The Atlanta Braves sure didn’t waste any time in their hot pursuit of a new closer.
Just hours after Atlanta offered arbitration to free agents Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez reports surfaced that the Braves have reached a preliminary agreement with Billy Wagner on a one-year, $7 million dollar contract with a $6.5 million vesting option for the 2011 season.
Wagner, who ranks sixth in major league history with 385 saves, missed most of the 2009 season recovering from ligament-transplant replacement surgery.
The Braves interest in the 38-year-old reliever stems from his successful comeback late last season with the Mets and Red Sox.
In his 17 appearances in the season’s final two months, Wagner posted an impressive 1.72 ERA, held opponents to a .174 batting average and notched 26 strikeouts over 15 2/3 innings.
The deal is expected to be finalized and announced after the flame throwing lefty passes a physical that is scheduled for today in Atlanta.
Sources believe that Wagner, a Virginia native, could have commanded more money on the free agent market but chose to take less to come to Atlanta for its close location to his home, its position to compete for a playoff spot next season, and for the opportunity to play for a manager he’s always admired in Bobby Cox.
The two sides were believed to have ironed out most of the details on the contract this weekend and were just waiting for confirmation of Boston’s offer of arbitration before moving forward in the process.
Wagner, along with the Braves’ Soriano and Gonzalez, were considered to be the elite relievers on the free agent market.
The duo of Soriano and Gonzalez split closing duties for Atlanta last season and combined for 37 saves and 192 strikeouts in 150 innings.
The Braves’ decision to offer arbitration was a precautionary measure as both Soriano and Gonzalez, who are classified as Type A free agents, had seemingly priced themselves out of Atlanta.
They are expected to command multi-year, high priced contracts from others teams with all indications pointing to both hurlers declining arbitration with the Braves receiving first-round draft picks as compensation.
With the signing of Wagner, another Type A free agent, Atlanta will have to give up a first-round pick to the Red Sox but should get that pick back and some after Soriano and Gonzalez exit as expected.
If Soriano and/or Gonzalez surprise and accept arbitration from the club, the team’s relief corps would stand to be one of baseball’s best, albeit most expensive bullpens.
Soriano could net up to $8 million if he returns on a one-year contract with Gonzo expected to make at least $5 million next season under arbitration.
A more likely scenario has Atlanta searching for a replacement setup man on the free agent market.
Former Brave and another Type A free agent Octavio Dotel along with Type B free agent Fernando Rodney are potential candidates for the club to pursue after finalizing the deal with their new closer.
Billy Wagner comes to Atlanta with an impressive resume.
He has a career 2.39 ERA, 1,092 strikeouts in 833 2/3 innings, and more saves than any other active closer except for Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.
The veteran hurler who is just 39 saves shy of tying John Franco for the record of most saves by a left-handed closer now has the chance to accomplish that feat while also aiding in the Braves’ effort to return to the postseason in 2010.