Monday, March 25, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Ty Wigginton

Suppose you're an everyday player in the big leagues.  You're young.  You play hard.  You play multiple positions on the field.  Basically, you do whatever it takes to help your team win.  Then you get traded away because the team feels that a younger player would be even better for them than you are.  I think it's safe to assume that you'd be pretty miffed about that.  You'd also want to show your former team just how much you could have contributed to their success by doing well against them every time you faced them.

Stories like that occur every so often in the big leagues.  It happened to one particular player on the Mets in 2004.

This player was never viewed as a top prospect when the Mets drafted him in 1998, but he worked his way through the Mets' minor league system and forced his way into the starting lineup.  He played at five different defensive positions when he was first called up and showed the same determination to succeed on the field that he exhibited throughout his four-year rise through the minors.

But the Mets had a top prospect who was also climbing the ladder to the major leagues.  And once he got there, no one was going to stand in his way - not even a scrappy, versatile player who had proven that he belonged in the major leagues.  The writing was on the wall for Ty Wigginton, and he has repeatedly done his best to make the Mets pay for their decision to trade him.

Even as a 20-year-old, Ty Wigginton looked like he was going to run you over at the plate.

Ty Allen Wigginton was selected by the Mets in the 17th round of the 1998 June amateur draft.  Wigginton wasn't particularly impressive in his first professional season, batting .239 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in 70 games with the Pittsfield Mets.  But after getting the bugs out of his system, Wigginton blossomed.

With St. Lucie in 1999, Wigginton batted .292, leading the team in home runs (21) and RBIs (73).  Wigginton continued to excel in 2000, leading the Binghamton Mets to a division title.  The infielder finished first on his team in hits (129), doubles (27), home runs (20) and RBIs (77), while maintaining a solid .285 batting average.

Injuries provided a minor setback to Wigginton's advancement in 2001, as he managed only seven homers and 25 RBIs in 89 games.  But at Norfolk in 2002, Wigginton flew out of the gate, batting .374 through mid-May as a member of the Tides.  It was only a matter of time before the Mets would need his services at the big league level, and when infielder John Valentin was placed on the disabled list with a torn rotator cuff, the call for Wigginton finally came.

Although Wigginton only stayed in the majors for the two weeks Valentin was out, he got a chance to experience big league action for the first time.  Used mostly as a pinch-hitter and in double switches, Wigginton only got into six games during his initial time with the parent club, scoring one run and collecting one hit in four at-bats.  By the end of May, Wigginton was back in Norfolk, where he remained for the next two months.  Once he got back to the majors in early August, he never looked back.

As the summer progressed, it was becoming clear that the Mets were going nowhere in 2002.  Subpar performances by offseason acquisitions Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeño doomed the Mets by the beginning of August.  Injuries to second baseman Roberto Alomar (another failed addition to the team) and third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo created a gaping hole for the Mets in the infield.  To patch that hole, the Mets recalled Ty Wigginton from Norfolk and inserted their versatile neophyte into the starting lineup on August 4 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Wigginton's first major league start would become one of the best by a rookie in team history.

Wigginton went 4-for-5 in his first Shea Stadium start, providing a game-tying three-run homer in the third inning to erase a 5-2 deficit.  Wigginton also singled twice and hit a double in the 12-7 loss to Arizona.  It was the fourth loss in the Mets' franchise-record 15-game home losing streak.  The Mets failed to win a home game in August 2002, but they also failed to find a reason to take Wigginton out of the starting lineup.

After his auspicious debut as an everyday player, Wigginton continued to tear the cover off the ball.  He batted .500 (11-for-22) with four multi-hit games and five RBIs in his first five starts, then proceeded to have a tremendous month of September.  It was truly a September to remember for Wigginton, as the utility player batted .358 with six doubles, four homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs scored in only 53 at-bats.  Wigginton accomplished this while playing five different positions, spending time at first base, second base, third base, left field and right field.

By season's end, Wigginton had left his mark on the team.  Although he had just 116 at-bats for the Mets in 2002 (thereby retaining his rookie status for 2003), Wigginton finished the year with a .302 batting average and .526 slugging percentage.  Forty percent of his hits went for extra bases, as Wigginton pounded eight doubles and six homers out of of his 35 total hits.  Wigginton also drove in 18 runs and crossed the plate 18 times, with some of those runs coming at the expense of the opposing catcher.

Wigginton was never shy about bowling over the catcher, doing so on numerous occasions with the Mets.  He got plenty of those opportunities in 2003, as the Mets gave him the starting third baseman's job after fan-favorite Edgardo Alfonzo signed a free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants.  Now guaranteed an everyday job from Day 1 of the new campaign, Wigginton went on to post one of the most unheralded rookie seasons in franchise history.

The Mets' new third baseman played in all but five of the team's 161 games in 2003 (one game was rained out and was not made up), setting numerous rookie records.  No Met rookie had ever played in as many games as Wigginton did in 2003.

