August 15, 2011

Twins Notes: “Psst. It’s Over.”

• To put the Twins' current 11.5-game AL Central deficit into context consider that they're 15.0 games ahead of the Astros for the worst record in baseball. They're also just 3.0 games ahead of the Royals for last place in the AL Central and 5.5 games ahead of the Orioles for the worst record in the AL. There are 43 games remaining and the Twins would have to go 29-14 just to finish .500. In their last 43 games the Twins are 20-23.

Alexi Casilla spent two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring and then aggravated the injury in the seventh inning of his first game back Friday, immediately returning to the DL. Trevor Plouffe, who was optioned to Triple-A to clear a roster spot for Casilla, was called right back up and will hopefully get more of an opportunity than last time, when he often found himself on the bench in favor of Matt Tolbert.

Plouffe has plenty of flaws and is hardly guaranteed to become a solid big leaguer, but if ever there was a time for the Twins to find out it's when the division title is out of reach and their primary alternative is a 29-year-old career .235/.291/.326 hitter. Using the final six weeks to see if Plouffe can be a part of the team's plans in 2012 and beyond is far more valuable than giving Tolbert more time to cement his status as the definition of a replacement-level player.

Kevin Slowey's long-awaited return to the Twins' rotation technically never happened, as he allowed one run in two innings yesterday before the game was washed away by rain.

Denard Span is 2-for-35 (.057) with nine strikeouts versus three walks since spending two months on the disabled list, telling LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he's still having post-concussion symptoms and is struggling with new medication. Not good.

Justin Morneau returned to the lineup six weeks after surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment from his neck, but told Neal that he still doesn't have feeling in his left index finger because of nerve damage. Despite that Morneau went 11-for-30 (.367) with a homer and four doubles in seven games rehabbing at Triple-A.

Joe Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader Wednesday with his 255th since joining the team in 2004, moving past Rick Aguilera. Nathan is definitely the most dominant closer in Twins history--and one of the most dominant in baseball history, for that matter--but his save total and Aguilera's save total isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. Here's an explanation of the differences from my write-up of Aguilera as the 18th-best player in Twins history:

It's important to note that Tom Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Ron Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited.

In addition to being more difficult than Nathan's saves, on average, Aguilera's saves were also longer, as he recorded 55 more outs in his 254 saves than Nathan has in his 255 saves.

Glen Perkins might be wearing down in his first full season as a reliever. He allowed eight runs in 43 innings through August 5, including 37 scoreless appearances in 45 total outings, and never gave up more than one run in a game. And now Perkins has allowed six runs in his last four innings, including four straight outings with a run and multiple runs in two of them. David Ortiz's homer was the first served up by Perkins in 178 plate appearances this year.

Amelia Rayno of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an interesting article about the pitcher-catcher relationship and specifically Carl Pavano picking Drew Butera as his personal catcher. Near the end of the article she noted Pavano's respective ERA with different catchers, but it's worth repeating: Pavano has a 4.26 ERA in 35 starts with his preferred catcher, Butera, and a 4.09 ERA in 31 starts with Joe Mauer. And this year's numbers skew further in Mauer's favor.

• MLB suspended Twins minor leaguer Kennys Vargas for 50 games after he violated the drug prevention and treatment program by reportedly testing positive for phentermine, which can be used to speed metabolism for weight loss. Vargas is 6-foot-5 and Seth Stohs notes that his weight has been an issue. Vargas, a 20-year-old first baseman who was signed out of Puerto Rico in 2009, was hitting .322/.377/.489 in 44 games at rookie-level Elizabethton.

Ted Uhlaender is the only outfielder in Twins history to get 200-plus plate appearances in a season with an on-base percentage below .300 and a slugging percentage below .300, hitting .226/.280/.286 in 403 plate appearances in 1966. Ben Revere is hitting .245/.294/.285 in 298 plate appearances. And his noodle arm was in right field Wednesday because Ron Gardenhire refuses to move Delmon Young there. Don't mess with success. Or something. How silly.

Jim Thome has faced three pitchers at least 70 times in his career. One is Tim Wakefield, whom he faced last week, and the other two are Roger Clemens and Brad Radke. Thome has hit just .185 off Wakefield and .225 (with good power) off Radke, but crushed Clemens to the tune of .355/.438/.855 with eight homers and seven doubles in 62 at-bats. Among all hitters Clemens faced at least 50 times Thome is the only one to top a 1.000 OPS. And he's at 1.293.

