January 16, 2012

Twins add hard-throwing, oft-injured Joel Zumaya to bullpen mix

Joel Zumaya hasn't appeared in a major-league game since gruesomely fracturing his elbow while throwing a pitch to Delmon Young at Target Field on June 28, 2010, but the oft-injured reliever was healthy enough to impress the dozens of scouts attending his workout last month and yesterday the Twins signed him. Assuming that Zumaya passes a physical exam, Jason Beck of MLB.com reports that the one-year deal is for $800,000, with $900,000 in incentives.

According to Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune the contract is a big-league deal that includes a spot on the 40-man roster, but is not fully guaranteed and "the Twins would be able to cut Zumaya in spring training and not be on the hook for all of the guaranteed money if something doesn't look right." All of which means the signing falls somewhere between no-risk and low-risk, with the upside of a late-inning reliever who does anything but pitch to contact.

Of course, given his incredibly lengthy injury history the far more likely scenario is that Zumaya spends most of the year on the disabled list or perhaps doesn't even make it through spring training. Zumaya was a 21-year-old rookie phenom for the Tigers in 2006, posting a 1.91 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 83 innings while holding opponents' to a .187 batting average, but in the five years since then he's thrown a grand total of 126 innings while undergoing six surgeries.

Zumaya ruptured a tendon in his finger in early 2007, separated his shoulder while helping his father move boxes prior to the California wild fires in late 2007, underwent a second shoulder surgery for a stress fracture in late 2008, needed a third shoulder surgery after aggravating the injury in mid-2009, and has been under the knife twice since his elbow exploded in June of 2010. And sprinkled in with all the operations have been several other brief disabled list stints.

What makes Zumaya worth taking a flier after all the injuries is that he's still just 27 years old and has never lost his high-90s fastball. Most pitchers see velocity vanish as the arm problems pile up, but Zumaya actually threw slightly harder in 2010 than he did as a rookie in 2006. For his career Zumaya's fastball has averaged 98.5 miles per hour, which is the highest in baseball among all pitchers with at least 50 innings since 2006:

                      MPH
JOEL ZUMAYA          98.5
Henry Rodriguez      98.3
Aroldis Chapman      98.2
Jordan Walden        97.8
Daniel Bard          97.5
Stephen Strasburg    97.0

He had MLB's fastest fastball in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 before narrowly finishing second to Aroldis Chapman in 2010 and wasn't simply lighting up radar guns. Zumaya also remained effective after the surgeries with a 2.58 ERA and 34-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings before his elbow snapped in 2010. None of that guarantees the recent elbow surgeries won't sap his velocity, but Zumaya was reportedly clocked in the mid-90s at last month's workout.

Odds are Zumaya won't stay healthy, so if the Twins are viewing him as the final piece of their bullpen and the guy to fill the vacant right-handed setup man role that's a mistake. However, assuming that they're still in the market for a low-cost veteran right-hander like Todd Coffey or Dan Wheeler or Chad Qualls or Michael Wuertz the addition of Zumaya on a low-risk deal makes all kinds of sense. He still has plenty of upside and the contract has no real downside.

  • McGivey

    For as bad as this team might be, big picture, I applaud several of the low risk moves they’ve made this offseason.

  • chris

    great deal i think

  • spoofbonser

    Michael Wuertz would be a good pickup imo

  • Snifty

    To be fair, Guitar Hero is really fun, and addictive.

  • Josh

    I love this move in the abstract. It’s exactly how you should look at filling in a bullpen: high-impact arm, low cost. If healthy, Zumaya is exactly the kind of power arm the Twins need for their bullpen.

    For Twins, it’s a little more scary. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Twins management is delusional for thinking they could compete in 2012, I do think success is predicated on a lot of risks falling their way, so adding one more risk-reward piece like this may not be the best move. Hopefully Gleeman is right and they are looking for one more bullpen arm and not counting on Zumaya being healthy.

    Because the have very few things they can realistically count on for next year. They’re taking a lot of risks (Mauer, Morneau, Span, Baker, Liriano and now Zumaya in terms of health. Valencia and Nishioka for bounceback/improvement. Aging veteran not hitting a serious decline: Pavano, Carroll, Marquis. And so on). Individually, none of them are foolish; in fact many of them are pretty good calls. Beyond that when realistic success depends on Mauer and/or Morneau being healthy for the season, making a lot of low-financial risk moves around that proposition makes sense.

    If enough of these calls turn out ok, the Twins will defy the doom & gloom predictions of those who think last year’s horrid record was reflective of the true ability of the franchise. If a lot of them go bad, then this team will stink again. They will be very hard to predict, I think, because you really can’t predict injury with a great deal of certainty. (example: Pavano has been a workhorse the last 3 seasons, averaging 214 IP. would anyone have predicted that after 3 injury years with the Yankees where he averaged 61 IP? Nope, he was “injury prone”. Hard to predict health.)

  • AaronK

    I like this move, but agree it won’t be a great move unless they follow it up with another more reliable option.

  • Jay

    If the dozens of scouts that were there were all so impressed with the way Zumaya was lighting up the radar gun, then why were the Twins able to sign him for chump change? Have we cornered the market on no risk/low risk signings for upper 90s fastball pitchers?

  • Karl

    Not saying that he is in the Twins budget – but found this interesting after a bit of research.

    Pitcher #1 Since 2003 ERA 3.52 G 547 IP 599 H 557 ER 218 WHIP 1.25 BB 194 K 522 K/9 8.43

    Pitcher #2 Since 2003 ERA 3.59 G 491 IP 630 H 624 ER 254 WHIP 1.29 BB 191 K 547 K/9 7.8

    Pretty near identical – except pitcher #2 had one season where he was a starter (obvious because of the higher IP in less games).

    Pitcher #1 Since 2003 8 Saves

    Pitcher #2 Since 2003 53 Saves

    Pitcher #2 had 32 saves in 2011 – so he has a one year track record as a “proven closer”. Pitcher #1 despite a higher K/9 and comparable ERA and WHIP has never been given the chance to close.

    Pitcher #1 2011 FA is unsigned could be had for 1 year deal around $3-4 million + incentives.

    Pitcher #2 2011 FA signed 1 year deal for $8.5 million + incentives

    Pitcher #1 is Scott Linebrink – Pitcher #2 is Ryan Madson

  • http://jszym2write@yahoo.com jfs

    gray and maloney are out of minor-league options, i have read. if they are waived, and clear waivers, can they then be retained by the twins and sent to rochester? just wondering about this as the bullpen starts to take shape.

  • AM.

    Aaron–for tonight’s podcast, can you call up Lindsay Guetzal (she’d make a good guest on your male-dominated show), and ask her if there is anything more to her tweets about the Twins’ consideration of a two-year offer to Oswalt at Pavano levels, and that it is contingent on the results of the Yu Darvish posting? The one thing that sounds off is that the Red Sox are waiting to see what happens with Darvish….if the Rangers can’t sign him, is he actually available to anyone else?

    The premise of the Twins oferrimg two years sounds rright to me…Pavano is gone next year…

  • TMW

    The one time I had great seats at Target Field was the night I heard that elbow pop. I turned to my brother and said, ‘I think we just saw a career end.’

    I now hope I’m wrong.

  • Todd

    I think you nailed it when you said “the signing falls somewhere between no-risk and low-risk”. Seems like exactly the type of move the Twins should be making.