December 18, 2012

Twins sign Mike Pelfrey to one-year, $4 million contract

For the past year the Twins have talked repeatedly about getting away from their longtime focus on low-strikeout, low-walk pitchers and add more power arms to the organization. And they put their money where their mouth was by drafting hard-throwing college relievers in June and acquiring high-upside prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May in trades for Denard Span and Ben Revere, but when it comes to free agency it's the same old story.

Last week the Twins signed Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million deal following a three-year stretch in which he struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings to rank 81st among the 91 starters to throw 400-plus innings. And now they've followed that up by giving a one-year, $4 million deal to Mike Pelfrey, whose 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter during that time made him one of the 10 guys with a lower rate than Correia. Here's the whole list:

2010-2012           K/9
NICK BLACKBURN      4.1
CARL PAVANO         4.5
Mark Buehrle        4.9
MIKE PELFREY        5.0
Joe Saunders        5.1
Rick Porcello       5.1
Roberto Hernandez   5.1
Kyle Kendrick       5.2
Bronson Arroyo      5.2
Jeremy Guthrie      5.3
KEVIN CORREIA       5.4

So of the 11 starting pitchers with MLB's lowest strikeout rates since 2010 the Twins now employ three of them (Correia, Pelfrey, Nick Blackburn) and a fourth (Carl Pavano) is a free agent after spending three-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota. And the Twins' likely Opening Day starter, Scott Diamond, would rank third on that list with a career rate of 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings if he had enough innings to qualify.

When after two seasons of awful pitching a team stresses the need to end their stockpiling of low-strikeout pitchers and then signs veteran starters with two of the very worst strikeout rates in baseball it's tough not to get discouraged and question what exactly is going on, but at least in Pelfrey's case it's only a one-year commitment. Of course, there's good reason for that: Pelfrey is coming back from Tommy John surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day.

Before blowing out his elbow Pelfrey was very durable for the Mets, starting at least 30 games and throwing at least 180 innings in four straight seasons. However, during that time he let opponents hit .281 and his 4.27 ERA was much worse than it looks because Pelfrey called the NL and pitcher-friendly ballparks home. He has a 5.30 career ERA on the road and putting his overall numbers in context shows a below-average starter with bad strikeout and walk rates.

In fact, among the 91 starters with 400-plus innings since 2010 his strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 89th, ahead of only Blackburn and Barry Zito. So how was he able to eat so many innings? Pelfrey did a nice job keeping the ball in the ballpark, posting the 14th-lowest home run rate among those 91 starters. He was not, however, an extreme ground-ball pitcher, inducing 47 percent grounders to rank 41st, and the league and parks suppressed homers.

Pelfrey looks like a strikeout pitcher at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds with a 93-mph fastball, but he's basically a one-pitch pitcher lacking in decent off-speed stuff. And so despite being huge with good velocity he's never managed even 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings in a season or held opponents to a batting average below .275, and since 2010 hitters have made contact on 87 percent of their swings off Pelfrey to rank second-highest in MLB behind only Blackburn.

At his best Pelfrey was a decent fourth starter whose main asset was durability, but now he's attempting to come back from a season lost due to elbow surgery and might not be ready until May even if he can avoid setbacks. Giving him a one-year deal worth $4 million in guaranteed money and another $1.5 million in potential incentives certainly beats giving Correia a two-year deal worth $10 million guaranteed, but that isn't saying much.

If the Twins wanted a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery why not re-sign Scott Baker? He agreed to a one-year contract with the Cubs after balking at the Twins' insistence on a 2014 team option being included in any deal, yet they don't get a 2014 option with Pelfrey anyway and the difference in price is minimal. Baker got $5.5 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives. Pelfrey got $4 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives.

Pelfrey has been more durable than Baker, but that's not certain to remain true after matching elbow surgeries and Baker has simply been the more effective pitcher. Compare their respective pre-surgery numbers from 2008-2011. Baker, in the AL, threw 677 innings with a 3.92 ERA, 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 3.5 strikeouts per walk. Pelfrey, in the NL, threw 783 innings with a 4.27 ERA, 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings, and 1.7 strikeouts per walk.

Correia seemed like a bad signing to me mostly because he's just not a good pitcher, but beyond that if the Twins were handing out a multi-year contract why not at least target someone with some semblance of upside? Along those same lines, if they're taking a risk on a pitcher coming back from a major injury why not at least take that risk on someone who might be more than a decent fourth or fifth starter if everything goes well?

There's nothing wrong with a one-year, $4 million flier on Pelfrey and it's certainly a much better idea than giving $10 million over two years to Correia, but together the pair of moves for extreme low-strikeout starters doesn't inspire much confidence for a competitive 2013 and leaves plenty of room to question whether all the Twins' talk about changing their approach to pitching means as much as fans have hoped.

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  • Skrypz

    How much of this is due to Rick Anderson’s input? I get the feeling he doesn’t know how to coach a power/strikeout type of guy. The only one I can remember in his tenure that was a solid K’s guy was Johan, and I don’t think Rick had much to do with that. Johan was just pure talent and I don’t think he needed much help. How do you gauge how well a pitching coach is doing? Or do they really do much at when it comes to developing “stuff”? What’s your take on it? Do we need a new pitching coach?

  • mike wants wins

    I’m guessing it is more about money than Rick Anderson.

  • Sean

    I thought the same thing about Baker. Pelfrey is in the same situation, only he had his surgery last May instead of last April and he’s a much crappier pitcher. We save $1.5 million and instead get a guy with almost no chance of doing anything close to what Baker has already shown he can do in the AL.

    It seems clear that free agent pitching, for whatever reason, is Terry Ryan’s achilles heel. I honestly don’t know if he’s EVER signed a legitimate free agent starter. It’s unbelievable that a guy with such a great eye for prospects with such a great knack for making a good trade is so terrible at evaluating pitchers that have already been in the league for several years. It just doesn’t make any sense.

  • pk

    Aaron-
    Great write up as usual. My question is what if Baker didn’t want to come back and other options chose to sign elswhere for more or less money. Then what? These guys aren’t great but the alternatives aren’t any better when you’re shopping at the dollar store.

    I didn’t hear your opinion on the James Shields trade. I’m guessing you hate it for the Royals cuz Myers is a sure thing.

  • ML

    I just hope TR decides he’s done before he trades for Punto and not after.

  • Steve J

    Team ERA for 2013: 4.75 Over or Under?

  • thegeneral13

    Well, so much for my theory that overpaying for Correia to lock in innings would allow the Twins to target more upside in their subsequent FA signings. This is just depressing. The only way this seems to make sense is if the Twins think Rick Anderson can improve Pelfrey’s offspeed stuff to complement the big frame and good fastball. But that can’t be very likely at this stage of his career….

  • Spoof Bonser

    The Twins front office simply isn’t looking at the same things most other front offices are. They are as old school as it gets. That is great for scouting, but the problem is that they don’t have a strong understanding of the market place which sets value in free agency and to a lesser extent trades. In what world, other than scouting a guys “body and makeup” is Pelfrey a better signing than Baker? We will all be pining for the days of Liriano in no time.

  • Mike

    So is it the scouts that can’t judge pitching talent or the minor league coaches that can’t develop it?

  • Dave T

    I was OK with Correia until Smith, oops, Ryan signed Pelfrey. One or the other, not both. Twins will be unwatchable again this year.

  • mike wants wins

    In fairness, I’d Gibson and Wimmers stay healthy, they have one or two pitchers up last year, and likely the other up this year. That said, if you pass on pitchers, and up until this year refuse to trade young position players for pitchers, you are not going to have much room for error.

  • JG

    Good Luck with Pelfrey from this Mets fan. His durability is unquestioned, he is good for 30 starts save for a big injury…but by start 29 you may wish he had less.

    His big problem is up top. He has trouble getting out of trouble, and starts to lick his hands more than normal and is then a full blown mess and can’t get an out. He’s like a castaway on a desert island sometimes.

    Don’t get me wrong, when he’s on he’s on, and can be a very effective power pitcher, with some good stuff and great hard stuff. But you guys better hope he stays out of trouble on the mound.

