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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, October 21, 2002
The Minnesota Twins: A Plan for the Future
In part two, Aaron examines Minnesota’s pitching staff.
In part one of this look at the Twins, I examined the present and future of the offense and defense.
The Twins are stocked, perhaps better than any other franchise in baseball, with talented, young hitting prospects at several positions. The presence of those prospects, guys like Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Michael Restovich and Justin Morneau, allow the Twins to have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to determining which players to keep in the coming years and which players to replace with younger, cheaper players. That flexibility is something that I believe will allow them to succeed, despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
The Twins also have quite a bit of pitching talent in the minor league system. However, while the pitching talent is strong, it does not include the same caliber of established, top-level prospects as the Twins have offensively. Instead, the system has pitching depth at the upper levels of the system and several potential top prospects at the lower levels.
My plan for the Twins? offensive future did not involve the signing of any free agents, it simply focused on using what the Twins already have in their system. Because of that approach, the plan kept the Twins payroll at or below its current level, which is what any realistic plan would need to do.
The plan for the future of the pitching staff is much the same.
To talk of the Twins signing a number one starter or a top setup man is simply not realistic; they must do the best they can with what they have, make smart decisions on who to keep and who to let go and focus on the development of their minor league talent.
Let?s take a look at the Major League pitching staff and the various options the Twins have in their minor league system?
Brad Radke has been Minnesota?s “ace” for the last 7 or 8 seasons. He is not blessed with the best stuff on the planet as his fastball tops out at about 90 and his best pitch is his change up, but he is about as reliable as a pitcher gets. Before this season, he had gone 6 consecutive seasons with at least 210 innings pitched. Radke has never had a very good strikeout rate, usually averaging around 6 strikeouts per 9 innings. He is able to succeed despite that because of his incredible walk rate and his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark at a fairly good level.
In 1,656 career innings, Radke has walked a total of 336 men, an average of only 1.8 per 9 innings and in the last couple of seasons, his already excellent control has gotten even better. Last year, he walked 26 men in 226 innings, an amazing 1.04 per 9 innings. Radke struggled with a severe groin injury for much of the second half of this season, but still managed to throw 118 innings, walking only 1.5 per 9.
His home run allowed rate has also improved throughout his career. In Radke’s first big-league season, he allowed 32 homers in 181 innings and in his second season, he served up 40 long balls in 232 innings of work. For a guy who doesn?t strike a whole lot of people out, giving up that many home runs is very dangerous. But, the next season, Radke cut down from 40 in 232 innings to 28 in 239 innings and over the next 4 seasons, 1998-2001, he allowed between 23-28 homers a year, while pitching at least 213 innings in each season.
In 2002 Radke allowed 12 homers in his 118 innings, which is right in line with the last several years of his career. Radke doesn?t give any major signs of slowing down any time soon. He was injured this season and missed a lot of time, but the injury was to his groin and not to his arm/shoulder/elbow. His home run rate has remained consistently good for years, his strikeout rate has never been very good to begin with and his control is phenomenal.
Radke is signed through 2004 ($8 million in ?03 and $10 million in ?04) and he is a good bet to be a valuable starter for the Twins over those 2 seasons, someone you can pencil in for 200 innings and a 4.00 ERA. His price tag might be a little high, especially for a team with a payroll like the Twins, but don?t expect a trade any time soon, as Radke?s deal includes a no-trade clause.
Like Radke, Eric Milton also suffered through injuries problems during the second half of this season. He felt a “pop” in his knee while warming up for an August 6th start against the Orioles and needed surgery to repair a tear in his left knee. Milton vowed to rehab hard and come back as soon as possible and he did just that, returning less than a month later.
In retrospect, he probably should have stayed sidelined a little longer, as he struggled in his first 3 appearances off of the disabled list, giving up 14 runs and 18 hits in 8-2/3 innings. He did manage to finish the regular season with back-to-back solid starts and he performed very well in both of his playoff starts.
