Monday, March 18, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Jeromy Burnitz

The Mets have made their fair share of questionable trades over the years.  On occasion, some of those traded players found their way back to New York.  Players like Rusty Staub, Dave Kingman, Tom Seaver and David Cone went on to accomplish great things in between their first and second stints with the Mets.

Staub was an RBI machine in Detroit.  Kingman nearly had a 50-homer season with the Cubs.  Seaver pitched a no-hitter in Cincinnati.  Cone did the same in the Bronx, although his game was perfect and he also added World Series rings for each finger on his pitching hand.

All four returned to New York hoping to recapture their past glory.   But Staub spent most of his time as a pinch-hitter (albeit a great one) before retiring in 1985.  Kingman made Mario Mendoza look like a batting champion before he was released.  Seaver had his worst season as a Met, then was left unprotected in the free agent compensation draft.  And Cone made only four starts before calling it a career.

Staub, Kingman, Seaver and Cone aren't the only former Mets who were traded away before eventually returning to the team.  In fact, one former Met has the dubious distinction of being jettisoned by the team twice, only to see his performance on the field improve exponentially both times he was dealt.

Jeromy Burnitz, in a baseball card photo taken before he was a two-time former Met.

Jeromy Neal Burnitz was the Mets' first round pick in the 1990 June amateur draft.  Burnitz was selected 17th overall, three picks ahead of 270-game winner Mike Mussina.  After splitting time between Pittsfield and St. Lucie in 1990, Burnitz had a stellar season at AA-Williamsport in 1991.  Burnitz's first full minor league campaign resulted in the Eastern League's first 30-30 season, as the outfielder hit 31 home runs and stole 31 bases for the Bills.  The Mets took notice of their young star's performance, honoring him with a Doubleday Award.

Burnitz was promoted to AAA-Tidewater in 1992, but saw a sharp decrease in his power numbers.  The outfielder managed to hit only eight home runs in 121 games for the Tides, just one year after slamming nearly four times that amount at the Double-A level.  In 1993, Burnitz found himself once again at Tidewater, hitting .227 with eight home runs in 65 games.  But the Mets were having a rough time settling on a regular centerfielder, as Ryan Thompson, Joe Orsulak, Dave Gallagher and Darrin Jackson had all started at least ten games at the position before spring turned to summer.  As a result, Burnitz was called up to the Mets on June 21.  Eight days later, he let the world know he had arrived.

On June 29, the Mets won an extra-inning slugfest against the Florida Marlins, coming from behind to win, 10-9.  Burnitz went 3-for-5 in the game with two doubles and a home run.  He tied the game in the third inning with his first big league home run.  Four innings later, Burnitz laced an RBI double to give the Mets a temporary two-run lead.  Finally, in the 12th, Burnitz led off the inning with a long double and scored the eventual winning run on a sacrifice fly.

After smoking the Marlins in late June, Burnitz continued to scorch the rest of the National League in the month of July.  In his first ten games in July, Burnitz hit .355 with three homers and 10 RBIs.  But as great as he was in July, Burnitz saved his best game for August.

In a game against the Montreal Expos on August 5, Burnitz became the first Mets rookie (and sixth Met overall) to drive in seven runs in a game.  Burnitz rapped an RBI single in the first and a grand slam in the fifth to give the Mets a seemingly insurmountable 9-1 lead.  By the end of the sixth, the lead had evaporated, as three Mets pitchers combined to allow eight runs.  The game remained tied until the 13th inning, when Joe Orsulak drove in the go-ahead run with a single and Burnitz added two insurance runs - his sixth and seventh RBIs of the game - with a double down the right field line.  The Mets went on to win the game, 12-9.  Burnitz's record-setting performance was accomplished off two of the best pitchers of the era, as his seven RBIs came against Dennis Martinez (245 career wins) and John Wetteland (330 lifetime saves).

