. I'm going to keep working to get better. I think it will happen."
Unlikely to accept a stopgap closer, the Mets are ready to hit the market.