Monday, April 1, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Rick Aguilera & Kevin Tapani

Ask anyone who knows anything about baseball what a team needs to win a championship and you'll get the same response.  Pitching wins championships.  A strong starting pitcher can mask a team's obvious flaws (see Orel Hershiser and the 1988 Dodgers).  Similarly, a dominant bullpen can zap the electricity from a supercharged lineup (see Randy Myers and the Nasty Boys circa 1990).

Teams with dependable starters and relievers usually stand a good chance to play deep into October.  In fact, both of the Mets' championship teams won their titles on the strength of their pitching.  So clearly, it would behoove a team to keep its quality arms whenever it can.  But what if that team is struggling to remain competitive in its division and is tempted with another quality arm, especially when that appendage is attached to the body of the reigning Cy Young Award winner?

The Mets were tantalized by such an arm in 1989, so much so that they traded five young pitchers to acquire it (the rest of the body was included in the deal).  By late July, Frank Viola was coming back home to New York and the Minnesota Twins had themselves an infusion of youth in their starting rotation and bullpen.  Pitching wins championships, and within a few years, champagne corks were being popped.  But no one was feeling bubbly about it in New York.

With one ill-advised trade, the Mets let both Rick Aguilera (left) and Kevin Tapani (right) get away.

After winning their second NL East title in three seasons in 1988, the Mets were a team in transition in 1989.  Wally Backman was jettisoned to Minnesota to make room for Gregg Jefferies.  Co-captains Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter missed significant time with injuries, as did longtime ace Dwight Gooden.  General manager Frank Cashen was also very active in the trade market during the season, sending the enormously popular Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to Philadelphia for the soon-to-be enormously unpopular Juan Samuel.  And since one bad trade deserves another, Cashen shipped Mookie Wilson to Toronto for Jeff Musselman.

The plethora of transactions during the summer of '89 would lead most to believe that the Mets were sellers at the trade deadline.  But that was far from the case, especially after Cashen pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Twins.

As late as July 23, the Mets were within striking distance of first place.  A six-game winning streak had moved the team into second place in the NL East, just three games behind the first place Montreal Expos.  But the Mets then proceeded to lose seven straight games, dropping the team into fourth place, seven games behind Les Expos.  With their playoff hopes fading by the second, the Mets waited until just before the trade deadline clock struck midnight, landing the pitcher they thought would push them back into the race.

Frank Viola had just come off a Cy Young-winning campaign in Minnesota, going 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA in 1988.  But Viola's sweet music wasn't prepared for an encore performance in 1989, as the lefty lost 12 of his first 20 decisions.  The Twins were also going nowhere in '89, spending most of the season below .500.  Minnesota was clearly looking to sell at the trade deadline, knowing that it was unlikely they would compete for a division crown in 1989.  If only the Mets had felt the same way.

On July 31, New York acquired the Long Island-born Viola from Minnesota, sending pitchers Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond and a player to be named later to the Twins.  (Pitcher Jack Savage was sent to Minnesota in October to complete the deal.)  Neither team benefited much from the deal in 1989, as Viola split his ten decisions with New York while Aguilera, Tapani, West and Drummond combined for an 8-9 won-lost record in Minnesota.

One year later, Viola became the first southpaw to win 20 games for the Mets since Jerry Koosman accomplished the feat in 1976.  But Koosman followed up his 20-win season with 20 losses in 1977.  Viola wasn't quite as bad in 1991, but still managed to finish the year with a disappointing 13-15 record.  The 15 losses represented the most by a Mets' lefty since - you guessed it - Jerry Koosman, who went 3-15 for the 1978 Mets.  Naturally, both Koosman and Viola were ex-Mets following their 15-loss seasons in 1978 and 1991, respectively.  But the players sent to Minnesota for Viola were still there in 1991.  And what they were experiencing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes was enough to make any long-suffering Mets fan (since 1986) green with envy.

