February 8, 2009

Twins Sign Luis Ayala

After months of watching quality veteran setup men sign with new teams at reasonable rates the Twins finally got in on the action Friday, signing Luis Ayala to a one-year, $1.3 million deal with an additional $575,000 in incentives. Ayala is a 31-year-old with 338 career appearances and finished last year as the Mets' closer while ranking fifth in the NL by working in 81 games. He clearly fits the "veteran" part of any "quality veteran setup man" description, but the "quality" part is a much tougher case to make.

Plucked from the Diamondbacks' system by the Expos in the Rule 5 draft back in 2002, Ayala went 10-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 71 innings as a 25-year-old rookie in 2003. He followed that up with a 2.69 ERA in 2004 and a 2.66 ERA in 2005, but then missed the entire 2006 season after injuring his elbow while pitching for Mexico in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery Ayala was a strike-throwing, ground-ball machine with a 2.75 ERA, but he hasn't been the same since:

                     IP      ERA      FIP      SO%     BB%      GB%
Before Surgery 232.1 2.75 3.63 15.7 3.5 51.4
After Surgery 118.0 4.81 4.43 15.1 6.2 43.2

Ayala has never been a strikeout pitcher, but from 2003-2005 had pinpoint control while inducing lots of ground balls. He hasn't lost many strikeouts since returning from surgery, but Ayala has handed out 77 percent more walks with 16 percent fewer ground balls (making all the "sinkerball" talk sort of silly). Not surprisingly his ERA has risen from 2.75 to 4.81 and his FIP has gone from 3.63 to 4.43. That's the bad news. The good news is that Ayala wasn't nearly as awful as his ugly ERA last year suggests.

Ayala went 2-10 with a 5.71 ERA in 75.2 innings last season, allowing opponents to bat .287/.344/.443. There's really no way to spin that as a good performance, but a little digging shows that Ayala wasn't as bad as his ERA and win-loss record. Ayala had a .320 batting average on balls in play last season, but his career mark is .300 and the MLB average was .308. Similarly, his left-on-base percentage last year (60.2) was far worse than his career mark (75.7) and the MLB norm (71.5).

In other words, Ayala was unlucky last year in addition to not pitching especially well, and normalizing both his batting average on balls in play and left-on-base percentage while removing some of the other luck-related stuff from the equation gives him a 4.47 FIP instead of a 5.71 ERA. If you're unfamiliar with FIP, it stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and basically says that a pitcher performing exactly like Ayala did last year can be expected to post a 4.47 ERA over the long haul.

Ayala had a 4.47 FIP last season and a 4.35 FIP in 2007, turned 31 years old last month, and is moving from the NL to the AL, so a reasonable projection for 2009 is probably right around 4.50. There were 81 relievers who logged at least 40 innings in the AL last season and a 4.50 FIP would have ranked 60th. In other words, Ayala's performance last year and a reasonable projection for his performance this year would make him the fifth-best reliever in a good AL bullpen.

To put a 4.50 FIP into some Twins-specific context, consider that the team's bullpen had a 4.26 FIP last year and five of the seven relievers who logged 40-plus innings had a FIP under 4.50. Jesse Crain had a 3.98 FIP last year and has a 4.19 FIP for his career. Matt Guerrier had a 5.08 FIP last year and has a 4.51 FIP for his career. Even an optimistic projection likely puts Ayala somewhere between Crain and Guerrier, which while a useful reliever is hardly going to fix a bullpen that was broken much of last year.

Barring a trade Ayala's signing will make it very difficult for Philip Humber or Bobby Korecky to secure a spot in the Opening Day bullpen unless the Twins misguidedly go with a 13-man pitching staff or Jose Mijares begins the year at Triple-A. Joe Nathan, Craig Breslow, Crain, Guerrier, and Ayala are clearly locks and Boof Bonser may be close to one as well. Ayala is likely a better, safer bet than Humber or Korecky for 2009, but the upgrade is probably minimal and may lead to losing Humber for nothing.

Meanwhile, the Twins missed the chance to legitimately elevate their late-inning situation by signing a slightly more expensive free agent and the money saved by instead bringing in a middle-relief caliber arm in Ayala does little for a team that is still at least $10 million under budget. Ayala is better than he looked last year and at $1.3 million is far from another Livan Hernandez or Ramon Ortiz, but he's also just a mediocre middle reliever for a bullpen that could have used (and afforded) a bigger upgrade.

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