ARLINGTON, Texas - After the playoffs, when John Wetteland and the New York Yankees showed Texas the importance of a dominant closer, the Rangers made getting one their top offseason priority.
Instead of trying to find a Wetteland-like player, the Rangers got Wetteland himself, agreeing Monday to a $23 million, four-year contract that makes the World Series MVP the highest-paid reliever ever.
"I'm aware of those problems they had last year, and, yes, I'm excited to see if I can make some kind of a difference," said Wetteland, who becomes the fifth-highest paid pitcher in baseball.
"But I'm not going to tell you I'm the big, important piece that's missing. I don't view it that way at all. I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to getting a lot of work, and I think I'm going to get that here."
Texas had appeared stymied in its closer hunt last week when Mel Rojas signed with the Chicago Cubs and Eric Plunk, whom general manager Doug Melvin coveted, re-signed with Cleveland.
Wetteland was still on the market, but had canceled one trip to Arlington and was having trouble scheduling another.
Then he spent four hours here Thursday and everything clicked.
"It was just pretty hard to pass up," said Wetteland, who also was pursued heavily by Montreal and Boston, but not the Yankees. "The conditions here are too perfect. It's kind of mind-blowing to me."
Melvin has been criticized locally for not making any big moves this offseason and ownership was seen as being cheap following a record-setting attendance year and a hike in ticket prices for next season.
All that changed quickly with the announcement that Wetteland was bringing his sweat-stained hat and 95 mph fastball to The Ballpark in Arlington.
"Somebody said this is as big as when Nolan Ryan came aboard," Melvin said.
Wetteland's deal includes a $1 million signing bonus and $1 million in severance pay after his career. He'll make $4 million in next season, $5.25 million in '98, $5.75 million in '99 and $6 million in 2000.
"We feel this is the final piece of a puzzle to get us to the next level," Melvin said. "There is no doubt in my mind we have the best closer in baseball today."
Wetteland proved he was among the game's best by converting 43 of 47 save opportunities during the regular season, then going 7 for 7 in the playoffs - including both tries against Texas.
His four World Series saves earned the MVP award, and it convinced him to opt out of his Yankees contract that would've paid him $4.6 million this season.
Texas was willing to give him a raise because of how unreliable its bullpen was last year. Among their gory statistics was a major league-high 11 losses after leading with three outs to play and 16 blown saves.
"I'm just elated to have John," Rangers manager John Oates said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him in spring training."
The closer won't be the only new face in Texas' bullpen next year. The Rangers signed Xavier Hernandez last week and on Monday they acquired Cory Bailey from the St. Louis Cardinals.
The only players expected to return are lefty Ed Vosberg, who must be re-signed, and right-hander Danny Patterson, who will likely be groomed into becoming a closer.
In New York, Wetteland will be replaced by setup man Mariano Rivera, who went 8-3 with a 2.09 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 107 2-3 innings in his first full season in the majors.
"From what I've seen," Wetteland said, "there's no question in my mind he can be outstanding."
Notes: For signing Wetteland, the Rangers must surrender to the Yankees their first-round pick in the 1997 amateur draft. ... For Bailey, the Rangers gave St. Louis minor-league pitcher David Chavarria and a player to be named. ... Next up on Texas' postseason shopping list is re-signing center fielder Darryl Hamilton and getting a longterm deal with catcher Ivan Rodriguez. ... New York was expected to use the money it saved from Wetteland to sign left-handed starter David Wells.
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