Richard Warren Aguilera could have been the Aaron Heilman of his day, allowing a Shea Stadium-silencing home run to Dave Henderson in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series - a game that could have ended the Mets' season.  But the Mets staged a miraculous comeback mere minutes after Boston's two-run tenth gave them the lead.  When Ray Knight hopped on home plate with the winning run following Mookie Wilson's "little roller up along first", Aguilera became the unlikely winning pitcher and Mets fans who could have made him Public Enemy No. 1 were instead celebrating a thrilling season-saving victory along with No. 38 and his teammates.

Aguilera recorded double-digit victory totals as a starting pitcher in each of his first three seasons in New York, but after an injury-riddled and otherwise lost 1988 campaign (0-4, 6.93 ERA), Aguilera began the 1989 season in the bullpen, where he thrived for the Mets (2.34 ERA, six wins, seven saves).  Once he was traded to Minnesota, he started 11 games for the Twins before becoming the team's closer in 1990.  Aguilera converted 32 saves in 39 chances and posted a 2.76 ERA in his first full season in Minnesota.  While Aguilera was thriving as a closer for the Twins, Tapani was excelling as a starting pitcher.

Kevin Ray Tapani wasn't going to be a starter for the New York Mets.  Despite good numbers in the minors after the Mets acquired him from Oakland following the 1987 season, it was going to be quite difficult for the youngster to crack a starting rotation that featured Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda and David Cone.  Tapani only got into three games with the Mets in 1989, all in relief, without recording a decision.

But once Tapani became a Twin, he was inserted into the starting rotation, going 2-2 over the season's final month.  By pitching only 40 innings in 1989, Tapani maintained his rookie status in 1990, and what a rookie season it was!  Despite making only 28 starts, Tapani led the team in wins and strikeouts, going 12-8 for a Twins club that finished in last place, 14 games under .500.  His efforts did not go unnoticed, as Tapani finished 5th in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.

Aguilera and Tapani were the two best pitchers for the Twins in 1990, but the other two hurlers sent to Minnesota in the trade for Frank Viola also had solid contributions for an otherwise poor team.  David West and Tim Drummond were used as starters and in the bullpen, combining to win 10 games in 31 starts and 33 relief appearances.  Drummond never pitched in the majors again after 1990 (as did player-to-be-named-later Jack Savage), but West pitched in the big leagues until 1998.  The careers of Aguilera and Tapani lasted just a bit longer.

While Viola and the Mets were struggling in 1991, the Twins were soaring.  Minnesota finished the regular season with a 95-67 record, which allowed them to win just their second division title since 1970.  Aguilera and Tapani were both key contributors to the Twins' success.  Aguilera posted a 2.35 ERA and tied fellow former Met Jeff Reardon's single-season franchise record with 42 saves, while Tapani finished 16-8 with a 2.99 ERA and a seventh place finish in the AL Cy Young Award balloting.

Tapani didn't do very well in first postseason series, losing to Toronto in Game 2 of the ALCS and getting a no-decision in Game 5, but Rick Aguilera - who had previous playoff experience with the Mets - saved three of Minnesota's four victories, including the Game 5 clincher.  Who was the winning pitcher in the pennant-clinching game?  None other than fellow trade partner David West, who pitched three hitless innings in relief of Tapani.

West didn't enjoy the same success when he relieved Tapani in Game 5 of the World Series, allowing four runs without retiring any of the Atlanta Braves hitters he faced.  But by then, Minnesota had already won two games in the series, with Tapani getting the win in Game 2 and Aguilera saving both victories.

Game 6 provided an eerie feeling of deja vu for Aguilera.  Like 1986, his team was returning home in a 3-2 hole, needing a win to force a seventh and deciding game.  And like 1986, Game 6 went into extra innings, with Aguilera on the mound trying to keep the game tied.  But unlike 1986, Aguilera was able to keep the opposition off the scoreboard, pitching two shutout innings.

