This Day in Reds History: Appreciating Roberto Petagine

Roberto Petagine while with the Yomiuri Giants; year is likely 2003 or 2004 - http://prospectinsider.wordpress.com/

On this day in 1897, former Red Old Hoss Radbourn died in Bloomington, IL at the age of 42.

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On this day in 1929, former Red Al Worthington was born in Birmingham, AL.

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On this day in 1930, Cincinnati traded right-hander Dolf Luque to Brooklyn for righty Doug McWeeny. Luque had been an outstanding pitcher earlier in his career, but his best days were behind him at that point. In 1923, Luque posted what was probably the best season by a Cincinnati pitcher in the modern era. He tossed 322 innings with a 1.93 ERA (201 ERA+) and posted a record of 27 and eight. Luque led the league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, shutouts, ERA+, and bWAR. He was second in innings pitched, finishing a mere five frames behind leader Burleigh Grimes.

Luque established himself as a major league starter at the late age of 29. Before securing a big league job, he threw nearly 900 innings in the minor leagues with an ERA of 2.22. If a major league team had purchased him at 24 or 25, and given him a fair shot, then he may well have had a Hall of Fame career.

Also on this day in 1930, the Reds traded a player to be named later and cash to the Yankees in exchange for middle infielder Leo Durocher.

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On this day in 1998, the Reds traded minor league shortstop Yuri Sanchez to the Mets for first baseman Roberto Petagine. Stories like Dolf Luque's above are bittersweet, because he deserved a chance to play in the major leagues at a young age and had to wait several years for his opportunity. However, Luque did eventually receive an opportunity, and he made the most of it. Roberto Petagine, on the other hand, never received the opportunity that he deserved. Sure, he played very well in a part time role with the Reds in 1998, but his entire major league career consisted of just 438 plate appearances spread across seven seasons.

Petagine signed with the Astros at the age of 18 in February of 1990. He played rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League in 1990 and posted a seemingly disappointing slash line of .289/.378/.390. However, the league hit just .238/.323/.309. Petagine already displayed a sharp batting eye as he walked more times than he struck out. In 1991, he played in the single-A Midwest League and hit .259/.368/.403. Again, those numbers seem pretty mediocre until you look at the league's batting line of .246/.330/.338.

Petagine spent most of the 1992 season in high-A ball, hitting .293/.391/.459 against the league's line of .245/.313/.336. The Astros sent him to AA at the end of the year. He out-hit the league there as well -- .300/.363/.529 vs. .254/.321/.367 -- but made only 80 plate appearances, so I don't want to read too much into that segment of his performance. Petagine returned to AA in 1993 and mashed to the tune of .334/.442/.529 while the league posted a line of .262/.329/.390. At this point, it should have been fairly obvious to the Astros that they had one hell of a hitter on their hands. Not only did Petagine walk about as often as he struck out, but he also hit for power and average.

In 1994, Petagine started the season in Houston, but was sent to AAA after five hitless at-bats as a pinch-hitter. He played AAA ball in the Pacific Coast League and hit .316/.399/.514. The PCL is a hitter-friendly league, but it still couldn't match Petagine as the average was .295/.361/.455. He was recalled to the majors for two other stints, drawing one walk in three plate appearances, and then the strike hit. His first eight big league plate appearances resulted in a line of .000/.125/.000. It was the first time that Petagine performed worse than league average in any of the three slash categories.

Houston shipped Petagine to San Diego in the offseason as part of a 12-player trade that included Ken Caminiti and the other Pedro Martinez. Petagine started the season in San Diego and crushed the ball for the first half of the season. He hit .288/.430/.450 through the end of June. Petagine struggled at the plate in a brief stint (19 games) in AAA that season as well. Despite his disappointing performance in the majors, he still managed to post an OPS+ of 98, which is pretty bad for a first baseman. However, a 98 OPS+ is not the end of the world when a player is 1) 24 years old, 2) predominantly playing as a pinch-hitter, and 3) receives just 152 plate appearances.

For whatever reason, San Diego apparently had had enough of Petagine and traded him to the Mets in the offseason in a deal that included two minor leaguers and a pitcher named Pete Walker. He spent most of the first half in AAA, where he hit .318/.421/.529. The Mets called him up at the end of May. He started a few games, but played poorly for a week. The Mets had seen enough, sending him back to AAA in the middle of June, and relegated him to a pinch-hit/reserve role when they recalled him in August. He hit .232/.313/.384 (87 OPS+) at the major league level that season though he made only 113 plate appearances.

