Nelson Figueroa Gets No Respect

Many people would characterize Nelson Figueroa as a very good AAA player.  He can start or relieve, help the team win some games, and fill up seats in the minor league ballpark.  Nelson is probably looking at this kind of scenario again in 2010; one in which he starts the season in the minors, then due to injuries or ineffectiveness on the major league squad, he is called up and gets another opportunity to show his stuff.

Figueroa has been hanging around professional baseball for fifteen years now, occasionally having some success in the major leagues.  But to me he is not the typical borderline major leaguer of whom most fans would never hear or care about.

Figueroa will turn 36 years old in May.  He was born and lives in Brooklyn.  You might recall the large family contingency he’s had at most of his home starts.  I will always remember him because on one hot summer day in 2001, I was at Shea when he pitched for the Phillies against the Mets.  The Mets won, he pitched credibly, and got a no decision.  After the game I saw him outside the park crowded around by about twenty family members.  He was at the time a 27 year old rookie living the dream and having the time of his life.  My eight year old son came away with a lot that day.  He got Nelson Figueroa’s autograph on his brand new Mets floppy hat.

Nelson played baseball at Abraham Lincoln High School and then at Brandeis University.  He was a 30th round draft pick by the Mets in 1994.  For the Mets he played in Kingsport, Capital City and Binghamton.  Then he moved on to the Diamondbacks, and then the Phillies organization which is where he broke into the majors.  He had a short major league stint with the Pirates in 2004 but hadn’t been seen or heard from since, until he surfaced with the Mets in 2008.  In between, he spent a year each playing for the Long Island Ducks and Chihuahua of the Mexican League.

One thing you can say for sure about Figueroa is what you can also say about hundreds of guys like him.  It’s that he loves baseball more than anything.  He has never given up his love for the game and the competition and thrill of getting batters out, regardless of the level at which he is playing.  He is truly a lifer and my guess is that he will be in the game in some capacity for many years to come.

I wouldn’t call it a crossroads but Figueroa is at an interesting point of his career.   Oddly, in 2008 at the age of 34, and after 4 years away, he made it back to the majors with the Mets.  He pitched in 16 games starting 6 of them and finished with a 3-3 record and 4.57 ERA.  Lo and behold, in 2009 he pitched even better.  Although his record was a poor 3-8, his ERA dropped to 4.09 and he struck out 59 batters in 70 innings.  His K/9 ratio was over seven.  He beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field; pitching 7 innings, allowing 1 run, and striking out 10.  And in October, he pitched a complete game shutout against the Astros, giving up 4 hits and striking out seven.  In 6 of his 10 starts he gave up 2 runs or less.  In addition he was lights out at AAA Buffalo and again this winter in the Dominican League.

Maybe I shouldn’t be making such a big deal about Figgy.  But I like the guy and am rooting for him.  Last year despite pitching well for the Mets he was twice designated for assignment and subsequently not picked up by a single team.   Each time he returned to AAA Buffalo and continued to pitch well.  It’s hard to believe that there was not one major league team that needed Figgy to fill in for awhile and start a couple of games, while getting paid the league minimum.  As a 5th starter, I’d take a wild guess that he would be better than 33% of other teams 5th starters.

I want Figgy to play for the Mets in 2010.  Having grown up a Mets fan, I think he’d like to continue playing here too.  And I think he’s good enough to make the team as the long reliever if not the 5th starter.  However, he could end up being the odd man out in a numbers game with Jon Niese, Fernando Nieve, and others all vying for the last spots on the staff.  It’s likely that Figgy will be let go again.  It’s a shame because at the age of 35 he is pitching the best baseball of his career.

This time I would wager that he will be claimed by another major league team giving him a shot to start every fifth day.  Finally, with another team, maybe Figgy will get the respect he so rightly has earned and deserves.

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