November 15, 2011

Offseason shopping on a budget: Relievers

For the second straight offseason the Twins need relief help. Last winter they ignored the free agent market, trusted various in-house options, and wound up with a fire-starting bullpen that had the worst ERA in baseball. Joe Nathan and Matt Capps are free agents and Glen Perkins is the only reliable holdover, so here are 14 worthwhile bullpen targets who figure to be cheap enough to fit into the Twins' budget assuming they don't bust it on Nathan or another closer.

Frank Francisco: If other teams pursue Francisco as a closer the Twins should bow out, but if he's available for setup man money it could be a nice fit. He can't be counted on for more than 50 or 60 innings, but over the past four seasons Francisco has a 3.54 ERA, 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a .226 opponents' batting average while averaging 94.1 miles per hour with his fastball. If the Twins are serious about adding power arms, he's an obvious target.

Jonathan Broxton: After a four-year run as one of baseball's most dominant relievers Broxton began struggling in mid-2010 and fell apart this season, missing the final five months with an elbow injury. He underwent minor surgery in September, but is expected to be fully recovered by spring training and is still just 28 years old. Broxton had a 2.92 ERA with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings through his first five years. He's a big risk, but the reward could be just as huge.

Mike Gonzalez: After a long history of arm problems Gonzalez is recovering from knee surgery, but if healthy he's an elite left-handed reliever. Gonzalez had 51 strikeouts in 53 innings this season and has averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, which ranks second among all active lefties. His control can be shaky and offering more than a one-year deal would be a mistake, but Gonzalez is capable of getting high-leverage outs versus lefties and righties.

LaTroy Hawkins: At age 38 and eight years after leaving the Twins as a free agent Hawkins posted a 2.42 ERA and 28/10 K/BB ratio in 48 innings for the Brewers, giving him a 3.43 ERA in 444 total innings since exiting Minnesota. He's lost fastball velocity, but Hawkins still averaged 92.6 miles per hour this season and served up just one home run while inducing more than 60 percent ground balls for the second time in his career.

Brad Lidge: Once an elite closer with a devastating mid-90s fastball and high-80s slider, Lidge averaged just 88.9 mph on his fastball and 80.9 mph on his slider this year while being limited to 19 innings following elbow surgery. At age 35 his velocity likely isn't coming back, but Lidge still racked up 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings throwing in the high-80s and his slider remains one of the best pitches in baseball. If the price is right he'd be a nice boom-or-bust pickup.

Octavio Dotel: I suggested signing Dotel last offseason, when he got a one-year, $3.5 million deal and logged 54 innings with a 3.50 ERA and 62/17 K/BB ratio. He has the highest strikeout rate of all time among right-handers with 800-plus innings and even at age 37 got more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings for the fifth straight season. Dotel struggles against left-handed power hitters, but if spotted mostly versus righties he can be a major late-inning weapon.

Joel Peralta: Another of my suggested signings last winter, Peralta got a one-year, $925,000 deal from the Rays and tossed 68 innings with a 2.93 ERA and 61/18 K/BB ratio. His raw stuff has never been particularly impressive and Peralta is a 35-year-old extreme fly-ball pitcher, but his secondary numbers have always been excellent and he's got 110 strikeouts versus just 20 non-intentional walks in 117 innings since the beginning of 2010.

Takashi Saito: Saito is 41 years old and missed nearly the entire first half with hamstring and back injuries, but was his usual unhittable self after returning in July with a 1.46 ERA and .186 opponents' batting average in 25 innings. After a brilliant career in Japan he's played six years in the majors, posting ERAs of 2.07, 1.40, 2.49, 2.43, 2.83, and 2.09. Aging and injuries make him a risk, but Saito remains incredibly effective and would surely accept a one-year contract.

Jon Rauch: Rauch pitched much better than he got credit for as Nathan's replacement in 2010, converting 21 saves in 25 chances before the misguided deal for Capps bumped him back into a setup role. He left as a free agent last winter and had a mediocre season for the Blue Jays on a one-year, $3.5 million contract, but Rauch posted a 2.82 ERA and 60/20 K/BB ratio in 73 innings during one-and-a-half years for the Twins and remains a capable setup man.

Chad Qualls: Also on my list of suggested bullpen targets last winter, Qualls inked a one-year, $2.55 million deal with the Padres and threw 74 innings with a 3.51 ERA and 43/20 K/BB ratio. Because he called pitcher-friendly Petco Park home that ERA isn't as impressive as it appears and Qualls' strikeout rate was the worst of his career at age 32, but aside from a fluky 2010 season his annual ERAs are 3.55, 3.28, 3.76, 3.05, 2.81, 3.63, and 3.51 dating back to 2004.

