As a franchise, the Cubs have been bad at a lot of things for a long time. One of the most common sticking points for the team has been the bullpen. Of course, that makes sense, since clubs that can barely fill out a rotation often don't have a stable of players to push to the pen.
The team has often been especially bad, at least in the eyes of the fans, at closing games. That has led the front office to knee-jerkedly (my new word of the week) react in the free agent market. The team has often had to try and buy a "proven closer" to solve its end of game issues.
For this week's Foil installment, that takes us back to the offseason leading into the 1997 season. The 1996 Cubs' pitching staff was, well, yuck. The team blew 16 saves, converting 34 chances. Those numbers, as middling as they are, were entirely propped up by Turk Wendell, who managed to convert 18 of 20 chances (for the non-math majors, that's 16 saves and 14 blown saves for the rest of the staff). Though, in a rare bit of forethought, the team did see through Wendell's conversion rate to see a poor K/BB rate and a FIP that suggested a fluky season. Okay, so they probably didn't use those stats, but they got the call right.
At least, that part. Sort of.
Because the reaction was not to give the closer's job for another doomed team to youngster Terry Adams, who had performed ok in 1996. The reaction by Ed Lynch was to sign former Expos closer Mel Rojas to a three-year, $13.75 million deal. That's right: almost 20 years ago, the Cubs' GM signed a closer for also-ran teams to that kind of contract.
Al took a look back at the 1997 season and Rojas' role in it unraveling back in 2008. So you can read some of the particulars at that link. Of note, that Cub team was toast before April was over, having lost 14 straight games to start the season. Rojas didn't get a save chance until game 19, which he predictably blew.
But let's focus back on Rojas for a second. The reliever had just turned 30 and seemed to be growing into the closer's role in Montreal.
1995: 30 saves in 37 chances, FIP 3.28 (ERA 4.12), 8.11 K/9, WHIP 1.45, 1.3 WAR
1996: 36 saves in 40 chances, FIP 2.81 (ERA 3.22), 10.22 K/9, WHIP 1.04, 2.0 WAR
And what happened in his part of one season on the north side (Hey, wait, you said it was a three year deal, right? More on that in a minute.)?
1997: In 59 innings over 54 games, he converted just 13 saves in 19 chances with a WHIP of 1.42 and a FIP of 5.24, meaning he actually was somewhat "lucky" to have an ERA of "only" 4.42. He still struck guys out (9.31 K/9). I imagine Cub fans who remember that season will think Rojas was "worth" more than just half a loss that year (-0.5 WAR).
For his career, Rojas played 10 seasons, sporting a 34-31 record with 126 saves and an ERA+ of 107.
Lynch did manage to right the wrong, at least somewhat. As Al summarized:
... in dumping Rojas, Brian McRae (who had also worn out his welcome in Chicago after two decent years in 1995 and 1996) and Turk Wendell to the Mets, Lynch made his best deal as GM, and acquired two players who played key roles in the 1998 wild card year: Lance Johnson, who did decent work as a platoon CF, and Mark Clark, a serviceable inning-eater (sort of the Jason Marquis of his time). So, Mel's acquisition did have a happy ending, from a Cubs point of view, at least.
In the interests of totality, the Cubs also acquired the legendary Manny Alexander in that deal.
Rojas would go on to be pretty blah for the Mets, who later traded him to the Dodgers for Bobby Bonilla. Since the Mets are literally still paying Bonilla's salary, that fanbase can indirectly blame Ed Lynch for some of their troubles.
So the signing of Rojas did have a small silver lining for the Cubs. And Mel's impact on the game isn't quite done yet. He has a son who is a not inconsequential minor league outfielder for the Pirates. Let's wish Mel Rojas, Jr. well, except when he's playing the Cubs.