Posted December 02, 2013

JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot Part IV: Stray relievers

Hall of Fame, JAWS
Eric Gagne, Dodgers

Eric Gagne won the NL Cy Young award in 2003 but was mentioned in the Mitchell Report four years later. (Robert Beck/SI)

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.

Last week, I ran through seven position players making their debuts on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, players whose stays as candidates are likely to be short ones because they’re unlikely to receive anywhere close to the five percent necessary to remain on the ballot. The same goes for this quartet of well-traveled relievers, whose JAWS numbers are nowhere close to meriting serious consideration for Cooperstown, but whose careers are nonetheless worth another look before they head off into the sunset.

Pitcher  Career  Peak  JAWS   W   L   ERA   ERA+
Armando Benitez 17.7 16.6 17.2 40 47 289 3.13 140
Eric Gagne 11.9 12.0 12.0 33 26 187 3.47 119
Todd Jones 10.9 11.3 11.1 58 63 319 3.97 111
Mike Timlin 19.6 14.0 16.8 75 73 141 3.63 125
Avg HOF RP  38.6 27.1 32.8

Armando Benitez (1994-2008)

An imposing figure who could hit triple digits with his fastball, Benitez spent most of his 15 years in the majors frustrating fans as well as hitters. While he missed more than his share of bats, he set a postseason record for most blown saves with six, none bigger than in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series. He also touched off one of the era’s more memorable brawls.

Signed by the Orioles out of the Dominican Republic in 1990, Benitez dominated hitters out of the bullpen as he climbed the ladder, twice making Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list, no small accomplishment for a reliever. He made his major league debut on July 28, 1994 when he was just 21. He more or less stuck for good by late April of the following season, though he missed most of 1996 due to an elbow injury.

He emerged as a force in 1997 — the last winning Orioles team until 2012 — whiffing 106 hitters in 73 1/3 innings and notching nine saves when manager Davey Johnson wanted a righthanded alternative to lefty closer Randy Myers. When Myers departed via free agency that winter, the ninth-inning job went to Benitez, but he struggled due to high walk and homer rates. On May 19, 1998, after blowing a save by surrendering a three-run homer to the Yankees’ Bernie Williams, he drilled Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades with his next pitch —”A real cheap shot,” as announcer Jim Kaat described it — touching off an epic brawl that led to an eight-game suspension for Benitez:

Benitez finished the year with 22 saves but a 3.82 ERA and a growing reputation as a hothead. Baltimore traded him to the Mets as part of a three-way deal with the Dodgers that December, receiving catcher Charles Johnson in return. Initially, Benitez worked as the setup man for the aging John Franco, but when the 38-year-old closer went on the disabled list in early July, Benitez took over the job and finished the year with 22 saves and a 1.85 ERA while helping New York win the NL wild card. Franco, who had 416 saves under his belt by that point, was relegated to setup duty, a move that didn’t sit well with the Mets’ faithful.

Benitez notched 41 saves in 2000, but was erratic in the postseason, allowing five runs (plus an inherited runner who scored) in seven innings before being called on to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series against the Yankees. He lost a 10-pitch battle with Paul O’Neill, who walked and came around to score the tying run on a sacrifice fly; the Mets lost the contest in 12 innings, and the World Series in five games.

Benitez stuck around as the Mets’ closer until mid-2003. A day after pitching for the NL in the All-Star Game, he was traded to the Yankees — where he wasn’t exactly given a hero’s welcome — for three prospects. He made just nine appearances for the Bronx Bombers before being flipped to Seattle for the more familiar Jeff Nelson, and that winter signed a free agent deal with the Marlins even as they were dismantling their world champions.

After notching a league-leading 47 saves for Florida in 2004, he was on the go again, inking a three-year, $21 million deal with the Giants. Alas, elbow, hamstring and knee injuries sent him to the disabled list four times in his San Francisco tenure; he made just 90 appearances and saved 45 games with a 4.10 ERA before being traded back to the Marlins in 2007. After making six appearances for the Blue Jays in ’08, he bounced around the affiliated minors and the independent Atlantic League until as recently as 2012.

Eric Gagne (1999-2008)
For a three-year period, Gagne was the game’s best closer, a record-setting, award winning and adrenaline-charged phenomenon — “the archetypal closer-as-intimidator” as a Sports Illustrated feature once dubbed him — who came with his own legend and a catchphrase: “Game Over.” For the rest of his 10-year major league career, he was just another pitcher battling an endless string of injuries and questionable decisions.

