Monday, February 4, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Jeff Reardon

The Mets have a history of trading away young pitchers for offensive help.  In 1971, Nolan Ryan was traded to California for Jim Fregosi in what many consider to be the worst trade in club annals.  Two decades later, David Cone was shipped to Toronto for Ryan Thompson and the eventual all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman, Jeff Kent.  (Of course, the Mets traded Kent away before anyone realized he would become the most prodigious power hitter at his position.)  Cone wasn't the only strikeout king to be traded north of the border, as just this past off-season, R.A. Dickey took his Thesaurus and Cy Young Award to Toronto for top catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, ace-in-waiting Noah Syndergaard and catcher of the moment John Buck.

Ryan threw seven no-hitters after leaving New York and is the proud owner of a Hall of Fame plaque.  Cone pitched a perfect game, won a Cy Young Award and wears five World Series rings on his pitching hand.  Dickey left a 74-win team to join a vastly improved Blue Jays squad that is looking to win its first AL East title in 20 years.

But it's not just starting pitchers who have been dealt for players who were supposed to provide an offensive spark.  Occasionally, the Mets have traded a relief pitcher for offensive help.  And unfortunately, on occasion that offensive help fizzled while the relief pitcher sizzled for his new team.

One such reliever spent parts of three seasons in New York, but was blocked from being anything but a middle reliever because the Mets already had a full-time closer.  Deemed expendable when the Mets were searching for a bat, he was traded to a team that didn't have a full-time closer, but had a surplus of outfield talent.  In one of Frank Cashen's rare poor trades, Ellis Valentine became a Met, sending Jeff Reardon to Montreal.

Jeff Reardon took a knee in this photo, but after he left the Mets, he had opposing hitters on their knees.

Jeffrey James Reardon was originally drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 23rd round of the 1973 amateur draft.  But Reardon did not sign with Montreal, instead choosing to attend and play baseball at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Four years after spurning the Expos, Reardon signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets.  One day after Reardon became property of the Mets, Tom Seaver and Dave Kingman became former Mets, as "The Franchise" and the "Sky King" were dealt away in separate trades by penny-pinching chairman M. Donald Grant.

The team was about to enter into its darkest period, playing before sparse crowds at Grant's Tomb, as Shea Stadium was known in the post-Midnight Massacre era.  But the lack of talent at the major league level meant that Reardon would have a short stay in the minors, provided he could pitch somewhat successfully there.  To say Reardon was somewhat successful as a Mets minor leaguer would be a massive understatement.

In his first professional baseball season, Reardon pitched well at Single-A Lynchburg, going 8-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 1977, with most of his appearances on the mound coming as a starting pitcher.  In 1978, Reardon once again pitched primarily as a starter and was dominant, posting a 17-4 record and a 2.54 ERA at AA-Jackson.  Upon his promotion to AAA-Tidewater in 1979, Reardon was converted to a relief pitcher, making 29 of his 30 appearances out of the bullpen.  The transition went without a hitch, as Reardon's ERA dropped to 2.09 and his WHIP was a stellar 0.97.  By late August, Reardon was in the major leagues.

Reardon appeared in his first major league game at Shea Stadium on August 25, 1979, losing to the Cincinnati Reds when he failed to hold a one-run lead in the ninth.  Two days later, he was on the mound again at Shea, this time against the Atlanta Braves.  Reardon was called upon by manager Joe Torre to pitch the ninth inning of a game that was suspended on June 17 with the score tied, 1-1.  After Reardon pitched a scoreless top of the ninth, his teammates came through in the bottom of the ninth, scoring the winning run on an RBI single by Alex Treviño.  Reardon was credited with the victory in only his second big league appearance.  Because of an interesting statistical twist, Reardon earned his first win two months before making his major league debut, as the game went in the record books as having happened on June 17, even though Reardon was still at Tidewater on that date.  Similarly, Reardon is credited with having made his major league debut on June 17, even though he didn't step on a major league mound until August 25.

Although Reardon gave up runs in two of his first three outings with the Mets, he was brilliant in the season's final month, posting a 0.51 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .123 batting average.  The Mets closed out the 1979 season by winning their final six games to avoid the team's first 100-loss campaign since 1967, with Reardon playing a large part in the season-ending skein.  Reardon pitched in four of the six games, facing 13 batters and allowing only one of them to reach base - and he reached on an error.  He also recorded the first two saves of his career in the season's final week.

