March 21, 2011

So long, Sideshow Pat: Padres claim Neshek off waivers

Pat Neshek has struggled to rediscover his velocity and overall effectiveness since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in November of 2008 and seemed destined for Triple-A following an unimpressive series of appearances this spring, but instead the Twins made a surprising move by deciding to simply let him go. They removed Neshek from the 40-man roster, which required placing him on the waiver wire, and the Padres claimed him yesterday.

In most cases a player is removed from the 40-man roster because the team needs their spot for another player, but that wasn't the case here. There was no follow-up move after Neshek was placed on waivers and general manager Bill Smith indicated that the 40-man roster spot might remain unfilled for a while. Beyond that, if the Twins did need to create an opening they could have cut Eric Hacker, who was a very questionable addition and is bound for Triple-A.

Had he been out of minor-league options Neshek being let go also would have been less of a surprise, but he does have an option remaining and could have been stashed at Triple-A while being called up or sent down at any point this year. In fact, that's likely what San Diego will do after claiming him. By allowing the Padres to take Neshek and his contract the Twins did save some money, but his $625,000 salary represents less than one percent of their total payroll.

This move wasn't made because the Twins needed a 40-man roster space or because Neshek couldn't be kept unless he was in the majors or because money was tight. No, this move was made because the Twins simply decided to give up on Neshek. He was a shell of his former self last season, which wasn't unexpected after missing all of 2009 following surgery, but Neshek's raw stuff wasn't much better this spring and he'd plummeted down the bullpen depth chart.

Clearly the Twins have zero faith in his ability to turn things around when they'd rather have $625,000 than another bullpen option at Triple-A and Neshek angering the team last year by going public about the handling of his finger injury perhaps made their decision even easier. Giving up on a 30-year-old reliever fighting to top the mid-80s with his fastball 28 months after elbow surgery is understandable, but the timing and motivation behind the move are odd.

Even before the surgery his fastball was typically in the high-80s, which along with a side-arm delivery made the Twins so skeptical of Neshek's dominance in the minors that they didn't give him an opportunity until 2006, shortly before his 26th birthday. Once in Minnesota the Brooklyn Park native showed that he belonged by quickly gaining Ron Gardenhire's trust as the primary setup man and throughout it all Neshek interracted with fans via his website and Twitter.

In other words, it was very easy to root for Neshek whether he was a standout minor leaguer deserving of a shot, a trusted member of the Twins' bullpen, a rehabbing Tommy John survivor, or a guy struggling to get back to where he was. I'm among the many Twins fans sad to see him go, but the Padres' unmatched success plucking relievers off the scrap heap for the past decade and baseball's most pitcher-friendly ballpark makes San Diego the ideal landing spot.

I'd love to see him turn things around, even for the Padres, but regardless of what happens with the rest of his career the excellent but short run Neshek had for the Twins should not be overlooked. From a call-up in July of 2006 to his elbow giving out in May of 2008 he had a 2.91 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 121 innings while opponents hit .188 with a .592 OPS. To put that in some context, Nick Punto's career OPS is .644.

He was death to right-handed batters, who couldn't square up a high-80s fastball coming out of nowhere from that crazy side-arm delivery and flailed away at his frisbee slider while hitting .176 with a strikeout in one-third of their plate appearances. Skeptics focused on his supposed vulnerability against left-handed batters and continued to bang that same drum long after it was proven inaccurate, as Neshek held them to a .211 batting average. He was great, period.

I'm not sure if Neshek will ever rediscover anything resembling his old level of effectiveness, let alone approach his previous dominance, and I'm not sure why the Twins weren't more willing to show a bit of additional patience when there was absolutely nothing or no one forcing them to reach that verdict quite yet, but it was an awful lot of fun to watch while it lasted and I'll be rooting for "Sideshow Pat" with the Padres.

November 15, 2010

Twins Notes: Hardy, Hacker, and high payrolls

• In addition to a whole slew of free agents the Twins also have a decision to make regarding J.J. Hardy, who's under team control for 2011 as an arbitration eligible player and would be all but guaranteed to get a raise from his $5.1 million salary. From my point of view keeping Hardy for at least one more season is a no-brainer, but there have been some hints in the media to suggest the Twins are less certain it's the right move.