Born in Montreal and raised in the nearby suburb of Mascouche, Gagne played hockey — “I was a goon, just protecting the better players,” he once told SI — as well as baseball growing up. The Dodgers signed him as a nondrafted free agent in 1995, at which point he didn’t even speak English fluently. From the beginning of his professional career, he struck out more than a hitter per inning as a starter, but Tommy John surgery cost him all of the 1997 season.

In 1999, after coming to spring training outfitted in protective goggles because he could no longer wear contacts, he blew away 185 hitters in 167 2/3 innings at Double-A San Antonio, then made his major league debut on Sept. 7, throwing six innings of shutout ball against the Marlins. He spent the rest of that month and the next two seasons battling to stay in Los Angeles’ rotation but running up high pitch counts quickly, surrendering too many walks and homers for his own good. In 2000-2001, he made 43 starts and 10 relief appearances en route to a combined 4.91 ERA.

The next spring, he took over the Dodgers’ closing duties, his fastball jumping from 94 mph to 97 in shorter stints and offset by a sinking 87 mph changeup that drove hitters crazy. He converted his first 10 save opportunities while allowing just one run along the way. By the time he joined the NL All-Star squad, he was 32-for-34 with a 1.39 ERA. When he entered home games to the strains of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Dodger Stadium scoreboard flashed “Game Over.” He finished the year with a 1.97 ERA, 12.5 strikeouts per nine and 52 saves, three shy of John Smoltz’ NL lead, and placed fourth in the Cy Young balloting.

On Aug. 28 of that year, Gagne began a streak of 84 consecutive saves by closing out a win over the Diamondbacks. He then went 55-for-55 in 2003 — his only miscue being a blown save in the All-Star Game — leading the league and tying Smoltz’ NL record; on Sept. 2, he surpassed Tom Gordon’s previous record of 55 consecutive saves. Thanks to the record, a 1.20 ERA and an eye-popping 15.0 strikeouts per nine, he won the NL Cy Young award going away, taking 28 out of 30 first-place votes. He was the first reliever to win since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and the most recent to do so. His streak finally ended on July 5, 2004 — against the Diamondbacks, again — and he finished that year with a 2.19 ERA and 45 saves, earning All-Star honors as well as some down-ballot Cy Young and MVP support.

The Dodgers signed Gagne to a two-year, $19 million extension that winter, but things quickly fell apart. He pitched through a left knee sprain in the spring of 2005 and wound up spraining his UCL in a classic cascade injury. The team feared he would need another Tommy John procedure, and while it was relieved to learn he needed “only” a nerve transposition and scar tissue removal, Gagne required further elbow surgery in the spring of 2006, then back surgery in July. For that $19 million, Los Angeles got just 16 appearances. Understandably, the club declined his $12 million option for 2007 and he signed a deal for half as much with the Rangers. Continuing to battle injuries, he saved just 16 games before being traded to the Red Sox at the July 31 deadline.

Despite being rocked for a 6.75 ERA as a setup man in Boston, he nonetheless secured a $10 million one-year deal from the Brewers in December of ’07. Three days later, his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report as having received human growth hormone. Within the report, it surfaced that both the Dodgers and Red Sox were on to him, with Boston general manager Theo Epstein asking a scout via email, “Have you done any digging on Gagne? I know the Dodgers think he was a steroid guy.”

The downward spiral continued as Gagne battled shoulder woes in 2008 and put up a 5.44 ERA while saving just 10 games for Milwaukee. Over the next two years, the Brewers and Dodgers each gave him another chance to make their team, and he spent part of ’09 pitching in the independent Canadian-American Association, but he was done. Game over.

Todd Jones (1993-2008)

A first-round draft pick by the Astros out of Jacksonville State University in 1989, Jones spent his first three years of pro ball working as a starter before converting to the bullpen. After making Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list at number 42 in 1993, he debuted with Houston in July of that year. He saved 37 games over the next three seasons, with a high of 17 in 1996, but he never fully secured the closer role before being traded to Detroit in a nine-player trade in December 1996, one that included Jose Lima and future Tigers manager Brad Ausmus traveling in the other direction.

