April 18, 2011

Twins replace Nathan with Capps as closer, call up Hoey from Triple-A

Joe Nathan reclaimed the closer role despite missing all of last season following elbow surgery and posting an 11.05 ERA with diminished velocity during spring training, but the Twins have now stripped him of ninth-inning duties after back-to-back blown saves against the Rays. Matt Capps, who joined Nathan in blowing a save Friday and also allowed a run in the eighth inning Saturday, will take over as closer.

Nathan has gradually increased his velocity after initially throwing in the high-80s during spring training, as his fastball clocked in at 88-91 miles per hour early on and has more often been at 91-93 miles per hour recently. That's still a significant dropoff from throwing 93-95 mph before surgery, but shaky command has contributed to Nathan's struggles every bit as much as lost velocity and both are to be expected from pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery.

While much of the fan and media focus is on whether Ron Gardenhire should have handed the closer job back to Nathan right away, realistically his choice was between a high-leverage role or a low-leverage role. He could have started Nathan off as a middle reliever, giving him mostly inconsequential work in a Jeff Manship/Alex Burnett-like role. However, once he opted to give Nathan meaningful work resuming closer duties made as much sense as anything.

Capps could have begun the season closing, with Nathan setting him up, but leads are just as easily blown in the eighth inning and the closer role allowed Nathan to start innings fresh and know exactly when he'd be pitching. Gardenhire uses his closer in such a way that it restricts their overall workload to 65-75 innings, whereas through three weeks as a setup man Capps was on a 95-inning pace that the Twins wouldn't have wanted Nathan duplicating anyway.

Believing he should be brought back gradually in a low-leverage role was perfectly reasonable, but believing a high-leverage role was fine while also quibbling over closing or setting up was mostly pointless. If you thought he was ready for meaningful work, closing was logical. And if you thought he wasn't ready for closing Nathan should have been in middle relief, because the fact that you can't get a "save" in the eighth inning doesn't make the three outs any easier.

Whatever the case, it's clear now that Nathan wasn't ready for a high-leverage role 12 months after surgery. He resembles his old self more than Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek did at this same stage of their Tommy John recoveries, but getting outs in the late innings of tight games is a tall order with a low-90s fastball and shaky command. In his first 130 post-surgery pitches, his fastball and slider were down 2.4 and 0.9 mph, and batters made 32 percent more contact.

If he can stay healthy and avoid setbacks Nathan will continue to add velocity and improve his command, but whether that means he'll eventually be ready to thrive again in the late innings is much less certain. In the meantime Capps will fill the same role he did in the second half of last year for the Twins and the previous three-and-a-half years for the Nationals and Pirates. He's a perfectly solid closer, but Capps shifting roles again creates a big hole to fill.

Gardenhire was willing to deploy Capps in just about any situation as a setup man, using him in both the seventh and eighth innings, bringing him into spots with men on base, and asking him to get as many as six outs. That will change now that Capps is a closer, as he'll mostly be limited to coming into the ninth inning with the bases empty to get three outs. That means 20 percent fewer innings for Capps, with that work and those jams going to someone else.

Presumably by stripping Nathan of closer duties Gardenhire is also taking him out of the mix for other high-leverage roles, at least for now. Glen Perkins and Jose Mijares are seemingly the leading candidates to move up the bullpen ladder, as Perkins has escaped from the doghouse by beginning the year with 7.2 shutout innings and Mijares, despite joining Nathan and Capps with a poor outing Saturday, has a 2.38 ERA in 110 career innings.

Of course, Perkins' track record suggests he wouldn't be able to hang on to a late-inning role for long and Gardenhire has been reluctant to rely on Mijares as much more than a situational left-hander, with his 54 appearances since the beginning of last year totaling just 37.2 innings. All of which leaves the door wide open for Jim Hoey to grab hold of a setup man role after the Twins called him up from Triple-A to replace Manship following yesterday's game.

Acquired from Baltimore as part of the J.J. Hardy deal, Hoey spent all of 2009 and 2010 in the minors following shoulder surgery in 2008.  He failed to beat out Manship for the final bullpen spot during spring training because of control problems and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship, but Hoey has the hardest fastball in the entire Twins organization and piled up eight strikeouts versus just one walk in 6.2 innings at Triple-A to earn the call-up.

Prior to surgery Hoey appeared in 35 games for the Orioles in 2006 and 2007, averaging 95.5 mph with his fastball, and four seasons later the 28-year-old right-hander has recovered all of that velocity and then some. Hoey had a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year, but also walked 34 batters and uncorked seven wild pitches.

His mid-90s fastball and hard slider give Hoey the raw stuff to dominate in the late innings, but for that to matter he must throw strikes more consistently than he's been able to so far before or after surgery. Counting on improved control at age 28 is usually foolish, but pitching coach Rick Anderson is certainly the man for the job even if most of his staffs full of strike-throwers over the years have relied on fastballs as slow as Hoey's slider.

