Drafted but Unsigned Cardinal: Rick Aguilera

Though his teams won two titles, Rick Aguilera also pitched well for last-place teams after turning down the St. Louis Cardinals.

In this article, we introduce the sixth of the top 10 players once drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, but signed elsewhere and performed well - and the fourth pitcher on our almost-Cardinals squad. The covered period runs from the start of the modern draft in 1965 through 1980.

Though Rick Aguilera may have created the longest-lasting impression as the closer of the Minnesota Twins for the decade of the 1990’s, the 6-foot-4, 195 pound right-hander began his 16-year major league career in a different role and in a different place.

Signed by the New York Mets as their third-round draft pick in 1983, Aguilera only spent 1 1/2 seasons in the minors before making his MLB debut in June of 1985. Despite having enough time to make just 19 starts that year, he won 10 games as the Mets fell just short of the division-winning Cardinals. It was the first of three consecutive seasons in which Aguilera recorded double-digit victories for New York.

Prior to that, however, back in 1980, the California teen, then a third baseman, had been selected by the Cardinals in the 37th round of the draft. Instead, Aguilera enrolled at Brigham Young University, where he was converted to pitching.

To conclude his second season in the majors, the 1986 Mets won a team-record 108 regular season games. They went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, giving Aguilera the first of his two career rings.

Though well-established with the Mets, Aguilera’s career ascension was slowed by injury. After elbow surgery limited him to just 20 starts over the 1987 and 1988 seasons, the club decided to make him a long reliever. Unhappy in the role, Aguilera requested a trade, which occurred at the 1989 deadline. He was one of five players sent to the Minnesota Twins for their ace, Frank Viola.

Though his new club inserted him into their rotation for the remainder of the 1989 season, by 1990, Aguilera was made Minnesota’s closer. His first season in the role was personally successful, with 32 saves for a Twins squad that managed just 74 wins. Aguilera went on to be named an American League All-Star for three consecutive seasons – 1991 through 1993.

Aguilera was a key cog for the last-to-first 1991 Twins, with a then-team record 42 saves and a 2.35 ERA, for his best career single-season performance. In the post-season, he logged five saves and yielded just one run in 8 1/3 innings as Minnesota defeated Toronto then Atlanta for the World Championship.

By 1995, the Twins had returned to the cellar, leading to a trade of Aguilera to Boston that July. He picked up 20 saves as the Red Sox won the AL East, but they faltered against Cleveland, losing in the first round.

As a free agent that winter, Aguilera returned to the Twins for the 1996 season, and also went back to starting, a role he had not been asked to fill since his first year in Minnesota. Injuries and limited effectiveness ended the experiment the next spring, with Aguilera back as the closer for 1997.

Still going nowhere in the standings, the Twins dealt Aguilera away again, this time to the Cubs in May 1999. In the four-man deal, the key player Minnesota received in return was a young Chicago pitching prospect named Kyle Lohse.

Then 37 years of age, Aguilera was asked to play a variety of relief roles for the 1999 Cubs and generally performed well. He was made Chicago’s closer for 2000, but blew eight of 37 save opportunities and posted a relief career-high 4.91 ERA. Even worse, he was again on a last-place team.

Rather than return for a 17th season, Aguilera announced his retirement prior to the start of 2001 spring training. He finished with 318 saves, then eighth-most all time, with 254 of them occurring with Minnesota, the franchise record (later surpassed by Joe Nathan). He amassed 20.7 bWAR over his career. Aguilera was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame in 2008.

Stay tuned as the final four members of this team are named, in career bWAR order. For more details on the All-Drafted, but Unsigned Team, click here.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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