PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- With Frank Francisco's health in question, the Mets have installed a familiar backup plan at closer.
Bobby Parnell -- he of the electric stuff and spotty ninth-inning history -- will close for the Mets if Francisco is unable to go by Opening Day. Manager Terry Collins relayed the news to Parnell on Tuesday evening, before talking in person with both Parnell and Francisco the following morning.
"It's as simple as Frankie's coming off surgery, and if he's not ready, then I'm going to be ready," Parnell said. "I'll just prepare myself like it's the ninth and go from there."
Long considered the Mets' closer of the future, Parnell is coming off his best season as a professional, with a 2.49 ERA, 61 strikeouts and 20 walks in 68 2/3 innings. He led all Mets relievers in appearances (74) and holds (18).
But the one blemish on Parnell's campaign came when he took over as closer with Francisco on the disabled list. Parnell still posted strong ninth-inning numbers from June through August, with a 2.77 ERA in 13 appearances as interim closer. But he blew two of his six save opportunities, prompting the Mets to reinstall Francisco as their ninth-inning man.
When Francisco continued to struggle through health issues and inconsistency late in the season, the Mets turned to Parnell again, this time with better success. The right-hander converted all three of his save opportunities down the stretch, reeling off 11 1/3 scoreless innings to end the year.
"I finished well in September," Parnell said, crediting the knuckle-curve that former teammate Jason Isringhausen taught him in 2011 for much of his recent success. "I felt like in every outing I've increased my knowledge. I feel like I'm better prepared than I was."
"I just saw great growth from the middle of last summer," Collins said. "I saw him in the second half absolutely take enormous strides. We all know about his stuff. I just thought his mound presence; it looked like he aged five years in about two months. I just saw some really, really positive things."
As a result, Parnell has a strong chance to begin the season at closer, particularly given the tenuous state of Francisco's health.
Despite discomfort in his throwing elbow during the season, Francisco did not discover that he had a bone spur in the elbow until December. He underwent surgery to remove it at the time, but reported to camp this week with inflammation in the joint.
General manager Sandy Alderson revealed that Francisco was unable to complete his rehab on schedule due to personal issues involving deaths in his family.
"It's not alarming, only in the sense that I suspected this might be the case for some time following his offseason," Alderson said. "I'm disappointed, but unfortunately this is not unexpected."
Though he is admittedly not "comfortable" with the current state of his bullpen, Alderson said he is not actively looking outside the organization for help. Doctors have advised Francisco to cease throwing completely until he feels no discomfort, a period that Collins said could last two weeks.
"It's going to be a little while before he throws," Collins said. "He's got some swelling in there. He's pretty tender due to a very tough winter for him personally. He's a little behind in a lot of the rehab stuff, and the fact that this has flared up on him, it's going to drop him back a couple of weeks."
This has opened the door for Parnell to seize the closer's role -- perhaps for good. Even if Francisco is healthy at the end of camp, Collins said, Parnell may earn ninth-inning duties if he is throwing well.
At this point, in other words, the closer's job appears to be Parnell's to lose.
"I've always wanted to pitch and I've always had fun playing baseball," Parnell said. "Ever since Day 1, it was like, "That's cool. I want to throw that ninth inning.' So I'm finally getting the chance to be able to do it, and that's exciting."