Like the Mets five years before them, the Twins forced a seventh game with a dramatic walk-off victory.  Minnesota tied the series on the strength of a game-ending homer by Kirby Puckett in the bottom of the 11th inning.  Five years and a day after Aguilera was credited with a Game 6 victory for the Mets, he earned another one, this time as a member of the Minnesota Twins.  And when Jack Morris pitched ten shutout innings the following night, the Twins were World Series champions.  Aguilera was a world champion for the second time, while Tapani and West were celebrating their first title.

Rick Aguilera has one of these.  So does Kevin Tapani.  And don't forget David West.

The 1991 season was one for the ages for Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani.  The evidence is all over the American League's top ten leaderboard.  Aguilera finished the regular season with the third-most saves in the league (42), held opposing hitters to a .183 batting average, made his first All-Star team and even received AL MVP votes.  Tapani finished in the league's top ten in wins (16; tied for 10th), ERA (2.99; 7th), WHIP (1.086; 4th), BB/9 IP (1.475; 3rd), K/BB (3.375; 4th), innings pitched (244; 5th), starts (34; T-7th), WAR (6.8; 7th) and placed seventh in the AL Cy Young Award vote just twelve months removed from his fifth place finish in the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year balloting.

In the postseason, Aguilera and Tapani combined for two wins and five saves.  The only wins for Minnesota that did not include a win or a save by either pitcher were Game 4 of the ALCS and Game 7 of the World Series (both won by Jack Morris).  Both Tapani and Aguilera had a hand in giving the Twins a 2-0 edge in the Fall Classic, as Aguilera saved Tapani's win in Game 2 of the World Series.  (And don't forget that Aguilera also saved former Met David West's win in Game 5 of the ALCS.)  Needless to say, by combining for 22 wins and 47 saves during the regular season and postseason, Aguilera and Tapani were two of the main reasons why the Minnesota Twins sat on top of the baseball world in 1991.

The team from the Land of 10,000 Lakes went through a dry spell following their 1991 World Series championship.  After a 90 win, second-place finish in 1992, the Twins went on to post eight consecutive losing seasons.  Despite the team's failures, Aguilera and Tapani continued to thrive.  (West was traded to Philadelphia following the 1992 season, where he was one of the team's top relievers.  He helped the Phillies reach the World Series in 1993 by posting a sparkling 2.92 ERA in a team-leading 76 games.)

Aguilera was an All-Star in 1992 and 1993, and over the next three and a half seasons, he saved 110 games for the Twins and posted a 3.06 ERA and 1.169 WHIP.  He also had a fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratio, fanning 186 batters while walking only 47 in nearly 200 appearances (3.96 K/BB).

Tapani won 39 games for the Twins from 1992 to 1994 and continued to be an innings-eater and superb control artist.  During those three seasons, Tapani averaged six and a half innings per start (93 starts, 601⅔ innings) and walked only 144 batters.  By comparison, future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson walked 144 batters in 1992 alone, while making only 31 starts.

But by the trade deadline in 1995, the Twins had gone through several years of sub-.500 ball and felt the need to part with their high-priced veterans, which meant Aguilera and Tapani were soon to become ex-Twins.  On July 6, Aguilera was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Frankie Rodriguez (no relation to the former Mets closer/pugilist).  Twenty-five days later, the Twins sent Kevin Tapani and future Met Mark Guthrie to Los Angeles for Jose Parra (another future Met), Chris Latham (a minor league Met in 2002), Greg Hansell (a former Mets farmhand who, as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1999, served up rally-starting singles to Melvin Mora and Edgardo Alfonzo in the ninth inning of Game No. 162) and Ron Coomer (who somehow was never property of the Mets).

In only half a season in Boston, Aguilera posted fantastic numbers.  Aggie saved 20 games for the Red Sox, doing so with a stellar 2.67 ERA and 1.088 WHIP.  On September 20, Aguilera recorded the final out in Boston's division clinching victory, sealing the deal on his new team's fourth division title in ten seasons.

By the end of his 11th season in the majors, Rick Aguilera had already pitched in the postseason for three teams.