In the offseason, the Mets signed John Olerud, effectively blocking Petagine for good. He played in just 12 September games for the Mets that season and spent the rest of the season destroying the International League to the tune of .317/.430/.605. The Reds stashed him in AAA for most of the 1998 season. Petagine did what he always did, hitting .331/.436/.617 in the minors while waiting for another shot in the majors. Cincinnati called him up in August, and he played very well, hitting .258/.405/.468 (128 OPS+) while playing first base and pinch-hitting.

Things were looking up for Petagine. He had always hit well in the minor leagues and now he was coming off a successful two month audition with the Reds, but he never got another chance. Cincinnati sold him to the Yakult Swallows of Japan's NPB in the offseason. Over the next six seasons, he hit .317/.446/.633 and became Japan's highest-paid player in 2003 and 2004 (Wikipedia).

The Red Sox signed him in February of 2005, but time was running out for Petagine. Kevin Millar was entrenched at first base for the Sox, and Petagine received only 36 major league plate appearances. He crushed the ball when he was at AAA Pawtucket that season, but a 34 year-old dominating the minor leagues doesn't raise too many eyebrows. The Mariners signed Petagine for the 2006 season and played sparingly in backup role behind Richie Sexson. His 32 plate appearances that season were the last ones of his major league career. Seattle released him in August.

In 2008, Petagine resurfaced in the Mexican League and hit .372/.488/.605 as a 37-year old. The league hit .288/.358/.409. He played in Korea in 2009, again hitting much better than the league. In 2010, he returned to Japan for one final season. Petagine didn't play as well in 2010 as he had in his first go-round, hitting .261/.352/.420 versus a league mark of .270/.336/.403. He was 39 years old. Since that time, Baseball-Reference has no record of Petagine playing ball anywhere in the world at any level.

Now I don't remember Roberto Petagine playing for the Reds or for anyone else. His major league days occurred at a time when I followed the game through box scores in the newspaper and Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons. I don't know if Petagine was an absolute butcher in the field or if he was a problem in the clubhouse, but the numbers say that he absolutely deserved a much better chance that he ever received. That makes me sad as a baseball fan.

We watch ballgames for the players and the wonderful things they do on the field. Petagine was a player who did wonderful things at the plate in every league in which he received real playing time. The strike and the general impatience of a couple of teams means that we'll never know what he could have done in the majors. Do I think Petagine would have been an all-star? I doubt it. I'm not even sure he would have been Scott Hatteberg, but you know what? Scott Hatteberg was a pretty good player at his best. We know that because teams gave Hatteberg a chance. I do believe that Petagine probably would have been a useful player, and I'll never understand why a team didn't give him a real chance.

In 1998, the brand-new Devil Rays gave 495 plate appearances to designated "hitter" Paul Sorrento. He hit .225/.313/.405 (85 OPS+). Petagine was all but freely available. What did Tampa have to lose? At most, it would have taken a warm body from the minor leagues to pry Petagine loose from the Reds. Throughout Petagine's career and baseball history, there are always teams with nothing to lose who give playing time to washed up or hopeless players while deserving players flounder in the minor leagues. Would all of these players succeed? No, of course not, but why give playing time to a player who has proven that he is not a major league player when one of these guys might be a major league player?

Bill James coined the term "Ken Phelps All-Star" to describe promising minor league players who haven't received a fair shot due to some perceived flaw. These players, like their namesake, have repeatedly demonstrated valuable baseball skills, but people have decided to focus on their weaknesses for some reason. I love these kinds of players. I'm normally not much of a prospects guy, but one of my favorite minor league players is a "non-prospect" in the Mets' organization by the name of Allan Dykstra. Last season, I checked Dykstra's stats as often as I checked any minor leaguer's, including Billy Hamilton and Robert Stephenson. I even asked some Mets fans at Baseball Think Factory why Dykstra hasn't received a shot. They said it was his defense. You're telling me that a struggling team can't take a flyer on this guy at first base or designated hitter?

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On this day in 2007, the Reds signed reliever Eddie Guardado.

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On this day in 2008, Cincinnati signed right-handed reliever Mike Lincoln.

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On this day in 2009, the Reds signed outfielder Jacque Jones and first baseman/left fielder Daryle Ward.

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RoastBeefKazenzakis and riverfront76 each earned a point yesterday.

Roberto Petagine hit his first major league home run against the Reds on April 28, 1995. The home run came in the bottom of the eighth with the Padres trailing 6-7. Petagine's blast tied the game, and the Padres rallied to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Who was the Cincinnati pitcher who gave up the home run?

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