May 20, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #18 Rick Aguilera

Richard Warren Aguilera | RP/SP | 1989-1999 | Career Stats

Originally picked as a third baseman out of high school by St. Louis in the 37th round of the 1980 draft, Rick Aguilera opted instead for college and became a pitcher. After three years at Brigham Young University, the California native was selected by the Mets in the third round of the 1983 draft and agreed to sign. Aguilera moved quickly through the minors, reporting to low Single-A after signing and finding himself at Triple-A to begin his third pro season.

Working strictly as a starter, Aguilera had a 3.47 ERA and 256-to-73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 259 combined innings between Single-A and Double-A. After posting a 2.51 ERA in 11 starts at Triple-A to begin the 1985 season, the Mets called Aguilera up in June. He debuted on June 12 against the Phillies, tossing two scoreless innings in relief of Ron Darling and Jesse Orosco to pick up the win in an extra-inning game. Not yet 24 years old, he was in the majors for good.

After debuting as a reliever Aguilera moved into the rotation with a 3.35 ERA in 19 starts, but was completely overshadowed by 20-year-old rotation-mate Dwight Gooden, who followed up his Rookie of the Year win in 1984 by going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA to win the Cy Young award and pitching triple crown. Also on that 1985 team was a 27-year-old utility infielder named Ron Gardenhire, who batted .179 in what would be his final big-league season.

Aguilera began 1986 alongside Gooden, Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Bob Ojeda in the Mets' great young rotation, but was quickly demoted to the bullpen and had to reclaim his rotation spot. He finished 10-7 with a 3.88 ERA in 142 innings for a 108-win team that ranks as one of the best in baseball history, spending the World Series run in the bullpen. Game 6 of the 1986 World Series is one of the most famous of all time, but few people recall the winning pitcher.

With the game tied in the ninth inning Aguilera relieved Orosco and set the Red Sox down in order. When the Mets failed to score Aguilera stayed in for the 10th and allowed two runs. We all know what happened next, but it's amazing to think that Aguilera was nearly the goat and then became the winning pitcher, yet almost no one remembers him even being involved. In fact, the Boston Globe's game story the next morning mentioned Aguilera once in 1,400 words.

While the Twins were winning a World Series of their own in 1987 he remained in the Mets' rotation and went 11-3 with a 3.60 ERA, but was limited to 17 starts by an elbow injury that required surgery. He missed most of the 1988 season and then came back as a long reliever in 1989 after David Cone took his rotation spot, but was unhappy in a low-leverage bullpen role and asked to be traded. Before that could happen, Aguilera thrived as a reliever.

He threw 69 innings with a 2.34 ERA and 80-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio through July and the success, combined with a more important late-inning role, caused Aguilera to tell The Sporting News: "The most amazing thing is that I'm actually learning to like being a reliever." Despite the slight change of heart, with the Mets clinging to contention and the Twins already out of it on the eve of the trading deadline, the teams completed a blockbuster trade.

Frank Viola, the reigning Cy Young winner, went from Minnesota to New York for a five-player package of Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage. West was considered a premier prospect, but it turned out to be Tapani and Aguilera who made it one of the best swaps in Twins history. Aguilera got his wish by moving into the rotation following the deal, starting 11 games with a 3.21 ERA as Jeff Reardon had a third straight 30-save season.

Those plans changed when Reardon left via free agency in December, signing a then-massive three-year, $6.8 million deal with the Red Sox. Armed with a low-90s fastball, a hard-breaking slider, and a forkball that dropped off the table, Aguilera was the obvious choice to replace Reardon as closer. "He's the most experienced we've got, the most capable strikeout pitcher," pitching coach Dick Such told the Associated Press in March of 1990. "He fits the bill."

When it became obvious during spring training that Aguilera would be taking over as closer he told the AP that he "was a little disappointed at first ... I was really excited about being able to start," but added that "I'll do it for the team." Things got off to a rough start when he blew the third save chance, serving up a walk-off three-run homer to Dante Bichette on April 14, 1990, but Aguilera recovered to convert 32-of-38 saves while posting a 2.76 ERA in 65 innings.

He made the first of three straight All-Star teams in 1991, tying Reardon's team record with 42 saves while posting a 2.35 ERA and 61/30 K/BB ratio in 69 innings as the Twins made their second World Series run in five seasons. A career .201 hitter with three homers in 139 at-bats, Aguilera became the first pitcher since Don Drysdale in 1965 to pinch-hit in the World Series when he flew out with two outs and the bases loaded in the 12th inning of Game 3.

Moments later Aguilera took the loss when Mark Lemke hit a walk-off single, but that was the lone postseason run he allowed while saving five of the eight playoff wins. He followed up the marvelous 1991 by ranking second in the league with 41 saves in 1992, and then saved 57 of the team's 124 wins between 1993 and 1994. When baseball returned in mid-1995 after the strike Aguilera was an impending free agent and the highest paid pitcher on MLB's worst team.

He posted a 2.52 ERA and 29/6 K/BB ratio in 25 innings through early July, saving 12 games despite the team's 19-44 start. On July 6, with Aguilera on the verge of becoming a 10-and-5 player who could veto any trades, the Twins sent him to the Red Sox for Frankie Rodriguez, a 22-year-old right-hander Baseball America ranked as the No. 36 prospect in baseball. Rodriguez was a bust, going 25-32 with a 5.20 ERA in 509 innings during four seasons in Minnesota.

