7-5, 37 saves, 4.31 ERA with Cubs
(Editor's Note: Fifth in a series identifying the 100 worst Cubs of all-time.)
Rick Aguilera had a solid 16-year major league career and was one of the better closers of the 1990s, but he did not bring along the super powers he possessed in Minnesota when he joined the Cubs in 1999.
Rick Aguilera failed to convert 13 save opportunities in a little over one season with the Cubs.
But when the Cubs acquired him from the Twins on May 21, 1999, along with minor-league pitcher Scott Downs, in exchange for minor-league hurlers Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan, it was thought that he would be the piece of the puzzle that would put the Cubs over the top. As so often times is the case with the Cubs, things didn't quite turn out as expected.
The ball got rolling on the Aguilera deal the week before when Cubs closer Rod Beck went down with an arm injury - an ailment that sidelined him for two months. The easiest - and in retrospect - best solution would have been to install hard-throwing 26-year-old right-hander Terry Adams into the closer's role. Adams was initially promoted to the role and in his one save opportunity, at Florida on May 19, he was spectacular, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth on 14 pitches. But Cubs brass always seemed to lack confidence in Adams and he was returned to a setup role after the Aguilera trade.
I remember watching the Cubs' 8-4 victory at Atlanta with my brother on May 21. We were tuned into the TBS telecast and I recall Braves announcer Skip Caray - no doubt influenced by his son, Chip - going on and on about what a good team the Cubs were. The win improved the Cubs to 22-17 and pulled them within 2.5 games of first-place Houston in the NL Central. Cubs general manager Andy MacPhail announced the Aguilera deal after the game.
Aguilera, who was 3-1 with six saves and a 1.27 ERA with the Twins in '99, made an inauspicious Wrigley Field debut with the Cubs on May 24 against the Marlins. He entered to start the ninth with the Cubs leading 5-3. Aguilera was one out away from closing the game out, but he surrendered an RBI single to Cliff Floyd. The next batter, Kevin Millar hit a deep fly just in front of the wall indentation to the left of the right-field well. The ball bounced off the glove of an outstretched Sammy Sosa and rolled along the curve in the wall on the warning track, toward the right-field corner. Sosa, from his vantage point, could not see the ball and was unable to locate it. Millar, meanwhile circled the bases for an inside-the-park, go-ahead three-run homer. Unbelievable.
Another Aguilera lowlight: On June 13, he served up a two-out, two-run tie-breaking homer to the light-hitting Mike Caruso in the eighth inning as the White Sox rallied for a 6-4 victory to complete a three-game series sweep at the Friendly Confines. It was one of only two home runs Caruso hit that season and one of seven he hit in his career.
The Cubs were 32-23 and trailed the Astros by one game entering play on June 9, but what followed was perhaps the worst stretch of Cubs baseball in my lifetime. The North Siders lost 50 of their next 70 and were 22.5 games out of first by Aug. 25 - and they continued to plummet, finishing last with a record of 67-95, 30 games behind division champion Houston.
There was plenty of blame to go around and Aguilera was among the contributors to the colossal flop, converting just eight of 13 save opportunities. The fact that he was the closer yet had just 13 save opportunities in 4 1/2 months was an indication of the Cubs' poor performance.
The 38-year-old Aguilera finished his major league career with the Cubs in 2000 and went 1-2 with 29 saves, eight blown saves, and a 4.91 ERA. During a 12-day stretch in May, Aguilera had three blown saves. And that doesn't even count a game against Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field on May 6 when he entered to start the ninth to protect a 9-5 lead - a no-save situation. Aguilera walked two and gave up two singles before getting the hook, but all four of the baserunners scored and the Pirates scored six runs in the inning to rally for an 11-9 victory.