• Tonight is the deadline for MLB teams to sign draft picks and the Twins' first-rounder, North Carolina junior shortstop Levi Michael, remains unsigned, as do supplemental first-round picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd. Their next six picks are all signed.

• While watching Tom Kelly fill in for Bert Blyleven during one of the recent FSN broadcasts I looked up his old minor-league numbers and the former manager hit .272/.406/.436 with more walks (538) than strikeouts (429) in 782 games at Triple-A. Of course, he was a first baseman, which is why Kelly spent 13 seasons in the minors and 47 games in the majors. Offensively at least he was a poor man's Doug Mientkiewicz.

• Why was Chuck Knoblauch a no-show at the 1991 team's reunion last week? Because "he's considerably out of shape," according to Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Which is smart, because Kent Hrbek would have really goofed on him.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota law firm Snyder Gislason Frasier LLC, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your legal needs.

July 27, 2011

Twins Notes: Span, Mijares, Cuddyer, Nathan, Aguilera, and Gibson

Amanda Comak of the Washington Times writes that Denard Span "is high on the Nationals' list of targets" and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the two sides "have talked." Whether that means the Twins actually engaged in negotiations is unclear, but the Nationals are looking for a long-term solution in center field and Rosenthal speculates that shortstop Ian Desmond and one of Washington's relievers could interest the Twins.

Rosenthal specifically mentions Tyler Clippard, who's been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball since moving to the bullpen full time in 2009, posting a 2.59 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 209 innings while holding opponents to a .184 batting average. However, he also says the Nationals are "reluctant" to trade the 26-year-old Clippard and "unwilling" to move 23-year-old closer Drew Storen, in which case the Twins shouldn't even be engaging in talks for Span.

As a 25-year-old shortstop Desmond fills a Twins need in theory, but aside from hitting .355 for two months at Triple-A in 2009 he simply hasn't been any good. Desmond hit .259/.326/.388 in 638 total games as a minor leaguer and has hit .254/.296/.377 in 269 games for the Nationals. He's also committed 54 errors with an Ultimate Zone Rating of -7.5 in 259 games at shortstop. Clippard is very intriguing, but Desmond as the centerpiece of a Span trade would be awful.

Of course, with Span still on the disabled list nearly two months after a concussion and taking back-to-back days off while rehabbing at Triple-A it's probably a moot point anyway.

• On a related note, can you imagine the look of pure joy on Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo's face when his phone rings and "Bill Smith" appears on the caller ID? Actually, after the Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps swap last year Rizzo is probably the one calling Smith.

According to ESPN.com's Buster Olney the Twins have "been looking to trade" Jose Mijares, so Monday's five-run appearance probably didn't do much for his value. Criticism of Mijares has never matched his 3.09 career ERA, but this year's performance clearly deserves to be ripped. He has a 5.47 ERA and 21 walks in 26 innings compared to 32 walks in 105 innings coming into the season. I can't imagine the Twins getting much for him, though, so I'd probably hold on.

• Local and national reporters continue to insist Michael Cuddyer won't be traded despite his being linked to just about every contending team looking for a right-handed hitter. There are also doubts about whether the Twins will look to sell anyone, although my guess is that Kevin Slowey will be moved whether they're in sell mode or buy mode going into Sunday's deadline and my hope is that they're shopping (in vain, perhaps) Capps and Delmon Young either way.

• No word yet on how many teams are interested in Cuddyer as a pitcher after Monday night's scoreless inning versus the Rangers, but he averaged 87.3 miles per hour with his fastball. By comparison, Carl Pavano has averaged 89.1 mph with his fastball this year. In addition to his mid-80s heat Cuddyer also threw an assortment of off-speed pitches, producing the following strike zone chart:

It wasn't pretty, but Cuddyer mopped up with a scoreless eighth inning after Nick Blackburn, Chuck James, Phil Dumatrait, Alex Burnett, and Mijares combined to allow 20 runs on 25 hits in the first seven frames. He's the first Twins position player to pitch since John Moses in 1990.