Aguilera notched his first Red Sox save the next day against the Twins, at the Metrodome. He converted 20-of-21 saves to help the Red Sox win the AL East, but saw his only playoff action in Game 1 of the ALDS, serving up a game-tying homer to Albert Belle as a 100-win Indians team blitzed through on the way to the World Series. Aguilera returned to Minnesota as a free agent on a multi-year deal with a lower annual salary than he made the previous year.

Unsatisfied with the shaky rotation led by 23-year-olds Rodriguez and Brad Radke, manager Tom Kelly made Aguilera a starter again. Kelly had every reason to worry, as Twins starters combined for a 5.48 ERA, but changing Aguilera's role at age 34 proved to be a mistake. An arm injury allegedly suffered while lifting a suitcase limited Aguilera to one start in the first 60 games and he had a 5.42 ERA before a hamstring injury ended his season in early September.

Aguilera moved back to the bullpen and saved 64 games for a pair of sub-.500 teams during the next two seasons, but blew 18 saves and saw his ERA rise to 4.04 after compiling a 2.86 ERA through his first six seasons as Twins closer. He began 1999 pitching as well as ever at age 37, with a 1.27 ERA in 21 innings, but the Twins were once again the AL's worst team and he got just eight save chances as they went 13-27 through 40 games.

He was traded to the Cubs on May 21 along with Scott Downs for minor-league pitchers Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. Gone for good this time, Aguilera had 37 saves and a 4.31 ERA in two seasons with the Cubs to finish his 16-year career. Ryan had a 5.94 ERA in 67 innings for the Twins, but Lohse became a solid mid-rotation starter before wearing out his welcome in 2006. Unlikely as it seemed at the time of each trade, the haul for Aguilera was better in deal No. 2.

Aguilera became the Twins' saves leader when he notched No. 109 in September of 1992 and nearly 20 years later Joe Nathan is still just short of his total of 254. Aguilera blew at least a half-dozen saves in each of his seven full seasons as Twins closer and converted 81.4 percent of his save opportunities in Minnesota, which is mediocre by today's standards. By comparison, Nathan has converted 90 percent of his save chances with the Twins.

However, it's important to note that Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited. For a guy who never wanted to be a reliever, his 318 career saves ranked eighth in baseball history at the time of his retirement.

Saves                 254     1st
Games Finished        434     1st
Appearances           490     2nd
Adjusted ERA+         130     4th
WHIP                 1.18     5th
Opponents' OBP       .293     6th
K/BB Ratio           3.27     8th
Strikeout Rate       7.60     9th
Walk Rate            2.32    13th
Strikeouts            586    15th
Opponents' AVG       .243    15th
Opponents' OPS       .684    18th
ERA                  3.50    19th
Wins                   40    24th
Innings               694    25th
Batters Faced        2865    25th
  • mike wants WINS

    That stat on how many runners Nathan has inherited is mind blowing. It certainly reinforces my belief about the value of closers and high leverage situations.

  • pk

    — After looking it up Nathan is currently at 250 with 249 saves as a Twin. Aguilera had a career total of 318 saves with 254 as a Twin.

    It’ll be interesting to see if Nathan gets another save this year as a Twin.

    I’m really starting to enjoy this list.

    My only question to you or others is if Saves are such an overrated stat then why is Aguilera ranked so high on the Top 40?

    I think AG tried to answer this with his runners inherited stat which by it self is very impressive but the reason Aguilera is ranked so high is primarily due to his record number of saves.
    I had forgoten how bad the Twins were in the early ’90’s. geesh.

    Also, I’m assuming Nathan is still to come on this list? Top 10? Better numbers. Better teams.

  • Aguilera was the obvious choice to replace Reardon as closer. “He’s the most experienced we’ve got, the most capable strikeout pitcher,” pitching coach Dick Such told the Associated Press in March of 1990. “He fits the bill.”

    Damn those MLB managers and their insistence on “experienced” closers! 🙂

  • Dave T

    Closing is a high-pressure situation. Many pitchers crumble under the pressure. Most recent example: Rausch was in a tailspin when Gardy pulled him out of the closer role. What you want to know is, can this guy take the heat?

  • Dave

    “Rauch was in a tailspin”

    He may have had a few bad outings, but its been proven over and over again that Rauch and Capps have the same effectiveness. Taking a small sampling to base a large decision on is silly-and one the Twins should be regretting (and hopefully learning from). Rauch is performing just fine for the Blue Jays and would have been a much more economical closer for the twins, allowing for resigning of other RP’s or free agents than Capps is. Not to mention getting something of actual worth for an elite prospect cather-or heck even having Ramos as our catcher currently.

  • Dave

    One more thing, the way Gardy uses closers is actually far less of a “high-pressure situation” than he puts our setup and even middle relief guys in. Its proven out by the runners in inherited by Nathan.

  • Tom

    I had never realized before just what valuable trade bait Aggie was over the years. He fetched them quite a haul over those three trades.

  • WalterSolbcheck

    That inherited runners stat was insane.

    “the Twins sent him to the Red Sox for Frankie Rodriguez, a 22-year-old right-hander Baseball America ranked as the No. 36 prospect in baseball. Rodriguez was a bust”

    Understatement of the year? Rodriguez embodied just how awful those mid-90s teams were. I hated him so, so much.

  • Karl

    I am setting the over/under on comments on tommorrows post at 28.

    I’m sure it will another uplifting piece with lots of patient fan support.

    Place your wagers.