In addition to his 156 games, Wigginton also set new club marks for rookies in at-bats (573), hits (146), extra-base hits (53) and doubles (36).  Wiggy scored 73 runs, which was one short of Cleon Jones' rookie record of 74, set in 1966.  His 71 RBIs fell three short of Darryl Strawberry's total of 74, which he accomplished during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1983.  (Wigginton himself finished eighth in the 2003 National League Rookie of the Year vote, tied with teammate and fellow infielder Jose Reyes.)

But Wigginton wasn't just etching his name atop the Mets' all-time rookie leaders.  He was also becoming a top offensive threat over his non-rookie teammates, leading the 2003 Mets in every cumulative offensive category except home runs and stolen bases.  And he didn't do poorly in either of those categories, as Wigginton was only player on the '03 squad to reach double digits in home runs (11) and stolen bases (12). 

Prior to the 2004 season, the Mets signed Kazuo Matsui to a three-year deal, moving Jose Reyes to second base to accommodate the Japanese shortstop.  Wigginton remained at the hot corner for the Mets, but also started 22 games at second base, filling in at the position while Jose Reyes was on the disabled list.  But things were starting to get crowded for the Mets in the infield once Reyes returned.

Wigginton played all over the infield for the Mets in 2004, starting games at first base, second base and third base.  But veteran corner infielder Todd Zeile was being given an opportunity to start more games at third.  Manager Art Howe was also giving Zeile occasional starts at first base whenever Mike Piazza needed a day off or was catching.  Reyes was back in the starting lineup at second base and was not getting many days off.  And then, there was this kid named David Wright.

Wright was the Mets' top minor league prospect prior to the 2004 season.  The 21-year-old had dominated minor league pitching and was about to be called up to the major leagues.  There was only one problem.  Wright played third base.  So did Ty Wigginton.  Something had to give.  Something finally did.

Nine days after Wright made his major league debut for the Mets, Wigginton was sent packing.  General manager Jim Duquette, in a misguided effort to be a buyer at the July 31 trade deadline despite the team losing ground in the wild card race, jettisoned Wigginton, Jose Bautista and a minor leaguer to Pittsburgh for infielder Jeff Keppinger and former No. 1 overall draft pick Kris Benson.

Keppinger played in only 33 games with the Mets before being traded in 2006.  Since leaving New York, Keppinger has become one of the best contact hitters in baseball, batting .288 and striking out just 166 times in 2,343 at-bats.  Benson won 14 games as a Met and rarely showed the ability that made him the most coveted player in the 1996 June amateur draft.  (His wife, however, was coveted by more than just amateur baseball scouts.)

Meanwhile, Jose Bautista spent a few seasons bouncing around from team to team before finally finding a home in Toronto, where he became a three-time All-Star and two-time American League home run champion.

Ty Wigginton did his own share of bouncing around after leaving the Mets, but unlike Bautista, who waited many years before achieving success, Wigginton made positive contributions to his teams almost immediately.

Wigginton played in 115 games with the Pirates between 2004 and 2005, spending a few months in the minors in 2005.  Once he returned from his temporary minor league exile, Wigginton caught fire.  In 14 late-season starts, Wigginton batted .383 with seven extra-base hits and 13 RBIs.  Two months after his scalding finish, Wigginton was released by the Pirates.

The next stop for Wigginton was in Tampa, playing for the perennial cellar-dwelling Devil Rays.  Wigginton played everywhere for manager Joe Maddon, starting 37 games at first base, 37 games at second base and 32 games at third base.  Despite not having a steady position on the field, Wigginton was as steady as they came at the plate.  Wiggy got off to a tremendous start in 2006, batting .302 with eight homers and 20 RBIs in his first 16 games.  After another wonderful month in July (.317, 5 HR, 11 RBI, .650 slugging percentage in 60 at-bats), Wigginton missed the entire month of August with an injury but returned to hit .300 with six homers and 22 RBIs in the season's final month.

Wigginton had his finest season in the majors in 2006, setting career highs with 24 homers and 79 RBIs.  He continued to thrive in Tampa, collecting 21 doubles, 16 homers and 49 RBIs through the first four months of the 2007 season.  The Devil Rays then traded Wigginton to the Houston Astros on July 28, dealing him for his former Met teammate, Dan Wheeler.  Wigginton continued his strong season in Houston, batting .284 with 18 extra-base hits in 50 games.

In 2008, Wigginton began his first full season in Houston and quickly became a fan-favorite.  He also was finally playing for a winning team.  After six consecutive years playing for sub-.500 teams in New York, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, Wigginton got his first taste of a pennant race in Houston, although it didn't look like the Astros were going to be playing meaningful games in September for most of the season.

As July turned to August, Houston's record stood at 50-57, leaving them 11½ games behind the wild card-leading Milwaukee Brewers.  But over the final two months of the season, Houston posted the best record in baseball, winning 36 of their last 54 games.  The main reason for their resurgence was the record-breaking performance of Ty Wigginton.

Wigginton tied Jeff Bagwell's team record by blasting 12 home runs in August.  The Astros' third baseman also hit .379 during the month and drove in 26 runs.  By September 11, Houston had moved to within three games of Milwaukee for the wild card lead.  But Ty Wigginton had injured himself running out a ground ball five days earlier and did not play again until September 17.  By the time he returned to the lineup, Houston was in the middle of a costly five-game losing streak that effectively put an end to their playoff dreams.  That wasn't the only thing that ended in the fall of 2008.