• Last night Joe Nathan tied Rick Aguilera for the Twins record with his 254th save and once again looked very good in the process, striking out two left-handed hitters to preserve a 9-8 win with a scoreless inning. Since coming off the disabled list in late June he's now thrown 12 innings with a 1.46 ERA and 10-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .159 batting average. And his overall ERA is finally under 5.00 for the first time since April 12.

• Prior to coming off the bench to deliver the game-winning double last night, Joe Mauer was 6-for-35 (.171) as a pinch-hitter in his career.

Kyle Gibson probably would've needed to dominate the International League for the Twins to have called him up already, but instead the 2009 first-round pick had a nice first two months at Triple-A and has struggled of late. Gibson was 0-4 with a 5.17 ERA in June and then took 17 days off before coughing up 13 runs in two July starts, including a career-high five walks last time out. And now Rochester will skip his next turn in the rotation because of elbow soreness.

Gibson's ugly win-loss record and mediocre ERA overstate how much he's struggled overall this season, as a 91-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 95 innings is plenty impressive and he's done a decent job keeping the ball in the ballpark. However, there's no getting around the fact that his recent performance and health are worrisome. Through the end of May he had a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55 innings, but in 40 innings since he has a 6.47 ERA and 32 strikeouts.

Between the Twins' rotation depth and tendency to move prospects along slowly thoughts of Gibson being in Minnesota by June were perhaps misguided to begin with, but expecting him to be knocking on the door to the majors by now was certainly reasonable. Instead he's taken a step backward and has looked a lot more like a future mid-rotation starter than the potential second-tier ace Twins fans were dreaming on following his strong pro debut.

Jim Callis of Baseball America reports that Twins signed Vanderbilt southpaw Corey Williams for $575,000, which is double the MLB-recommend "slot" bonus for a third-round pick. Always good to see the Twins spending in the draft and August 15 is the deadline to sign other picks.

Justin Morneau's lengthy list of health issues now includes migraine headaches, which could threaten his goal of returning from neck surgery in mid-August.

Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com did an enjoyable "where are they now?" piece on Marty Cordova, although he neglected to mention the former Rookie of the Year's frequent cameos in UFC president Dana White's travel videos.

• Last and least, just a reminder/plug: I'll obviously have analysis here of any moves the Twins make, but in the meantime you can read my thoughts on all the rumors and trades throughout baseball each day at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com. It's good stuff, I promise.

This week's content is sponsored by the Minnesota baseball apparel maker DiamondCentric, whose "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt I wear proudly.

May 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Perkins, James, Hughes, Thome, Revere, Capps, and Mauer

Glen Perkins emerged as one of the few bright spots for the Twins in this miserable season, escaping the doghouse with a 1.59 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 innings, so naturally he injured his oblique muscle Saturday night and is expected to miss at least three weeks. Normally that would give Jose Mijares an opportunity to step forward and prove himself in a higher leverage role, except he's already on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

You'd think that losing their two main left-handed relievers would motivate the Twins to call up Chuck James, a former Braves top prospect signed as a minor-league free agent after injuries derailed his career. James has thrived in the Triple-A bullpen with a 1.75 ERA, .177 opponents' batting average, and 35-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26 innings, but because he's not on the 40-man roster the Twins opted instead to bring back Dusty Hughes.

Hughes was demoted to Triple-A just two weeks ago after allowing 12 runs in 11 innings as opponents hit .356/.434/.622 off him and didn't even fare particularly well in five appearances at Rochester. From a roster management perspective turning to Hughes again is much easier than giving James a shot, but from a trying to actually win some games perspective it looks like the Twins are content to just shuffle through the same replacement-level players.

Ron Gardenhire's left-handed relief options are now Hughes, who never deserved an Opening Day job to begin with and pitched his way to Triple-A just 15 days ago, and Phil Dumatrait, a 29-year-old journeyman owning a 6.95 ERA in 113 innings. And three of his five right-handed options are Alex Burnett and Anthony Swarzak, who shouldn't be trusted in anything close to an important spot, and Kevin Slowey, a career-long starter struggling to adjust to relief work.

At this point the seven-man bullpen consists of one mediocre closer, one formerly great closer coming back from elbow surgery, one mid-rotation starter not well suited for relieving, and four guys who should be at Triple-A. There's no "risk" to losing replacement-level arms like Hughes, Dumatrait, and Eric Hacker on waivers, but the Twins predictably avoid 40-man changes and no one in Rochester's bullpen besides James is pitching well enough to really force the issue.

