It was with all this current activity in mind that just yesterday I began a regular ‘Phillies Hot Stove History’ series in which I plan to re-visit some of the big free agent signings, trades, and other transactions made by the club on this date in off-season history.
That first entry took a look back at a 1981 three-team trade in which the Phillies sent outfielder Lonnie Smith to the Saint Louis Cardinals and landed catcher Bo Diaz from the Cleveland Indians. Within weeks that deal would have permanent ramifications for two of the team’s 1980 World Series heroes, catchers Bob Boone and Keith Moreland.
Today we’ll take a look at a big free agent signing from this date in the year 2000. To fully understand the signing and the reasons that it took place, you need to go back and recall what was happening at that time in Phillies history.
The organization was struggling mightily at that point. From 1987 through the 2000 campaign the Phillies had finished with a winning record just once, in the magical 1993 run to a World Series appearance.
Aside from that 97-65, first place and pennant-winning miracle, the Phillies had fashioned a horrendous cumulative record of 912-1,128 over the other prior 13 seasons.
But things began to change for the better as a new millennium dawned, even though it hadn’t yet shown up in the win-loss column. The Phillies finished the 2000 season with a 65-97 record, the second-worst during that stretch.
However, new and talented young players were beginning to make their way into the lineup. At age 25, third baseman Scott Rolen would win his second Gold Glove Award that year and was better than a 4-WAR player in each of his first four big-league seasons.
The Phillies first round pick in the MLB Draft just two summers earlier, 23-year-old Pat Burrell busted into the lineup with 18 homers and 79 RBI as a first baseman/left fielder. He would finish fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
26-year-old right fielder Bobby Abreu had his second straight 20-20 season with 25 homers and 28 stolen bases. He slashed .316/.416/.554 with 77 extra-base hits and 103 runs scored and was emerging as a premier offensive threat in the middle of the Phillies lineup.
The catcher was 28-year-old Mike Lieberthal, a future Phillies Wall of Famer who just might be the best all-around backstop in franchise history. A year after capturing the NL Gold Glove Award at the position he had made a second-straight National League All-Star appearance.
In mid-September of 2000, the lineup made room for an exciting newcomer. 21-year-old Jimmy Rollins hit .321 over 14 games and 55 plate appearances and flashed serious leather. That performance set the stage for a career that would see him become the greatest shortstop in Phillies history.
Phillies GM Ed Wade made the decision to bolster his emerging club’s bullpen for the 2001 season, a decision that paid off big-time.
Though the Phillies finished last in Major League Baseball with 708 runs scored and next-to-last in OPS, 44-year-old third-year general manager Ed Wade correctly surmised that he had the position player core to grow into a winner.
Where the Phillies were really lacking was on the mound. The mercurial ace of the staff, Curt Schilling, was dealt away at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2000. In exchange the Arizona Diamondbacks sent first baseman Travis Lee and three pitchers who Wade hoped could help the pitching depth in Vicente Padilla, Omar Daal, and Nelson Figueroa.
The team’s second round 1997 MLB Draft pick, lefty starter Randy Wolf, was coming off his first full big-league season and appeared to be at least a long-term mid-rotation mainstay.
After four losing seasons, the notoriously tough Philly fans had seen enough of Francona as the manager. To be fair, this was the future multi-World Series winner’s first chance at an MLB managerial gig, and he wasn’t given much depth of talent to work with.
It was deemed time to give a new voice a chance to wake up both the players and the fan base, and there was one logical choice for the job: Larry Bowa. The former longtime World Series champion Phillies shortstop and coach, Bowa was hired as the new skipper.
Wade believed that if the position players continued to develop as he expected, then one way the Phillies could quickly begin to win was by bringing in major reinforcements for the bullpen.
The Phillies closer during the 2000 season had been 13-year veteran righty Jeff Brantley. He had recorded 23 Saves, but also had unsightly 5.86 ERA and 1.681 WHIP marks. The 36-year-old surrendered 64 hits over 55.1 innings and yielded a dozen home runs.
The primary setup men for Brantley on that 2000 Phillies team were righties Chris Brock and Wayne Gomes. After the Schilling trade, Padilla was used out of the pen on a regular basis as well. To call their performances poor would be an insult to the word.
Brock had a 4.34 ERA and 1.350 WHIP, allowing 21 home runs and 41 walks over his 93.1 innings which included five starts and 68 relief appearances. Gomes had a 4.40 ERA and 1.452 WHIP and had a poor 6.0/4.3 K:BB per nine innings rate. In 28 games, all out of the pen, Padilla had a 5.34 ERA and allowed 40 hits over 30.1 innings with a 21/18 K:BB ratio.
