November 16, 2003
To San Francisco:
First of all, let's talk about A.J. Pierzynski. He turns 27 in December and already has three full seasons under his belt as a starting catcher in the big leagues.
G AVG OBP SLG 2001 114 .289 .322 .441 2002 130 .300 .334 .439 2003 137 .312 .360 .464
Pierzynski has some major faults as a player. He is deathly afraid of taking a walk, has very little power, despite being 6'3" and 220 pounds, and isn't particularly outstanding defensively. On the other hand, he is a .301 career hitter who has improved offensively each year and he is incredibly durable.
Here are Pierzynski's "Value Over Replacement Position" totals over the last three years, along with where he ranked among MLB catchers:
Year VORP Rank 2001 17.2 13th 2002 22.4 7th 2003 30.7 8th
I don't think there is any doubt that he is a legitimate top-10 major league catcher. And, as I said, he is still just 27 years old, and his price-tag (likely about $3 million next year) is still extremely reasonable and will be for several more seasons.
Another positive thing with Pierzynski is that his hitting against lefties has gone from absolutely horrendous to pretty good in the span of just a few years.
vs LHP AVG OBP SLG 2001 .167 .177 .167 2002 .270 .280 .393 2003 .281 .333 .452
He went from hitting zero extra-base hits in 60 at bats against lefties in 2001 to hitting 14, including four homers, in 135 at bats against lefties this year. He actually showed more "raw" power against lefties last year than he did against righties, and was much more able to pull the ball down the right field line with authority against lefties.
In just about any other organization, Pierzynski would be locked in as the starting catcher for the rest of this decade. He's good, he's relatively cheap, he's showing offensive improvement, and he's just now entering his prime years. The Twins are in the unique position of having a much younger, much cheaper and potentially better catcher in the organization.
Pierzynski's departure opens the door for uber-prospect Joe Mauer, the #1 pick in the 2001 draft, to skip Triple-A altogether and become Minnesota's primary catcher next season. Whether or not Mauer is ready to play at a high-level in the major leagues is debatable (I think he would benefit by some time in AAA), but at some point in the very near future Mauer was going to become Minnesota's starting catcher, so Pierzynski was not long for the team, regardless of what happened this off-season.
Because of that, trading Pierzynski now seems like a very reasonable thing to do. His value has probably never been higher, the Twins have Mauer potentially ready to take over, and they also have Matthew LeCroy available to share catching-duties if need be. In fact, I think Mauer (a left-handed hitter) and LeCroy (a right-handed hitter) would make a very nice platoon for next year. And, by getting rid of Pierzynski now, the Twins give themselves a little bit of breathing room with what is currently a very tight budget.
Basically, I have zero problem with trading Pierzynski and, although I would rather have seen him traded next off-season (or maybe even at mid-season), trading someone a little too early is a whole lot better than trading someone a little too late. The big question, obviously, is did the Twins get enough value from the Giants in return for him?
It is pretty clear from this trade that the Twins feel as though their biggest "need" area is pitching. I would argue that the middle-infield "situation" should be addressed before anything else, but pitching is definitely high up on my list too. And, while you'll probably hear and read that the Twins got "three young pitchers" from the Giants in exchange for Pierzynski, the reality is that they got two young pitchers and a 29 year old.
Let's talk about the young guys first...
The bigger (and more interesting) name of the two prospects the Twins got is Boof Bonser, a 22-year old right-handed starter. Prior to this season, I rated Bonser as my #44 overall prospect in baseball and had the following to say about him:
First of all, "Boof" is not Bonser's given name. Wanna take a guess as to what it is?
If you guessed "Ezekiel"...well, you'd be incorrect. His name at birth was John Bonser, but he earned the nickname "Boof" as a kid and decided to officially change his name to it before the 2001 season.
Besides having a really strange name, Bonser is a massive human being that throws very hard, striking out a lot of guys and walking his fair share too.
The Giants decided to start Bonser at Double-A last year and it turned out to be a mistake. He struggled with his control and gave up 3 homers in 24 innings before he and his 5.55 ERA were demoted back to Single-A. Once back in Single-A, he did very well, striking out nearly 10 batters a game and limiting opponents to a sub-.200 batting average. There was some cause for concern even though he was pitching very well, because his velocity was down slightly from past years. His fastball was still clocking in above 90, but not at the usual 94+ that he was capable of in the past.
Bonser did a lot of good work with his curveball and change up last season, possibly because he was less able to just blow people away with his fastball. The loss in velocity is still a concern, as is the drop in his K rate.