  • JS

    I think TR just underestimated the salaries free agents would get prior to Baker’s signing. He signed very early in the off-season, before some of these large contracts for mediocre pitchers started going out. I’m sure he would take Baker for 5.5 over Pelfrey for 4 now, just as I’m sure he wouldn’t have given Pelfrey 4 mil at the time of Baker’s signing. Unfortunately that is a moot point.

    I share the frustration with all these zero-upside signings. I don’t understand why Ryan won’t use the payroll he has available to make the team better long-term, even if he’s not willing to make large commitments. How? Sign non-garbage players to higher 1 year contracts. They will theoretically make the team more watchable pre-July, and hopefully get a little trade return from a desperate contender. Good luck trading Correia or even Pelfrey for anything useful.

  • adjacent

    I think we are missing something. When the Twins traded for Meyer (or May, I don’t remember which of the 2) Ryan said that the only chance to get that kind of pitcher (high strike outs, high velocity) is when they are in A. I see Pelfrey and Correia as fillers for these 2 years. Of course nobody of the Twins are going to say it, but they are punting 2013, and probably 2014, while getting ready for 2015 when the new generation of pitchers are going to be ready. In the meanwhile they are trying to put a watchable team, nothing else.

  • Snyder

    I think one thing people need to keep in mind when saying “Sign non-garbage players to higher 1 year contracts.” is that non-garbage players can usually command a multi-year contract. Also, they have to WANT to come to Minnesota.

  • Ed

    Fire Terry Ryan!!

  • http://jszym2write@yahoo.com jfs

    if he can deliver 150-plus innings with an era under 5, it’s a good signing. same goes for correia. another signing around $5 million would be a good cushion. possible rotation of diamond, worley, correia, pelfrey, and swarzak to start the season.

  • Steve V

    Yecch.

    Steve V

  • BR

    I agree with JS. Ryan might have misjudged the money that mediocre players would be getting this year. And while Pelfrey and Correia aren’t SO guys, it’s probably a bit unfair to assume based on these signings that Ryan and the scouts don’t appreciate enough the importance of strikeouts. They were talking with Liriano to bring him back, after all – a SO guy with command issues. He’s, probably going to get too much $$, though (or is at least looking for much more than what Correia and Pelfrey got).

  • Sid

    Isn’t the critical issue here that the Twins keep signing crappy low SO pitchers (on top of having BY FAR the lowest team strikeout rate in the majors last year), yet put a below-average defense on the field?

    If there was a semblence of a strategy here to get a certain kind of pitcher for cheap and adapt the defense to support that I guess I could understand, but blowing up the OF defense then signing more pitchers who can’t strike anyone out is insane to me…

  • Mike K

    I realize that the Twins are building for 2014 and beyond but why does that have to be mutually exclusive to also putting a competitive team on the field in 2013? Are Pelfrey and Correia really the best they can do with the payroll they have available? Personally, I don’t think so.

  • Paul B

    Correia signing looks even worse after seeing Villanueva signed for the same amount with the Cubs.

  • JS

    Villanueva would be the type of player I was referring to as non-garbage. At least there’s upside and the option to shift to relief to offset the durability concerns. No idea why Ryan showed no interest in him.

    Basically the Cubs are doing exactly what I wish the Twins would.

  • Brandon

    How excited are Pittsburgh pirates fans over gettin Francisco Liriano for 2 mil more a season than corriea! At least when Frankie trotted out there you could legitimately flip a coin on 7 in 9 k’s or 3 1/3 6 runs…if the twins can’t score 6 runs a game they will not win. Sure hope Josh Willingham doesn’t come back down to earth…I understand punting this yr and playing for 2015 but Terry Ryan, and the greedy Pohlad family, isn’t going to spend money on Felix Hernandez or Ian Kinsler when they got free agency either. Every twins yr…lets through something at the wall and see if it sticks! The best a twins fan can hope for is that somehow we return to .500 baseball and the royals prospects flop and the hope Verlander blows out his arm…then here we come in September! AL central crown…look out!

  • james brown

    For a couple starts right before his injury, Pelfrey actually started looking like what he was projected to be. With luck, he’s turned a corner mentally and once he gets healthy, could be a nice pickup. Seems worth the gamble