NEW YORK (AP) – In a pair of record-setting deals for relief pitchers, Billy Wagner reached a preliminary agreement Monday on a $43 million, four-year contract with the New York Mets only hours after B.J. Ryan finalized a $47 million, five-year agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Ryan’s contract is the largest for a reliever in baseball history and Wagner’s agreement has the highest average salary. Both broke marks held by New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

“Everybody’s looking for pitching and there’s not a lot of pitching out on the market. Consequently, it’s economics,” said Philadelphia Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who was unsuccessful in his attempt to re-sign Wagner.

Another sign of the premium placed on pitching was the deal Oakland gave to starter Esteban Loaiza, who went 12-10 with a 3.77 ERA for the Washington Nationals last season. He agreed to a three-year contract with the Athletics worth $21,375,000.

“It’s good not to have an unsigned closer right now, to be in the market for a closer,” said Rick Hahn, assistant general manager of the World Series champion Chicago White Sox. “It certainly is an indication of this robust market for free agents.”

One week before the start of the winter meetings, two big sluggers who were traded last week in separate deals were introduced at news conferences, with the Mets showing off first baseman Carlos Delgado and the White Sox welcoming Jim Thome.

No sooner had Thome joined the White Sox in a trade from the Phillies last week than he picked up the phone and tried to be a recruiter, calling free-agent first baseman Paul Konerko.

“Please come back,” was Thome’s message. “I put a call into him this weekend. We have not talked. I’ve known Paulie for a long time. … I just wanted him to know from my end. We’ll connect I’m sure. He probably has a lot going on and vice versa.”

Considered by many the top reliever on the free-agent market, Wagner saved 38 games for Philadelphia last season. The Phillies offered just more than $30 million over three years to retain the 34-year-old left-hander, a four-time All-Star whose fastball reaches 100 mph. Philadelphia was set to increase the money at 4 p.m. Monday but 45 minutes earlier received a call from Wagner’s agent informing the club of the pitcher’s decision.

“Three years we felt very comfortable with. Going to a fourth year as the Mets went to, we didn’t feel that comfortable,” Gillick said.

Wagner must pass a physical before the deal can be completed.

In Toronto, Ryan was asked at his news conference if he was worth the money.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I’m going to go out on that field and see. When you sign a deal like this, you want to hold up your end of it.”

A left-hander who turns 30 on Dec. 28, Ryan has 42 career saves, including 36 last season for the Baltimore Orioles.

“He stands among the few pitchers in baseball worthy of a five-year contract,” Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. “I know our starting pitchers will be very happy to hear this news.”

Ryan’s deal tops the $39.99 million, four-year contract Rivera got from the Yankees from 2001-04. Wagner’s average salary of $10.75 million tops that of Rivera, who has one season remaining under a $21 million, two-year contract with New York.

Loaiza made 34 starts last season, striking out 173 and walking 55 batters in 217 innings. A two-time All-Star, he bounced back from a 1-4 start to go 11-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 23 outings after June 1.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane had money to sign Loaiza after trading aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in a three-day span last December. Support from Oakland’s new ownership group headed by Los Angeles real estate mogul Lewis Wolff also allowed the deal to get done quickly.

“For us, it was an opportunity to add a player without subtracting a player,” Beane said. “Our history here, usually we’re trading a player to acquire a player.”


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