As soon as teams could begin negotiating with free agents from other clubs last November, Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, general manager Frank Wren and manager Bobby Cox paid a visit to Billy Wagner's alpaca farm in Virginia to express him how badly they wanted him to become the new closer in Atlanta.
That was enough for the Braves to get their man as Wagner signed a contract that guarantees him at least $7 million and could be worth $13.5 million if he finishes 50 games this season, which would automatically trigger a club option for 2011. While the lefthander had 385 saves and six All-Star Game appearances on his resume entering 2010, his days as a dominant closer seemed to be behind him. He is 38 years old and had been limited to a combined 62 2/3 innings in the previous two seasons because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. It was a contract that caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised around major league front offices. However, if Wagner pitches like he did Wednesday night in closing out the Braves' 3-2 victory over the Cubs, he will end up being a bargain.
It was as if Wagner turned back time in striking out the side during a scoreless ninth inning for his first save of the season after Chipper Jones' two-run home run in the eighth had put the Braves ahead.
Marlon Byrd led off and Wagner blew him away on three pitches, fastballs that registered 97, 98 and 97 mph.
Alfonso Soriano then lined a single to left but not without seeing plenty of heat as Wagner threw fastballs at 98, 97 and 96.
Xavier Nady was next and Wagner set him down on three pitches. After starting off with a 97-mph fastball, Wagner went to the slider for the first time and it was of the wipeout variety. The first was clocked at 85 and the second at 82 as Nady went down flailing.
Up stepped Geovany Soto and Wagner blew him away, too, throwing heaters at 96, 98 and 98 before getting a called third strike on an 83-mph slider to end the game.
In all, Wagner threw 13 pitches. Ten were fastballs that averaged 97.2 mph and the other three were sliders that resulted in two called strikes and one swinging strike. From 2002 through 2006, Wagner's average velocity never dipped below 96.3 mph in a season. In the last three seasons, it never surpassed 94.6. It remains to be seen whether Wagner has the durability to be as overpowering as he was last night for the rest of the year. However, Wednesday night's outing couldn't have been more encouraging for the Braves.
John Perrotto is the editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus.