September 1, 2003

In with the old, in with the new

I've devoted the last couple of blog entries to talking about my move back to school. That's over with now and I am attending my first day of classes, perhaps as you are reading this. So, all of you have probably had enough of me talking about school for a while and I think it's time to get back to baseball. And, what better way to do that than with some Twins talk?

When I first heard that the Twins were interesting in trading for Jesse Orosco, who had been "designated for assignment" by the Yankees last week, I was very surprised. Orosco has been a horrible pitcher this season and he didn't seem like the kind of guy the Twins would go after. Well, they made a deal with the Yankees on Sunday night, getting Orosco for the world-famous "Player To Be Named Later."

Jesse Orosco is a really fun story and certainly a guy to root for. He is 46 years old and has been pitching in the majors since 1979. He was also originally drafted by the Twins way back in 1978, although he never played for them. In a nice bit of symmetry, Orosco, then 22 years old, was the "Player To Be Named Later" in the deal that brought Jerry Koosman from the Mets to the Twins in 1979.

While Orosco is a nice story and someone I am happy to see continue to pitch in the major leagues, he's not someone I am excited about joining the Twins. Aside from all the jokes about his age Twins' announcers Bert Blyleven and Dick Bremer can repeat over and over every time he comes into the game, Orosco simply doesn't add that much to a ballclub, especially one fighting for a spot in the playoffs.

First of all, he is basically limited to facing one or two batters per appearance. Last year he appeared in 56 games and pitched a total of 27 innings, and this year he has 29.1 innings in 57 games. That works out to 0.49 innings per appearance. In other words, he's good for one or two outs. That is obviously not something that is unique to Jesse Orosco, many pitchers throughout the majors - particularly left-handed ones - are used in situations that call for them only facing a batter or two. But even those guys are occasionally able to stretch it out a little longer and pitch a full inning or and inning and a third every once in a while. Not Orosco. During the last two years, Orosco has pitched more than an inning exactly two times.

So, the Twins have acquired a guy to help their bullpen and he is a guy who is so limited in what he can do that, at most, he can account for two outs in a game. To me, unless that guy is extraordinarily good at getting those two outs, his skills are not worth taking up a bullpen spot, especially in the post-season. And at 46 years old, Jesse Orosco is certainly not "extraordinarily good" at doing much of anything.

He has a 7.98 ERA in 29.1 innings this season, including a 10.39 ERA in his extremely brief 4.1 inning stint with the Yankees. Actually, it wasn't that brief. Orosco pitched in a total of 15 games, which is amazing when it accounts for a total of just 4.1 total innings. For what Orosco will be asked to do for the Twins though, his ERA really is fairly insignificant. He will be asked to get left-handed hitters out in the late innings. Let's take a look at how he's done at that job over the last few years:

vs LHB

2001 .275 .345 .412
2002 .238 .296 .429
2003 .236 .313 .389

Now, don't get me wrong, those are pretty good numbers. I'd say you could count on Orosco holding lefties to a sub-.250 batting average, an on-base percentage somewhere around .300 and a slugging percentage around .400. Those are certainly decent numbers, but they are not good enough to warrant carrying a guy who limits a bullpen in such a way.

Here the numbers of some other members of the Twins pitching-staff, all of whom could be placed on the playoff roster:

vs LHB

Eddie Guardado .176 .200 .216
Grant Balfour .130 .276 .261
Latroy Hawkins .198 .257 .307
J.C. Romero .222 .330 .311
Juan Rincon .223 .333 .309

I suspect the reason the Twins felt they needed Jesse Orosco was that, of those 5 pitchers I just listed, only Guardado and Romero are left-handed. And Guardado is saved for "save" situations, which means the only lefty they will have in their pen that they can use freely is Romero, and he has struggled of late. "Adding a lefty" isn't a bad idea in itself, but adding a lefty just because he is a lefty is a horrible idea. Who cares what hand the guy throws with if he can do the job, which is getting lefties out?

Sure, it'd be nice to have a left-handed pitcher to pitch to very good left-handed batters, who may not do as well against lefties as they do righties, but it would also be nice to have a flexible bullpen filled with guys who could come in and get lefties and righties out, while being able to pitch to more than one or two batters.

Here are Orosco's numbers against right-handed batters this year:

vs RHB

2003 .417 .492 .646

To Orosco's credit he has actually been pretty good against righties in the past, but those numbers this season are just scary. Would you let him anywhere near a decent right-handed hitter in an important game? Of course not.

So what happens when Ron Gardenhire brings Orosco in to face a tough left-handed batter and the opposing manager responds by pinch-hitting for that guy, to bring in a good right-handed bat off the bench? Then you're stuck with a 46 year lefty giving up a .417 average and a .646 slugging percentage, all because you needed another lefty in a bullpen filled with guys who are very capable of getting left-handed batters out.

