March 29, 2009

Twins Swap Nolte for Jones, Narrow Roster Decisions

As expected Rule 5 pick Jason Jones did not crack the Opening Day roster, but rather than offer him back to the Yankees for half of the original $50,000 fee required to select him the Twins instead worked out a trade to keep him in the organization. Jones isn't totally without potential and may be a decent fifth starter or long reliever at some point, but he's already 26 years old and has a 3.77 ERA in the minors that includes poor peripheral numbers and all of two appearances above Double-A.

All of which is why it was disappointing to see that the player sent to the Yankees to retain Jones was Charles Nolte, who ranked No. 40 on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects. Certainly trading away the 40th-best prospect in the system isn't something that's likely to haunt any team and minor-league relievers like Nolte who've yet to advance past Single-A have an especially low likelihood of making an impact in the majors, but swapping him for a low-upside 26-year-old like Jones seems questionable.

Jones will head to Triple-A, where he'll join Rochester's rotation while taking up a spot on the 40-man roster. Many teams would love to stash a 26-year-old potential fifth starter or long reliever at Triple-A, but the Twins have a rotation of 27-and-under starters who're superior to Jones and already had Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Brian Duensing, and Anthony Swarzak waiting in the wings. Jones isn't clearly better than any of those guys, now or in the future. Meanwhile, here's part of my write-up on Nolte:

Nolte has served up a grand total of one homer while facing 417 batters, which is what happens when 71.3 percent of your balls in play are on the ground. To put that stat into some context, consider that no MLB pitcher had a ground-ball rate of even 70 percent last season and no Twins pitcher was above 60 percent. Nolte has induced over five ground balls for every fly ball as a pro and that alone would make him someone to watch even without the low-90s fastball and strong strikeout rate.

Most relievers who dominate in the low minors eventually fail to pan out and Nolte is a long way from Minnesota, but his combination of velocity, missed bats, and ground balls is much tougher to find than just another sparkling ERA at low Single-A. His lack of college experience suggests that Nolte could be a late bloomer and also means that his arm hasn't accumulated much mileage since the surgery four years ago, so if healthy he has a chance to move pretty quickly through the Twins' system.

Jones is much more likely than Nolte to reach the majors by virtue of the fact that he's 26 years old, will begin this season at Triple-A, and owns a spot on the 40-man roster. Despite that Nolte may be more likely to make a significant impact in the majors by virtue of being three years younger than Jones with a much higher ceiling. Plus, Nolte is years from requiring a spot on the 40-man roster, whereas Jones is there now and must remain there unless the Twins want to risk losing him like the Yankees did.

Pitchers just like Jones are available to the Twins on waivers all the time if they're willing to stick them on the 40-man roster and giving up an intriguing 23-year-old like Nolte to add yet another name to the already lengthy list of potential fifth starters in their mid-20s seems like short-sighted overkill. Odds are that parting with Nolte won't come back to bite the Twins, but why even take that chance when the odds are also that Jones will never successfully fill a meaningful role in Minnesota?

By retaining Jones and sending him to Triple-A the Twins have narrowed the competition for a potential 12th spot on the pitching staff to Duensing, Jose Mijares, and R.A. Dickey. Mijares or Duensing would be a second left-hander in the bullpen alongside Craig Breslow, while Dickey would be a second long reliever paired with Humber. Cutting all three of them while going with 11 pitchers is also an option, in which case the 25th spot on the roster would come down to keeping Matt Tolbert or a third catcher.

My feeling has always been that a 12-man pitching staff is beyond overkill, so the switch-hitting Tolbert seems like the right choice. He offers defensive versatility and at 27 years old there's no development to stall in a little-used bench role, although considering Ron Gardenhire's love for the poor man's Nick Punto odds are that Tolbert would see plenty of playing time anyway. Keeping a third catcher while Joe Mauer is out also makes some sense, particularly if that means fewer at-bats for Drew Butera.

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