Sunday, January 4, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: Mark Whiten

We often think of baseball in the strict terms of what we see and quantify. Chipper Jones hit 45 homers the year he won the MVP. Greg Maddux had a 1.90 ERA in his first 89 starts with the Braves. When going into the sixth inning with the lead, the 2013 Braves were 66-6, a winning percentage of .917.

But real life has a way of impacting the direction of a baseball team. John Hart has been on both sides of that. Earlier this offseason, he agreed to a trade that sent Jason Heyward to the Cardinals. The Cards were reeling at the time as their expected 2015 right-fielder, Oscar Taveras, had perished in a car accident during the World Series. Without this event, Heyward is unlikely to be dealt to the Cardinals and Shelby Miller is probably not anchoring the middle of the Braves rotation in 2015. But that's just how things go sometimes.

A similar situation occurred during spring training of 1993 involving the Cleveland Indians. A horrific boating accident claimed the lives of pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews while severely injuring Bob Ojeda. All three were being counted on for the Indians staff that year by Hart, their general manager. Searching for answers, he called the Cardinals in hopes of acquiring a pitcher to bridge the gap. That ended up being Mark Clark, who was then a season-and-a-half into a below-average ten year career. The Indians gave up a young outfielder named Mark Whiten, a project with plus power who once was a prospect in the Blue Jays' system. Incidentally, the Cardinals were trying to acquire Keith Mitchell from the Braves before getting Whiten. 

Credit: Whig.com
Whiten would go on to have probably his best year. Although he only OPSed .746, he belted 25 homers while setting personal records in games played and plate appearances. He received extensive playing time in right field, starting over future Brave and former Falcon, Brian Jordan. Whiten's biggest day of 1993 came during the second game of a doubleheader in Cincinnati on September 7th.  The matchup included two teams finishing up non-contending years. Compare that with the Braves, who won 1-0 to pull to 2.5 games behind the Giants in the last great divisional race before the Wild Card's introduction the following year. Yet, while something special was happening with the Braves, Whiten took center stage as he homered four times off three pitchers, picking up 12 of his 99 RBIs. Only 16 players in the history of baseball have hit four homeruns in the same game, including Bob Horner, the only Brave on the list. Only two have ever driven in 12 runs in a game. Only one, Whiten, has accomplished both feats. 

What makes that even more notable is Whiten's career never took off. While successful before the strike in 1994, he was shipped off to the Red Sox before 1995 and traded again that season to the Phillies. With a .752 OPS, he was actually hitting okay in 1996 before his June release by the Phillies.

A week later, the Braves came calling. Whiten joined the Braves a little more than a month after a check swing ended David Justice's season along with, as we would find out later, his career with the Braves. Jermaine Dye had been called up to replace Justice and was performing well, but the Braves were naturally concerned about the rookie's staying power after being forced to the majors because of an injury to Halle Barry's ex-beau. Whiten would play in 36 games with the Braves, including 23 starts in right field. He actually hit pretty well overall, slashing .256/.364/.433 with a trio of homers. His biggest moments with the Braves came in pinch-hitting appearances against his former teams. On July 22nd, Whiten batted for Mike Bielecki in a 6-3 game against the Cardinals. His fullcount two-run bomb off Andy Benes started a rally that ended with the Braves winning 8-6. In addition, during the second game of a double header on August 13th in Philly, Whiten hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up 3-1. They would hold on to win 5-2. 

That was Whiten's last at-bat with the Braves. That day, the Braves had completed a deal with the Marlins to bring back Terry Pendleton and needed room on their 25-man roster. In response, they sent Whiten to the Mariners for minor league pitcher Roger Blanco. The latter never made it out of A-ball, finishing with a 7.07 ERA in parts of four minor league seasons. Whiten would go to belt 12 homers and OPS over a thousand in a short run with the Mariners, though they ultimately finished short of their effort to return to the postseason. 

After spending 1997 with the Yankees, Whiten would return to Cleveland for the next three seasons, though he only really got time in the majors during 1998 when he logged his only postseason action of his career. He also pitched an inning and struck out the side, though he also walked two, hit a batter, and gave up a base hit. 

Hard Hittin' Whiten would continue to keep his career alive after 2000 by playing in the Mexican League and Atlantic League, along with a short eight-game run with the Dodgers' AAA team. After 17 games playing with the likes of Kevin McGlinchy and Pedro Borbon for the Long Island Ducks in 2003, Whiten called it a career. He hit some big homers, but never found sustained success in the majors and despite his raw power and top-notch arm, he wore eight different jerseys because no team felt he was a big part of their future. Included in his closet is a Braves jersey with the #25 on it. That number soon was handed to a callup who would make his debut a day after Whiten was traded. 

1 comment:

  1. The Braves traded Whiten in order to make room for another rookie outfielder, nineteen-year old Andruw Jones, as much as anything. Jones debuted with Atlanta the day after the Braves traded Whiten.

    Still, I have long wondered if there was more to Whiten's trade than a simple case of roster logistics involving Jones, Pendleton, or anyone else. After all, three days after trading Whiten and two days after Jones' debut, Atlanta brought back spray-hitting veteran outfielder Luis Polonia, who had been released by Baltimore five days earlier. (Polonia, of course, had helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series.) And the Braves shed Whiten when they instead could have jettisoned veteran reserve outfielder Dwight Smith, who performed terribly in 1996 (a .579 OPS) and failed to even make Atlanta's postseason roster. Certainly, Whiten could have constituted more of an asset than Smith or Polonia. Atlanta pinch-hitters would end up going hitless in the 1996 playoffs, whereas Whiten—as a switch-hitter with power and patience—would have represented much more of a weapon off the bench. In 22 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter in 1996, he batted .278 with a .409 on-base percentage and an .833 slugging average, including 3 home runs and 1 double. Whiten also would have given the Braves a much better option at Designated Hitter in the World Series games at Yankee Stadium against New York's southpaw starters, as he posted a .366 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging average, including 6 home runs and 6 doubles, in 112 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter versus left-handed pitching that season.

    So one has to wonder if there was some attitude issue with Mark Whiten—if he was perturbed by failing to win the right field job on a full-time basis and instead having to share the position with a rookie Jermaine Dye, or if the Braves feared that Whiten would resent losing playing time to two rookies in Dye and Jones. For if he amounted to a "good soldier," keeping Whiten instead of Smith or Polonia would have made plenty of sense.

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