January 19, 2010

Twins Bullpen Nearly Set After Condrey Signing

They haven't done much so far this offseason, but last week the Twins made a pair of corresponding bullpen moves by releasing Bobby Keppel and signing Clay Condrey to a one-year contract. Condrey made $650,000 in 2009 and was arbitration eligible for the first time, but the Phillies non-tendered the 34-year-old right-hander last month rather than risk paying him about $1 million. He got $900,000 from the Twins and Keppel, who never deserved a call-up in the first place, signed with a team in Japan.

Condrey's path to the majors was a unique one. Undrafted after playing college ball at McNeese State, Condrey was 22 years old and working as an electrician in Texas when his father suggested he attend a tryout advertised in the local newspaper. He was impressive enough to earn a call-back and received offers from 11 teams following his second throwing session, opting to sign with San Diego for a $500 bonus being offered by former Padres scout and current Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Condrey made his big-league debut as a 26-year-old in 2002 and spent parts of two seasons with the Padres, posting a 5.49 ERA in 61 innings split between the rotation and bullpen. Traded to the Phillies in the spring of 2004, he spent the next two seasons at Triple-A before making it back to the majors in early 2006. In both 2006 and 2007 he frequently went back and forth from Triple-A to Philadelphia while being dropped from the 40-man roster and going unclaimed on waivers several times.

His first full season in the majors came in 2008, at age 32, and he also stuck with the Phillies for all of last year, although Condrey spent most of the second half on the disabled list with a strained oblique. Strictly a reliever in parts of four seasons in Philadelphia, he appeared in 161 games with a 3.45 ERA, .290 opponents' batting average, and 102-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 190 innings. While the ERA is nice, a .290 opponents' batting average and just 102 strikeouts in 190 innings are hardly stellar.

With that said, Condrey's walk rate is misleadingly high because 16 of 58 free passes were intentional, and he's a sinker-slider pitcher who allowed just 17 homers in 827 plate appearances and induced a ground ball on 51.3 percent of his balls in play. Not only would that have been the highest ground-ball rate on the Twins last year, Keppel was the only pitcher on the staff above even 47 percent. And unlike Keppel, Condrey throws strikes and has a history of big-league success.

Condrey has a 4.43 career xFIP, including marks of 4.02, 4.81, 4.37, and 4.01 in the past four seasons, which would make him a serviceable middle reliever. Given that modest upside and the fact that he's 34 years old I'm not sure the Twins really needed to sign Condrey, because if Pat Neshek comes back healthy the bullpen was already going to be plenty crowded and they also have prospects like Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

On the other hand the price is right, Condrey is definitely a capable middle reliever, and going to spring training with too many useful bullpen arms is usually a nice problem to have. Assuming a 12-man staff the bullpen locks are Condrey, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain, seemingly leaving one spot for a healthy Neshek or the loser of a fifth-starter competition. That's a very solid group, particularly if Neshek comes back with anything resembling his previous effectiveness.

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