Burnitz finished the season strongly, with a .260/.383/.506 slash line in September, collecting nine extra-base hits, scoring 15 runs and driving in ten.  Burnitz only had 263 at-bats for the Mets in 1993, but they were quite productive, as he picked up ten doubles, six triples and 13 homers.  He also scored 49 runs and had 38 RBIs, making it easy to overlook his .243 batting average.  For all the promise Burnitz showed in 1993, he failed miserably one year later.  And his disciplinarian manager was not amused.

Jeromy Burnitz was a hothead.  So was his manager, Dallas Green.  Something had to give, especially after Burnitz lost his temper during a poor spring training at-bat.  When Burnitz was hitting .192 after the season's first month, something finally did give.  Burnitz was sent back to the minors, less than a year after bursting onto the major league scene.

With Norfolk, Burnitz continued to hit with power (15 doubles, five triples, 14 homers) but maintained a low batting average (.239).  After over two months at Norfolk, Burnitz was finally recalled on July 22.  Three weeks later, Major League Baseball was shut down by a players' strike, but not before Burnitz got to play in 18 games.  He continued to be an enigma at the plate, hitting a more respectable .292, but did so without hitting a home run and striking out 19 times in 65 at-bats.

By November, Burnitz had finally found a way out of Dallas Green's doghouse, as the former first round pick was traded to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Paul Byrd, Jerry DiPoto and Dave Mlicki.  Byrd and DiPoto were both ex-Mets by 1997, while Mlicki hung around until 1998 (one year after famously shutting out the Yankees in the first-ever regular season game between the two New York teams).  Meanwhile, Burnitz was just getting started.

Burnitz only had seven at-bats with the Indians in 1995, as he spent the majority of the year in the minors.  In 1996, Burnitz had trouble getting into the everyday lineup, collecting 128 at-bats for Cleveland.  Of course, anyone would have had trouble cracking a lineup that featured outfielders Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Many Ramirez.  Even the designated hitter position was occupied, as Cleveland was using Eddie Murray as their non-fielding batter.

With no definite position in Burnitz's immediate future, the Indians traded him to Milwaukee for six-time .300 hitter Kevin Seitzer.  Seitzer played in 86 games with Cleveland before retiring after the 1997 campaign.  Burnitz, on the other hand, went on to become one of the most feared power hitters in baseball.

After finishing out the 1996 season in Milwaukee, Burnitz had a true breakout year in 1997.  In his first season as an everyday player, Burnitz set career highs across the board, batting .281 with 37 doubles, eight triples, 27 homers, 85 RBIs, 85 runs scored and 20 stolen bases.  Burnitz became the second player in Brewers history to achieve to 20 HR/20 SB season, joining future Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who hit 23 homers and stole 20 bases for Milwaukee in 1980.  As great as Burnitz's season was in 1997, he improved upon it in 1998.

Burnitz was a one-man wrecking crew in his second full season in Milwaukee.  On a team in which no other player hit more than 16 homers or surpassed 68 RBIs, Burnitz had himself a 38 HR, 125 RBI campaign.  At the time, the 38 home runs represented the fourth-highest single-season total in Brewers' history and the 125 RBIs were one short of Cecil Cooper's team record of 126 RBIs, which he set in 1983.  Burnitz also became the eighth Brewer to amass 300 total bases in a single season, joining Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie, Paul Molitor, George Scott, Tommy Harper and Gorman Thomas.  As great as his season was, perhaps nothing satisfied Burnitz more than when he homered off Dave Mlicki - one of the players for whom he was traded - in his first career at-bat against the Mets.

Dave Mlicki might have been able to shut out the Yankees, but he couldn't shut down Jeromy Burnitz.

In 1999, Burnitz finally got some much-needed help in the lineup, as three of his teammates (Dave Nilsson, Geoff Jenkins, Marquis Grissom) reached the 20-HR mark.  Burnitz finished the year with a .270 batting average, 33 doubles, 33 homers, 103 RBIs and 91 walks.  The better plate discipline - which he never had as a Met, much to Dallas Green's dismay - helped Burnitz achieve a .400 on-base percentage for the first time in his career.