Aguilera's time in Boston was short-lived, as the Red Sox declined to pick up his option for 1996.  Just five months after the Twins traded Aguilera to the eventual AL East champions, they scooped him up from the free agent pile, signing their former closer, but not in his familiar role.  For the first time since 1989, Aguilera was going to be used exclusively as a starting pitcher.

Aggie did not fare well as a starter, landing on the disabled list after his first start.  Once he returned, he had the worst outing of his career, allowing ten runs (nine earned) in just three innings versus the Seattle Mariners.  In July, Aguilera allowed seven runs in back-to-back starts.  In three of his 19 starts, the Twins lost 18-8, 19-11 and 11-10.  But somehow, Aguilera finished the year with an 8-6 record despite his inflated 5.42 ERA.  Showing that he can learn from his mistakes, manager Tom Kelly ended the one-year experiment with Aguilera and made him the team's closer in 1997.

Just like Aguilera did, Kevin Tapani also signed with a new team in 1996.  After going 4-2 in 11 starts and two relief appearances for the Dodgers in 1995, Tapani signed a one-year deal to play for the Chicago White Sox.  Tapani went 13-10 for the South Siders, helping his new team compete for the American League wild card.  One year after finishing 68-76 in the strike-shortened 1995 season, the White Sox surprised all of baseball by going 85-77 and finishing just three games behind the wild card-winning Orioles.

When the White Sox declined to offer him a contract for the 1997 season, Tapani took his talents eight miles to the north, signing a three-year, $11 million contract to pitch for the Chicago Cubs.  Injuried limited Tapani to 13 starts in 1997, but he was quite impressive in those starts, going 9-3 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.176 WHIP.  In 1998, Tapani produced a clean bill of health and his winningest season in the major leagues.

Tapani went 19-9 for the Cubs in 1998, helping them reach the postseason for the first time in nine years.  Going into the season's final day, the Cubs, Giants and Mets were all still alive for the National League wild card.  But the Mets were eliminated when they lost Game No. 162 and the Giants were sent home when the Cubs beat them in Game No. 163.  New York might have taken the wild card had they not ended the year on a five-game losing streak and had they not fallen to Kevin Tapani in each of his two starts against his former team.  Tapani beat the Mets in April and July, with his second win coming at the beginning of an impressive two-and-a-half month stretch in which he won 11 of 12 decisions.  Only a slow finish prevented Tapani from recording his first 20-win season.

In the playoffs, Tapani made only one start, but it was quite memorable.  The 19-game winner got the start in Game 2 of the NLDS, pitching four-hit ball over eight shutout innings against the Braves before allowing a game-tying solo homer to Javy Lopez in the ninth.  Tapani was removed after nine innings, getting a no-decision as the game went into extra innings.  Atlanta would go on to win the game in the tenth inning on a walk-off hit by Chipper Jones off reliever Terry Mulholland.

Tapani would never match the success he had in 1998, winning a total of 23 games with the Cubs from 1999 to 2001.  But he did get to be reunited with his former Mets and Twins teammate, as Rick Aguilera was traded from the Twins to the Cubs in May of 1999.  One of the players sent to Minnesota to complete the deal was a minor league prospect by the name of Kyle Lohse - the same Kyle Lohse who would go on to become an integral member of the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, 25 years after his trade partner, Rick Aguilera, celebrated a title with the Mets.

Aguilera saved eight games for the Cubs in 1999 and closed out his career on top of his game, finishing sixth in the National League with 29 saves in 2000.  Tapani pitched one more year after Aguilera called it a career, going 9-14 for the Cubs in 2001 before he decided it was time to hang up his cleats.

By the time Aguilera and Tapani threw their final pitches in the major leagues, Frank Viola had been out of baseball for five years and an ex-Met for ten.  It's true that Viola gave the Mets one exceptional season after he was traded to New York in 1989 for Rick Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West and two other young pitchers.  But Minnesota got the bigger value in the deal, as did the 1993 National League champion Phillies, 1995 American League East champion Red Sox and 1998 wild card-winning Cubs.