Heading into the season the Twins' two biggest non-injury question marks were the bullpen and middle infield, as guys like me wondered all offseason why they did so little to address the lack of depth in both areas. Injuries have magnified that lack of depth while also wrecking the Twins in other areas, but through 45 games they rank dead last among AL teams in bullpen ERA and middle infield OPS. Sometimes big question marks turn into big problems.

• As expected, after yesterday's game the Twins activated Jim Thome and Jason Repko from the disabled list and sent Luke Hughes and Ben Revere back to Triple-A. Matt Tolbert sticks around instead of Hughes for the same reason he beat out Hughes for an Opening Day roster spot, which is his ability to play shortstop. Hughes struggled in his first extended taste of the majors, hitting .211/.253/.296 with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 plate appearances.

Revere was on the roster for 17 games, but started just six times and made his lone start in center field yesterday afternoon, misplaying a double into a triple ahead of what proved to be the game-winning run for Arizona. Revere also hauled in a fantastic over-the-shoulder catch in the same inning and made several impressive grabs while playing left field, but his lack of arm strength and limited offensive potential were both on full display.

Gardenhire hinted that he may have pushed the front office to keep Revere instead of bringing back Repko, saying he "really enjoyed Ben" and "told Billy [Smith] ... Rep hasn't swung the bat great down there." Repko "hasn't swung the bat great" anywhere, really, and the fact that he's a right-handed hitter backing up the left-handed-hitting Denard Span and Jason Kubel is rendered nearly meaningless by Gardenhire's refusal to platoon anyone.

Because he rarely starts, even versus lefties, Repko's main duties are coming in as a defensive replacement and pinch-running, both of which Revere could handle. Of course, it doesn't make much sense to keep Revere in the majors as a bench player and with Thome returning to the lineup the outfield playing time will be even harder to come by. Repko is very expendable, but Revere will benefit more from starting at Triple-A than sitting on the Twins' bench.

• I've written plenty about how closing is a role rather than a skill and about how closers are made rather than born. Matt Capps showing that the "proven closer" label is silly while Wilson Ramos thrives with the Nationals has brought the topic to the forefront, but posting the Rick Aguilera installment of my ongoing "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series caused me to think about the issue in terms of Twins history.

Prior to becoming the Twins' all-time leader in saves Aguilera wasn't a closer. In fact, he didn't even want to be a reliever. Yet the Twins thought he had the raw stuff for the job and gave him a role he'd never filled before rather than give up assets to acquire an experienced closer. Nathan joins Aguilera as the only pitchers with more than 150 saves in a Minnesota uniform, yet when the Twins acquired him from the Giants he was a 29-year-old with one career save.

Eddie Guardado has the third-most saves in Twins history, but he was given the job almost by default in mid-2001 and at the time had a grand total of 18 career saves in eight seasons. Not every successful Twins closer lacked prior experience, as Ron Perranoski and Jeff Reardon racked up saves elsewhere before arriving in Minnesota. And not every good reliever pans out at closer, as Guardado only got his chance to close after LaTroy Hawkins flopped in the role.

Players can sink or swim at closer just like every other role, but logic, history, and specifically Twins history all show that paying a premium for experience accumulating saves is misguided. Judging from the bullpen's current state the Twins may have to go outside the organization for their next closer, but my hope is that they learn a lesson from Ramos-for-Capps and focus on ability instead of previous save totals. Aim for the next Aguilera or Nathan, not the next Capps.

• During his weekly radio show on 1500-ESPN yesterday Gardenhire explained that the plan is for Joe Mauer's first game action since April 12 to come today or tomorrow at extended spring training. That doesn't necessarily mean Mauer is close to returning from the DL, as he'll likely start out as a designated hitter and work his way back into playing shape, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Tsuyoshi Nishioka may also get into a game there this week.

Justin Morneau revealed that he got cortisone injections for neck and shoulder pain on May 12. Obviously after missing nine months with a concussion Morneau had enough on his plate without new health problems, but those injuries perhaps help explain his early struggles and altered hitting mechanics. His season totals are still ugly, but since getting the shots Morneau is 12-for-40 (.300) with one homer and three doubles.

