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Countdown to Opening Day – 73
Baseball fans who did not grow up watching the Cleveland Indians with a vested interest at the end of the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s may only know Ricardo Rincon‘s name as the player heavily sought after by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the dramatized 2011 Hollywood hit, Moneyball.
While Beane did get his man from the Indians for minor leaguer Marshall McDougall at the trade deadline in 2002, it was an earlier trade involving the lefty specialist that left a far more lasting impact on the game of baseball, especially in the city of Cleveland.
After playing in his native Mexico for years, Rincon was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and skipped any sort of minor league seasoning while jumping right into the club’s Major League bullpen in 1997. He worked in 62 games that season, going 4-8 with a 3.45 ERA in relief with four saves, 18 holds, and a 10.7 strikeout per nine ratio. He pitched in another 60 games in 1998, posting an 0-2 record with a 2.91 ERA and 14 saves and eleven holds.
That offseason, the second-year pro and 28-year-old southpaw was dealt by Pittsburgh to Cleveland for young slugger Brian Giles.
The 27-year-old outfielder had spent parts of four seasons in Cleveland from 1995 to 1998, becoming the club’s regular left fielder after Albert Belle departed in free agency. In 299 games, he had shown plenty of promise, providing the Indians with some good pop (48 doubles, 39 homers) and good plate discipline, putting together a slash of .284/.391/.485 in his time in Cleveland with more walks than strikeouts.
While the Indians bullpen was in need of an upgrade, the move came at a heavy cost. Entering his prime, Giles would hit a career-high 39 homers and drive in 115 while hitting .315 in his first season with the Pirates, then followed it with All-Star appearances in 2000 and 2001. He put together four straight seasons of 35+ home runs and drove in 436 runs in that span. He hit no lower than .298 during the Pittsburgh portion of his career before moving on to San Diego for his final six and a half big league seasons.
Rincon’s work in Cleveland was never comparable to the contributions made by Giles throughout his career.
After being typically a one-inning reliever in Pittsburgh, the Indians utilized Rincon as a specialist. He made 59 appearances in 1999, pitching 44 2/3 innings with a 4.43 ERA, a 1.46 WHIP, and eleven holds with a 2-3 record in the regular season before a rough outing in the ALDS against Boston. He pitched in just 35 games the following year, throwing 20 innings with a 2.70 ERA, a 1.50 WHIP, and ten holds while going 2-0.
His best complete season was in 2001, when he set a new career-high with 67 outings while going 2-1 with two saves, 12 holds, a 2.83 ERA, and a 1.20 WHIP. But with the team in a rebuild mode by the deadline in 2002, he was sent to Oakland after making 46 relief appearances with a 1-4 record, eleven holds, a 4.79 ERA, and a 1.23 WHIP in his final games as an Indian.
He stayed the course with the Athletics, posting better numbers in his time on the west coast during Oakland’s run to the postseason (his third trip in four years), giving up just eleven hits and three walks in 20 1/3 innings over 25 games for the club. He stayed with the team through the 2005 season, routinely pitching in 60+ games and winning a career-high eight games for the club in 2003 when the A’s returned to the ALDS.
Rincon left the Bay Area after the 2005 season and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2006 season. He pitched for Mexico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic prior to the season and made just five appearances after for the Cardinals before labrum, rotator cuff, and Tommy John surgeries shut him down for the rest of 2006. He pitched briefly at the Triple-A level with the San Francisco Giants and in Mexico in 2007 and spent the first four months of the 2008 season in the Mexican League with the Diablos Rojos del Mexico on loan from the New York Mets, who received him back from the club in late August before he played one game at Triple-A and eight in the Majors in what would be his final big league action.
He again represented Mexico in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and kept pitching back in Mexico, appearing in pro games there over the next four years.
Despite the late start to his MLB career, Rincon put together a solid showing in the Majors with a 21-24 record with a 3.59 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP, 21 saves, and 139 holds over 565 career appearances, all in relief. But while he spent eleven serviceable years in the big leagues as a quality reliever and LOOGY, he will more often be remembered as one of the gambles of the Cleveland Indians in the late ’90’s that did not quite pay off. He may also be remembered as the longest tenured number 73 in both Indians and MLB history (Cleveland outfielder Wayne Kirby wore the number for the club briefly in 1991 and appears to be the first to wear 73 in an official MLB game).
Photo: 2002 Topps Total baseball card