"Hey, I gave you a 20-win season.  All Aguilera and Tapani got was a World Series title in 1991.  Oh, wait.  Never mind."

Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani didn't have long careers with the Mets.  Aguilera was a Met from 1985 to 1989, going 37-27 with seven saves, a 3.58 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.  Tapani was a Met for exactly three games and 7⅓ innings.  Frank Viola's numbers in 2½ seasons with the Mets were eerily similar to what Aguilera produced in five years with the team (38-32, 3.31 ERA, 1.24 WHIP).  But Viola's sweet music had become sour by the end of 1991, as the southpaw threw his final pitch as a Met just one month before Aguilera and Tapani celebrated a World Series championship in Minnesota.

Aguilera and Tapani did more than just win a World Series championship for the Twins.  They also became two of the best pitchers in franchise history.  Since the team to Minnesota from Washington prior to the 1961 season, the two pitchers' names can be found all over the Twins' all-time pitching leaderboards.

Aguilera ranks among the team leaders in saves (254; 2nd in Twins history), games pitched (490; 2nd), games finished (434; 1st), WHIP (1.182; 4th), K/9 IP (7.599; 4th) and K/BB (3.274; 6th), while Tapani's name can be found among Minnesota's all-time greats in wins (75; 9th in Twins history), games started (180; 8th), innings pitched (1,171⅓; 8th), BB/9 IP (1.959; 7th) and WAR (19.1; 9th).

But Aguilera and Tapani also pitched well when they weren't in Minnesota.  Although Aguilera was only a closer in 10 of his 16 major league seasons, he finished his career with an impressive 318 saves.  Aguilera recorded 30 or more saves six times, surpassed 40 saves twice and finished in the league's top ten in saves nine times.  Tapani won 143 games after leaving the Mets, going 143-125 during his 13-year career in the majors.  But Tapani pitched for some poor teams at the end of his career, going 23-38 for a Cubs squad that averaged just under 90 losses per season from 1999 to 2001.  Prior to that, he had gone 120-87 in his first ten seasons after leaving the Mets.

Aguilera and Tapani also helped multiple teams reach the playoffs, as Aguilera played October baseball with the 1991 Twins and 1995 Red Sox, while Tapani pitched in the postseason with the 1991 Twins, 1995 Dodgers and 1998 Cubs.

How much were Aguilera and Tapani missed by the Mets?  After leaving New York in 1989, Aguilera recorded 311 saves.  That's 35 more than Mets' all-time leader John Franco recorded in 14 seasons with the team.  Kevin Tapani won all of his 143 career victories after being dealt by the Mets.  The only two players in Mets history with more wins as a Met are Tom Seaver (198) and Dwight Gooden (157).  As incredible as it may seem, that means Tapani won more games after leaving the Mets than the great Jerry Koosman won as a Met (140).

Frank Viola was a great pitcher in Minnesota.  But he was struggling for the Twins after winning the Cy Young Award in 1988.  The Mets were going through their own struggles after a 100-win season in 1988, and felt the need for an immediate upgrade in the starting rotation.  Solving a short-term problem led to long-term success for two former Mets pitchers.  Meanwhile, Frank Viola was a one-season wonder in New York who left the game long before his trade counterparts had started to decline.

Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani could have been great as members of the New York Mets.  Instead, they became great for a number of teams not named the New York Mets.  The Mets traded their kingdom for a one-season horse.  They're still searching for the title Minnesota earned just two years after the trade was completed.  Pitching wins championships.  And Minnesota got theirs with the pitching they received from the Mets.  It's just another sad chapter in the never-ending story of the Mets that got away.

YouTube video courtesy of Sam Teichman
 (And for the record, Rick Aguilera won the World Series game Teichman talks about in this video)

Note:  The Mets That Got Away was a thirteen-part weekly series (yup, that means this is the last one) 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 
March 25, 2013: Ty Wigginton

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