Decision Time: Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner is an interesting study in contrasts. He's somewhat of a down-home sort of guy, with an unassuming character. At times though, he an almost over-the-top, outspoken player who can be somewhat of a disruption. In fact, it was that demeanor that helped to bring him to Philadelphia in the first place.

The Phillies clubhouse was a pretty relaxed and peaceful place this season. A far cry from the walking on eggshells type atmosphere that Larry Bowa created in his tenure with the club. If there was any tempest in the teapot that was the clubhouse, it came from Billy Wagner.

Wagner, the friendly farm boy who is just as comfortable working in fields as he is working on the mound, can get on people's nerves. He missed no occasion to blast fans for their lack of support of the 2005 Phillies. Was it justified? Much of it was. Was it necessary? Much of it wasn't. In the end, it did no good for Wagner, the team or the fans. It didn't encourage anybody to come out to games, but since Wagner was putting up impressive numbers, it also didn't come back to bite him in his pinstripe covered butt; at least not too hard.

While Wagner wasn't the only player who threw some shots at fans, he was certainly the loudest and most persistent. He would have it no other way though. He says what he's thinking even though it got him into trouble in Houston. There, he was critical of fans, players and management. Simply put, he wore out his welcome and forced the hand of owner Drayton McLane, who wanted him out of town. Of course, McLane's decision was only made when the Astros were sure that Brad Lidge could take over Wagner's role as closer.

Other players and management weren't exempt from Wagner's monologues in Philadelphia this past season either. Some saw his taunts of other players as a way to get them to respond; to work harder and make the club stronger. Some simply ignored Wagner's thoughts and focused on the overall serenity that the club was enjoying. As for management, they apparently weren't too upset, since re-signing Wagner has become job one for the immediate future.

There is no denying Wagner's effectiveness this season or his importance to the club. He is one of the premier closers in the game, but there are concerns that he's asking for just a little too much. At 34, Wagner is nearing the end of the road for a power pitcher. There's not much hoping that he can adapt and become a finesse type pitcher as he ages, so you have to wonder just how close the end of the line is for Wagner. While the Phillies are gauging that he's got two more definite seasons as a closer, Wagner insists on three. Wagner's demand for three years and $27 million, along with a complete no-trade clause is a little tough for the Phillies to swallow. They want the third year to be an option year - their option, of course - and they want the trade clause to be limited, not full.

Managing general partner David Montgomery and assistant general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., will head to Richmond, Virginia today (October 12) to meet with Wagner and see what can be done. At this point in his career, Wagner will likely feel the need to get everything he can out of what may be his final contract. How much he will budge - if at all - is something that nobody but Wagner and perhaps his agent Ben Stringfellow know for sure.

If the Phillies are going to contend, they need a closer. Any and every baseball fan knows that. Sure, they could turn their attention to Ugueth Urbina (also eligible for free agency) or even Ryan Madson, but wouldn't feel as comfortable with either of them as they do with Wagner. B.J. Ryan of the Orioles may be hitting the free agent trail, but there are no guarantees that he will in fact become a free agent and there are no guarantees that if he does file for free agency that he'll sign with the Phillies. If Wagner is allowed to go into free agency, it's likely that there will be no shortage of teams - perhaps three of them in the NL East - who will pursue his services.

The bottom line is that letting Wagner go would be risky and unless he's replaced by someone as good or better, it will be another black eye for the Phillies organization. It will also be a step back in terms of building a club that can win and win now. Even with all his warts, the Phillies can't afford to let Wagner even file for free agency and need to get him re-signed. His demands are a little tough to swallow, but perhaps that third year can be guaranteed for a good chunk of the money that Wagner wants, with the rest coming in the form of incentives. There are ways to be inventive and perhaps Amaro can give himself a good boost in the job market if he can find a way to get Wagner signed at a reasonable rate.

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