Saturday, May 9, 2020

Flash in the Pan, Part 2

In the initial installment of this post, I offered up a definition of the phrase flash in the pan as someone who gets off to a promising start but can't sustain it. The 3 players discussed in Part 1 of this post fit the most commonly used definition of the term. Víctor Díaz, Anderson Hernández, and Juan Padilla all enjoyed a brief burst of success, but none lasted very long in the majors. All players in both parts of this post played for the 2005 New York Mets ballclub.

The 3 players I will write about in Part 2 were different than the 3 discussed in Part 1. They all enjoyed longer major league careers than Díaz, Hernández, and Padilla. Even the initial success they enjoyed was bigger and lasted longer. Still, they all failed to live up to their initial fanfare but were interesting stories nonetheless.

The same caveat from Part 1 applies here: I am not making fun of these players. They all enjoyed a level of success in baseball worthy of respect. Making the major leagues and enjoying prosperity at that level is a tremendous accomplishment.

Mike Jacobs

No Met burned more brightly in 2005 than rookie 1B Mike Jacobs. Called up in late August of that year, Jacobs put on a display of power that excited all of us Met fans. His arrival and initial period of eye-opening success coincided with one of the best stretches of ball the Mets played that season, briefly inserting themselves as a real contender for the NL Wildcard.

Jacobs' first MLB at-bat came against the Nationals on August 21. The Mets were buried early in that game when starter Kris Benson couldn't make it out of the first inning. Jacobs came on as a pinch hitter with 2 on and 1 out and the Mets down 7-0. On the second major league pitch he saw, Jacobs made it 7-3 with a HR. The Mets would still lose that game 7-4, but the first impression by the huge lefty-swinging kid was a big one.

That earned him a start the next day on the first game of a road trip in Arizona. The legend stalled a little when Jacobs went 0-4 and ground into a double play. The next day he went 2-3 with a HR, then hit 2 more dingers the following day. The Mets swept all 4 games in Arizona and moved on to San Francisco, where they took the first game from the Giants. Jacobs had actually fallen into a bit of a slump after the 2 HR game, but the Mets were on fire. They were a season-high 8 games over .500 after taking the first game against the Giants, which left them only 4 games behind the division-leading Braves and a game-and-a-half out of the Wildcard.

Sadly, they dropped the next 2 games in San Francisco and dropped 2 of 3 in both of their next series against the Phillies and Marlins. The losing continued with a 3-game sweep in Atlanta, dropping 3 of 4 in St. Louis and another 3-game sweep at home against the Nats. The Mets' free-fall from 68-60 to 71-75 during that ghastly stretch ended all hope of contending in 2005.

A bright spot was Jacobs, who accumulated 100 AB for the Mets in August and September and wound up with a batting line of .310/.375/.710 with 11 HR and 23 RBI. It seemed as if the Mets had found their first baseman of the future.

It was disappointing to many of us fans when Omar Minaya used Jacobs as a chip to acquire 1B Carlos Delgado from the Marlins. Delgado was a proven power hitter, but he was also heading into his age-34 season. Jacobs was only 25 and seemed like a better long-term bet.

The addition of Delgado proved a great one. His presence in the lineup took a lot of pressure off Beltran, and the Mets became an offensive force. Jacobs had 3 solid years with the Marlins, slashing .258/.314/.483 and culminating in a 32 HR 93 RBI effort in 2008, which happened to be Delgado's last big year with the Mets.

Jacobs was traded to the Royals for reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo after that season. After a year as the Royals DH where he hit a weak .228/.297/.401, Jacobs was released and signed by the Mets to a minor league contract.

He started the 2010 season as the Mets Opening Day 1B but failed to hit and was sent down to AAA Buffalo. He was traded to Toronto but never made it to the majors with them. In 2011 he signed with the Rockies and tested positive for HGH while playing with their AAA club in Colorado Springs, the first North American athlete to receive a suspension for HGH.