By pitching only 20⅔ innings for the Mets in 1979, Reardon retained his rookie status for the 1980 campaign.  His first full season in the majors was arguably the best by a Mets rookie reliever in the team's first two decades of existence.  Reardon appeared in 61 games for the Mets in 1980, racking up 110⅓ innings in the process.  The right-hander was at his best when he pitched at least two innings, which he did in 38 of his 61 appearances.  Reardon posted a 1.62 ERA in his multi-inning appearances, holding the opposition scoreless in 28 of those 38 games.  Reardon's tremendous season (8-7, six saves, 2.61 ERA, 101 Ks) earned him a sixth-place finish for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, making him the first relief pitcher in Mets history to get Rookie of the Year consideration.

Even though the Mets were still near the bottom of the National League East standings in 1981, they had developed quite a bullpen.  Seven relievers pitched in at least 20 games for the Mets in 1981.  None of them had an ERA above 3.68 and five of the seven posted ERAs under 3.00.  As the June 15 trade deadline was approaching, it was clear that the bullpen was the team's strength.  At the same time, the offense was struggling to score runs.  The Mets won only eight of their first 33 games in 1981, averaging 2.9 runs per game over that stretch.  Other than the recently reacquired Dave Kingman, who hit 11 of the team's first 25 home runs, no Met was hitting for power.  General manager Frank Cashen realized that the team needed an offensive spark and also knew that one way to get it was by trading a strength to fix a weakness.  On May 29, Cashen made such a deal, and Jeff Reardon's career as a Met was over.

In a trade that would go down as one of the few poor deals orchestrated by Cashen, the Mets sent Reardon and outfielder Dan Norman (who came to the Mets in the Tom Seaver trade) to the Montreal Expos in exchange for outfielder Ellis Valentine.

From 1977 to 1979, Valentine was one of the most complete players in the National League. As a hitter, Valentine averaged 31 doubles, 24 homers, 78 RBIs and 12 stolen bases per season over the three-year period.  As the Expos' rightfielder, Valentine was a defensive monster, winning a Gold Glove in 1978 on the strength of his league-leading 25 assists.  No outfielder, regardless of whether of he played in left field, center field or right field, has recorded as many as 25 assists since Valentine accomplished the feat in 1978.  Needless to say, Valentine would have been a great acquisition for the Mets following the 1979 season.  But it was now 1981.  And although Valentine was only 26 at the time of the trade, he was already a shadow of his former All-Star self.

Valentine was limited to 86 games in 1980 because of various injuries, including a fractured cheekbone he suffered after being hit in the face with a pitch.  His numbers for the year (.315, 13 HR, 67 RBI) were impressive for the amount of games he played, but the injuries seemed to change the course of his career.  Valentine started off poorly in 1981, batting .211 in limited duty for the Expos.  He also missed games because of a sprained knee and a pulled left hamstring.  In fact, at the time of his trade to the Mets, Valentine was on the disabled list because he had aggravated the hamstring injury.

Nothing changed for Valentine after the trade to New York, as the once-promising outfielder hit .207 for the Mets in 48 games.  He rebounded to hit .288 in 1982, but had become a singles hitter.  In 111 games, Valentine only produced 23 extra-base hits and collected 48 RBIs.  His speed had deserted him as well.  After four consecutive seasons of double-digit steal totals from 1976 to 1979, Valentine stole one base as a Met in seven attempts.  Valentine never played for the Mets again after the 1982 season and was out of baseball by 1985.  Reardon, on the other hand, was on his way to becoming one of the best closers of his generation.

After the trade to Montreal, Reardon turned into a dominant reliever.  In 25 games for the Expos in 1981, Reardon went 2-0 with six saves.  He also had a sparkling 1.30 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, and held opposing hitters to a microscopic .148 batting average.

Reardon was at his best during the Expos' march to the second-half division title in 1981 (the players' strike divided the 1981 season into two halves), allowing one run, eight hits and no walks in his final 15⅓ innings.  Three of those 15⅓ innings came in Montreal's regular season finale, a game the Expos needed to win to advance to the postseason for the first time in franchise history.  Naturally, the game was played at Shea Stadium, the site of the Expos' first-ever regular season game in 1969.  Reardon came into the game in the seventh inning and was still on the hill when Dave Kingman flied out to leftfielder Terry Francona for the final out of the game.  Four months after being traded by the Mets to the Expos, Reardon was celebrating a split-season championship with his new teammates at Shea Stadium.

In the first-ever National League Division Series, Reardon saved two of the Expos' three victories.  However, he struggled against the eventual World Series champion Dodgers in the NLCS.  Montreal fell one win short in their quest to reach the World Series.  They never won another division title as the Expos.

