December 16, 2010

Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain leave Twins for three-year deals

After seven seasons in Minnesota apiece Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain both officially left the Twins yesterday. Guerrier is heading to the National League on a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers, while Crain will be remaining in the division and relieving for the enemy after agreeing to a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox. Neither departure comes as a surprise, although Crain going to Chicago adds a little extra sting to the bullpen losses.

Guerrier was remarkably reliable and generally very underrated throughout his seven seasons in Minnesota and ranks as one of the best waiver-wire pickups in team history. Claimed from Pittsburgh in November of 2003 after the Pirates acquired him from the White Sox in a March of 2002 trade for Damaso Marte, he went on to throw 472 innings with a 3.38 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .247/.308/.387 while earning a grand total of just $6.6 million.

He twice led the league in appearances, worked 70-plus games in each of the past four years, is one of just three MLB relievers to log more than 450 innings since 2005, and had a sub-3.50 ERA in five of his six full seasons. Johan Santana, Al Worthington, and Rick Aguilera are the only pitchers in Twins history to throw more innings with a better adjusted ERA+ than Guerrier. And the Twins were right to let him go.

Guerrier has shown some signs of decline, as his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 7.0 in 2007-2008 to 5.4 in 2009-2010 and he lost a full mile per hour off his peak fastball velocity. And simply by virtue of being a 33-year-old relief pitcher with less than overpowering raw stuff and secondary numbers that never quite matched the sparkling ERAs his performance is likely to crumble before the Dodgers are done paying him like a top-of-the-line setup man.

Similarly, it's difficult to fault the Twins for failing to top the White Sox's bid for Crain when they demoted him to Triple-A less than 18 months ago and never fully trusted him as their primary setup man prior to this year. To his credit Crain returned from Rochester pitching better than ever with a 3.00 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 102 innings following the month-long demotion and was nearly unhittable down the stretch this year by allowing four runs in a 42-inning span.

Crain's second-half dominance can be traced to an increased reliance on his slider, as he used it a career-high 46 percent of the time after previously never topping 26 percent. His mid-90s fastball didn't go anywhere, but by throwing it just 42 percent of the time after never before dipping under 60 percent Crain became a more dangerous, unpredictable pitcher. Whether he can thrive long term throwing nearly 50 percent sliders, however, remains to be seen.

His change in approach and being four years younger than Guerrier made Crain my preferred choice to retain, but committing to three years for either pitcher would have been a misstep by the Twins. Their departures leave a pair of big holes in a bullpen currently in flux, but rarely do three-year deals for setup men work out well for the teams handing them out and if the Twins stay patient there will be capable relievers available at a fraction of the cost soon enough.

Crain is a Type B free agent, so the Twins will receive a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for losing him (Crain was a second rounder himself in 2002). Guerrier is a Type A free agent, but by not offering him arbitration the Twins forfeited his new team's first-round pick, plus the same sandwich pick Crain brings back. Letting both Crain and Guerrier walk was the right call, but the decision not to offer Guerrier arbitration was less clear cut.

Receiving a three-year deal from the Dodgers and reportedly drawing two-year proposals from several other teams makes it seem like offering Guerrier arbitration should have been an easy call, but the situation is much more complicated. Offering him arbitration would've dramatically altered Guerrier's market value, as few teams are willing to forfeit a high pick for a 33-year-old reliever and in the past some lesser Type A free agents have struggled to drum up interest.

If the Twins offered arbitration and Guerrier found the market lacking it's possible he may have re-signed for a much more reasonable price, but it's also possible his agent would've advised him to simply accept, forcing the Twins into a one-year commitment worth around $5 million. I tend to think it was worth that risk, because bringing Guerrier back on a one-year, $5 million deal would hardly be disastrous and two compensatory picks carry millions of dollars in value.

With that said, it's tough to predict whether Guerrier would've accepted arbitration and even tougher to determine how many teams, if any, would've been willing to lose a first rounder to sign him. Offering arbitration to Crain was a no-brainer, because Type B free agents don't cost their new teams a pick, but unfortunately Guerrier was tagged as Type A by a ratings system that drastically overrates relievers and it forced a risk-versus-reward choice upon the Twins.

Guerrier and Crain will be hard to replace, as they combined for an average of 135 innings with a 3.40 ERA in the past six seasons, but out-bidding 29 teams for the right to give three-year deals to middle relievers is the wrong way to build a bullpen. Right now the bullpen's outlook may be grim, but smart teams rely on the fungible nature of relievers and the Twins are better off trying to find the next Guerrier and Crain than paying a premium to retain the originals.

  • neil

    This is the end of an era, and hopefully also the beginning of a very similar new era.

    Gardy and Andy seem to have a talent for making their own stars. I look forward to getting to know (and sulfurously curse at) the next wave.

  • David

    Excellent analysis, Aaron. Couldn’t agree more. If, as they say, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then I’d say the Dodgers and White Sox are certifiable.

  • hoff

    Agree with your closing statement. We’ll find something within or external which will be as good and for half the cost.

  • scott

    Honestly, congratulations to both Matt and Jesse. They both got handsomely paid for being set-up guys. I wish them nothing but the best and thank them for their time here. However, that said I’m glad we didnt keep them at those prices.

    Twins got enough young BP guys to look at. Hopefully Nathan is back at full strength with Capps/Mijares setting him up.

    To be clear, I am far less confident in the BP than last year (at the present moment).

  • AMR

    Dodgers do not play the Yankees this year. Guerrier will look a lot better by just not facing ARod five times.

  • Jeff

    Can’t wait for the Twins to tee up on Crain this upcoming season. I never felt safe with him in the game with anything less than a 4 run lead.

