KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Who knew John Franco could provide so much motivation? Billy Wagner's(notes) comeback from Tommy John surgery, the full year between appearances, the Beantown setup role purgatory late last season and the decision to sign with the Atlanta Braves, all of it is fueled by the goal of passing Franco to become the all-time saves leader among left-handers.
Wagner admitted as much Friday, the day Braves pitchers and catchers reported at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex. The Hall of Fame is another enticing carrot. Oh, and getting to a World Series, somewhere he's never been in his 15-year career.
The honesty was as startling as it was refreshing, coming as it did from a 38-year-old veteran eager to win the hearts of new teammates. Sitting at 385 career saves – sixth all-time – Wagner needs a tidy 40 to pass Franco's 424.
"I have to have a special year to top Franco," he said. "I'm going out with the mindset of accomplishing that. If I get 40 saves, there is a great chance the Braves are going to the playoffs."
The admission produced an a-ha moment. His stipulation last September that the Boston Red Sox decline his $8 million 2010 option for him to come aboard as an eighth-inning specialist takes on clarity. He made it clear he wanted no part of finishing his career as Jonathan Papelbon's(notes) caddy. Wanting to close is understandable – it's what he's done in a dominant fashion since the mid-'90s. But Wagner also is numbers driven and covets a plaque in Cooperstown, something few active players admit to.
"You don't get into the Hall of Fame as a setup man, at least I don't see anybody there," he said. "The media have all the votes, most media are people who didn't play and they get to vote, it's more of a brown-nosing convention to get into the Hall of Fame than it is the stats. I want in there because to get 400 saves is a great accomplishment.
"I went through the contract with the Mets and it put me in a situation where I have a chance to top Franco."
Who says Franco is a Hall of Famer? Lee Smith has 478 saves – third all time behind the active Trevor Hoffman(notes) (591) and Mariano Rivera(notes) (526) – and he hasn't been voted in. Franco was never on a World Series winner, reaching the Fall Classic only in 2000 at age 39 as a Mets situational reliever. He will be on the ballot for the first time next year.
Wagner ought to be content knowing he's been a better pitcher than Franco whether he passes him on the saves list or not. Franco had an ERA of 2.89 and 975 strikeouts in 1,245 2/3 innings over 21 seasons. Wagner has a 2.39 ERA and has 1,092 strikeouts in 833 2/3 innings. The batting average against him is .189, one of the lowest of all time.
If he's effective, he ought to feel good about remaining one of the game's top closers at an advanced age after missing a year. And if he's effective, he can point to motivation that stretched beyond Franco, beyond Cooperstown, to naysayers real and imagined.
"The toughest part was hearing the critics," he said. "The toughest part was hearing, 'He's done, he'll never be the same.' I'm one of those guys who if you say I can't do something, I'll pretty much kill myself to do it.
"I like reading negative articles people write about me. I know I've done a lot of great things and I know what I'm capable of, so that just motivates me."
The Braves love the bulldog approach. On Friday, Wagner was animated and talkative in his Virginia drawl, joking with fellow pitcher Tim Hudson(notes) and regaling catchers Brian McCann(notes) and David Ross(notes) with an amusing story about a former batterymate who tipped off his signs. Subliminal message: Don't let it happen to you.
Hudson is another leap-of-faith, post-Tommy John signing, getting $28 million over three years after coming off the DL in time to make seven encouraging starts late last season. For him, bringing Wagner aboard made perfect sense.
"As far as free-agent relievers go, Billy was No. 1 on my wish list," Hudson said. "I'm excited he's here. It's very comforting to know we have a guy to close games with his track record."
The only blemish on Wagner's résumé is postseason performance. In seven series over six postseasons, his ERA is 10.32. The Houston Astros were bounced in the first round all four years in the 1990s they qualified with Wagner as closer. Every Mets fan remembers Wagner's failings in Games 1 and 6 of the 2006 NLCS. And in his last appearance of 2009 for the Red Sox, he was pulled with two out and two on in the eighth inning of Game 3 against the Angels. Papelbon came on, gave up a hit that scored both runners and Boston lost the game and series an inning later.
Wagner blew more smoke afterward than he did during the game. Asked by the New York Post if he planned to retire, he replied: "Why wouldn't I? I've got nothing else to [accomplish]."
What about reaching 400 saves?
"That's just dust in the wind," he said.
Hmm. As classic rock anthems go, instead it'll be "Enter Sandman," the Metallica song that greets his ninth-inning appearances. Wagner, of course, changed his mind about retirement, probably before the Post story hit the racks the next morning. On Friday he wouldn't touch the subject, saying, "I haven't even thought about it. I worry about today and tomorrow and play it by ear. I'm not going to draw conclusions on what I'm going to do. I've got to get through this year first."
The Braves signed him to a one-year contract for $6.75 million, nearly a $4 million pay cut from 2009 but a generous deal for a pitcher who has thrown 15 2/3 innings since sitting out a year recovering from elbow surgery.
The deal also includes a 2010 team option at $6.5 million. Leave no doubt that Wagner will do the math: No left-handed closer behind him has any chance of coming close to his saves total. If he pitches well enough for the Braves to pick up the option but he hasn't passed Franco, he'll be back.
- John Franco