Maybe Mets should think outside the box on closer

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Frank Francisco #48 of the New York Mets Frank Francisco #48 of the New York Mets pitches in the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field. (April 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

The Mets made a relatively large financial investment in Frank Francisco, which is why it probably made sense for manager Terry Collins to affirm Monday night that Francisco is going to remain the team's closer "for the moment."

The organization has much less of an emotional investment in Francisco. That's why it makes sense for the Mets to jettison not only Francisco-as-closer but the whole idea of having a closer at all this year if the big righty struggles the way he did in two losses this past weekend in Miami.

Yes, Francisco converted his ninth save in 11 chances Monday night in the Mets' 3-1 victory over the Brewers at Citi Field. But he gave up a run, two hits and a walk and forced Collins to warm up Jon Rauch behind him.

Francisco inspired little confidence in what was left of the crowd of 20,061. He was booed on the way in and drew sarcastic cheers when he threw a strike to Taylor Green before walking the rookie to put the tying runs on base with one out.

Francisco recovered to strike out Brooks Conrad and get pinch hitter George Kottaras to fly out to right-center to end it.

That drama might not have happened if Collins had simply left Bobby Parnell in to pitch the ninth after he retired the only two batters he faced in the eighth. Parnell threw all of five pitches.

Too radical, I know. Can't be done when you have to honor your closer.

I asked Collins before the game if he thinks a team can survive in this day and age without a designated closer, with the manager choosing his late-inning relievers based on the situation. He didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely," he said.

Did the Mets consider that in their discussions Monday about whether Francisco should remain the closer?

"We did consider that," Collins said. "We did consider that. In our case at this particular moment, Byrdak would be dead by July."

It was a good line from Collins. He meant he would use Tim Byrdak every day if he could; the lefty has appeared in 21 of the Mets' first 35 games.

Closer-by-committee is a tough sell for the relievers whose future contracts depend on how many saves they get. But the Mets don't owe Francisco anything other than the $12 million he signed for on a two-year deal.

If they decided to go without a closer, Collins said Byrdak would be in that late-inning mix along with Francisco, Parnell and Rauch.

After Monday night, Francisco is 1-3 with an 8.59 ERA. Two of those losses came over the weekend against the Marlins. Including Sunday, he twice has been pulled by Collins in the ninth inning before he could be charged with a blown save. Not very closer-like.

There's no reason to believe Rauch, Parnell or Byrdak would be any better than Francisco. But there's also little reason to keep Francisco in the closer role. His career save percentage is 71.6 percent. For comparison's sake, Mariano Rivera's is 89.3. Joe Nathan's is 89.0. Jonathan Papelbon's is 88.8. Heath Bell's is 82.0.

Nathan, Papelbon and Bell signed as free agents this past offseason in a reliever-rich market. The Mets dipped into that pool as best they could with the financial limitations forced upon them before the Madoff case settlement. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

"Frankie Francisco was brought here to be a closer," Collins said.

True. That doesn't mean he has to stay as one. Or even that the Mets have to have one.

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