Dan Wheeler: Yet another reliever I suggested last offseason, Wheeler signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Red Sox and threw 49 innings with a 4.38 ERA and 39/8 K/BB ratio. Much like Dotel he's susceptible to left-handed power hitters, but righties hit just .200/.233/.379 off Wheeler during the past three seasons, producing a 104/18 K/BB ratio. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher Target Field is a good fit and at age 33 he should be available for a one-year deal.

George Sherrill: Before missing the final six weeks of the season with elbow problems Sherrill tossed 36 innings with a 3.00 ERA and 38/12 K/BB ratio, and if healthy the 35-year-old would fit nicely as a left-handed specialist. Combined over the past three seasons lefties hit just .192 with two homers and an 80/17 K/BB ratio off Sherrill, who has a 3.68 ERA and 320 strikeouts in 323 career innings.

Todd Coffey: With his sizable gut and sprint to the mound Coffey seems like a sideshow, but over the past three seasons he posted a 3.68 ERA and 167/64 K/BB ratio in 206 innings. That includes a 3.62 ERA and 46/20 K/BB ratio in 60 innings for the Nationals, who signed him to a one-year, $1.35 million deal after Coffey was non-tendered last offseason. I wanted the Twins to sign him then and he'd make sense again now as a hard-throwing righty setup man.

Michael Wuertz: Wuertz was injured and ineffective this season, convincing the A's to decline their $3.25 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander. When healthy the Minnesota native was an extremely effective setup man from 2004-2010, throwing 381 innings with a 3.45 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine frames. His velocity has declined recently, so anything more than a modest one-year deal would be too risky, but Wuertz's fastball-slider combo is worth a flier.

March 9, 2010

Life Without Nathan: Closer Likely Facing Tommy John Surgery

When closer Joe Nathan left Saturday's spring training debut with pain in his surgically repaired elbow the Twins hoped it was merely scar tissue breaking up, but after flying back to Minneapolis for an MRI exam he's been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Nathan is expected to rest for a couple weeks in an effort to find out if can possibly pitch through the pain, but more likely than not he's headed for season-ending (and at age 35, perhaps career-threatening) Tommy John surgery.

There's no getting around the fact that losing Nathan would be a huge blow to the Twins. Since arriving in 2004 as part of the famed A.J. Pierzynski deal he's been arguably the best reliever in all of baseball, saving 246 games with a 1.87 ERA and 518 strikeouts in 418.2 innings spread over 412 appearances. During that six-season span Nathan's adjusted ERA+ of 236 is the best of any pitcher with 300 or more innings, and Mariano Rivera at 234 and Billy Wagner at 202 are the only others above 200.

Nathan is irreplaceable because no other reliever will be able to match how consistently fantastic he's been with yearly ERAs of 1.62, 2.70, 1.58, 1.88, 1.33, and 2.10. He is not, however, irreplaceable simply because of the role he filled. Closers are made, not born, and despite what you may hear from people looking to build the role up into some kind of mythical test of wills the primary characteristic needed for handling ninth-inning duties is being a good pitcher. Period.

Nathan has been a great closer, but before that he was a starter moved to the bullpen because of arm injuries and had just one season as a setup man. Eddie Guardado was also a failed starter who spent a decade as a middle reliever before getting a chance to close, and then saved 86 games in two years. Rick Aguilera is another former starter turned reliever, and was 27 years old before recording his first save. Being an established closer isn't a prerequisite for being a successful closer.

Losing a great pitcher like Nathan hurts because the Twins don't have an equally great pitcher to take his place, not because the role he filled is much too vast and important for a mere mortal. Nathan was a mere mortal before assuming the role, as were Guardado, Aguilera, and so many other top closers. Nathan has converted 90.7 percent of his chances with the Twins, which is amazing, but the MLB-wide success rate for all closers is 86.5 percent and all but the disasters are usually around 80 percent.

Nathan has had 45.2 save opportunities per year and by converting 90.7 percent of those chances he's averaged 41.0 saves. An "average" closer converting 86.5 percent would have 39.1 saves and a "poor" closer converting 80.0 percent would have 36.1 saves. Per season that equals 1.9 fewer saves at 86.5 percent and 4.9 fewer saves at 80.0 percent. And it's important to remember that not every blown save ends in a loss, so being without Nathan will likely cost 3-4 wins including his work in non-save spots.

