Phils Sign Veteran Reliever Jose Mesa, 34, From The Mariners Another Experienced Pitcher, 40-year-old John Franco, Was Reported Interested In A Two-year Deal To Come To Philadelphia.

Posted: November 18, 2000

The Phillies' first order of business is finished. For a guaranteed $6.8 million, they have the services of veteran reliever Jose Mesa for the next two seasons.

"I think he brings quality and depth to the back end of our bullpen," general manager Ed Wade said yesterday during a conference call. "We've said we're trying to add quality and depth, and [Mesa] is a major first step in being able to accomplish that."

The second step is a work in progress.

Wade spoke with the agent for John Franco yesterday and was assured that the 40-year-old lefthander remains intrigued by the Phillies' two-year offer. If all goes according to plan, Franco will sign with the Phillies and take over as the team's closer. He also has been offered a two-year deal by the New York Mets, with whom he would continue as a setup man for Armando Benitez.

"I let [agent Dan Horwits] know that we felt it is important to move as quick as possible, because if we are unsuccessful in getting [Franco], we need to be able to move in a different direction," Wade said.

An American League scout agreed with Wade that the Phillies made a wise first free-agent decision in signing Mesa.

"To me, Jose Mesa saved the Seattle pitching staff last year," the scout said. "You can talk about his numbers, but this is a guy who is a workhorse with good stuff. His control gets him in trouble once in a while, but if you have a young staff, he's a real good fit. He's a horse of a man. I really thought it was a good move by the Phillies."

Mesa, 34, did not come cheaply and does come with some baggage. The righthander received a $1-million signing bonus and will be paid $2.4 million in 2001 and $3.4 million in 2002. If he cashes in on all his incentives and award bonuses, Mesa could make as much as $9 million.

The Phillies also forfeited their second-round pick in next June's draft to sign Mesa.

A weapons charge is pending against Mesa after an ugly December 1996 incident in Ohio.

Mesa was acquitted on six charges by a Cuyahoga County jury in April 1997. Among the charges were rape, felonious assault and theft. He settled a civil suit on similar charges out of court.

When police arrested Mesa on the rape charge, they found a handgun in the unlocked glove compartment of his car and filed separate charges for that offense. Those charges were dropped and later reinstated. Wade said a court date on those charges has been set for Dec. 18 in Cuyahoga County.

Recent statistics also indicate that this is a risky move. In fact, if you go just by the numbers, it appears as if Mesa's best days are almost as far behind him as the Phillies' last National League championship.

In 1995, he saved a league-leading 46 games and compiled a 1.13 earned run average for the American League champion Cleveland Indians. The next season, he saved 39 games and had a 3.73 ERA. By 1997, however, Mesa was sharing the closer role with Mike Jackson in Cleveland.

Mesa's most infamous blown save for Cleveland came in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, when he failed to hold a 2-1 ninth-inning lead against the Florida Marlins in an eventual 3-2, 11-inning Indians loss.

Midway through the 1998 season, Mesa was dealt to the San Francisco Giants, and the next season he signed with the Seattle Mariners. He converted 33 of 38 save opportunities in 1999, but hitters batted .305 against him.

Mesa went into spring training last year thinking he was still the closer, but just before the Mariners broke camp, manager Lou Piniella decided that job would go to Kazuhiro Sasaki.

"Sometimes you go to spring training and they change your role when you are happy with the role you were in," Mesa said. "It happened to me last season. After I had my mind set to be a closer, they told me the last day of spring training I'm not going to be the closer. From that day on, my mind was all screwed up."

He finished the 2000 season 4-6 with one save and a 5.36 ERA. Opposing batters hit .280. Manager Larry Bowa, who watched Mesa work in Seattle last summer, has insisted that his velocity is still intact and that his elevated ERA is deceiving.

"He had one game last year where he gave up a lot of runs and he kept pitching because [Piniella] didn't have anybody else in the pen," Bowa said.

Mesa said he would have no problem working as a setup man.

"Larry Bowa already told me I'm not going to pitch before the seventh inning," Mesa said. "It doesn't matter where you pitch, as long as you do the job."

Bob Brookover's e-mail address is bbrookover@phillynews.com

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