March 30, 2010

Twins Notes: Committees, Timetables, and Risky Girlfriends

  • Ron Gardenhire announced that the Twins will begin the year using a closer-by-committee approach with Joe Nathan out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery:

    We are a committee. Our closer role is a committee. We're going to try just about anything. I've never had to do it. It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on. I've seen committees work. It's not always the easiest thing in the world, but you just have to ad lib. When you lose your closer, it's a little different. That's how we're going to start, and we'll go from there.

    Aside from steroids there's nothing the baseball media freaks out about more than a team without a so-called established closer, so expect plenty of logic-be-damned overreactions if the Twins blow a couple leads early on. In fact, expect some of those reactions right now. However, the odds of Gardenhire and the Twins sticking with a true committee approach to the ninth inning all year are very slim.

    Gardenhire has said multiple times that he wants to find one man for the job, so mixing and matching Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and perhaps Pat Neshek early in the season will likely just be a way for him to determine the best fit for the role. I'd be surprised if a committee approach lasts longer than 3-4 weeks and, assuming the Twins don't trade for a veteran closer, would still bet on Rauch leading the team in saves.

    In the meantime we're bound to hear how monumentally insane the Twins supposedly are for treating the ninth inning just like the seventh and eighth innings, which shows just how wrapped up everyone is in a role built around the save statistic. I don't think Gardenhire will go with a true closer-by-committee approach for long, if at all, but the Twins will be just fine if he does. Baseball existed without a one-inning closer for a hundred years or so.

  • Nathan officially underwent surgery Friday, with Mets team doctor David Altcheck doing the honors in New York. Nathan has remained very upbeat publicly while expressing confidence that he'll be ready for Opening Day next season, but those are longer odds than he may be willing to admit. Neshek is 16 months removed from his Tommy John surgery, so I asked him whether coming back in 12 months would have been possible in his case:

    For me, at 12 months there was no way I was ready to face hitters at that time. I don't know how guys come back quicker than that because it honestly was painful at that stage. Lots of scar tissue that would break up. I think they wrote my program to go slower so everything I did was set back a couple months, whereas a normal guy is around 12.

    Plenty of pitchers have returned from the surgery within 12 months and been effective, but I'd be very surprised if Nathan is able to do so at age 35. Incidentally, if you weren't already a huge Neshek fan his answering my questions about elbow surgery via Twitter at midnight on a Tuesday should make you one.

  • After shopping around for a better deal all offseason Ron Mahay finally settled for re-joining the Twins on a minor-league contract last week. Mahay originally signed with the Twins in late August of last season after being released by the Royals, but pitched just nine innings down the stretch. Much like Jacque Jones he's apparently willing to accept an assignment to Triple-A, which makes Mahay a nice low-cost pickup as a potential lefty middle reliever.
  • Along with Mahay, the Twins also signed 29-year-old Yoslan Herrera and 30-year-old Brad Hennessey to minor-league deals. Hennessey spent five years with Giants and even served as their closer for much of 2007, saving 19 games with a 3.42 ERA in 68 innings. He was let go after coughing up 35 runs in 40 innings in 2008 and then spent last season sidelined by elbow problems after agreeing to a minor-league contract with the Orioles.

    Herrera received a $2 million signing bonus from the Pirates after defecting from Cuba as a 25-year-old in 2006, but has been mediocre in the minors and allowed 20 runs over 18.1 innings during his only major-league stint in 2008. They both seem destined for spots in the Rochester bullpen and are solid organizational depth, but Mahay is significantly more likely to see time in Minnesota this season.
  • LaVelle E. Neal III recently profiled 17-year-old top prospects Miguel Angel Sano and Max Kepler. The whole thing is worth reading, but my favorite part was this quote from Kepler:

    I can't wait until I get my driver's license because I have to look for people who are 21 to get into my car and just go somewhere. I was thinking about getting a girlfriend who was 21, but that's kind of risky.

    I initially imagined that quote being said in a thick German accent, but then hearing Kepler's nearly flawless English during a radio interview with Patrick Reusse ruined the fun.