  • AMR

    Dodgers come to TF during interleague, too. Hope Guerrier gets put in (unlike when the Giants came to the Dome and LaTroy warmed up but never pitched).

  • Dave T

    I am not so sure about letting Crain go. He turned a corner last season, and I think he’s one of the best relief pitchers in the league now. If I were picking which reliever to overpay, it would have been Crain, not Capps.

  • John P.

    Hard to know what to think about this. Guerrier could be good but sure seemed to wear down at the end of the season. Crain was pretty awesome when he was “on”, but seemed prone to really awful stretches. I wish them both well, except against the Twins.

  • BR

    Well, I thought they should have risked an arb offer to Guerrier. The bottom half of the clubs would have surrendered only a 2d round pick if one had signed him, which, given his durability and success, would have been likely imo. I don’t think he would have accepted arb, and paying him $5M if he did was a palatable worst case scenario, given the chance to get those comp picks.

    Ultimately, both Guerrier and Crain are replacable, but it’s not a given that their replacements will actually be good. (Middle relievers, almost by definition, are relatively unpredicatble.) The ‘pen looms as a potentially fatal weakness for the ’11 squad.

  • ljhatlga

    Aaron,
    I appreciate your simple, comprehensive, level-headed analysis. This is the stuff I rely on you for, which few sports journalists deliver as well or as consistently. That I also agree with you should be of some concern to fellow Twins fans, as my powers of prognostication are laughably unreliable. In any case, I wish Guerrier and Crain all the best, which they certainly deserve for their excellent contributions to the team.

  • JR Cigar

    Two thoughts immediately come to mind: 1. Twins got royally screwed when MLB categorized Guerrier as a Type A Free Agent. He just isn’t that valuable. So, we lose the compensatory pick at the end of the first round that we would’ve secured if he was a more realistic Type B guy.

    2. I had a fleeting tinge of regret about Crain leaving, but then my thoughts harkened back to that moon shot home run he gave up to Texeira in Game 2 of the ALDS last fall when the game hung in the balance. Adios, mi amigo. Wait until he joins Ozzie’s house of horrors. He will become an absolute mess.

  • Jake

    Dave T – I agree that I would rather overpay Crain than Capps. I’m too lazy to pick through the numbers, but my recollection is that Crain is more a “strike-thrower” than Capps. Capps’ inability to throw strikes on command is going to be an even bigger concern this year when he moves into a middle relief role.

    Given the choice of 8-9 innings going to Crain/Fuentes versus Mijares/Capps, I think I’d prefer the former. Hopefully Nathan comes back strong and makes all this somewhat moot, because Capps/Nathan is pretty good.

  • James M.

    The numbers back up JR Cigar’s first point. According to Fangraphs, Guerrier was only slightly above replacement level last year with 0.2 WAR. In contrast, Crain had 0.8, which put him in the middle of the pack among setup guys. (31 of them outpointed him, roughly one per team. Their WAR’s ranged from 0.9 all the way up to 2.2.) So if Crain is Type B Guerrier probably should be Type C, which would mean no compensation at all! So maybe it worked out right after all.

  • http://jasonwinter.blogspot.com Jason w

    Let’s not forget about Pat Neshek possibly stepping back into a prominent role in the bullpen. A full season removed from his TJ surgery should hopefully make him something more like his 2007 version in 2011.

  • Pedro Munoz

    While both players will be missed, given the money they were offered, there should be no second guessing at all. Crain was great down the stretch this year, but no player on the Twins (even LNP) has caused me to swear as much at the TV as Crain has.

  • bcntwinsfan

    Speaking of LNP, the indians just signed adam everett. you all know what that means, little nicky and his headfirst slides into first are coming back next year.

  • Jon

    Completely off topic, but I love Zack Grienke, and would also love it if the Twins were to try to get him. Ignoring all of the (important) side stuff, like the unlikelihood of the Royals trading him within the division, or whether you too like Grienke or not, do the Twins even have the pieces to deal to get him?

  • Gendo

    Bill Smith just traded Morales for a Single A reliever, Paul Bargas.

  • Karl

    ” …Crain was great down the stretch this year, but no player on the Twins (even LNP) has caused me to swear as much at the TV as Crain has.”

    Comment by Pedro Munoz

    All time Pedro? Or just current roster?

    My list looks like this:

    Current Roster:

    1) Delmon Effing Young
    2) Crain
    3) Cuddyer
    4) Blackburn
    5) Punto (Although technically not on current roster – give it a month)

    All Time:

    1) Ron Davis (It’s not even close)
    2) Delmon Effing Young (Need I elaborate?)
    3) Rob Wilfong’s Mustache
    4) LaTroy Hawkins (Ron Davis with a plus fastball)
    5) Lane Nick Punto aka Little Nicky Punto aka LNP

  • mike wants wins

    Hardy gone. Morales gone. Most of the bullpen gone. They are just waiting until they are done trading guys off the team, and losing them as FAs to sign Pavano, so people will forget about all the losses off of the team.

    They never appreciate Morales. I’m sure Butera’s awesome game calling skills and ability to throw out baserunners (which team do the play that runs?) will offset his HORRIBLE offense somehow. Does anyone really believe that he has some mystical ability to be a better catcher of pitches that somehow lowers the ERA of the Twins’ pitchers?

  • Gendo

    Amen. Seriously the moment someone types CERA into their browser it should shutdown their PC.

  • scot

    No way I would have paid Guerrier and Crain that kind of money and I agree with the Twins for letting them go. Twins need Capps one more season but will be gone in 2012 and probably Nathan also unless he comes back at a reduced rate after proving himself healthy. Still plenty of time to find some bargin upgrades so I am not freaking out yet that the Twins havn’t done much this offseason.