Ask any Mets fan who the greatest rightfielder in franchise history is and before you get to the word “franchise”, you’ll get your answer – Darryl Strawberry. Now ask them who the best rightfielder is after the Straw Man and you’ll hear crickets.
It’s no surprise that no one can name the second best rightfielder in Mets history. After all, since Darryl planted his Strawberry Patch and claimed the position for his own, the Mets have auditioned a plethora of candidates for the job and none of them has been able to make the position his own.
Here’s a trivia question for you. Since Darryl played his last game as a Met in 1990, who has started the most games in right field for the team? Whatever answer you say, you’re probably wrong. The correct answer is… wait for it… Jeromy Burnitz!
Burnitz had two short stints with the Mets. He played for the Mets briefly in 1993 (86 games) and 1994 (45 games), but never made much of a splash. He showed some promise in 1993 by hitting 13 home runs in 263 at-bats, but his uppercut to end all uppercuts (except his own) led to many strikeouts and a poor batting average. He paid the price for those home runs by hitting .243 during his rookie season. He fared worse in the strike-shortened 1994 season, hitting three home runs and striking out 45 times in 143 at-bats. (Meanwhile, his replacement in right field, Joe Orsulak, struck out 21 times in 292 at-bats in 1994.)
The Mets gave up on the man they thought would replace Strawberry as their left-handed power-hitting rightfielder after the 1994 season, trading him to the Cleveland Indians for pitchers Paul Byrd, Jerry DiPoto and Dave Mlicki (whose claim to fame is the 1997 shutout of the Yankees). The three pitchers combined for a total of 38 wins during their time with the Mets. Burnitz did a little better than that after leaving New York.
Once Cleveland traded Burnitz to the Brewers in 1996, his career took off. In his first full season in Milwaukee, Burnitz hit 27 HR and drove in 85 runs. The 27 homers were two more than he had hit over his first four big league seasons combined. He then had a stellar 1997 season for the Brewers, collecting 38 HR and 125 RBI. The RBI total is higher than any Met has achieved in nearly half a century of the franchise’s existence (Mike Piazza had 124 RBI in 1999, a mark equaled by David Wright in 2008).
From 1997-2001, Burnitz averaged 33 HR and 102 RBI per season for Milwaukee, which made him a top target for the Mets in 2002. The Mets re-acquired the man they gave up on nearly a decade earlier to team up with fellow new acquisitions Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar in the hopes of pushing the Mets back to the top of the NL East. Let’s just say that once Jeromy returned to New York, his career crashed and burn-itzed.
Jeromy Burnitz played one and a half seasons for the Mets after his return to New York in 2002. The one-time sure bet for a 100 RBI season was only able to drive in 99 runs in his year and a half with the team. However, his tendency to strike out did not abandon him the way his other skills did, as he fanned a total of 190 times in 2002 and the first half of 2003.
Despite his two short unsuccessful stints in New York, Burnitz’s 290 starts in right field are the most since Darryl Strawberry left the Mets after the 1990 season to play for his hometown Dodgers. By comparison, David Wright has started 297 games at third base over the past two seasons. That’s seven more games than any Mets player has started in right field over the past 20 years! And David Wright actually spent time on the disabled list in 2009 after suffering a direct hit from Matt Cain’s head-seeking missile, yet he still started more games at third base over the past two years than any player has started in right field in 20 years.
Third base used to be the musical chairs position for the Mets. Through the end of the 2010 season, a total of 142 men had played at least one game at the hot corner. Third base has been replaced by right field as the position where long-term careers go to die. From 1962-2010, a total of 197 men have played at least one game in right field. If Carlos Beltran moves over to right field in 2011 (which he should), he would become the 198th Met to be player #9 on your scorecard.
Of those 197 men to play right field, only Darryl Strawberry (1,062 games) and Rusty Staub (535 games) have started more than 500 games at the position. Right field has been such a revolving door for players that the 290 starts made by Jeromy Burnitz in right field make him fifth on the all-time Mets leaderboard.
Finally, in the twenty seasons since Darryl Strawberry signed with the Dodgers, the Mets have used 102 players in right field, or more than half of the men who have played the position in franchise history. Now it’s Angel Pagan’s turn to be the Mets’ rightfielder. (Or is it Carlos Beltran?) Given the recent history in right field, neither Pagan nor Beltran will probably keep the position for long.
Most successful teams have stability in their everyday lineup. Since Darryl Strawberry last played for the Mets in 1990, right field has been anything but stable. Isn’t it time the Mets found someone they can feel comfortable with as their rightfielder? After all, twenty years is an awful long time to be conducting tryouts for the job.