Kirk Rueter – Fassero, Honeycutt or Rocker?

The former Giants pitcher, now linked to the Cardinals, has some decisions to make.

For some weeks now, the Cardinals rumor mill, with little new velocity to spin its wheel these days, has sporadically thrown out the name of former San Francisco Giants starter Kirk Rueter.

 

Rueter, 35, had spent his entire career with the Giants as a steady but unspectacular left-handed starting pitcher. He won double digits in games seven consecutive years from 1997 through 2003. Overall, his career record is 130-92 with a 4.27 ERA.

 

But, Rueter had fallen on hard times the past two seasons, to the extent that he was dropped from the rotation of the underachieving 2005 Giants and complained about it. Rueter asked to be traded to a team who wanted him as a starter, but apparently there was no interest, as he was subsequently released in August. That culminated a 2-7, 5.95 ERA stinker of a season, on the heels of his not-so-stellar 9-12, 4.73 ERA 2004 campaign.

 

With a good stable of starting pitchers already in house, I have to wonder if the Cardinals may instead be thinking about the possibility of Rueter in 2006 sort of like a Jeff Fassero - an option to add veteran "lefthandedness" to the team.

 

Despite being called "washed up" a number of times in the past, most notably after going 5-14 with a hideous 7.20 ERA as a starter for the Mariners and Rangers in 1999, surprisingly Fassero has continued to hang around the game.

 

Fassero's career record as a full-time starter for the seven previous seasons through 2000 sat at 78-74. Starting in 2001 at the age of 38, Fassero underwent his transformation by accepting the fact that his days as a member of a regular MLB rotation were finished. He crafted a new life by demonstrating a willingness to perform in any role - from spot starter to long reliever to yes, even closer.

 

In fact, now six years after his starting days ended for all intents and purposes, Fassero is still out there. He has continued to hold a job despite having posted an ERA over five in each of his last four seasons. Fassero is now preparing to head to his 16th Spring Training as a major leaguer with the 2006 Giants.

 

Many Cardinals fans still vividly remember Fassero, perhaps more as a result of the bad than the good, though his start was promising. After coming over from the Cubs in a trade late in the 2002 season, Fassero won two games in relief for the Cardinals against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS that October.

 

However, the good feelings were short-lived. Fassero suffered along with the third-place 2003 Cardinals, as the then-40-year-old posted a 1-7 record with a 5.68 ERA. That year, he started six games, finished 15 and saved three.

 

Despite Fassero giving it his all, that wasn't enough, and he was gone in 2004. Not many shed tears about that. Remembering the bottom line, some Cardinals fans hope the team doesn't repeat the same 2003 scenario with Rueter.  

 

But, digging back a bit further in time, one can locate another lefthander, who was once in a similar situation as Rueter in a number of ways, yet took a more productive route to retirement than Fassero.

 

Rick Honeycutt was faced with a major decision in 1987. At the age of 33, he was coming off a dreadful 3-16 season, his eleventh as a major leaguer. Honeycutt had an up and down career to that point, having already been the American League Comeback Player of the Year once, back in 1983.

 

Up until then, Honeycutt had posted a pedestrian 90-121 record as a starter for the Mariners, Rangers and Dodgers. He had been traded to Tony La Russa's and Dave Duncan's Oakland A's late in the 1987 season, starting four games but showing very little in the process.

 

As a result, he may have been asking himself these kinds of questions. Was he done as a starter this time? Should he retire or move to the bullpen in an attempt to prolong his career?

 

With a full-time shift to the pen in 1988, everything changed for Honeycutt. He went on to pitch the majority of seven more seasons for Oakland, becoming a very important left-handed specialist for the A's during their glory years. Honeycutt averaged 55 appearances in each of the six years starting with 1988, with ERAs in the 2.70-3.70 range every season.

 

Honeycutt pitched for the A's in four American League Championship Series, three World Series and was a member of La Russa's only World Series winner, the 1989 A's. In 1988, he won Game One of the ALCS and Game Two of the World Series.

 

In fact, Honeycutt remained a major leaguer for almost ten years following his conversion to relief. Not so ironically, he ended his career as a 43-year-old on La Russa and Duncan's 1997 Cardinals.

 

Now, let's get back to Rueter.

 

Baseball Reference shows Rueter has earned over $38 million in his 13-year major league career to date. Let's hope he put some of that cash aside and only needs to pitch because he really wants to.

 

Then of course, there is the question as to whether or not he can still be effective. I can understand why La Russa and Duncan may be willing to get a look at Rueter this spring and make that call with their own eyes.

 

But even so, the question is in what role? The main issue for Rueter seems to be one that he has to answer himself. Does he want to pitch badly enough that he would be willing to appear in relief if necessary?

 

Instead, if he stubbornly insists on remaining a starter during a phase in which his skills are undoubtedly declining, then perhaps Rueter should extend the decision he made last August - stay at home and enjoy his post-playing days.

 

So, for Kirk Rueter, what will it be? Hang on and become a mediocre journeyman like Fassero? Attempt a more difficult transformation into a valuable reliever like Honeycutt? Or just formalize his retirement?

 

It seems the decision is primarily up to Rueter's head and heart… and perhaps subsequently, his left arm.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

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