• Each season when the Twins travel to National League ballparks for interleague games Dick Bremer asks Bert Blyleven about his career batting average and the FSN announcing crew jokes about his hitting. Blyleven hit more or less like most pitchers do, batting .131 with a .290 OPS in 514 career plate appearances. So far this year Drew Butera is hitting .110 with a .288 OPS in 85 plate appearances. Not quite as funny without the Hall of Fame pitching attached.

• I've seen some confusion about whether Michael Cuddyer has the ability to veto trades as a 10-and-5 player. That requires 10 full seasons of MLB service time, including five seasons with the same team. Cuddyer has the latter and this is his 11th year in the majors, but they aren't full seasons. He got merely a September call-up in 2001 and spent much of 2002 and 2003 in the minors, totaling just 76 games with the Twins in those two seasons. He can be traded.

• Perkins' injury left the Twins in a bind Saturday and put Capps into a two-inning save chance that he blew before recording two outs, but Edward Thoma of the Mankato Free Press explains why Gardenhire not making a double-switch while playing under NL rules cost the Twins twice.

Tom Brunansky's son, Terry Ryan's son, Mickey Hatcher's nephew, and Tyler Robertson's brother are among the 2011 draft prospects with relatives in baseball.

• Between the injuries and bullpen shuffling the Twins have already used 36 different players through 45 games. In the previous five seasons they used 42, 42, 40, 42, and 39 players, and that includes September call-ups.

• Since winning two of three games from the first-place Indians in mid-April the Twins are 6-18, with a pair of three-game winning streaks surrounded by losing streaks of nine, six, and now three games. Overall they're 15-30, which is the worst record in baseball and puts the Twins on pace to go 54-108 for the worst record in team history. Their current winning percentage is .333 and the only sub-.400 seasons so far (1981, 1982, 1995, 1999) were all above .370.

May 20, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #18 Rick Aguilera

Richard Warren Aguilera | RP/SP | 1989-1999 | Career Stats

Originally picked as a third baseman out of high school by St. Louis in the 37th round of the 1980 draft, Rick Aguilera opted instead for college and became a pitcher. After three years at Brigham Young University, the California native was selected by the Mets in the third round of the 1983 draft and agreed to sign. Aguilera moved quickly through the minors, reporting to low Single-A after signing and finding himself at Triple-A to begin his third pro season.

Working strictly as a starter, Aguilera had a 3.47 ERA and 256-to-73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 259 combined innings between Single-A and Double-A. After posting a 2.51 ERA in 11 starts at Triple-A to begin the 1985 season, the Mets called Aguilera up in June. He debuted on June 12 against the Phillies, tossing two scoreless innings in relief of Ron Darling and Jesse Orosco to pick up the win in an extra-inning game. Not yet 24 years old, he was in the majors for good.

After debuting as a reliever Aguilera moved into the rotation with a 3.35 ERA in 19 starts, but was completely overshadowed by 20-year-old rotation-mate Dwight Gooden, who followed up his Rookie of the Year win in 1984 by going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA to win the Cy Young award and pitching triple crown. Also on that 1985 team was a 27-year-old utility infielder named Ron Gardenhire, who batted .179 in what would be his final big-league season.

Aguilera began 1986 alongside Gooden, Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Bob Ojeda in the Mets' great young rotation, but was quickly demoted to the bullpen and had to reclaim his rotation spot. He finished 10-7 with a 3.88 ERA in 142 innings for a 108-win team that ranks as one of the best in baseball history, spending the World Series run in the bullpen. Game 6 of the 1986 World Series is one of the most famous of all time, but few people recall the winning pitcher.

With the game tied in the ninth inning Aguilera relieved Orosco and set the Red Sox down in order. When the Mets failed to score Aguilera stayed in for the 10th and allowed two runs. We all know what happened next, but it's amazing to think that Aguilera was nearly the goat and then became the winning pitcher, yet almost no one remembers him even being involved. In fact, the Boston Globe's game story the next morning mentioned Aguilera once in 1,400 words.

While the Twins were winning a World Series of their own in 1987 he remained in the Mets' rotation and went 11-3 with a 3.60 ERA, but was limited to 17 starts by an elbow injury that required surgery. He missed most of the 1988 season and then came back as a long reliever in 1989 after David Cone took his rotation spot, but was unhappy in a low-leverage bullpen role and asked to be traded. Before that could happen, Aguilera thrived as a reliever.