Jacobs resurfaced briefly in the majors with Arizona in September 2012 as a 31-year-old. After seasons in AAA with the Diamondbacks organization in 2013 and 2014, he finished up his playing career in Mexico and Independent ball in 2015 and 2016. Jacobs is currently a manager in the Marlins minor league system.

As I said, I was disappointed when Jacobs was dealt but pretty psyched about Delgado. In those days when there wasn't PED testing, players tended to stay valuable a little later in their careers. I remember some fans being really incensed with the trade and convinced that Jacobs would be a big star.

What stopped him? Well, he never got on base a lot. His OBP over 3 seasons with the Marlins was .314. He could hit the ball a mile when he connected, but his slugging percentage over those same 3 seasons was hardly elite for a steroid era 1B at .483. His OPS+ in those 3 seasons in Florida was barely above average, which didn't cut t for a one-dimensional first sacker. He didn't hit lefties much, with a career line of .223/.272/.376 against them. And, as a converted minor league catcher, he wasn't a very strong defensive 1B.

Still, his 2005 cameo with the Mets was great fun during that time, and he was a starting 1B/DH for 4 major league seasons, and that is an accomplishment. Nice to hear that he's still in baseball as a manager. Maybe he can get back to the majors someday as a coach.

Kris Benson

Kris Benson was a guy who enjoyed a lot of success early in his career. In 1996 while at Clemson University, he was named College Baseball's Player of the Year and pitched for the United States in the Olympics. He was drafted #1 overall by the Pirates and given a then-record signing bonus.

He pitched only 2 years in the minors before being elevated to the major leagues. His inaugural season in Pittsburgh featured 31 starts, just under 200 IP, and a 4.07 ERA. It was good enough to net him fourth place in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. The following season was even better, with 217.2 IP over 32 starts with a 3,85 ERA.

I remember watching Benson pitch against the Mets at that stage of his career, and he looked like someone who could be a legit Cy Young challenger in short order. He threw in the mid-90s and, although primarily a ground ball pitcher, still struck out his share of batters. At 25 years old, he was living up to his early hype.

Sadly, the early career workload took its toll on Kris Benson. He needed Tommy John surgery after the 2000 season and missed all of 2001. When he returned in 2002, he had lost some of the fastball velocity that had once made him elite. By July 2004, it was clear that while he was a solid-average major league pitcher, he was no longer a star. He was traded by the Pirates to the Mets with future major leaguer Jeff  Keppinger in exchange for Matt Peterson (the top Mets pitching prospect at the time who would never make the majors), fan-favorite Ty Wiggington, and a pre-breakout Jose Bautista.

Kris and Anna BensonBenson was fairly solid for the Mets, but the uptight Mets ownership didn't like Benson's wife Anna, a pretty and provocative former stripper who enjoyed the limelight. Benson was the Mets' #3 starter for a team that lacked pitching depth, but he, along with Anna, was shipped out after the 2005 season to the Orioles for Jorge Julio and John Maine.

Benson was okay for Baltimore in 2006 and earned some revenge by beating the Mets and Pedro Martinez in an interleague game. However, he tore a rotator cuff and missed the entire 2007 season. He came back in 2008 but only managed 67 innings at 2 levels in the Phillies' organization. In 2009 and 2010, he appeared in 11 games total with the Rangers and Diamondbacks, mainly in a long-man relief role. After reinjuring his shoulder, Benson retired following the 2010 season.

In 9 years in the majors, Benson accumulated 70 MLB wins, 14 of them as a New York Met. Had he been able to stay healthy he would have most likely won many more, and be remembered more for his pitching talent than his personal life. Those injuries, rather than a lack of talent, made Kris Benson a flash in the pan.

Doug Mientkiewicz

It's quite possibly unfair to hang the flash in the pan label on Doug Mientkiewicz. After all, he played in over 1,000 MLB games in a 12-season career. He actually earned some MVP votes and a Gold Glove in Minnesota in 2001 with Minnesota. Still, the period of time when he shone brightly was quite brief.