Former Met Jeff Reardon and future Met Gary Carter celebrate the only playoff series win in Expos history.

From 1982 to 1986, the Expos were a mediocre team, winning between 78 and 86 games each year.  But Reardon was anything but mediocre.  During those five seasons, Reardon established himself as one of the most feared closers in the National League.  He won 30 games and recorded 146 saves over the next half-decade for the Expos, recording an impressive 2.98 ERA along the way.  Reardon  was selected to represent Montreal in the All-Star Game twice and led the league in saves once.  Furthermore, his 41 saves in 1985 earned him his first Rolaids Relief Award and helped him finish 7th in the Cy Young Award vote and 20th in the NL MVP vote.

Following the 1986 season, the Expos traded Reardon to the Minnesota Twins in a six-player deal.  Although Reardon posted a 4.48 ERA in his first season facing American League hitters, he still managed to save 31 games for the Twins in 1987 and struck out a career-high 9.3 batters per nine innings.  The Twins went on to win their first World Series championship in Minnesota, with Reardon pitching 4⅔ scoreless innings in the Fall Classic.  For the second time in his career, Reardon finished in the top ten in the Cy Young vote and he also finished 11th in the race for AL MVP.

Reardon had another spectacular season in 1988, saving a career-high 42 games, lowering his ERA to 2.47 and earning his third All-Star Game selection, but the Twins fell short in their quest to repeat as World Series champions.  In 1989, Reardon's ERA ballooned back over 4.00, but he still managed to record his fifth consecutive 30-save season.  It would be his last season in Minnesota.

Prior to the 1990 season, Reardon signed a three-year, $6.8 million contract to pitch for the Boston Red Sox.  His first two years in Boston were excellent.  Reardon combined to save 61 games in 1990 and 1991, helping the Red Sox win the AL East in 1990 and making his fourth All-Star team in 1991.  After becoming the first pitcher to record a 40-save season in each league in 1988, Reardon enjoyed another 40-save season with the Red Sox in 1991, making him the first player to reach that mark with three different teams.

In 1992, Reardon put his name in the record books once again when he recorded his 342nd career save to pass Rollie Fingers into the top spot on the all-time saves list.  But Reardon struggled after breaking Fingers' record.  Over his next 25 games, Reardon posted a 6.33 ERA and blew seven save opportunities.  As a result, the Red Sox traded Reardon to Atlanta in late August, which seemed to rejuvenate the 36-year-old reliever.  In 14 late-season appearances with the the Braves, Reardon went 3-0 with three saves and a 1.15 ERA, helping Atlanta win their second consecutive NL West division title.  In the NLCS against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Reardon did not allow a run or a hit in three appearances and became the winning pitcher in Game 7 when Francisco Cabrera drove in Sid Bream with the pennant-winning run in the bottom of the ninth.  But the World Series was another story, as Reardon only got into two of the six games against the Toronto Blue Jays and was credited with the loss in Game 2 when he allowed two runs in the ninth inning.

With this slide by Sid Bream, Jeff Reardon became a winning pitcher in a Game 7.  How about that?

The 1992 World Series marked the beginning of the end for Reardon.  He signed with Cincinnati prior to the 1993 season and was used primarily as a middle reliever, going 4-6 with eight saves and a 4.09 ERA for the Reds.  He then signed as a free agent with the Yankees in 1994, but was horrible in 11 games for the Mets' crosstown rivals.  Reardon posted an 8.38 ERA and allowed 17 hits in 9⅔ innings before being released by the Yankees in early May.  The 38-year-old Reardon would never pitch again in the major leagues.

Jeff Reardon began his 16-year career in the big leagues as a late-inning pitcher for the Mets in 1979.  He pitched well in parts of three seasons as a Met, appearing in 97 games and going 10-9 with a 2.65 ERA.  But with Neil Allen entrenched in the closer's role, Reardon could only muster ten saves with the Mets.  However, with the team in need of offensive help (which was a common theme from the late '60s to the early '80s - isn't that right, Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan?), general manager Frank Cashen acquired Ellis Valentine in exchange for the bearded reliever.  Allen eventually gave up the closer's role to Jesse Orosco in 1983 (this time, Cashen got it right - he jettisoned Allen to St. Louis for Keith Hernandez), but by then, Reardon had become a star closer in Montreal.

In five and a half seasons with the Expos, Reardon saved 152 games and recorded a 2.84 ERA.  Although Reardon left Montreal following the 1986 season, he is still the Expos/Nationals all-time leader in saves and ranks second in ERA for pitchers who threw at least 500 innings for the club.  He also pitched the Expos into the postseason for the first and only time during the team's 36-year tenure in Montreal.

