Transaction of Today…December 23, 2003 – The Atlanta Braves sign Antonio Alfonseca as a free agent
It was the last good year of his eleven-year career.
On this day thirteen years ago, the Braves added a right-hander whose nickname of El Pulpo was always more notable than the results he posted on the field. The nickname was Spanish for The Octopus, a play on the fact that Alfonseca was born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.
Originally a starter with bouts of wildness for the Expos, Alfonseca joined the Marlins in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft before the ’94 season. He remained a non-prospect, but the Marlins finally got him to throw strikes. He would arrive in the majors in 1997, which was a good year to be a Marlin. After 17 games during the season, he would stick around in the postseason and even became a bit of an unsung hero in the World Series after throwing 6.1 scoreless innings against the Indians.
After a year cutting his teeth, Alfonseca ascended to closer in 1999 after the Marlins traded Matt Mantei to the Diamondbacks in July. Alfonseca notched 21 saves that season, though if there had been a stats nerd group over-analyzing things in 1999, they probably would have pointed to Alfonseca’s low strikeout numbers as a worrisome part of his game. Regardless, Alfonseca became the NL Saves leader in 2000 with 45, though again, his numbers weren’t all that impressive.
After another season in the closer role where he nabbed 28 saves, Alfonseca’s Marlins career came to an end after they traded Matt Clement and the six-fingered closer to the Cubs for, among others, Dontrelle Willis. The deal would work wonders for the Marlins, but Chicago wasn’t that bad off in ’02. Clement slotted behind Kerry Wood to give the Cubs another 200 K guy while Alfonseca led them in saves. The following year, 2003, the Cubs brought in Joe Borowski and relegated Alfonseca to middle relief, which he struggled with. Alfonseca would appear in the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year and added 3.1 scoreless innings of relief in the Cubs’ NLDS win over the Braves and NLCS loss to the Marlins.
That brings us to the 2003-04 offseason. During the three years that John Smoltz was the team’s closer, the Braves had a competent bullpen just once – the first year. In 2002, the magical pen of Smoltz, Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger, Kerry Ligtenberg, and company dominated the National League. Most of that pen grabbed big deals as free agents and their replacements weren’t so good for the Braves. Trey Hodges, Roberto Hernandez, Ray King, and Jung Bong all had ERAs between 3.51 and 5.05. The two holdovers in Kevin Gryboski and Darren Holmes were less effective in their follow-up campaigns as well. By the end of the season, Atlanta was relying on Kent Mercker, Will Cunnane, and surprising Jaret Wright to fill the void.
They would start over in 2004. The Braves traded for Chris Reitsma and Juan Cruz while squeezing out a decent smoke-and-mirrors year out of Gryboski. In addition, they added Alfonseca. As far as metrics go, it wasn’t a great year. He tossed 73.2 innings with 28 walks and 45 strikeouts. He gave up five homers and carried a 3.85 FIP. However, he bested the entire bullpen in ERA with a 2.57 total. He would pitch four times that October in Atlanta’s five-game loss to the Astros in the NLDS. In Game 2, he replaced Smoltz in the top of the 11th and set down – in order – Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman. In the bottom of the tenth, Rafael Furcal hit a two-run walk-off homer to give Alfonseca his only win in the postseason. Two days later, he was charged with two runs in the sixth, though it was Tom Martin who was on the mound when the two runs scored. While those two runs wouldn’t ultimately be the difference in the loss, they certainly made it harder to come back as the Braves eventually lost 8-5. Alfonseca’s last game as a Brave included a scoreless sixth inning against the Astros in Game 4 to keep the game tied at 6. J.D. Drew would drive in Furcal in the ninth to put Atlanta on top and force a Game 5.
Alfonseca would put three more years in the majors with a 5.32 ERA. He did appear briefly in the 2007 NLDS with the Phillies, throwing a scoreless inning. Colorado won that series and Alfonseca never pitched in the majors again. He kept in the game, pitching winter ball and independent-league ball, before finally hanging his cleats up for good after 2011.