Monday, March 28, 2011

Random Past Phillie: Rheal Cormier

Name: Rheal Paul Cormier
Position: Relief Pitcher
Born: April 23, 1967 in Moncton, New Brunswick
Acquired: Signed as a free agent on November 30, 2000
Phillies Debut: April 4, 2001
Final Phillies Game: July 25, 2006
Uniform Numbers: 33, 37
Career Elsewhere: Cardinals (1991-94), Red Sox (1995, 1999-2000), Expos (1996-97), Reds (2006-07)

About Rheal Cormier: With free agency being what it is today, it can often be difficult to get attached to individual players. So many come and go through the years, it sometimes seems shocking when a player sticks with a club for any significant amount of time. Sure, there are still a decent amount of stars who have long tenures with one team and in some rare instances spend their entire career in one place. But more often what we see are journeymen who are signed to fill a specific need on a team, then move on when they've outlived their usefulness on that club. It's uncommon that a team keeps such a player around for more than a couple seasons. When they do, it can seem like he's been with them forever. This is especially true of relief pitchers, particularly those nomads who work primarily during the middle innings of a game for a living. Rheal Cormier was one such pitcher who was used in that role, and when compared to many contemporaries, the French-Canadian southpaw ended up having quite a lengthy stay with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Like the vast majority of relief pitchers, Rheal Cormier began his professional baseball career as a starter upon being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth round of the 1988 Draft. Three years later, he was a Major Leaguer after being called up by the Cardinals in August. Cormier would pitch in 11 games for the Cards in '91 (10 starts), posting a 4-5 record with a 4.12 ERA. After going 10-10 with a 3.68 ERA in 1992, Cormier struggled early in the 1993 season and ended up bouncing back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen. He would find his way back to the St. Louis rotation in 1994, but shoulder and back problems limited Cormier to just seven appearances in what would be his final season with the Cardinals.

When the infamous strike that wiped out the 1994 postseason was settled in April of 1995, Major League Baseball and its teams were forced to scramble through an abbreviated Spring Training. A massive amount of unsigned free agents found new homes and several trades were made to patch holes. One such deal involved Cormier, who was shipped to the Boston Red Sox along with outfielder Mark Whiten in exchange for third baseman Scott Cooper and pitcher Cory Bailey. After starting the '95 campaign in the rotation for the Red Sox, Cormier was moved to the bullpen, only to be put back in the rotation late in the season. In all, 12 of Cormier's 48 appearances in 1995 were starts as he went 7-5 with 4.07 ERA for the American League East Champions. Cormier would be on the move again after that season, as the Red Sox sent him to the Montreal Expos along with pitcher Shayne Bennett and first baseman Ryan McGuire in exchange for infielder Wil Cordero and pitcher Bryan Eversgerd. Getting the opportunity to play in his native Canada, Cormier was 7-10 with a 4.17 ERA in 1996, including what would be the final complete game and only shutout of his career, a three-hitter at the expense of his former Cardinals teammates on April 22.

In 1997, however, Cormier's career would take a major detour. After allowing five runs in an inning and a third to the Colorado Rockies in his first start of the campaign, Cormier was pulled from the game. It would be his only appearance of the '97 season as an elbow injury finished his year just as it was getting started. Cormier would undergo ligament transplant surgery, a procedure that would also limit his 1998 season to three appearances with the Akron Aeros, the AA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. He would return to the Red Sox for the 1999 season, surprisingly making the club out of Spring Training. The suprises didn't end there though, as Cormier wound up appearing in 60 games for the eventual AL Wild Card qualifiers, posting a 2-0 record and 3.69 ERA. He'd make 64 appearances for Boston in 2000, going 3-3 with a 4.61 ERA. That was where Cormier's second stint with the Red Sox came to an end, as the next chapter of his career would be written in Philadelphia.

Coming off a 97-loss season in 2000, the Phillies were in need of help in many areas. To shore up the bullpen, they signed a trio of veterans. Among them was former All-Star closer Ricky Bottalico, returning for a second stint with the club. Jose Mesa was also brought aboard and would eventually become the franchise's all-time saves leader. Also among the newcomers was one Rheal Cormier, who inked a three-year deal with the Phils. The moves were in no way Earth-shattering, but they did pay some dividends in 2001 as the 'pen proved to be the biggest strength on a Phillies club that came within two games of dethroning the Braves atop the National League East. Overall, the team finished 86-76, a 21-game improvement upon their 2000 record and the first winning season for the franchise since 1993. Cormier had a somewhat up-and-down '01 campaign, going 5-6 with a 4.21 ERA in 60 appearances. The Phillies would take a step back in 2002 as a horrendous April pretty much ended any chances of building on their 2001 showing, the end result being an 80-81 record. The bullpen was also unable to duplicate its '01 success. Cormier in particular struggled badly, as he went 5-6 with a 5.25 ERA.