Mientkiewicz was a classmate of Alex Rodriguez as a schoolboy, and went on to great college success with Florida State University before being drafted by the Twins in 1995. The fifth-round pick started in the Twins' system as a 21-year-old in 1995 and was not an instant star. It wasn't until his second year in AA in 1998 that Doug Mientkiewicz exploded as a prospect, slashing .323/.432 .508 with 16 HR and earning a September call-up.

He spent all of 1999 with Minnesota, but his offensive numbers were abysmal for a first baseman, .229 /324 /330, and he found himself in AAA Salt Lake in 2000 at age 26, looking like a potential career minor leaguer. To give him credit, many players might have packed it in mentally after making the majors for a season and then being sent back down. In Part 1 of this post, that is what seems to have happened to Víctor Díaz.

Doug Mientkiewicz, on the other hand, had a great season in AAA ball. He hit .334/.406/.524 with 18 HR and 96 RBI in 130 games. It earned him a call-up to the Twins, and again in 2001, he was their starting first baseman.

Mientkiewicz's second chance at the majors proved to be the charm. He hit .306/.387/.464 in 2001, got some MVP votes, and won the only Golden Glove of his career. He fell back to earth in 2002, hitting .261/.365/.392 over that season, but rebounded to .300/.393/.450 in 2003.

Sticking to pattern, Doug Mientkiewicz again faltered in the 2003 season. He was traded to the Red Sox as part of a multi-player deadline deal but didn't hit well for either club. He sparked controversy in Boston when he held onto the ball from the final out of the Red Sox World Series victory. That dispute dragged on until the following spring and featured death threats and a lawsuit.

In January 2005, eager to move on from the failed experiment with Mike Piazza playing first, the Mets traded a prospect to the Red Sox for Mientkiewicz, with the intention of making him the starting first baseman for the club.

At that point, Mientkiewicz was 31 years old. His major league career, not counting late-season call-ups, consisted of a really bad year, a year back in the minors, a great year, a sub-par year, another very good year, and then another fairly poor one. He never hit for much power. He wound up his 12-year career with only 66 HR. Remember, this was the heart of the steroid era. If he wasn't hitting for a .300 average, he wasn't worth the lineup slot, even though he was regarded as an excellent defender. The Mets were hoping for a bounce-back year with the bat and some stabilizing defense from Mientkiewicz.

I remember looking at his numbers after the trade and noting that he seemed to produce a good offensive season every other year. I was hoping he might repeat the pattern. He didn't.

While he endeared himself to fans and reporters by being funny, quirky, and quite outspoken, his offensive numbers didn't cut it. He hit only .240/.322/.407 and lost time to another flash in the pan, Mike Jacobs, at the end of the year. The Mets didn't try to resign him after the season.

Mientkiewicz went on to play 4 more seasons after leaving New York: 2006 with the Royals as a semi-regular, 2007 with the Yankees as a bench player, 2008 with the Pirates as a semi-regular again, and an injury-shortened cameo with the Dodgers in 2009. He signed with the Marlins in 2010 but elected to retire when they cut him loose early in the season. He had a decent MLB career but never came close to regaining the promise of his 2 excellent seasons with the Twins in 2001 and 2003.

Doug Mientkiewicz looked like he might become a really good player early on but was never able to sustain success longer than a season. Still, the fact that he kept getting jobs, despite putting up bad to mediocre offensive numbers after 2003 was a testimony to the fact that teams saw some value in keeping him around. My recollection was that I was somewhat disappointed in the defense that one season in New York. He was better than what the Mets had since John Olerud left in 1999 and was good at digging out bad throws, but his defense did not provide enough value to overlook his offense.

Since his playing career, Doug Mientkiewicz has done a little broadcasting and managed in the minor league systems of the Twins and Tigers. He was fired as manager of the Toledo Mud Hens last October and seems to be, like many of us, currently unemployed.

This completes our 2-part post on some interesting players from the 2005 Mets who never quite lived up to their initial flash in the pan moments. Still, we here at Mike's Mets salute them with sincerity and humility for what they managed to accomplish in their career.

Take care, everyone. Stay well. We'll be back in this space tomorrow.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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