Hardy was far from spectacular after coming over from the Brewers last November in exchange for Carlos Gomez, batting .268/.320/.394 and missing 60 games with injuries, but evaluating his performance and value can't be done properly without comparing him to other shortstops. At first glance Hardy hitting .268/.320/.394 doesn't look impressive at all, but that was actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371.

There were a total of 28 shortstops who played at least 100 games this season. Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS. Much like how some people don't fully appreciate Joe Mauer's value because they don't realize how terrible the average catcher is offensively, Hardy's season seems to be underrated by people who don't realize he was actually an above-average hitter among shortstops.

And of course Hardy is also an excellent defender, leading all MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games at +12.8 runs. His lack of durability is a real issue and makes committing to Hardy long term risky, but for a one-year commitment at $6 million it should be an easy call. He's above-average offensively, fantastic defensively, and ranks among the top dozen players at a position where the Twins lack an MLB-ready replacement and the free agent crop is weak.

• In their first pickup of the offseason the Twins signed right-hander Eric Hacker and give him a spot on the 40-man roster after the 27-year-old left the Giants as a six-year minor-league free agent. Hacker was voted the Pacific Coast League's top right-handed starting pitcher, but that surely must have been based almost entirely on his winning 16 games because his actual performance wasn't noteworthy at all even accounting for the hitter-friendly nature of the PCL.

Hacker started 29 games and his 4.51 ERA was barely better than the PCL average of 4.78. He managed just 129 strikeouts in 166 innings, walked 62 batters, and allowed opponents to hit .280 with 21 homers. There's really nothing about his performance that stands out in any way aside from the fact that he went 16-8 and the only thing more misguided than judging pitchers on their win-loss record is judging minor-league pitchers on their win-loss record.

And that was his second season at Triple-A. He also had a 4.50 ERA and just 94 strikeouts in 132 innings at Triple-A in 2009, walking 3.4 batters per nine innings while opponents hit .301. He's a 27-year-old pitcher with a 4.52 ERA and mediocre secondary numbers in 301 innings at Triple-A, and while signing that type of guy is perfectly reasonable as organizational depth the Twins' decision to give Hacker a 40-man roster spot confuses me.

Perhaps the Twins reviewed the minor leaguers they'll need to protect from next month's Rule 5 draft and concluded they have 40-man spots to spare, but if signing Hacker means leaving a guy like Kyle Waldrop unprotected it'll be a major mistake. In addition to the underwhelming stats, Ben Badler of Baseball America offered this scouting report on Hacker: "88-92 miles per hour, works both sides of the plate, average slider, stuff very hittable, solid Triple-A-type arm."

• During their final two seasons in the Metrodome the Twins ranked 24th and 25th in spending with payrolls of $57 million and $65 million, but they increased the payroll to slightly over $100 million in their first year at Target Field. That shattered the team record by around $25 million and thanks to better-than-expected revenue from the ballpark Twins president Dave St. Peter told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the payroll will rise again in 2011:

The payroll is going to go up. We don't take it for granted. We're all tremendously appreciative of the support but we also know we need to keep moving forward. We need to keep moving forward on the field, and frankly, we need to keep doing everything possible to make Target Field the best ballpark it can be.

Some of that quote refers to the planned Target Field improvements announced last week, but St. Peter making a clear "the payroll is going to go up" pronouncement suggests that perhaps there's room for another significant bump in spending. Even an increase to $115 million won't suddenly give the Twins a ton of spending room, because the players under team control for 2011 figure to cost about $105 million and that doesn't account for re-signing any free agents.

However, getting into the $115 million range would complete the transition from small-payroll team to large-payroll team, as Christensen notes that just six teams (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Tigers) had an Opening Day payroll that high in 2010. For next year that type of money is needed to simply pay team-controlled guys, but maintaining a top-10 payroll in the future would mean adopting a new view of roster management and free agency involvement.

As a 27-year-old, lifelong Twins fan ... well, that could take some getting used to.