MESA GOES FROM STARTER TO CLOSER THROUGH FIVE TEAMS
Mesa had originally signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as, believe it or not, a 15-year-old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic all the way back in 1981.
In early September of 1987, Mesa was sent by Toronto to the Baltimore Orioles as the player-to-be-named-later in a deal that had netted the contending Jays a veteran starter in Mike Flanagan.
Mesa received a cup-of-coffee with his big-league debut that very month, making a half-dozen appearances for a horrendous Orioles team that was playing out the string. He would return to the minors for the next couple of seasons, working as a starting pitcher.
From 1990-92, Mesa made 43 appearances with the Orioles, 42 of those as a starter. Then on July 14, 1992 came what would become his big career break. Mesa was dealt by Baltimore to Cleveland for speedy outfield prospect Kyle Washington.
With the Indians, Mesa remained in the rotation at first, with 48 of his first 49 appearances in the Tribe uniform coming as a starting pitcher. It was in 1994 that Indians manager Mike Hargrove made the decision to switch the big right-hander to the bullpen. It would prove to be a career-making move.
His 1994 switch to the bullpen was successful but was also cut short by the player’s strike. When play resumed in 1995, Mesa was made the closer for an Indians team on the rise.
Cleveland would capture the next five consecutive American League Central Division titles. Mesa became an all-star, representing the Tribe in both the 1995 and 1996 Mid-Summer Classics.
In that 1995 season, Mesa would have a career year. He led all of baseball with 46 Saves and 57 games finished. His other numbers were tremendous: 1.13 ERA, 1.031 WHIP, 49 hits surrendered in 64 innings over 62 games. For that performance he finished as runner-up in the AL Cy Young Award voting to Randy Johnson.
The Indians would lose the World Series that year to the Atlanta Braves in six games, shut down in the opener by future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and then twice by future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. Mesa earned the win in Game 3 out of the pen.
After being knocked out in the ALDS by the Orioles in 1996, the Indians returned to the Fall Classic in 1997. This time they would face the upstart Florida Marlins, who had a pair of 1993 Phillies heroes on the roster in Darren Daulton and Jim Eisenreich.
The two teams battled through seven epic games, and that final Game 7 went to the bottom of the 9th inning with the Indians ahead by 2-1. With Cleveland just three outs away from their first World Series championship in nearly a half-century, Hargrove motioned down to the bullpen and called for his lights-out closer.
Mesa surrendered a base hit to Moises Alou, but then struck out Bobby Bonilla swinging. Two outs away. The next batter, Charles Johnson, dropped a line single into right field with Alou rolling around to third base as the tying run.
On a 1-1 pitch, little second baseman Craig Counsell lined a ball to right field. It was caught for the second out but was deep enough to score Alou for a tie game.
Hargrove had his horse in the game and decided to ride him longer. Mesa got the lead batter, but then surrendered two more hits in the bottom of the 10th. After striking out John Cangelosi for the second out, Hargrove made the decision to pull Mesa, who had thrown 39 pitches.
Veteran starter Charles Nagy came on to get the last out in the 10th and end that threat. With the score still knotted at 2-2 in the bottom of the 11th, Nagy continued on.
The Marlins then put together another threat without hitting a ball hard. A ground single, an error by second baseman Tony Fernandez, and an intentional walk loaded the bases with two outs. Up stepped 21-year-old shortstop Edgar Renteria. On the second pitch, he lined a clean single to center field and Counsell gleefully scampered home with the series-winning run.
The following year, Mesa seemed to fall apart. After 44 games his ERA had more than doubled and his strikeout rate was falling for a third straight season. As the non-waiver trade deadline approached, Indians GM John Hart decided to deal the pending free agent, sending him along with veteran infielder Shawon Dunston to the San Francisco Giants.
After finishing the season with San Francisco, Mesa became a free agent and signed a two-year, $6.8 million deal with the young and talented Seattle Mariners.
In the second year of the deal, the 2000 Mariners led the AL West Division from late June through late September but fell a half-game short of the Oakland A’s for the division crown. As the American League Wildcard team, they swept the Chicago White Sox 3-0 in an ALDS, but then were eliminated by the New York Yankees in six games in the ALCS.
Mesa wasn’t really wowing anyone at that point in his career. After recording 33 Saves his first season in Seattle he lost the closer job. Over the two seasons with the Mariners, Mesa had a cumulative 5.18 ERA and 1.701 WHIP.
MESA BECOMES PHILLIES RECORD-SETTING CLOSER
This was the man who Wade signed to anchor his new bullpen. Mesa would take this new opportunity to close as a re-birth, and he would prove to be born-again-hard, at least for the first two seasons of his deal.
