December 10, 2003

The New Plan

Well, so much for Terry Ryan's plan.

About a week ago I came to the realization that I had figured out Terry Ryan's off-season plan. He was going to shed the salaries of Eric Milton, Jacque Jones and A.J. Pierzynski, and use the remaining money to re-sign Shannon Stewart, Latroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado. He was going to go young, rebuild and compete, all at the same time. Or so I thought.

Then Hawkins signed with the Cubs. But it wasn't so bad, because in dealing Pierzynski to San Francisco, Ryan had acquired Joe Nathan, who is perfectly capable of filling Hawkins' role in the bullpen. On Sunday night, Ryan re-signed Stewart for three years and $18 million and it looked as if he was on the verge of bringing Guardado back as well.

Then, late Monday night, a Seattle newspaper reported that Guardado was set to sign with the Mariners. Sure enough, it was confirmed as fact yesterday afternoon. The good news is that the Twins offered Guardado arbitration, so they will receive draft picks as compensation for losing him, just as they will for losing Hawkins to Chicago. The bad news is that they are now without their two best relief pitchers, both homegrown players who had spent a combined 26 years in the organization.

On a purely personal level, looking at things from a lifelong Twins fans' perspective, losing Hawkins and Guardado hurts. I watched Hawkins struggle like no other pitcher I have ever seen for years as a starter, before watching him turn into one of the best relievers in baseball. I watched Guardado find a niche as a good LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY) and then establish himself as much more than that during the last few seasons.

Now they are both gone and, with Jacque Jones likely leaving soon too, the 2004 Twins aren't going to look much like the one I have been living and dying with over the last several years. I've gotten used to watching Hawkins pump 95 MPH heat at batters like he was a pitching-machine turned to its highest setting. I've gotten used to hearing "Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!" from the Metrodome crowd as Guardado closes out yet another game with his typical "let's make it interesting" style.

Suddenly, in the span of just a couple weeks, they're both gone. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there isn't much time to dwell on the losses of players you have grown to love. As their departures have shown, we are right in the middle of the off-season and moves can be made at any time.

I suspect the majority of Minnesota Twins fans are panicking right now, thinking about how grim a bullpen without Hawkins in the 8th and Guardado in the 9th just might be. I'll admit, the pitching-staff looks a little shaky right now, particularly in the bullpen. However, what the Twins have on their side now is money, something they have rarely had in the past.

Terry Ryan cleared space in his tight budget and the players he was planning on using the newly found money on are no longer options. All of which means he is going to have to be something he has rarely been in his years as the General Manager of the Twins - a shopper in the free agent market.

Good free agent relievers have been snatched up at a rapid pace this off-season. Hawkins, Guardado, Hasegawa, Worrell, Gordon, Reed, Sullivan, Quantrill, Ligtenberg, Beck - all off the market already. Fortunately, it was a pretty good year for free agent relievers and there is still a guy out there whom I think can replace Guardado's production for a fraction of the price.

Who? Aw c'mon, just telling you wouldn't be any fun!

Compare the following two left-handed relief pitchers over the last three seasons:

               IP      ERA     SO/9     BB/9     HR/9      GPA

Lefty #1 199.2 3.11 8.79 2.48 0.95 .201
Lefty #2 191.2 2.63 9.95 2.02 0.61 .191

"Lefty #1" is Eddie Guardado, who just signed a three-year deal with Seattle that reportedly could pay him as much as $17 million to be their left-handed setup-man. "Lefty #2," the guy with the better numbers across-the-board, is, coincidentally enough, Seattle's former left-handed setup-man, Arthur Rhodes.

Of course, many will be quick to point out that Rhodes has had the benefit of pitching in Safeco Field, one of the best pitcher's ballparks in baseball. With that in mind, I would like to present Arthur Rhodes' 2001-2003 home/road splits:

ARTHUR RHODES (2001-2003)

Safeco 102.0 2.82 9.97 1.59 0.44 .211
Road 89.2 2.41 9.93 2.50 0.80 .205

His ERA is actually better on the road, as is his opponent batting average. His strikeout rate is pretty much the same both places. The only things that change are that he walks more people at home and gives up about twice as many homers.

Of course, "twice as many homers" sounds a lot worse than it really is. Rhodes gave up eight homers in 89.2 innings on the road since 2001, an average of 0.80 per nine innings. Over that same span, Guardado gave up an average of 1.40 homers per nine innings on the road, nearly double that. Overall, Guardado gave up 0.95 homers per nine innings from 2001-2003, about 19% more than Rhodes gave up on the road.

Rhodes has dominating stuff, much more so than Guardado. He throws his fastball in the mid-90s and his slider is just disgusting. He has been a very good relief pitcher throughout his career and has had many exceptional seasons. 2003 was not one of those years. After posting ERAs of 1.72 and 2.33 with Seattle in 2001 and 2002, Rhodes' ERA rose to 4.17 last season.

Beyond the ERA though, his numbers look just fine. He held opponents to .256/.316/.372, gave up just four homers in 54 innings and had a 2.67/1 strikeout/walk ratio. It was, without question, a sub par year for Rhodes. It was also a pretty good season, much better than his ERA would indicate.

Arthur Rhodes was a better pitcher than Eddie Guardado in 2001 and 2002, and he was a better pitcher during the last three seasons combined. I have very little doubt in my mind that if the Twins were to sign Arthur Rhodes, he would produce very similar, if not better, numbers to Eddie Guardado next season.

There is also the issue of whether or not Rhodes can handle being a "closer." Personally, I think the majority of all that closer-talk is just that - talk. Sure, there may be players better suited for a pressure situation than others, but for the most part I think a great reliever will be a great reliever, whether you use him in the sixth inning or the ninth inning.

Arthur Rhodes has the numbers of a closer. He has the stuff of a closer. He has the confidence of a closer. All he needs to become a closer is a team willing to let him try it for an extended period of time.

I would guess, judging from what some of the other setup-men have gone for already, Arthur Rhodes could be had for two years and somewhere around $6-7 million. That's about what Tim Worrell, Tom Gordon, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Paul Quantrill got. In my mind, there is absolutely no way Eddie Guardado is worth $2 million per season more than Arthur Rhodes. No way.

Don't try to tell me any of that junk about Guardado being a "proven closer" while Rhodes isn't. Eddie Guardado is a perfect example of why all this crap about closers is garbage. He was a guy who was a failed starter who became a good LOOGY and then, when given a shot closing out games, did well. And now, a few years after he was just another lefty in a bullpen, he is a "proven closer."

Arthur Rhodes has proven himself no less able to close games than Eddie Guardado was three years ago. In fact, I'd say Rhodes' resume up to this point lends itself to believing he could close games a whole lot more than Guardado's did before he was given a shot.

Eddie Guardado has been a very good pitcher for the Minnesota Twins and he will likely continue to be a very good pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. Losing him hurts and I honestly think it shakes up Terry Ryan's off-season plan quite a bit. That said, there are other options and this is far from the end of the world.

I am officially endorsing Arthur Rhodes as Minnesota's replacement for Eddie Guardado. He can do Guardado's job just fine and he can do it for less money. Sign Rhodes up for 2-3 years and take the money you saved and use it somewhere else (I hear second base is a giant, gaping abyss of uselessness). I only hope Terry Ryan or someone close to him is reading this, because I honestly think signing Rhodes could be the key to their off-season.

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

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