June 22, 2009

Twins Cut Ayala, Promote Keppel, Ignore Delaney and Slama

Luis Ayala is the latest in a long line of veteran free agents who didn't make it to the All-Star break with the Twins after the signing was criticized in this space. Handed a one-year, $1.3 million deal this winter as the Twins chose saving money on a veteran mediocrity rather than actually upgrading a bullpen that desperately needed another capable late-inning option, Ayala predictably proved to be merely a decent middle reliever by posting a 4.80 xFIP in 32.1 innings. In fact, my projection was "right around 4.50."

Of course, the funny thing about the Twins' decision to designate Ayala for assignment yesterday is that he was hardly the least-effective member of the bullpen and his replacement is far from a good bet to provide an upgrade. Ayala was horribly mismatched as a late-inning setup man, but the Twins should have known that when they signed him and even while failing to fit their preferred role he was relatively useful as a rubber-armed middle man. In other words, he was who they (should have) thought he was.

In a situation reminiscent of last month's swap of Craig Breslow for Sean Henn, the Twins have called up minor-league veteran Bobby Keppel to replace Ayala in the bullpen. At the time of the Breslow-Henn switch my analysis was that "it sure seems like the Twins chose the new lefty reliever over the old lefty reliever just because they felt the need to shake things up." Ayala-Keppel is the right-handed version of that same sentiment, right down to Henn and Keppel signing minor-league deals on the same day.

Keppel is a 27-year-old veteran of a decade in the minors who owns a 5.16 ERA in 572 career innings at Triple-A, including marks of 5.67, 5.48, and 5.99 during the previous three seasons. Those horrible performances came as a starter and Keppel has worked primarily as a reliever this season for the first time in his career, which along with a nice-looking 2.44 ERA in 55 innings at Rochester apparently has the Twins optimistic about his potential. They shouldn't be, because he's basically a poor man's Ayala.

Keppel is a moderate ground-ball pitcher with mediocre control and little ability to miss bats, managing just 28 strikeouts in 55 innings this season and 4.4 strikeouts per nine innings throughout his Triple-A career. He's looked good at Rochester thanks to the defense turning over 72 percent of his balls in play into outs and just one of the 47 fly balls hit against him traveling over the fence, but much like Henn he simply doesn't have a track record that suggests the ability to consistently get big-league hitters out.

Since that swap of left-handers Breslow has a 4.39 xFIP in 18 appearances with the A's and Henn has a 5.04 xFIP in 13 appearances with the Twins, and dropping Ayala for Keppel figures to work out much the same way. Meanwhile, the Twins boast a pair of legitimately promising relief prospects in Robert Delaney and Anthony Slama, but the former was passed over for his Triple-A bullpen mate Keppel and the latter can't even get a promotion to Rochester despite already being 25 years old.

Delaney has a 2.42 ERA, 50-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .225 opponents' batting average in 48.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, including 10 strikeouts versus just two non-intentional walks in a dozen innings since last month's promotion to Rochester. He's a 24-year-old right-hander who's thrived at every level, posting a 2.03 ERA and 235-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 222 career innings, yet the Twins are choosing Triple-A filler like Keppel over him.

Slama had a 1.01 ERA with 110 strikeouts and a .173 opponents' batting average in 71 innings at high Single-A last season and has a 2.70 ERA with 53 strikeouts and a .225 opponents' batting average in 36.2 innings at Double-A so far this year, but the Twins inexplicably haven't even seen fit to let him join Delaney at Rochester six months after his 25th birthday. While two of the organization's top arms are at New Britain and Rochester, the Twins' bullpen ranks 11th in xFIP and 10th in Win Probability Added.

Dating back to Pat Neshek's elbow injury last May the Twins have clearly needed bullpen help, but Bill Smith refused to bring in a veteran setup man at the trading deadline, targeted mediocrities like Ayala rather than legitimate upgrades this winter, and is now turning to a journeyman with a 5.13 ERA in 572 innings at Triple-A rather than give Delaney or Slama a chance. The situation has gone from frustrating to bewildering and the front office's decision-making under Smith continues to disappoint.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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