I obviously hope Jesse Orosco does very well for the Twins, not only because I like him as a player, but also because I love the Twins. But adding him to this current Twins team is completely unnecessary and the very limited role he will be asked to do not only handicaps the bullpen, it is also a role that could be filled just as well and probably even better by at least 4 or 5 other pitchers who are already on the team. Plus, to get Orosco, the Twins gave up a PTBNL and also had to clear a spot on the 40-man roster. To do the latter, they designated Todd Sears for assignment. I'm not sure what will happen with Sears, but I would guess he'll be in another organization by this time next week. In which case they just gave up a decent 1B/DH option and a PTBNL for a 46 year old reliever who isn't all that good at his job.

While they were making one change to the pitching-staff that I am not very fond of, the Twins made another move that I like a lot...

Joe Mays has been exceptionally awful this season and, to a slightly lesser extent, last season too.

Year      IP      ERA

2002 95 5.38
2003 130 6.30

Over his last two seasons, Mays has a 5.92 ERA and has allowed 272 hits in just 225 innings. He also has served up 35 homers and has struck out just 3.5 batters per 9 innings. In other words, he has been horrible.

And yet, despite his continued awful pitching, the Twins have continued to stick him on the mound. For a team that was so unwilling to put Johan Santana in the rotation for so long and has been unwilling to give young players consistent, everyday playing time in several instances over the last few years, the Twins sure are the exact opposite when it comes to "veterans." On the basis of one very good season in between four bad ones (including two horrendous ones), Joe Mays was allowed to pitch 225 innings and make 38 starts over the last two years.

It seems finally Mays has been so bad that even the Twins were forced to make a change. First they demoted him to the bullpen and replaced him in the rotation with Santana. We all know how well that has worked out, as Johan is currently 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA in 13 starts. After spending some time in the bullpen (and pitching poorly - 3.93 ERA, .312 batting average against), Mays was let back into the rotation recently when Rick Reed went down with a back injury.

Mays gave up 5 runs in 3 innings against the Rangers on Saturday and mercifully got yanked from the rotation for the second time this season. The man who replaces him this time is Grant Balfour, a young right-hander who I really like quite a bit. Not quite at the Johan Santana-level, but he's up there.

Balfour began his minor league career as a starter and was converted to a reliever in 2000. Whether as a starter or a reliever, he racked up very impressive strikeout totals, which, as anyone who reads this blog on a regular-basis can tell you, I feel is one of the most important qualities in a pitcher.

Here are Balfour's year-by-year minor league K rates:

Year     K/9

1998 8.7
1999 9.3
2000 9.1
2001 12.1
2002 11.1

Those numbers are good enough to make any smart Twins fan drool. That 12.1/9 K rate in 2001 included a 1.08 ERA in 50 Double-A innings. This season, Balfour was converted back into a starter at Triple-A and the results were extremely good. In 71 Triple-A innings (including 11 starts), he had a 2.41 ERA and a 87/16 strikeout/walk ratio (11.0 Ks/9).

Balfour has had a couple of short stints with the Twins this year and has been very impressive there as well. In 16.1 innings in the majors this year, Balfour has a 1.65 ERA and has held opponents to an amazing .113 batting average. He also has 19 strikeouts.

Way back in October of 2002, I wrote an article about the future of the Twins for Baseball Primer and said the following about Grant Balfour:

"If any Twins minor league reliever has a shot to be successful in the Major Leagues, it is Grant Balfour. He deserves to be given a full-time role in the Minnesota bullpen in 2003 and beyond."

Of course, the Twins didn't give him a full-time role in the bullpen this year, but he was so impressive in the limited work he did get, he is now a member of the starting rotation - which is even better.

For years, the Minnesota Twins have relied on "finesse" starting pitchers. That is the nice way of saying it, of course. Another way is that they don't strike anyone out. Whether it is Brad Radke, Rick Reed, Kenny Rogers and Joe Mays on this current Twins team or guys like Kevin Tapani, Bob Tewksbury and Scott Erickson in the past. Now they've got two young power pitchers in Johan Santana and Grant Balfour. Of course, it's probably too early to start thinking about Balfour's future in the rotation. After all, his next start in the major leagues will be his first. Regardless of how he does in that start though, I think he has a chance to be a special pitcher and it makes me smile when I think about a rotation that includes Santana and Balfour who, at just 24 and 25 years old, can rack up strikeouts with the best of them.

Link of the Day:

Seth Speaks - "Seth speaks on sports, the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota Timberwolves and more!"

Today's picks:

Anaheim (Sele) +130 over Minnesota (Lohse)

Total to date: + 2,840

W/L record: 222-219 (1-0 yesterday for +140 and inching my way to 3,000.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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