  • Despite extraordinary minor-league numbers Anthony Slama didn't reach Triple-A until just before his 26th birthday last year and I've criticized the Twins for not promoting him more aggressively. However, while the front office may not have much confidence in Slama being for real both Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson indicated they were impressed by the right-hander who ranked 19th on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects.
  • Acquired from the Mets in the package for Johan Santana and traded to the Diamondbacks for Rauch in August, Kevin Mulvey is now competing for the final spot in Arizona's rotation. Meanwhile, a groin injury is hurting Boof Bonser's bid for a bullpen job in Boston.
  • Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the Yankees "made a series of attempts" to trade for Denard Span last season "only to be rebuffed each time by the Twins."
  • Remember the lone voter who kept Joe Mauer from being a unanimous MVP? Well, suffice it to say you won't be satisfied by his reasoning.
  • March 24, 2010

    Nathan Officially Opts For Surgery

    As expected Joe Nathan will have season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery to fix a torn ulnar collateral ligament, officially making that decision Sunday morning after feeling soreness during a highly anticipated game of catch with pitching coach Rick Anderson (only to have the news overshadowed by Joe Mauer signing hours later). Nathan and the Twins had hoped that a few weeks off would allow him to pitch through the pain, but that was always a massive long shot.

    Now the optimism is aimed at Nathan making a full recovery for next season, but as Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek have shown recently Tommy John patients can have a true recovery timetable that stretches beyond the oft-quoted 8-12 months. Liriano underwent the surgery in November of 2006 and has a 5.12 ERA in 212.2 innings since returning, while Neshek took the mound again about 14 months after surgery and may not be 100 percent yet at 16 months.

    For every Liriano and Neshek there are also examples of pitchers who returned to the mound sooner than 12 months and didn't miss a beat, but at 35 years old Nathan seems an unlikely candidate to be one of them. He'll miss all of this season, there's a good chance he'll miss at least some of 2011, and his career is very much in jeopardy following a seven-season run as arguably the best reliever in baseball.

    As part of a four-year, $47 million extension signed in March of 2008 he's owed $11.25 million in both 2010 and 2011, with the Twins holding a $12.5 million option or $2 million buyout for 2012. Add it all up and the Twins have another $24.5 million committed to Nathan, which is a harsh reminder of the risks involved in handing out long-term contracts to even the very best players. However, insurance will reportedly cover as much as half of his salary for this season.

    There's no doubt that losing Nathan is a big blow to the Twins' playoff chances, but my hope is that they don't overreact by paying a premium for an "established closer" via trade. Closer is the most overrated "position" in baseball, as many people attach some sort of mythical value to the role despite the fact that the MLB average for converting ninth-inning saves is typically around 85 percent and elite closers like Nathan top out at around 90 percent.

    Beyond that, Nathan himself is an example of how most successful closers are failed starters, former setup men, or both. In fact, Nathan, Rick Aguilera, and Eddie Guardado all fall into the "both" category and rank 1-2-3 on the Twins' all-time saves list. Prior to thriving as closers for the Twins that trio had accumulated a grand total of just 26 career saves in 17 seasons as big leaguers, which coincidentally is the exact number of saves Jon Rauch has in seven seasons.

    Heath Bell of the Padres saved 42 games with a 2.71 ERA last season and is now being linked to the Twins as a possible Nathan replacement, but at this time last year he was a 30-year-old setup man with just two career saves. That he's now viewed as an "established closer" whose experience in the role is touted as evidence that the Twins should pay a premium for him via trade shows just how silly the whole notion is in the first place.

    Certainly there are some scenarios in which trading for a quality reliever could make sense for the Twins and depending on the cost involved Bell might even be a worthwhile target, but to overpay for that same quality reliever largely because he has "closing experience" that their in-house options lack would be a mistake in logic. Bell only has experience at closer precisely because the Padres focused on his ability rather than his save total one year ago.

    Truly replacing Nathan is impossible because he's a great reliever, but for closers the dropoff from "great" and "mediocre" is typically 3-5 blown saves, some of which still end up as wins anyway. Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, and a post-surgery Neshek don't fit the description of an ideal closer, but the same is true for many pitchers who have success in the role. Hell, last year the best save percentage in baseball belonged to Fernando Rodney.