When it became evident that fellow lefties Dan Plesac and Hector Mercado would be heading north with the ballclub out of Spring Training in 2003, Cormier's days in Philadelphia seemed to be numbered. He got a reprieve when the unusual decision was made to carry three southpaws in the 'pen. Still, when Cormier was torched by the Florida Marlins for five runs in his first appearance of the '03 season, it was pretty much assumed to be a matter of time before the Phillies and the 5'10" lefty reliever they dubbed "Frenchy" would part ways. But then a funny thing happened. Cormier basically became unhittable. In fact, he did not allow a single hit in seven appearances between April 24 and May 9 of that season and didn't allow another run until May 21, a span of 16 appearances. After his disastrous debut, Cormier allowed just 11 runs for the remainder of the '03 campaign, boasting an 8-0 record while fashioning a 1.70 ERA in 65 appearances, with a 1.20 ERA over his last 64 games. For the most part, the Phillies got strong starting pitching and setup work in 2003, but an awful season by closer Jose Mesa and an inconsistent offense caused the club to miss out on a postseason berth that appeared to be theirs for the taking heading into the season's final week.

The Phillies re-signed Cormier after his tremendous 2003 season, and he went 5-6 with a 3.56 ERA in 2004, appearing in a career-high 84 games. Cormier's 2005 season was marred by a hip injury and despite a 4-2 record in 57 appearances, his ERA skyrocketed to 5.89. Healthy again in 2006, Cormier pitched in 43 games for the Phils and regained some of his '03 magic, compiling a 2-2 record with a 1.59 ERA. It was a different story for the ballclub, who suffered through a miserable first half and unloaded a slew of veterans at the trade deadline. One of those vets sent packing was Cormier, who was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for pitcher Justin Germano on July 31. He'd go 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in 21 appearances for the Reds in '06, then was released by Cincinnati after six outings and a 9.00 ERA in 2007. Cormier signed a minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves shortly after being cut loose by the Reds but never did get called up to the parent club in what turned out to be his final season.

Personal Recollection: I think there are certain players who regardless of how long they've actually been with a team, it just seems like they've been there forever. Rheal Cormier was definitely one of those guys for me. Perhaps it was because he was with the Phillies for five and a half seasons, which you don't see very often with a middle reliever or setup man anymore. Whatever it was, it just seemed like Cormier pitched for the Phils even longer than what he did.

Cormier's 2003 season is one of the greatest by a Phillies reliever that I've ever seen. It was amazing how there just didn't even seem to be a role for him when that season began and most people questioned why he even made the team out of Spring Training. Then he got absolutely lit up by the Marlins in his first appearance and I was convinced he would be designated for assignment the next day. I mean, what was the point of having him on the team? But give the man credit, he never complained or felt sorry for himself and was basically automatic the rest of the season. With Jose Mesa pretty much imploding that year, I wondered if Cormier would be given a shot to close. He may have been a victim of his own success in a way, as he did so well setting up that they didn't want to remove him from the role. Cormier was decent in 2004, but never really came close to duplicating his '03 output. He did pitch well before being traded to the Reds in 2006, though his ERA was a little misleading as he allowed a lot of inherited runners to score. Still, Cormier had one great season as a Phillie, a couple good ones, and a couple bad ones. You could do better, but you could do a lot worse. Such is life for a lot of relief pitchers.

Cormier was involved in a pretty memorable incident while with the Red Sox in 1999 involving his future Phillies teammate Jim Thome, who was then with the Cleveland Indians. The two teams had been involved in a bit of a beanball war and during one particular game at Fenway Park, Cormier plunked Thome, who then charged the mound. The fight didn't really amount to much, just some grabbing and spinning around between two pretty mild-mannered guys. As it turned out, there weren't any grudges held as Cormier gave Thome a ride back to the hotel where the Indians were staying. The Phillies featured a segment about this on their 2003 video yearbook, with John Kruk serving as a Dr. Phil-type moderator. Weird, wild stuff.

That's my story on Rheal Cormier. Feel free to share your own recollections