After striking out 11.2/9 in 2000 and 12.0/9 in 2001, Bonser's K rate dropped quite a bit in 2002, as he struck out 9.8/9 in Single-A and 8.6/9 in Double-A. Drops in K rate as a player progresses through the minors is often to be expected and Bonser is still striking out a ton of batters. He did not improve his control in 2002 and he walks too many batters right now.
Bonser has a ton of potential, but the Giants have lots of good arms in the system and he'll have to cut down on the free passes at some point and work on finding that extra zip on his fastball again.
Bonser spent this past season pitching primarily for Double-A Norwich. Here are his numbers there:
GS IP ERA SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 OAVG 24 135 4.00 6.87 4.47 0.73 .245
Certainly not horrible numbers, but a very disappointing year for Bonser. He also made four starts for Triple-A Fresno, throwing a total of 23 innings with a 3.13 ERA and a 28/8 strikeout/walk ratio. For the year, he had a 3.87 ERA and struck out a total of 131 batters in 158 innings, or 7.46 per nine.
His strikeout-rates from the last three years:
SO/9 2001 11.96 2002 9.59 2003 7.46
That's not a very encouraging trend, particularly when you add in some concerns about lost velocity and a sub par walk-rate that hasn't improved at all.
I still think Bonser is a good pitching prospect, although I definitely don't think he is among the top-50 in all of baseball at this point. I had been hearing rumors that the Twins were shopping Pierzynski for some young pitching for the past month or so and I was hoping they'd be able to snatch a young pitcher who was a step above Bonser's level as a prospect.
Of course, in addition to Bonser, they also got a second prospect, Francisco Liriano, who is much lesser-known than Bonser, but possibly just as intriguing.
Liriano was signed by the Giants out of the Dominican Republic in 2000, at the age of 16. The numbers from his first two pro seasons look very nice:
AGE IP ERA SO/9 BB/9 2001 17 71 3.80 10.01 3.17 2002 18 80 3.49 9.56 3.49
Extremely young, good strikeout-rates, good ERAs, and his walk-rates weren't even that bad. Unfortunately, Liriano was limited to a total of just 9 innings in 2003 because of shoulder problems.
Liriano is obviously a long way from the majors and has a serious health concern (he also had some shoulder problems in 2002), but adding a 20-year old power-arm to the organization is never a bad idea. It would surprise me if Liriano made it to the major leagues as a starting pitcher, but I think he's got a shot at becoming a dominant left-handed reliever, although even that is way down the line.
Along with the two prospects, the Twins also got 29-year old right-hander Joe Nathan. Nathan came up with the Giants in 1999, as a 24 year old, and pitched pretty well, going 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA in 19 games, including 14 starts. He made 15 more starts for them the next year, posting a 5.21 ERA in 93.1 innings.
Nathan underwent shoulder surgery right after the 2000 season and spent most of the next two years trying to make a comeback in the minor leagues. He pitched horribly in Double-A (6.93 ERA in 62.1 IP) and Triple-A (7.77 ERA in 46.1 IP) in 2001 and then only slightly less horribly at Triple-A in 2002 (5.60 ERA in 146.1 IP).
Despite a rough couple of minor league seasons and some injury concerns, Nathan started 2003 with San Francisco, pitching out of their bullpen. After going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 16.2 March/April innings, Nathan was gradually given a larger role in the bullpen. He struggled mightily in May and June, but then bounced back with a great final three months. He finished the year having thrown 79 innings in 78 games, with an ERA of 2.96 ERA. Nathan also went 12-4, all out of the bullpen, leading the NL in reliever wins, for whatever that's worth.
Joe Nathan is hard to get a handle on as a player going forward, simply because you can't really look at his performances during the last few years and learn anything from them. If you look at 2001 or 2002, you see a horrible pitcher who was obviously not fully recovered from a major shoulder surgery. Even going back to his 2000 performance is a little iffy, simply because he needed the surgery immediately after the season, so the shoulder may have been bothering him for some time. All you can really look at is what he did in 2003, which was pretty impressive:
G IP ERA SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 OAVG 78 79 2.96 9.46 3.76 0.80 .186
Those are dominant numbers. He struck out more than a better per inning and held opponents to a combined .186/.275/.299 (AVG/OBP/SLG). According to Baseball Prospectus' reliever rankings, Nathan was the 12th-best reliever in the National League this year.
Still, there are three main issues with Nathan that concern me. First and foremost is obviously the injury issue. The way he pitched this year suggests that he is back and better than ever, but he's still got a serious shoulder injury in the past and that always scares me. Beyond that, his walk-rate last year was pretty high (33 BBs in 79 IP) and he gave up quite a few home runs, despite pitching in a very tough ballpark to hit homers in.