He threw 69 innings with a 2.34 ERA and 80-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio through July and the success, combined with a more important late-inning role, caused Aguilera to tell The Sporting News: "The most amazing thing is that I'm actually learning to like being a reliever." Despite the slight change of heart, with the Mets clinging to contention and the Twins already out of it on the eve of the trading deadline, the teams completed a blockbuster trade.

Frank Viola, the reigning Cy Young winner, went from Minnesota to New York for a five-player package of Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage. West was considered a premier prospect, but it turned out to be Tapani and Aguilera who made it one of the best swaps in Twins history. Aguilera got his wish by moving into the rotation following the deal, starting 11 games with a 3.21 ERA as Jeff Reardon had a third straight 30-save season.

Those plans changed when Reardon left via free agency in December, signing a then-massive three-year, $6.8 million deal with the Red Sox. Armed with a low-90s fastball, a hard-breaking slider, and a forkball that dropped off the table, Aguilera was the obvious choice to replace Reardon as closer. "He's the most experienced we've got, the most capable strikeout pitcher," pitching coach Dick Such told the Associated Press in March of 1990. "He fits the bill."

When it became obvious during spring training that Aguilera would be taking over as closer he told the AP that he "was a little disappointed at first ... I was really excited about being able to start," but added that "I'll do it for the team." Things got off to a rough start when he blew the third save chance, serving up a walk-off three-run homer to Dante Bichette on April 14, 1990, but Aguilera recovered to convert 32-of-38 saves while posting a 2.76 ERA in 65 innings.

He made the first of three straight All-Star teams in 1991, tying Reardon's team record with 42 saves while posting a 2.35 ERA and 61/30 K/BB ratio in 69 innings as the Twins made their second World Series run in five seasons. A career .201 hitter with three homers in 139 at-bats, Aguilera became the first pitcher since Don Drysdale in 1965 to pinch-hit in the World Series when he flew out with two outs and the bases loaded in the 12th inning of Game 3.

Moments later Aguilera took the loss when Mark Lemke hit a walk-off single, but that was the lone postseason run he allowed while saving five of the eight playoff wins. He followed up the marvelous 1991 by ranking second in the league with 41 saves in 1992, and then saved 57 of the team's 124 wins between 1993 and 1994. When baseball returned in mid-1995 after the strike Aguilera was an impending free agent and the highest paid pitcher on MLB's worst team.

He posted a 2.52 ERA and 29/6 K/BB ratio in 25 innings through early July, saving 12 games despite the team's 19-44 start. On July 6, with Aguilera on the verge of becoming a 10-and-5 player who could veto any trades, the Twins sent him to the Red Sox for Frankie Rodriguez, a 22-year-old right-hander Baseball America ranked as the No. 36 prospect in baseball. Rodriguez was a bust, going 25-32 with a 5.20 ERA in 509 innings during four seasons in Minnesota.

Aguilera notched his first Red Sox save the next day against the Twins, at the Metrodome. He converted 20-of-21 saves to help the Red Sox win the AL East, but saw his only playoff action in Game 1 of the ALDS, serving up a game-tying homer to Albert Belle as a 100-win Indians team blitzed through on the way to the World Series. Aguilera returned to Minnesota as a free agent on a multi-year deal with a lower annual salary than he made the previous year.

Unsatisfied with the shaky rotation led by 23-year-olds Rodriguez and Brad Radke, manager Tom Kelly made Aguilera a starter again. Kelly had every reason to worry, as Twins starters combined for a 5.48 ERA, but changing Aguilera's role at age 34 proved to be a mistake. An arm injury allegedly suffered while lifting a suitcase limited Aguilera to one start in the first 60 games and he had a 5.42 ERA before a hamstring injury ended his season in early September.

Aguilera moved back to the bullpen and saved 64 games for a pair of sub-.500 teams during the next two seasons, but blew 18 saves and saw his ERA rise to 4.04 after compiling a 2.86 ERA through his first six seasons as Twins closer. He began 1999 pitching as well as ever at age 37, with a 1.27 ERA in 21 innings, but the Twins were once again the AL's worst team and he got just eight save chances as they went 13-27 through 40 games.