19 Comments »

  1. I honestly don’t care that much, nor do I disagree, really, but I do have to ask:

    Is Capps really doing any better?

    Both times Nathan blew a save, Capps was right there with him…

    Comment by Brian — April 18, 2011 @ 2:35 am

  2. On the broadcast, they made it sound like Nathan asked to relinquish the role. Now the opportunity is who’s going to set-up to get to a close game. Capps was already being over-used.

    The Twins Offense needs to pick-up the bullpen high-leverage guys and put one out of reach for the later innings.

    Comment by mc — April 18, 2011 @ 6:35 am

  3. It will be interesting to see what Hoey can do. Too bad about Nathan so far. He’s always been one of my favorite players to root for.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 18, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  4. Nathan has always seemed like a standup guy, so it wouldn’t surprise me if told Gardy he didn’t think he was ready. The bullpen without him is down right scary right now though. Hoey, Mijares, and Perkins in the primary set up roles, ugh.

    Comment by Jeff — April 18, 2011 @ 9:25 am

  5. Is there a reason they’re leaving Slama in AAA?

    Comment by Scott — April 18, 2011 @ 9:45 am

  6. When Slowey returns the picture won’t be so bleak. Anybody knows what is the timetable for his return?

    Comment by adjacent — April 18, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  7. Perkins and Mijares have done pretty well this season, but I don’t think any one is completely confident they can stay consistent throughout the season. I think a lot people knew that the bullpen was going to be pretty bad in the early part of the season until Gardy and the FO decide who actually deserves to have a spot on the roster. This has happened before.

    Comment by Zach Morris — April 18, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  8. Perkins and Mijares would have pretty high ERAs if they wouldn’t have been bailed out a lot by their successors. Their hits and walks given up are bad. Things are shaky.

    Comment by brian — April 18, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  9. I’m a little confused as to what Steve Holm (or as some of the other internet/Twins nerds have taken to calling him, STEVE HOLM!) was doing in the minors. In 55 major league games he’s batted .265/.360/.398, which seems entirely decent for a catcher.

    Comment by Jeff — April 18, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  10. I still don’t like this even if Capps has had success in the past. Nathan just needs a month or two to get back to where he was.

    Comment by Jon L. — April 18, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  11. Bring Slama up! He has been dominant in the minors for the past 4 yrs and has been given hardly any time at the major league level to prove himself. He could be a legitimate solution to the set up roll.

    Comment by Jake — April 18, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  12. Slama, seriously? I mean, I love the guy, and think he has a chance to be decent, but he’s missed all of this spring due to injury issues. This is what Seth had to say of his first action of the year on Friday: “Anthony Slama made his 2011 debut. In one inning, he gave up three runs on a hit, two walks, a hit batter and two wild pitches.” Doesn’t sound like he’ll be ready for a while to me.

    Comment by grubah — April 18, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  13. The Twins FO is so down on Slama right now that I’m more likely to pitch for the Twins this season.
    For the record I do have a decent Knuckleball.

    Comment by pk — April 18, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

  14. Probably a good season to try people out. Let the guy pitch – if he sucks, whatever, you can’t get much worse anyways. Good opportunity to find winners for next year.

    Comment by Jeff — April 18, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  15. That strike zone looks really narrow tonight on mlb.com

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 18, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

  16. Considering the uncertainty of the Twins entire pitching staff and the lack of depth, adding anyone to the roster seems to be an entirely logical move. Seriously, have you seen any pitcher besides Pavano’s last start seem strong, confident and collected? The front office took a huge gamble and lost over the off season.. time to test out prospective minor leaguers. What is there to lose?

    Comment by Gary — April 19, 2011 @ 4:21 am

  17. Part of the problem is that the guys in AAA look about as good as (but not better than) most of the pitchers on the big league club. The way the Twins system works, that’s pretty accurate. They draft less talented but more mature players, then keep them longer than any other organization in the minor leagues. That’s why they’re able to “plug in” guys like Valencia or Plouffe without seeing a lot of instability in the lineup. It’s also why the team’s ceiling of performance seems stuck just below championship level. The Twins system is designed to produce good, but not great teams.

    Comment by jimbo92107 — April 19, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  18. They should have traded Nathan after he let up the 09 playoff HR to Texeira. I really had had it with his near nervous breakdowns on the mound. And as for Capps – he’s no answer its obvious either. The way Hoey looked last night – I really don’t think its out of the realm of possibility that he’ll be the closer by year’s end. He knows this is a rare opportunity to really show what he’s got after years of injuries and attenuated service and maybe just maybe he and that 97-98 mph fastball can do it.

    Comment by Al — April 19, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

  19. nathan was the best closer in baseball for three years in the mid/late 2000′s. he was one of the top 5 in all of baseball in 2009. Capps, it’s hard to tell. He’s been good 2 or 3 years, but awful one year.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 19, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

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