December 8, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #29 Kevin Tapani

Kevin Ray Tapani | SP | 1989-1995 | Career Stats

Kevin Tapani played 13 seasons in the majors, winning 143 games and earning approximately $35 million, yet his entire baseball career almost never was. In an interview with the Central Michigan University athletic department's website, here's how Tapani described the odd set of circumstances that led to his playing college baseball:

I just signed up for school at CMU and had planned on being an ordinary student. When I went to orientation, I found out that Dan McReynolds was the Dodger scout in the Midwest and he told me they were going to hold a tryout camp. While at the Dodger camp, coach Keilitz was sitting in the stands and he came down to me and said, "I see that you're enrolled here. Would you be interested in coming out for the team?"

I said, "Yeah, that would be great." So, school started and by the time I got here, I had missed the first week of fall ball. I was sitting in my dorm room and coach called and asked if I were still interested in coming out for the team. I told him, "I sure was and when the season starts, I would be there." Coach then told me the season had already started. So, he said if I wanted to do it, show up the next day. I went out and ended up making the team in the fall.

Not only did Tapani go from being an unrecruited, last-minute walk-on to being the team's ace, after four years at CMU he was selected by the A's in the second round of the 1986 draft (two picks after the Twins took Oklahoma State right-hander Jeff Bronkey, who won two games in the majors). Tapani went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA in 11 starts at Single-A in his pro debut and then went 10-7 with a 3.76 ERA in 24 starts at Single-A in his second year.

In December of 1987 he was part of a massive three-team trade involving the A's, Dodgers, and Mets that saw Bob Welch, Alfredo Griffin, Jay Howell, and Jesse Orosco each change teams. Tapani went from Oakland to New York in the deal, joining an organization that had a big-league starting rotation packed with young, established pitchers in Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez.

With so many young starters ahead of Tapani the Mets moved him to the bullpen and sent him to Double-A in 1988. He pitched well as a reliever with a 2.74 ERA in 62.1 innings and resumed starting at Triple-A the next year. After posting a 3.47 ERA in 17 starts there the Mets called him up to the majors and Tapani debuted on the Fourth of July with 4.1 innings of relief versus the Astros after starter Bob Ojeda was knocked out of the game in the first inning.

Tapani appeared in two more games over the next two weeks, both as a reliever. Then on July 31 he was traded again, this time going to Minnesota along with Rick Aguilera, David West, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage for Frank Viola. It was a very controversial deal at the time because Viola was incredibly popular in Minnesota, was the reigning Cy Young award winner thanks to a 24-7 record in 1988, and was instrumental to the Twins' championship in 1987.

Within an August 2, 1989 article about the trade in the Washington Post there was a moment of candor from then-general manager Andy MacPhail that would be startling to read today:

Any time you deal you a guy who has done all Frankie has done for us, it's tough, but the velocity of his fastball was diminishing.

Surely the Mets were thrilled to hear that after the move was completed, although they were probably more than happy to have the first pitcher in baseball history to be traded the season after winning the Cy Young award. Viola was only 29 years old at the time and in fact still had plenty of gas left in the tank--diminishing fastball velocity or not--finishing third in the Cy Young balloting with a 20-win season and league-leading 250 innings in 1990.

Viola had a 3.31 ERA in three seasons with the Mets before becoming a free agent, yet despite his continued success the trade is one of the greatest in Twins history. West, Drummond, and Savage never amounted to much in Minnesota, but Tapani and Aguilera became outstanding pitchers and key members of the staff that helped lead the Twins to another World Series title in 1991.

After acquiring him from the Mets the Twins sent Tapani back to Triple-A, where he had a 2.20 ERA in six starts. He was recalled when rosters expanded in September and made five starts down the stretch, winning his first two games in a Twins uniform and posting a 3.86 ERA. With his days in the minors over, Tapani began 1990 in the rotation and made 28 starts, going 12-8 with a 4.07 ERA while leading a 74-88, last-place team in wins and strikeouts.

It all came together for Tapani in 1991, as he won 16 games with a 2.99 ERA in 244 innings to rank among the AL's top 10 in all three categories and finish seventh in the Cy Young balloting. The amazing thing is that Tapani went 0-6 with a 5.35 ERA in May, which means over the rest of the season he was 16-3 with a 2.54 ERA before surprisingly struggling in the postseason by going 1-2 with a 6.11 ERA in four starts.

He did come up big against Tom Glavine in Game 2 of the World Series, holding Atlanta to two runs over eight innings before turning things over to Aguilera for the save. Tapani was never again as good as he was in 1991, but over the next three years he was a dependable innings eater who twice ranked among the league's top 10 in wins. Tapani was 39-33 with a 4.31 ERA over the three-year span, leading the Twins in wins each year.

He had a .541 winning percentage from 1992-1994, whereas the Twins won at just a .479 clip when Tapani didn't figure in the decision. After the strike was settled in 1995 he started badly, going 6-11 with a 4.92 ERA. At the July 31 trading deadline, with the Twins holding MLB's worst record at 30-56 and Tapani just months from free agency, they shipped him and reliever Mark Guthrie to the Dodgers for Ron Coomer, Greg Hansell, Jose Parra, and Chris Latham.

In contrast to snagging both Tapani and Aguilera in the four-player haul for Viola, only Coomer provided any sort of usefulness to the Twins from the Tapani haul. The deal was a bust for Los Angeles too, as Tapani struggled in a half-season with the Dodgers and then inked a one-year contract with the White Sox that winter, going 13-10 with a 4.59 ERA in 1996. He stayed in Chicago for the final five seasons of his career, going 51-50 with a 4.66 ERA for the Cubs.

Tapani is an underrated figure in Twins history because unlike many of the team's top pitchers his best years came in a hitter-friendly era. That hurts his raw totals, especially compared to pitchers from the low-offense 1960s and 1970s, but his 75-63 record with the Twins was very good considering how awful some of the teams he played on were, he was incredibly durable, his peak season is among the best in team history, and his 4.06 ERA was better than it looks.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Starts                180     7th
Walk Rate            1.96     8th
Wins                   75     9th
Innings              1171     9th
Batters Faced        4897     9th
Quality Starts         98     9th
Strikeouts            724    10th
Shutouts                6    12th
K/BB Ratio           2.84    12th
Opponents' OBP       .309    16th
Complete Games         19    17th
WHIP                 1.26    18th
Winning Percentage   .543    20th
Home Run Rate        0.84    23rd
Adjusted ERA+         108    24th