It was more of the same for Burnitz over the next two seasons, as his 2000 campaign (29 doubles, 31 homers, 98 RBIs, 91 runs scored, 99 walks) and 2001 season (32 doubles, 34 homers, 100 RBIs, 104 runs scored, 80 walks) were virtual mirror images of each other.

But after hitting .271 over his first three full seasons in Milwaukee, Burnitz experienced a steep decline in his batting average, combining to hit .242 in 2000 and 2001.  The 2001 campaign would be Burnitz's last season in Milwaukee, as the Mets desperately needed to upgrade their offense and thought Burnitz would be part of the solution.  If only they had bothered to notice the downward trend in his batting average.

Following the 2001 season, a year in which the Mets failed to defend their National League crown and needed a strong September to finish the year above .500, general manager Steve Phillips decided the team needed to go shopping.  But with the Mets already trying to pare their lofty payroll, Phillips decided he would have to fix the team's deficiencies via the trade route rather than by signing free agents.

First, Phillips tried to pry John Smoltz away from the Braves to no avail.  When that didn't pan out, Phillips focused squarely on upgrading the team's offense.  By the time the calendar flipped to 2002, Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Roger Cedeño had been acquired by the Mets.  The Mets then set their focus on acquiring one more big bat, doing so when they traded for Jeromy Burnitz.  However, the cost for reacquiring the lefty slugger was steep, as the Mets lost Lenny Harris, Glendon Rusch, Benny Agbayani and Todd Zeile in the three-team deal.

The Mets were surprisingly competitive over the first four months of the 2002 season.  Heading into August, the team was in second place in the NL East with a 55-51 record, leaving them a reachable 4½ games behind the wild card-leading Dodgers.  The Mets were winning despite not having typical seasons by Alomar, Vaughn and Cedeño.  But the one new addition who really underachieved to the point of having an awful season was Jeromy Burnitz.

Second verse, same as the first.

After reaching the 30-HR mark in each of his previous four seasons, Burnitz failed to hit 20 home runs for the Mets.  His batting average, which had already begun to drop during his last two seasons in Milwaukee, plummeted in 2002.  Burnitz struggled to stay above .200 all year and was drawing fewer walks than he did as a Brewer.  During the Mets' season-changing 12-game losing streak in August, Burnitz managed only three hits and struck out in 40% of his at-bats.  The Mets fell to last place for the first time since 1993, with Burnitz finishing the year with a .215 batting average, 15 doubles, 19 homers and 54 RBIs.

The Mets began the 2003 season as poorly as they finished in 2002.  By May 13, New York was already ten games behind Atlanta and seven games behind Montreal for the wild card.  One month later, Steve Phillips was relieved of his duties, replaced by Jim Duquette.  By the end of June, it was clear that the Mets were not going to compete for a playoff spot, as the team was buried in the NL East cellar.  As a result, Duquette decided to restock the team's farm system by trading off its high-priced players.  One of the casualties was Jeromy Burnitz.

After an immensely disappointing season in 2002, Burnitz had actually earned some trade value during the first half of the 2003 campaign.  Burnitz missed a month of action due to a broken hand caused by an errant Billy Wagner fastball, but once he returned on May 23, he started to tear the cover off the ball.

In his first nine games after returning from the disabled list, Burnitz hit .412 with four homers and 13 RBIs.  By June 1, Burnitz had his batting average up to a season-high .324.  Burnitz had another hot streak shortly before the All-Star Break, driving in at least one run in seven consecutive games from July 2 to July 9.  One week later, Burnitz was gone, as Duquette jettisoned the outfielder to Los Angeles for three prospects, including Victor Diaz.

Burnitz's first-half totals with the Mets were excellent (.274, 18 doubles, 18 HR, 45 RBIs in only 65 games).  With the Dodgers, Burnitz regressed, batting .204 with only four doubles, 13 HR and 32 RBIs in 61 games.  Needless to say, the Dodgers let Burnitz leave as a free agent at the end of the 2003 season.

Now in his mid-thirties, Burnitz was hoping another team would give him a shot to prove that he could still play at a high level.  He did get that shot, and it came with a team that was used to playing at a high level.

Would this be called a "Mile-High Five"?