In the 2001-02 campaigns with the Phillies, Mesa saved 42 and 45 games respectively. In 2001 he registered a 2.34 ERA over 71 games. In 2002 his ERA was at the 2.97 mark across 74 games. He yielded just 130 hits over 145 hits during the two seasons with just nine home runs allowed.
Wade didn’t stop his bullpen rebuild with Mesa alone. On November 30, 2000, he added a veteran left-hander to the mix by signing free agent Rheal Cormier. The 33-year-old became the primary southpaw out of the pen, pitching in 60 games and allowing just 49 hits over 51.1 innings.
On December 15, 2000, Wade would further bolster the pen, bringing back former Phillies all-star closer Ricky Bottalico to serve as Mesa’s primary setup man. Over 66 games, ‘Ricky Bo’ would allow just 58 hits across 67 innings.
Adding this new trio of veteran pitchers to the maturing position player mix worked perfectly. The Phillies very nearly went from worst-to-first. They led the NL East at the MLB All-Star Game break and as late as July 16.
The club continued to fight, never falling more than 3.5 games behind the six-time defending division champion Atlanta Braves. After winning the opener of a key three-game series in Atlanta on October 2, the Phillies were just a game out.
However, the Braves recovered to win the next two straight and open a three-game lead. Despite the Phillies sweeping a season-ending three-game weekend series in Cincinnati, the club would finish two games shy of Atlanta for the division crown.
Still, the Phillies 86-76 mark was their first winning season since the 1993 team. They would slip slightly to 80-81 during the 2002 season, Mesa’s second as closer, but would then begin a string of nine consecutive winning campaigns that would include the second World Series title in franchise history.
The 2003 Phillies would win 90 games and finish just five games off the NL Wildcard pace after a late September swoon. But in the final season of his contract, a now 37-year-old Mesa would prove ineffective.
In that 2003 campaign his ERA swelled to 6.52 and he allowed 71 hits over 58 innings. During an injury-riddled September, Mesa appeared in just a half-dozen games and was awful when he pitched, surrendering nine earned runs on nine hits over four innings.
Mesa’s contract was up, but his career was not yet over. Neither, in fact, were his days in Philadelphia. Mesa would again emerge as a strong closer in the 2004 season, saving 43 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He spent the 2005 season again in Pittsburgh, recording the 300th Save of his career. He then hooked on with the Colorado Rockies for the 2006 season at age 40.
In 2007, Mesa signed with the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers to bolster their bullpen as a 41-year-old veteran. However, after 16 ineffective appearances, the Tigers released him. Six days later he re-signed to give it one more shot with the Phillies.
The 2007 Phillies were a team on their way to the first of what would be five straight NL East Division crowns. Mesa, who had been there at the beginning of this great era in the team’s history, was back as it was finally all coming to full fruition.
He became a regular piece out of manager Charlie Manuel‘s bullpen over the rest of that season. In 40 games, Mesa allowed just 34 hits over 39 innings and surrendered just two home runs.
On August 5, 2007 in Milwaukee he registered his lone Save of the season, the 321st and final of his big-league career. He is currently 20th on the all-time MLB career Saves list. On September 18 at Saint Louis he earned the Win, the 80th and final of his career.
Mesa did get to take the mound for one final postseason appearance that year, but it was not a successful swan song. The Colorado Rockies swept the Phillies out in three straight games.
During Game 2 at Citizens Bank Park, Mesa came on top pitch the top of the 6th inning with Colorado already on top by 6-3. He lasted just four batters. After walking the first two, Yorvit Torrealba drilled a two-run double, upping the Rockies lead to 8-3. Mesa then retired pitcher Josh Fogg on a sacrifice bunt. It would prove to be the final batter he would face in the big leagues.
Prior to Mesa signing with the team back in December 2000, the Phillies all-time career Saves record was held by 1987 NL Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian with 103. Over his first three years in Phillies pinstripes, Mesa broke that record by saving 111 games. The one more that he tacked on in 2007 left him with the Phillies record of 112 career Saves.
That record would last for more than a decade until another big free agent closer signing, Jonathan Papelbon, would set the new and current Phillies career Saves mark of 123 over his three seasons with the team.
It was on this date 18 years ago that Wade’s plan to push the team forward by bolstering his bullpen began to take shape with the free agent signing of Mesa. That signing has to be considered a complete success with Mesa becoming the club’s all-time Saves leader.
With Mesa as the closer and the subsequent additions of Cormier and Bottalico, the Phillies 2001 bullpen was indeed greatly improved. That trio was a major reason that the team finally emerged from more than a dozen years at the bottom of the standings. The Phillies would use that 2001 contending season as a springboard to a decade of success.