He was traded to the Cubs on May 21 along with Scott Downs for minor-league pitchers Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. Gone for good this time, Aguilera had 37 saves and a 4.31 ERA in two seasons with the Cubs to finish his 16-year career. Ryan had a 5.94 ERA in 67 innings for the Twins, but Lohse became a solid mid-rotation starter before wearing out his welcome in 2006. Unlikely as it seemed at the time of each trade, the haul for Aguilera was better in deal No. 2.

Aguilera became the Twins' saves leader when he notched No. 109 in September of 1992 and nearly 20 years later Joe Nathan is still just short of his total of 254. Aguilera blew at least a half-dozen saves in each of his seven full seasons as Twins closer and converted 81.4 percent of his save opportunities in Minnesota, which is mediocre by today's standards. By comparison, Nathan has converted 90 percent of his save chances with the Twins.

However, it's important to note that Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 54 runners in seven-plus seasons with the Twins, which works out to one per eight innings. Aguilera inherited 38 runners in his first year as closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

The vast majority of Nathan's saves involved starting an inning with a clean slate, but Aguilera often saved games he entered with runners on base. That goes a long way toward explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding more than three-fourths of the runners he inherited. For a guy who never wanted to be a reliever, his 318 career saves ranked eighth in baseball history at the time of his retirement.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Saves                 254     1st
Games Finished        434     1st
Appearances           490     2nd
Adjusted ERA+         130     4th
WHIP                 1.18     5th
Opponents' OBP       .293     6th
K/BB Ratio           3.27     8th
Strikeout Rate       7.60     9th
Walk Rate            2.32    13th
Strikeouts            586    15th
Opponents' AVG       .243    15th
Opponents' OPS       .684    18th
ERA                  3.50    19th
Wins                   40    24th
Innings               694    25th
Batters Faced        2865    25th

March 9, 2010

Life Without Nathan: Closer Likely Facing Tommy John Surgery


When closer Joe Nathan left Saturday's spring training debut with pain in his surgically repaired elbow the Twins hoped it was merely scar tissue breaking up, but after flying back to Minneapolis for an MRI exam he's been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Nathan is expected to rest for a couple weeks in an effort to find out if can possibly pitch through the pain, but more likely than not he's headed for season-ending (and at age 35, perhaps career-threatening) Tommy John surgery.

There's no getting around the fact that losing Nathan would be a huge blow to the Twins. Since arriving in 2004 as part of the famed A.J. Pierzynski deal he's been arguably the best reliever in all of baseball, saving 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 418.2 innings spread over 412 appearances. During that six-season span Nathan's adjusted ERA+ of 236 is the best of any pitcher with 300 or more innings, and Mariano Rivera at 234 and Billy Wagner at 202 are the only others above 200.

Nathan is irreplaceable because no other reliever will be able to match how consistently fantastic he's been with yearly ERAs of 1.62, 2.70, 1.58, 1.88, 1.33, and 2.10. He is not, however, irreplaceable simply because of the role he filled. Closers are made, not born, and despite what you may hear from people looking to build the role up into some kind of mythical test of wills the primary characteristic needed for handling ninth-inning duties is being a good pitcher. Period.

Nathan has been a great closer, but before that he was a starter moved to the bullpen because of arm injuries and had just one season as a setup man. Eddie Guardado was also a failed starter who spent a decade as a middle reliever before getting a chance to close, and then saved 86 games in two years. Rick Aguilera is another former starter turned reliever, and was 27 years old before recording his first save. Being an established closer isn't a prerequisite for being a successful closer.

Losing a great pitcher like Nathan hurts because the Twins don't have an equally great pitcher to take his place, not because the role he filled is much too vast and important for a mere mortal. Nathan was a mere mortal before assuming the role, as were Guardado, Aguilera, and so many other top closers. Nathan has converted 90.7 percent of his chances with the Twins, which is amazing, but the MLB-wide success rate for all closers is 86.5 percent and all but the disasters are usually around 80 percent.

Nathan has had 45.2 save opportunities per year and by converting 90.7 percent of those chances he's averaged 41.0 saves. An "average" closer converting 86.5 percent would have 39.1 saves and a "poor" closer converting 80.0 percent would have 36.1 saves. Per season that equals 1.9 fewer saves at 86.5 percent and 4.9 fewer saves at 80.0 percent. And it's important to remember that not every blown save ends in a loss, so being without Nathan will likely cost 3-4 wins including his work in non-save spots.

