Mets RF: The curse of Bobby Bonilla

Posted on September 5, 2010 by

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In the 1970s, Mets announcers talked about how the club had never had a long-term solution at third base. But since that point the Mets have put Howard Johnson, Robin Ventura and David Wright at the hot corner and you do not hear that anymore. Now the problem has shifted to right field.

Joe Barbieri touched on how the Mets have struggled to fill the position since Darryl Strawberry left as a free agent following the 1990 season. Strawberry put up eight consecutive seasons with an OPS+ of 125 or more. But even discounting Strawberry, the Mets – never known for being an offensive powerhouse – have had pretty decent production in right field throughout the years.

Here are the top OPS+ marks for Mets RF before Strawberry:

134 – Joe Christopher
131 – Rusty Staub
128 – Dave Kingman
121 – Claudell Washington
120 – Ken Singleton
118 – Rusty Staub
118 – Ron Swoboda
112 – Rusty Staub
110 – Ron Swoboda

But in the 20 years since Strawberry departed as a free agent, the Mets have received an OPS+ 110 or above from their RF just five times. Amazingly, one of those came last year, as Jeff Francoeur posted an OPS+ of 120 in his 74 games with the Mets. No wonder fans were so willing to ignore his lifetime numbers and drink the Francoeur Kool-Aid.

To put that 120 OPS+ mark in perspective, this year 10 RF in MLB have played at least 70 games and bettered that mark. So, while it is a good mark, it puts you in the bottom of the top third for the position. And for what it is worth, there are 28 RF on the list and Francoeur ranks 28th with a 78 OPS+.

Francoeur’s mark last year was the highest by a regular Mets RF since Bobby Bonilla posted a 132 OPS+ in 1993. The previous year, Bonilla put up a 121 OPS+ and he had a 128 mark the following season (albeit at 3B). In 1995, Bonilla, splitting time between 3B and the OF, had a 160 OPS+ before he was traded for the dynamic duo of Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford.

Why did the Mets run him out of town again?

So, while Strawberry gets all of the credit for being the last good RF for the Mets, it is actually Bonilla who should hold that distinction. He ranked fourth in the majors among RF in OPS+ in 1993. It seems like there has been a curse on the position for the club ever since Bonilla left. Here is a list of the Mets’ primary RF every season since 1994 and how they have performed:

Year Name Games OPS+
1994 Joe Orsulak 48 70
1995 Carl Everett 67 110
1996 Alex Ochoa 72 104
1997 Butch Huskey 68 114
1998 Butch Huskey 94 85
1999 Roger Cedeno 89 106
2000 Derek Bell 136 98
2001 Matt Lawton 46 90
2002 Jeromy Burnitz 131 80
2003 Roger Cedeno 100 84
2004 Richard Hidalgo 81 94
2005 Victor Diaz 74 108
2006 Xavier Nady 70 107
2007 Shawn Green 107 103
2008 Ryan Church 81 106
2009 Jeff Francoeur 74 120
2010 Jeff Francoeur 109 78

Since Bonilla was shipped out of town, the Mets have not had a player hold down RF for more than two years at a time. And even those times, the player in question did not top 109 games played. In a 20-year stretch, the best the Mets got was the 136 games from Derek Bell and the 120 OPS+ in 74 games from Francoeur. And so we have the curse of Bobby Bonilla.

It’s just a remarkable stretch of ineptitude; made even more mind-boggling by the fact the Mets have made the playoffs three times in this period, so it is not like this is coming from the expansion Mets or the current Pirates, who haven’t had a winning season since Bush the elder was in office.

Because of amazing work by his agent, Bonilla returns to the Mets payroll in 2011. The Mets brought back Bonilla for a second tour of duty with the club in 1999 but it turned out to be a mistake. The Mets wanted to get rid of Bonilla to free up money to sign free agents and take on payroll in trades, but Bonilla still had a year on his contract and the club still owed him nearly $6 million.

In exchange for his $5.9 million salary in 2000, agent Jeff Borris worked out a deal for the Mets to pay Bonilla 25 equal payments of $1.193 million, which assumes an annual interest rate of 8% for the years 2000-2035. That offseason, the Mets added Mike Hampton, Todd Zeile and Derek Bell and made it to the World Series. Clearly, the Mets would not have advanced without Hampton. But was it worth roughly $30 million to lose to the Yankees in five games?

So, now that Bonilla will be back on the payroll in 2011, perhaps the curse will end and the Mets can get top-rate production out of right field for an entire season. Chances are that either Carlos Beltran or Angel Pagan will be patrolling RF for the Mets next year. Fernando Martinez and Lucas Duda remain longer-term options.

Right field is supposed to be one of the power positions on a ball club, along with first base. But the Mets have struggled to fill both of those positions in the last two decades. Right field in particular seems cursed. Perhaps the Mets should hold a ceremony when they deliver Bonilla his first paycheck in 2011. While he receives the check, Bonilla can publicly lift the curse he seemingly placed on the position back in the 1990s.

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Posted in: Perspectives