Jones began the 1997 season as Detroit’s closer, and after some early hiccups went on to save 31 games with a 3.09 ERA and 70 strikeouts in as many innings. That started a four-year stretch over which he averaged 33 saves a year, leading the AL with 42 in 2000 and making the All-Star team for the only time in his career as well as winning the league’s Rolaids Relief Award. Even so, his ERAs ranged as high as 4.97 in that span due to high walk rates. The 2001 season marked the beginning of his wilderness years, a four-year odyssey during which he saved just 16 games while pitching to a 4.99 ERA (92 ERA+) for six different teams, starting with a mid-2001 trade to the Twins and including a midseason release and another deadline deal along the way.

In 2002, Jones began ghostwriting a column for The Sporting News, “The Closer,” and during this period, his pen and mouth made more headlines than his arm did. While busy pitching to an 8.24 ERA as a member of the Rockies in 2003, he commented on a hit Broadway play about a gay baseball player called Take Me Out, airing his homophobic views:

“I wouldn’t want a gay guy being around me… It’s got nothing to do with me being scared. That’s the problem: All these people say he’s got all these rights. Yeah, he’s got rights or whatever, but he shouldn’t walk around proud. It’s like he’s rubbing it in our face. ‘See me, Hear me roar.’ We’re not trying to be close-minded, but then again, why be confrontational when you don’t really have to be?”

Jones only partially apologized for those ugly comments (“I think my only mistake was that I made my views public,” he said), and wasn’t disciplined by his team or major league baseball. In 2005, he came out of his funk by saving 40 games for the Marlins. He returned to the Tigers and notched 37 saves for the team’s 2006 pennant winners, then spent two more years in Detroit to diminishing returns. In late 2007, he became the 21st pitcher to reach 300 saves; he finished with 319, good for 16th on the all-time list.

Mike Timlin (1991-2008)

Over the course of an 18-year major league career, Timlin started just four games, but he wound up appearing in 1,058, more than all but seven other pitchers in history, and at the time he retired, he held the all-time record for relief appearances by a righthander with 1,054. He made at least 50 appearances in a season a whopping 14 times (tied for sixth all-time), topped 60 11 times (more than any other pitcher besides Mariano Rivera) and reached 70 five times. He pitched in 11 different postseasons and won four World Series rings. If he was rarely called “Iron Mike,” he certainly deserved the nickname.

Drafted in the fifth round in 1987 out of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Timlin began his minor league career as a starter but converted to the bullpen for good by 1990; on the heels of a season in which he put up a 1.53 ERA while striking out a then-impressive 7.6 per nine, he placed 69th on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list. He broke in with the Blue Jays in 1991, and as 25-year-old rookie made 63 appearances (including three starts) totaling 108 1/3 innings with a 3.16 ERA while helping his team win the first of three straight AL East titles. He lost more than two months of the 1992 season to elbow surgery, and spent most of that year and the next in low-leverage duty, but even so he was part of Toronto’s back-to-back World Series winners, securing the final out of the ’92 Fall Classic. By 1995, he was a setup reliever and in 1996, a closer, saving 31 games that season.

On July 31, 1997, Timlin and Paul Spoljaric were traded to the Mariners for hot-hitting rookie Jose Cruz Jr.; Seattle’s relievers had compiled a 6.28 ERA to that point, and the team needed fresh arms more than it needed bats. Timlin helped put out enough fires in a setup role to help the M’s make the playoffs, then returned to closing late the following year. He spent the better part of the 1999 and 2000 seasons closing in Baltimore before being traded to the Cardinals near the deadline, reverting to a setup role and making two more trips to the playoffs. St. Louis then sent him to the Phillies as part of a three-player package to acquire Scott Rolen on July 29, 2002.

As a free agent that offseason, Timlin signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox and wound up staying for six. While his ERAs would fluctuate considerably over that span as his strikeout rate dwindled, he spent most of that time as the team’s top setup man when he wasn’t filling in for the struggling Keith Foulke (2005) or the injured Jonathan Papelbon (2006) as closer. He was part of Boston’s first world championship team in 86 years in 2004, and still around when they won again in 2007.

Well into his 40s by then, Timlin spent about half a season over his final two years on the disabled list for one ailment or another. On Sept. 15, 2008, he made his 1,051st relief appearance, surpassing Kent Tekulve for sole possession of the all-time record by a righthander, a mark Rivera would eclipse in 2013.

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