    Once you set aside the inflated, often hyperbolic importance placed on the closer role there's no reason to think that group can't produce someone capable of converting save opportunities at an 80 percent clip, which all but the disasters tend to manage each season with or without "closing experience." Bell is better than Rauch or Guerrier or Crain, but if the price tag involves Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, or Ben Revere they're better off trusting the in-house options.

    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.

    Once you're done here, check out my blog and Twitter updates.

    March 7, 2010

    Nathan Gets An MRI, Blackburn Gets A New Contract

    There were two prominent bits of Twins news over the weekend, as Joe Nathan left Saturday's game with soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow and Nick Blackburn signed a four-year, $14 million contract with an option for 2014. I'm hesitant to comment much on Nathan's status until further details are known, but he flew from Fort Myers to Minneapolis yesterday to undergo an MRI exam and the hope is that the pain was from scar tissue breaking up following October 20 surgery to remove bone spurs.

    As the 35-year-old closer put it: "We're going to get some pictures just for some peace of mind." Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that doctors will compare his current MRI results to his pre-surgery exam and proceed from there, with a couple days of rest to deal with the scar tissue qualifying as the best-case scenario and going under the knife again to fix a separate injury looming as the worst-case scenario. And no reason to panic in the meantime.

    While the Twins hold their breath waiting for word on Nathan's elbow, they signed Blackburn to a deal that could keep him in Minnesota through 2014. However, he was already under team control through 2013 via arbitration eligibility. Rather than being a true "extension" the contract pays him $750,000 this season, pre-pays $13.25 million for Blackburn's three arbitration-eligible years in 2011-2013, and then gives the Twins an $8 million option for his first season of free agency in 2014.

    Cost certainty during the arbitration process is important for the Twins and the deal ensures Blackburn won't file for a big salary following a particularly strong season, but because they're paying for what he will do rather than what he has done the downside is that cutting bait is no longer a choice if injuries or poor performances strike. The ability to delay free agency for another season also has value, although there's certainly no guarantee that they'll want to pay $8 million for a 32-year-old Blackburn.

    When he was coming up through the minor leagues I pegged Blackburn as little more than a potential fifth starter or long reliever, criticizing Baseball America for ranking him as the Twins' best prospect as a 26-year-old in 2008. Since then he's significantly outperformed my expectations, beginning his career with back-to-back solid and (nearly identical) seasons as a durable middle-of-the-rotation starter who led the team in innings both years:

    YEAR     GS      W      L     ERA      IP        SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    2008     33     11     11     4.05     193.1     96     39     23     .292
    2009     33     11     11     4.03     205.2     98     41     25     .290

    You'd be hard-pressed to find many starters who began their career with more similar seasons and it's easy to see why the Twins think Blackburn is a big part of their future. However, his minuscule strikeout rates and high opponents' batting averages put him at risk to age poorly and the underlying numbers in his performance are closer to a 4.50 ERA than a 4.00 ERA. Toss in the fact that they could've controlled him through age 31 with no upfront commitment and the deal has some risk without much upside.

    Blackburn has been a solid, dependable mid-rotation starter and is now entering just his third season, so the tendency is to assume that he'll naturally either maintain his performance or get better. He may do exactly that, in which case locking him up through 2014 at a total cost of $22 million would look like a steal, but many people felt the same way about Joe Mays and Carlos Silva once upon a time before the often sobering reality of low-strikeout pitchers without heavy ground-ball tendencies set in.

    I'm generally in favor of locking up young players to long-term contracts, but logically not every instance of doing so is by definition a smart decision even if a certain segment of the fan base will automatically default to that assumption. In this case cost certainty comes with the risk of Blackburn tripping on the fine line he's walked thus far and there isn't a ton of value in having the right to pay him $8 million as a 32-year-old, so I would've gone year-to-year with him and let things play out from there.

    That the Twins feel differently certainly isn't surprising because they're likely focused much more on his 4.04 ERA through 66 career starts than what his lack of missed bats and modest number of ground balls say about his chances of keeping that up for another 125 starts. I've been wrong about Blackburn through two seasons and hopefully I'll also be wrong about his next four or five seasons, but to me this is an unnecessary commitment with less upside and more downside than perhaps meets the eye.

    Once you're done here, check out my blog and Twitter updates.