The Colorado Rockies took a chance on Burnitz, signing him to a one-year deal to play in the Mile High City in 2004.  Burnitz rewarded them immediately, batting .302 with 16 homers and 46 RBIs in his first 53 games.  Burnitz saved his best month for July, when he had an incredible .360/.424/.809 slash line.  During the month, Burnitz collected eight doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 27 RBIs despite starting only 22 games.  His renaissance season saw Burnitz finish the year with a career-high .283 batting average.  He also hit 30 doubles and 37 home runs, while driving in 110 runs and scoring 94 times.

Despite his phenomenal season, Colorado declined to pick up Burnitz's option for the 2005 campaign, allowing the slugger to become a free agent.  Burnitz almost signed with Colorado's division rival in Arizona, agreeing in principle to a two-year deal with the Diamondbacks.  But that deal was pulled from the table after Arizona completed a three-team trade with the Dodgers and Yankees that made Shawn Green their new rightfielder.  The deal also sent Randy Johnson to the Yankees, while the Yankees shipped Javier Vazquez to the Dodgers.

Although he was disappointed that he had just lost the security of a multi-year contract, Burnitz continued to look for a new team and finally found one when the Chicago Cubs signed him to a one-year, $4.5 million deal with a $7 million option for a second year.  But Burnitz was going into a pressure situation with the North Siders, as he was being asked to replace Cubs' icon Sammy Sosa in right field.

Burnitz had a solid season for the Cubs, batting .258 with 31 doubles, 24 homers, 87 RBIs and 84 runs scored while playing in a team-high 160 games.  But those numbers paled in comparison to Sosa, who averaged 48 HR and 123 RBIs from 1995 to 2004.  As a result, the Cubs decided to buy out Burnitz for $500,000 rather than pick up his option for 2006, leaving Burnitz to become a free agent for the third straight year.

Once again, Burnitz had a two-year deal on the table, this time with the Baltimore Orioles.  But because of language in the contract that would allow Baltimore to take their time making the deal official, Burnitz decided to sign a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates with a second year option that would pay him the same amount of money as Baltimore's two-year deal.  Ironically, the Orioles' executive who tried to negotiate the deal with Burnitz was Jim Duquette, who only two years earlier had traded Burnitz to the Dodgers while he was the Mets' general manager.

It's quite possible that one of the underlying reasons why Burnitz chose to pass on the deal with Baltimore was because of his relationship with the former Mets GM.  Burnitz showed no love for his time with the Mets when he mentioned New York fans in a statement he made to reporters after failing to run out a ground ball in Pittsburgh. 

"I apologize for that.  It seems like I'd hit 20 balls in a row like that, rollovers to first.  The fact is, I went and looked at it, and I had no chance.  He would have thrown me out.  But the effort that they expect - and they jumped on me for it - I apologize if I don't play hard enough. I have a reputation for playing hard.  I heard the boos.  And I've heard 'em before.  If I poke my head out of the dugout in New York, there would be 40,000 of them.  Loud, too."

If Burnitz didn't have love for New York, then he certainly couldn't have loved his time in Pittsburgh.  After getting off to a slow start (.234, 8 HR, 26 RBI, .289 OBP in the team's first 50 games) and saying that manager Jim Tracy was forced to keep him in the everyday lineup because he was "Joe High-Paid Free Agent", Tracy decided to put Burnitz in a platoon with some of the Pirates' younger players.

As a result, Burnitz played in just 111 games, his lowest full-season total since becoming an everyday player with the Brewers in 1997.  Burnitz finished the year with only 28 extra-base hits after averaging 29 doubles and 30 homers over the previous nine seasons.  He also hit .230 and had a career-worst .289 on-base percentage, a number that was even lower than his OBP during his forgetful 2002 campaign with the Mets.

At season's end, Pittsburgh declined to pick up Burnitz's option for the 2007 season.  This time, Burnitz was unable to find another suitor, causing him to retire from baseball at the age of 37.

