Twins great deal better because of Viola trade, West, Aguilera, Tapani

October 15, 1991|By Jim Caple | Jim Caple,Knight-Ridder

MINNEAPOLIS -- Al Newman vividly remembers that night in July 1989 when Frank Viola called him in their New York hotel and asked whether he was interested in going to the ballpark together the next morning. Viola would be going early to clear out his locker. The Minnesota Twins had just traded him to the New York Mets for five pitchers.

The Twins had begun a rebuilding phase that would leave the 1987 team in the memory book and pave the way for the 1991 club.

"We had to do something about our pitching. We needed numbers," Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said. "The characteristics of our division were changing and we needed to improve our pitching. The ironic thing is we needed to trade pitching to get pitching."

"We gave up for a year or so, but we were building for a three-year plan," Newman said. "We were definitely rebuilding, but we had guys to build around with Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, and Gary Gaetti was still there and Dan Gladden. Those type of guys. And Brian Harper developed into a great hitting catcher. We had guys to build around. It was a question of how long it would take."

It took a last-place season in 1990 and many days of questioning, but the rebuilding ended Sunday when the Twins beat Toronto to secure the American League pennant.

Three of the pitchers in that trade -- Kevin Tapani, David West and Rick Aguilera -- were on the mound during that pennant-clinching game. Aguilera and Tapani could be named on a Cy Young Award ballot or two.

Viola is a free agent and could be with another team next season.

Since the trade, Aguilera, Tapani and West have combined for a 56-47 record with 74 saves and a 3.78 earned run average. Viola is 38-32 and a 3.31 ERA.

"We got three guys from that trade who are on our team now and played an important role not only in the playoffs but the whole season," Newman said. "We got Tapani, West and Aguilera. Since being put in the stopper role, Aguilera has done a tremendous job. West has shown he can pitch out of the bullpen and Kevin has been nails all year long."

It wasn't so clear cut at the time of the deal. After all, the Twins were trading the reigning Cy Young Award winner for a setup man and four prospects. Two of those prospects -- Tim Drummond and Jack Savage -- were back in the minors this year and the Twins are not interested in re-signing them.

The Mets, playing for the present, traded two of their best pitching prospects and still don't have a pennant in return. The Twins, looking to the future, took a huge gamble that paid off.

"That's obviously what Andy had in mind, but there were a lot of people in baseball and the media who kind of got a little impatient about what was going on when we didn't have a whole lot of success early on," said Aguilera, who closed out the playoffs with his third postseason save after saving 42 during the regular season.

"But when you trade for players like that, it takes some time for them to mature and see what they can do. At first, it looked like the Mets got the better end of the deal because they got the established guy and he won right away."

Viola's days in Minnesota likely were numbered the day he and his agent fashioned their goodbye letter Opening Day of 1989. Although he soon signed a three-year deal worth $7.9 million, he proved correct in the letter when he said it would be his last with the Twins. He had worn out his welcome in Minnesota.

"At that particular point in time, that was the best thing for Frank Viola," Newman said of the trade.

Viola pitched capably the final two months of 1989 but it wasn't enough for New York to finish higher than second. He had a tremendous 1990, when he won 20 games and led the league in innings.

The Twins, meanwhile, closed out 1989 with a whimper, then plunged into the cellar in 1990.

"It was tough in the sense that you would read in the papers that we were losing ballgames because the hitting wasn't there or the pitching wasn't there. That we were waiting on the guys to develop," Newman said. "It was tough in that sense. It was tough on both parts."

Although the Twins dispute this now, at the time of the trade, West was said to be the key player. He never has fulfilled the tremendous expectations heaped upon him. The word enigmatic has been placed alongside his name so often his fan mail probably comes addressed that way.

Aguilera and Tapani began paying dividends right away.

Aguilera has helped replace two pitchers: Viola and Jeff Reardon. The Twins used Aguilera as a starter the last two months of 1989 and hoped to do so in 1990, but when they lost Reardon to free agency, they slipped Aguilera into the stopper's role. He has had some inconsistent periods, but overall has flourished in the role. He has saved 77 games for the Twins.

Tapani didn't begin with the Twins, instead going to Class AAA Portland for a month after the trade. "We had heard pretty much David was the focal point of that trade. And Tapani, well, not that he was a throw-in, but we weren't looking at him as one of the main guys," Newman said.

The Twins, meanwhile, have Aguilera locked up for at least another season, and Tapani and West beyond that.

Unless they decide it's time to rebuild again.

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