Upon bidding adieu to Montreal, Reardon then went to Minnesota, where he won a World Series ring in his first year there.  He also racked up 104 saves in three seasons (1987-1989) with the Twins.  In doing so, he became only the third pitcher to post 100 saves for multiple franchises, following Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers (A's, Padres) and Bruce Sutter (Cubs, Cardinals).

From 1990 to 1992, Reardon saved 88 games as a member of the Boston Red Sox, including his record-setting 342th career save.  Had he not been traded to Atlanta during the 1992 season, he might have become the charter member of the "100 saves with three teams" club.  Then again, had he not become a Brave, he wouldn't have had an opportunity to pitch in his second World Series.

How good was Reardon during the 12-year period from 1981-1992, a period that saw him save 344 games for the Expos, Twins and Red Sox?  In addition to being the Expos/Nationals all-time leader in saves, Reardon also ranks fifth on the Twins' all-time saves list and has the fifth-most saves in Boston's long and storied history as well.  The only other pitcher in baseball history who can make the same claim is Rollie Fingers.  (Fingers is No. 2 in Oakland, No.3 in San Diego and No. 3 in Milwaukee.)  And for the record, Reardon's ten saves with the Mets have him in a 23rd place tie with Turk Wendell, who was also never the team's closer.

Reardon showed he was durable and dependable throughout his career, recording 20 or more saves in 11 consecutive seasons (1982-1992).  In doing so, he became the first pitcher in major league history to accomplish the feat in more than nine straight years.  Since Reardon, only two other pitchers have posted at least ten consecutive seasons with 20+ saves.  Former all-time saves leader Lee Smith did it for 13 straight years from 1983 to 1995 and current saves leader Mariano Rivera pulled off 15 consecutive 20-save seasons from 1997 to 2011.  By comparison, only 16 pitchers have recorded 20 or more career saves for the Mets.  (Cal Koonce and Anthony Young are tied for 17th on the Mets' all-time saves list with 18 apiece.)  And of those 16 pitchers to record 20 career saves for the Mets, only John Franco (1994-1998) and Armando Benitez (1999-2003) reached the mark in as many as five consecutive seasons.

During a career that began in New York with the Mets in 1979 and ended across town with the Yankees in 1994, Reardon recorded 40-save seasons for three different teams.  He was also a four-time All-Star, finished in the top ten in the Cy Young vote twice, and even received MVP consideration three times (1985, 1987, 1988), a feat that is unheard of for a relief pitcher.  Reardon helped four teams make the playoffs and pitched in 18 postseason games for the Expos (1981), Twins (1987), Red Sox (1990) and Braves (1992).  He won two playoff games in his career, including a Game 7, and saved six others.

Reardon pitched in 880 games, with all of them coming in relief.  He finished his career with a 73-77 record, 367 saves (20 of which came against the Mets) and a 3.16 ERA.  Reardon was so dominant that he finished his career with more saves (367) than walks (358).  But as is the case with many other relief pitchers, Reardon did not receive much support when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2000.  In his first year of eligibility, Reardon was named on 24 of the 499 ballots cast, falling one vote short of the 25 needed to receive the 5% of the votes required to remain on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Life after baseball hasn't been too kind to Reardon.  In 2004, his son died of a drug overdose, sending Reardon into a severe state of depression.  Reardon was taking anti-depressants and other medications prescribed to him when he was arrested in 2005 on charges of armed robbery.  However, he was acquitted of the crime when the judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity.  The judge's verdict was based on testimony by court-appointed psychiatrists who claimed that at the time of the alleged incident, Reardon was taking so many medications (12 in all) that he was in a "medication-induced delirium".  Although Reardon will never get over the pain of losing his son, he is now devoting his time to getting his own life back on track.

Jeff Reardon has experienced all the highs and lows life has to offer.  Although he never quite made it to the Hall of Fame, he will still go down as one of the best and most intimidating closers of all time.  In 1981, the Mets were looking for someone to spark their offense.  What they succeeded in doing was igniting the career of Jeff Reardon.  Whereas Ellis Valentine fizzled in New York, Jeff Reardon became one of the best closers in the history of the game.  A team can't win without good pitching.  It also can't win when it lets good pitching get away.

 (Jeff Reardon video shared on YouTube by Sebastien Lepage)

Note:  The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora  
January 21, 2013: Kevin Mitchell 
January 28, 2013: Amos Otis


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