In a move that was quite unpopular with Astros fans, Wigginton was not tendered a contract for the 2009 season.  General manager Ed Wade cited financial reasons for the split, but Wigginton was still taken aback by Houston's decision not to offer him a contract.


“I was thinking all along there was no way I would be non-tendered, to be honest with you.  It’s one of those things.  The last three years I’ve been as consistent as anybody out there, and I’ve hit 70 home runs or something like that in the last three years.  I’ve been consistent average-wise, and my on-base percentage keeps getting higher.”


Wigginton was right.  His numbers across the board were getting better and he was one of the most consistent players in the majors.  The Baltimore Orioles were looking for a player like Wigginton, hoping his consistently good play would help the O's end their streak of 11 consecutive losing seasons.  Baltimore signed Wigginton to a two-year, $6 million deal in 2009, using him at third base (a position already held by another former Met, Melvin Mora), first base and designated hitter.  But for the first time since 2005, Wigginton did not have a good season.

After averaging 27 doubles and 23 homers per season with Tampa Bay and Houston, Wigginton managed only 19 doubles and 11 homers with Baltimore in 2009.  Wigginton also scored 44 runs and collected 41 RBIs despite playing in 122 games.  Had the 32-year-old Wigginton not signed a two-year deal prior to the season, he might have had a tough time finding a new team in 2010.  But given a second chance in year two of the deal, Wigginton proved that his 2009 season was a fluke.

In 2010, Wigginton became an All-Star for the first time, leading the Orioles with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs by the Fourth of July.  Wigginton played in 154 games in his second year with Baltimore - his highest total since his first full season with the Mets in 2003.  By season's end, Wigginton was back to being his old consistent self, finishing the year with 29 doubles, 22 homers and 76 RBIs.  One other consistency returned to Wiggy's career - he became a free agent and signed with another team.

Colorado became Wigginton's sixth team in 2011, as the 33-year-old Wigginton once again replaced Melvin Mora as the team's versatile infielder.  Although Wigginton only had 401 at-bats with the Rockies, he still managed 21 doubles, 15 homers and 47 RBIs.

But once again, Wigginton was piling up his numbers with a non-contending team.  He thought that would finally change when he signed a one-year deal to play for the five-time NL East champion Phillies in 2012.  It did not, as the Phillies finished with the year with an 81-81 record.  But Wigginton did get to show the Mets what they had been missing over the years, batting .412 with four doubles, three homers and an incredible 15 RBIs in only 34 at-bats versus New York.


Video courtesy of MLB.com

Ty Wigginton has played 11 years in the major leagues, but has only been involved in one pennant race.  But the final chapter in Wigginton's book has not yet been written, as the veteran utility man signed a two-year, $5 million contract to play for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 and 2014.   The Redbirds have had winning seasons in 12 of the last 13 years and have made the playoffs nine times in that stretch, winnings three pennants and two World Series titles.

After years of playing games in September to earn a job the following season, Wigginton might finally be playing for a postseason berth instead.  A player who has fought so hard to achieve everything he has accomplished since receiving that first call-up to the major leagues in 2002 deserves that chance.

Ty Wigginton was never supposed to make it to the big leagues, let alone succeed in the majors for over a decade.  Most 17th round picks don't.  But the gritty, hard-nosed player did make it to the big show, doing it through sheer determination and a strong will to win (even if his teams had trouble doing so).  Although Wigginton only played parts of three seasons in New York, he still played more games with the Mets (288) than he has with any other team.  Yet despite that, Wigginton has still hit 176 doubles and 140 homers (and counting) after the Mets let him get away.

Two years before Jim Duquette traded Wigginton to Pittsburgh, he had this to say about the infielder:


''When we got him, he wasn't where he needed to be, defensively, at the professional level.  But through his work ethic alone, he's turned himself into a solid second baseman.  He hasn't been exposed as much at third, but we're going to look at him.''



Duquette thought the Mets had a solid second baseman in Wigginton, but manager Art Howe played him at third in 2003.  Wigginton remained at third base in 2004 because Jose Reyes was the team's second baseman.  For the record, Wigginton has played a total of 168 games at second base in his career, making 14 errors at the position.  But the Mets never thought to play him there.  Meanwhile, the team used Kaz Matsui at the position from 2004 to 2006 and Luis Castillo from 2007 to 2010.  That's seven seasons of boos at the second base position.  And seven seasons of wondering what might have been had the Mets just given the position to Wigginton.

Ty Wigginton has made a career out of being a consistent performer.  But the Mets delivered a knockout blow to his career in New York when they sent him to Pittsburgh in 2004.  Wigginton has been doing his best to knock out Mets pitchers and their battery mates since then, batting .313 with 14 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs in only 96 career at-bats against the team that originally drafted him in 1998.  Of course, former Mets catcher Josh Thole wouldn't know a thing about that.  He's still recovering from his close encounter of the Wigginton kind.

Ouch.


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
March 18, 2013: Jeromy Burnitz


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