Billy Wagner is out for the rest of this season and likely all of next. The New York Mets closer will have surgery after an MRI on Monday showed a torn medial collateral ligament in his pitching elbow has gotten worse during more than a month of rehabilitation.
His injury could send the Mets into the free-agent market for a top reliever this winter, perhaps prompting them to pursue Francisco Rodriguez.
"It does change your thinking," general manager Omar Minaya said. "Any guy that we run out there is not going to be a proven guy. So, you know, until you have a proven guy, you can't say you're comfortable."
A five-time All-Star, Wagner also has a torn flexor pronator, which is a muscle in the forearm. When he tested his arm Sunday at Shea Stadium by facing teammate Gustavo Molina, Wagner hit the reserve catcher on the left foot with his 13th pitch, then walked off the field.
"The tear is now big enough that the doctors are recommending so-called Tommy John surgery," Minaya said. "If all goes well, he will be able to return to pitch in about a year's time following the surgery."
The left-hander has converted 101 of 118 regular-season save chances since signing with New York before the 2006 season, but has not pitched since Aug. 2.
When the Mets put Wagner on the disabled list three days later, they described the injury as a strained left forearm. Minaya said Monday that an MRI that day revealed the tear but that Wagner and the team thought there was a chance he could pitch through it.
"There's a lot of guys that pitch with tears, especially when you're 37 years old," Minaya said. "The question is how these tears hold up and in what areas. But if you were to take an MRI of a lot of 37-year-old pitchers, they'll be showing you tears."
Wagner is owed $10.5 million next year, the final guaranteed season of a $43 million, four-year contract with the Mets, and the team holds an $8 million option for 2010 with a $1 million buyout. Minaya thought there was a chance Wagner might return to the mound next September.
While Minaya mentioned that the Mets could go with internal options, the best available closer on the market will be K-Rod, who began Monday with 55 saves for the Los Angeles Angels. He could get a four- or five-year contract in excess of the $15 million average Mariano Rivera is making with the Yankees.
"You have certain allotted dollars that you're going to invest in putting the team together," Minaya said. "That was an area that I was not expecting that I was going to need to have to have a lot of dollars."
Before Monday night's home game against the New York Yankees, Rodriguez didn't want to comment on the Mets' situation.
"I don't want to answer that question. Right now I only want to talk about today's game. I don't know what's going to happen in the future," he said.
While Wagner has repeatedly said he intends to retire when this contract concludes, Minaya wasn't certain that would be the case, cautioning: "How many guys have said, `That will be my last year,' and then come back?"
Minaya also thought Wagner would want to reach 400 saves _ he is 15 shy.
"If Billy wants to pitch again, he will pitch again. It's going to be in Billy's court," he said. "I still think Billy, he's a good enough athlete, he's a hard worker, determined, I think if he wants to pitch, he will have the opportunity to pitch."
New York began Monday with a two-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East and is 22-11 since Wagner's last appearance. Luis Ayala, acquired from Washington last month in a trade, is 5-for-6 in save chances for the Mets.
"The guys have done a very good job stepping up," Minaya said.
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