Jeromy Burnitz was a five-tool player in the minor leagues who occasionally forgot to sharpen his fifth tool (batting average), while neglecting to use one of his other tools (speed).  He was a 30-30 player as a Mets' farmhand, but surpassed seven stolen bases in the majors only twice in 14 seasons.  The Mets never got the Burnitz they saw in the minor leagues and gave up on him two years into his major league career.  Nearly a decade later, they gave him a second chance and once again, they decided to send him packing.  Both times, Burnitz proved to the Mets that he was better off without them.

In 5½ years with Milwaukee, Burnitz became one of the Brewers' top power threats in franchise history.  From 1997 to 2001, Burnitz averaged 32 doubles, 33 homers and 102 RBIs per season.  His 125 RBIs in 1998 are more than any Met has ever achieved in 50-plus seasons (Mike Piazza and David Wright share the single-season franchise record with 124 RBIs).  In 1997 and 1998, Burnitz received National League MVP votes and he was selected to represent the Brewers in the All-Star Game in 1999.

On a team that has had great hitters over the years (Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun come to mind), Burnitz was able to crack Milwaukee's all-time top ten list in various offensive categories.  He ranks among the team leaders in home runs (165; 9th in Brewers' history), walks (423; 8th), on-base percentage (.362; 7th), slugging percentage (.508; 4th) and OPS (.870; 4th).  Burnitz's 525 RBIs as a Brewer had him in the top ten until recently, when both Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun passed him.  Burnitz was also the first Brewer in team history to hit 30 or more home runs in four consecutive seasons, accomplishing the feat from 1998 to 2001.  All this from a player who never hit 20 home runs in a season for the Mets in parts of four years with the team.

Although Jeromy Burnitz accomplished many things as an individual (six 30-HR seasons, four 100-RBI campaigns), he always seemed to achieve them on teams that did not go on to great things.  The Brewers finished with a losing record in each of his nearly six seasons in Milwaukee.  All four Mets teams he played for (1993, 1994, 2002, 2003) finished below .500, as did the 2004 Rockies, 2005 Cubs and 2006 Pirates.

Burnitz never got to taste the postseason as a major league player and rarely got to experience a pennant race.  Still, he finished his career with 315 home runs, nearly 300 doubles and just under 1,000 RBIs.  It's not a career that he should be ashamed of.

The Mets gave up on Burnitz twice during his career.  The first time, it was because the manager didn't like him and he was underachieving.  The second time, it was because he had finally started to achieve but was now too expensive to keep around on a rebuilding team.  Both times, Burnitz blossomed after the Mets let him go.  And both times, the Mets became competitive within a few years of his departure.  But despite the team's successes soon after Burnitz's dual departures, the Mets have been missing one thing - a regular rightfielder.

Darryl Strawberry left the Mets as a free agent following the 1990 season.  Burnitz made his debut three years later, and spent parts of four seasons in New York during his two tours of duty with the team.  In those four seasons, Burnitz started 262 games in right field.  Believe it or not, that's more games than any Met has started in right field since the Straw Man's departure.  The only other Mets to start more than 200 games in right field since 1990 are Bobby Bonilla (226 starts) and Butch Huskey (202 starts).  Strawberry started 1,064 games in right field during his eight years as a Met.  That's just 48 more starts than Jeromy Burnitz had as a rightfielder for the other teams he played for during his career.

Perhaps the Mets shouldn't have let go of Burnitz's booming bat.  Perhaps he would have accomplished great things in New York.  And perhaps the Mets wouldn't have gone into a seemingly endless cycle of searching for a regular rightfielder.  But one thing is for certain.  Both Burnitz and the Mets accomplished great things when they weren't married to each other.  The double divorce, though not exactly amicable, was the best thing that could have happened to all the parties involved. 

Now if only the Mets could stop playing musical chairs with the right field position...

Judging by these quotes, Jeromy Burnitz wasn't exactly cut out to handle the New York media.  

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
February 4, 2013: Jeff Reardon
February 11, 2013: Lenny Dykstra
February 18, 2013: Jeff Kent
February 25, 2013: Randy Myers
March 4, 2013: Ken Singleton 
March 11, 2013: Mike Scott

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