Ron Gardenhire hasn't dropped any hints about the replacement closer because he's still holding out a slim hope that Nathan can pitch through the injury, but bullpen depth was one of the Twins' strengths coming into spring training and he has several decent options from which to choose. I'd likely go with a closer-by-committee approach based on matchups, at least initially, but my guess is that Gardenhire's preference is to find one man for the job even if it takes giving a few guys tries before settling on him.

Matt Guerrier has been setting up Nathan for the past six seasons, with a 3.31 ERA in 389 innings as a reliever, but his raw stuff isn't exactly overpowering and more importantly his valuable ability to make multi-inning appearances or rescue other pitchers from mid-inning jams would likely cease given how Gardenhire has used his closer. In terms of raw stuff Jon Rauch is much more similar to Guerrier than Nathan even if standing 6-foot-11 with neck tattoos makes him look like a closer.

With that said, Rauch has more closing experience than the rest of the fill-in candidates combined and even if that basically amounts to just 17 saves with the Nationals two seasons ago I'll be surprised if it doesn't play a big factor in Gardenhire's decision making. Rauch as a closer is obviously far from ideal, but he has a 3.59 ERA in 363.1 innings as a reliever, including a 3.60 mark last year, and was indeed right "around 80 percent" when given regular save chances in 2008.

Jose Mijares had a good rookie season with a 2.34 ERA in 62 innings and was often billed as a future closer while coming up through the minors thanks to raw stuff that sits a step above guys like Guerrier and Rauch, but Gardenhire seems unlikely to trust a second-year pitcher in the ninth inning right away. Mijares also allowed right-handers to hit .283 with a .791 OPS last year while completely shutting down fellow lefties, so for the short term at least he's probably best suited for a semi-specialist role anyway.

Once upon a time Jesse Crain was also thought of as a future closer and still has the mid-90s fastball for the job, but he's hardly been consistently reliable even as a setup man and spent six weeks of last year at Triple-A following a midseason demotion. Setting aside whether Crain could handle closing I'd be shocked if Gardenhire trusted him enough to give it a try, which is also why prospects like Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney aren't realistic options.

Francisco Liriano may be an intriguing closer candidate, but if he looks good this spring the Twins will want him in the rotation for 200 innings rather than the bullpen for 70 innings and if he isn't impressive in camp they surely won't be handing him late leads. Pat Neshek emerged as Nathan's top setup man in 2006-2008 with a 2.91 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 121 innings and might be the leading candidate to step into the job if not for the fact that he's coming back from a Tommy John surgery of his own.

Neshek's recovery is said to be going well and his spring training debut last week was promising, but he hasn't thrown a regular-season pitch since May of 2008. Tossing him right into the ninth-inning fire is highly unlikely and probably ill-advised. And while his vulnerability to left-handed batters was grossly exaggerated before the surgery he certainly benefited from being used in spots that weren't heavy on lefty sluggers. He'd benefit from that now more than ever, but it isn't doable for a one-inning closer.

Before the surgery Neshek would have been my choice to step in for Nathan and even after the surgery if healthy he'd be a good fit in a closer-by-committee situation with Mijares, but with his status up in the air and no need to rush him into anything it's a moot point. And of course Gardenhire is unlikely to use multiple, matchup-based closers anyway. At some point pining for Mijares, Neshek, or Mijares/Neshek could make sense, but for now Gardenhire may lean toward Rauch and I'd find it hard to disagree.

Whatever happens the bullpen's depth has the Twins remarkably well-positioned to handle losing their stud closer and any decision Gardenhire makes will likely result in less of a game-saving dropoff than most people seem to think. Nathan has been spectacular, but the role he's filled is so rigid and fawned over that the gap between truly "great" and merely something resembling "mediocre" in the ninth inning is typically overstated and often unpredictable, with last year providing a pair of prominent examples.

MLB's best save percentage belonged to Fernando Rodney, a 32-year-old career-long setup man with a 4.28 ERA who went 37-of-38 for Detroit. Philadelphia won 93 games and the NL pennant despite one of the worst closer seasons ever by Brad Lidge, who went 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and MLB-high 11 blown saves. Nathan's injury drops the Twins' playoffs chances, which is difficult to stomach after a productive offseason had the team looking so strong, but they can definitely survive and even thrive without him.

And maybe the Twins will stumble upon their next great closer in the process.

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