In fact, Nathan's home/road splits are not all that promising for Twins fans:
IP ERA HR/9 Home 40.2 1.99 0.44 Road 38.1 3.99 1.17
Besides having an ERA about twice as high on the road compared to at home, Nathan served up five homers in 38.1 innings on the road, compared to just two in 40.2 innings in Pac Bell.
But really, when a guy goes 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA and strikes out more than a batter per inning in his first season back from a serious injury, I think voicing concerns about walk-rates and homer-rates are probably picking nits just a little bit. Nathan should be able to step in as Minnesota's right-handed setup-man or possibly even as their closer. Another option would be to try him in the starting rotation, but I would be very surprised if the Twins chose to do that.
My guess is that he'll be asked to fill the right-handed setup role Latroy Hawkins has filled for the past several years. Hawkins is a free agent, along with Eddie Guardado, and the Twins bullpen in a serious state of flux right now. Adding Nathan to the mix gives them a power right-hander to fill Hawkins' spot for about 1/10th the price, and their numbers from last year are fairly similar:
IP ERA SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 OAVG Hawkins 77 1.86 8.73 1.75 0.47 .239 Nathan 79 2.96 9.46 3.76 0.80 .186
Nathan racked up a few more strikeouts and held opponents to a lower batting average, while Hawkins had much better control and did way better keeping the ball in the ballpark. I am a huge Latroy Hawkins backer, as I have said on this blog before, and I would certainly rather have him than Joe Nathan. But when you consider their ages (Hawkins is two years older) and their salaries, I think the Twins have done well here filling a position with similar talent for a much lower price.
Of course, that assumes the addition of Nathan means the end of Latroy Hawkins' time in Minnesota. If that is the case, it will be sad to see him go. Hawkins started his career as an absolutely horrendous starting pitcher, but the Twins stuck with him and he has turned himself into one of the most dependable and dominant relievers in all of baseball. I have often called Hawkins "The Machine" for his ability to pump 95 MPH fastball after 95 MPH fastball at hitters. It has been fun watching his transformation into a great pitcher and I have no doubt that he will be a great pickup for whichever team is lucky enough to sign him this off-season.
Minnesota GM Terry Ryan might have other ideas, however. I am hearing some rumors that Ryan is still working on a couple other deals, which would shed some more salary and might possibly allow the Twins to re-sign Hawkins or Guardado, and maybe both. Shannon Stewart returning is also not out of the question.
Eric Milton and Jacque Jones are the two names I hear in the most rumors. Milton is set to make $9 million next year, so getting his salary off the books would create a huge amount of flexibility for the Twins. I like Milton and I'd be sad to see him go, but he's certainly not worth $9 million dollars next year, especially not to a team with a $56 million-dollar payroll and an extremely tight budget. With Jacque Jones, I suspect it is a question of a) how much Stewart is willing to sign for and b) whether Terry Ryan prefers Jones or Stewart as his left fielder for the next few years.
I have a feeling this Pierzynski-trade is just the start of what is going to be a pretty busy off-season for the Twins. Terry Ryan did a good job rebuilding this team with young players a few years ago and many of those guys are now major league veterans who are due for fairly big raises in the near future. At the same time, the Twins have a very limited budget, as well as a very strong minor league system with many major league-ready players available to step in at low salaries.
Ryan has already dealt Pierzynski to shed salary, acquire some pitching and clear a spot for Joe Mauer, who is the future of this team behind the plate. I'm not sure what's next, but unless Carl Pohlad decides to suddenly open up the wallet some more, the Twins still have some important decisions to make this off-season. Fortunately, they have the luxury of having guys like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Michael Restovich, Grant Balfour, J.D. Durbin, Lew Ford, Jason Bartlett and Jesse Crain ready (or nearly ready) and waiting for a chance.
In other words, I think it is time for the Twins to go from a young and cheap team to an even younger and even cheaper team. It may not be the best plan, particularly for the short-term, but such is life in the world of the small-markets.
Ultimately, I don't think there is really any way for the Pierzynski-trade to be viewed as a bad one. At worst, they lost one good year from Pierzynski, who was almost certainly a goner after next year anyway. I would be willing to bet just about anything that Joe Mauer will not be better than Pierzynski offensively next year, but I still think Mauer will be a productive major league catcher. And in exchange for that drop-off, the Twins got three valuable pitchers and saved a couple million bucks.
Of course, there is a big difference between not being a "bad" trade and being a "good" one. I think whether or not this deal ends up being a good one hinges on either Bonser or Liriano becoming a solid major league pitcher. As for the odds of that? Who knows. It's tough playing Miss Cleo with pitching prospects, especially ones with declining K-rates and shoulder problems.
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