Ron Gardenhire hasn't dropped any hints about the replacement closer because he's still holding out a slim hope that Nathan can pitch through the injury, but bullpen depth was one of the Twins' strengths coming into spring training and he has several decent options from which to choose. I'd likely go with a closer-by-committee approach based on matchups, at least initially, but my guess is that Gardenhire's preference is to find one man for the job even if it takes giving a few guys tries before settling on him.

Matt Guerrier has been setting up Nathan for the past six seasons, with a 3.31 ERA in 389 innings as a reliever, but his raw stuff isn't exactly overpowering and more importantly his valuable ability to make multi-inning appearances or rescue other pitchers from mid-inning jams would likely cease given how Gardenhire has used his closer. In terms of raw stuff Jon Rauch is much more similar to Guerrier than Nathan even if standing 6-foot-11 with neck tattoos makes him look like a closer.

With that said, Rauch has more closing experience than the rest of the fill-in candidates combined and even if that basically amounts to just 17 saves with the Nationals two seasons ago I'll be surprised if it doesn't play a big factor in Gardenhire's decision making. Rauch as a closer is obviously far from ideal, but he has a 3.59 ERA in 363.1 innings as a reliever, including a 3.60 mark last year, and was indeed right "around 80 percent" when given regular save chances in 2008.

Jose Mijares had a good rookie season with a 2.34 ERA in 62 innings and was often billed as a future closer while coming up through the minors thanks to raw stuff that sits a step above guys like Guerrier and Rauch, but Gardenhire seems unlikely to trust a second-year pitcher in the ninth inning right away. Mijares also allowed right-handers to hit .283 with a .791 OPS last year while completely shutting down fellow lefties, so for the short term at least he's probably best suited for a semi-specialist role anyway.

Once upon a time Jesse Crain was also thought of as a future closer and still has the mid-90s fastball for the job, but he's hardly been consistently reliable even as a setup man and spent six weeks of last year at Triple-A following a midseason demotion. Setting aside whether Crain could handle closing I'd be shocked if Gardenhire trusted him enough to give it a try, which is also why prospects like Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney aren't realistic options.

Francisco Liriano may be an intriguing closer candidate, but if he looks good this spring the Twins will want him in the rotation for 200 innings rather than the bullpen for 70 innings and if he isn't impressive in camp they surely won't be handing him late leads. Pat Neshek emerged as Nathan's top setup man in 2006-2008 with a 2.91 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 121 innings and might be the leading candidate to step into the job if not for the fact that he's coming back from a Tommy John surgery of his own.

Neshek's recovery is said to be going well and his spring training debut last week was promising, but he hasn't thrown a regular-season pitch since May of 2008. Tossing him right into the ninth-inning fire is highly unlikely and probably ill-advised. And while his vulnerability to left-handed batters was grossly exaggerated before the surgery he certainly benefited from being used in spots that weren't heavy on lefty sluggers. He'd benefit from that now more than ever, but it isn't doable for a one-inning closer.

Before the surgery Neshek would have been my choice to step in for Nathan and even after the surgery if healthy he'd be a good fit in a closer-by-committee situation with Mijares, but with his status up in the air and no need to rush him into anything it's a moot point. And of course Gardenhire is unlikely to use multiple, matchup-based closers anyway. At some point pining for Mijares, Neshek, or Mijares/Neshek could make sense, but for now Gardenhire may lean toward Rauch and I'd find it hard to disagree.

Whatever happens the bullpen's depth has the Twins remarkably well-positioned to handle losing their stud closer and any decision Gardenhire makes will likely result in less of a game-saving dropoff than most people seem to think. Nathan has been spectacular, but the role he's filled is so rigid and fawned over that the gap between truly "great" and merely something resembling "mediocre" in the ninth inning is typically overstated and often unpredictable, with last year providing a pair of prominent examples.

MLB's best save percentage belonged to Fernando Rodney, a 32-year-old career-long setup man with a 4.28 ERA who went 37-of-38 for Detroit. Philadelphia won 93 games and the NL pennant despite one of the worst closer seasons ever by Brad Lidge, who went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and MLB-high 11 blown saves. Nathan's injury drops the Twins' playoffs chances, which is difficult to stomach after a productive offseason had the team looking so strong, but they can definitely survive and even thrive without him.

And maybe the Twins will stumble upon their next great closer in the process.


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