While Radke has been the ace of the Minnesota team for years now, Milton has been expected to become the new ace for a while. Since coming over from the Yankees (along with Cristian Guzman and Brian Buchanan) in the Chuck Knoblauch deal, Milton has shown flashes of brilliance, mixed in with mediocrity. Despite tremendous stuff, including a fastball that lives in the low-to-mid nineties, a very good curveball and improving changeup, Milton has never been able to turn himself into a strikeout pitcher.
In fact, his strikeout rate has been declining, going from 7.1 in 1999 and 7.2 in 2000, to 6.4 last season and 6.3 this year. Those are still decent strikeout numbers, but certainly not something you want to see out of a guy you consider a potential dominant pitcher. Like most Twins hurlers, Milton has excellent control, which was at its all-time best this season as he walked 30 batters in 171 innings, 1.57 per 9.
Where Milton differs from Radke is his tendency to give up a lot of home runs. Milton is a very extreme fly ball pitcher and had the 2nd highest ratio of fly ball outs in all of baseball in 2002 (behind only Jarrod Washburn) and had the highest ratio in 2001. With fly ball ratios like that, I suppose it is not surprising that he gives up a lot of homers.
At the age of 27, it may be a little late to be expecting Milton to transform himself into the dominant pitcher many people thought he had the chance to become. That said, he has been a fairly consistent starter for the Twins throughout his career and, before this season, has been a real workhorse for them, throwing 200+ innings in 1999, 2000, and 2001.
Like Radke, Milton is signed through 2004, the result of a 4 year/$21 million contract he signed before the 2001 season. He is set to make $6 million next season and $9 million in ?04.
I would expect Milton to be another guy the Twins can pencil in for 200+ innings and an ERA somewhere in the 4s. Those are not exactly the kind of numbers that were expected of him a few years ago and not the sort of stats you want from a guy making as much as he does, but certainly valuable nonetheless.
Mays was injured for much of 2002 (notice a pattern here?) and when he was pitching, he wasn?t particularly effective. However, in 2001, Mays was one of the best pitchers (if not the best) in the American League. Despite his success, many were skeptical about whether or not it was a fluke because of his incredibly low strikeout rate.
Pitchers that strike out as few batters as Joe Mays does simply do not have long, dominant careers filled with years like he had in 2001. Many people, myself included, were very interested to see what kind of season Mays would have in 2002. Unfortunately, not only did he have a bad season, he had an injury-plagued one, which means it is tough to make judgments based on it.
That said, I believe Joe Mays? 2001 season was pretty much a fluke. He was able to stay healthy, limit the amount of homers he allowed and he kept the ball on the ground, and some how he managed to have a tremendous season, all while striking out less than 5 batters per 9 innings.
May?s strike out rate dropped even lower in 2002, although I suspect some of that had to do with his elbow injury. In his 95 innings this year, he only managed to strike out 3.6 per 9, which is simply an amazingly low number. Along with not striking anyone out this year, he allowed an increased amount of homers.
So, if Joe Mays? 2001 was a fluke and his strikeout rate is dropping, what does the future hold for him?
Well, I am not very optimistic. Mays could definitely be a valuable player, perhaps a 3rd or 4th starter, capable of eating innings and providing the occasional great start, like the one he had against Anaheim in game 1 of the ALCS this year, but with a strike out rate that is going to be hard pressed to top 5 a game and home run allowed numbers that aren?t in the Derek Lowe, jaw-droppingly good category, Mays looks like a guy who is never going to come close to repeating what was a career year in 2001.
That?s the bad news.
The worse news is that Mays is signed through 2005 because of a 4 year/$20 million deal he signed prior to the 2002 season. While the contracts given to Radke and Milton are not optimal, at least they were given to guys who have a reasonably long track record of consistently good performances.
Mays? deal was given to him right after his great 2001 season, his only season with a winning record or an ERA under 4.00. If there are teams interested in Mays, I would listen to their offers. He is young, but he is not a good bet to improve upon or even sustain his level of performance (if you want to call one good season a level) and that makes him a bad bet to be worth what he is scheduled to make over the next 3 years.
I suspect the trade market for Joe is probably not very good, especially with the injury concerns looming, so I would guess he will be a Twin for the life of that contract. Hopefully he can prove me wrong, but history is not on his side.
Rick Reed came over to the Twins from the Mets in the Matt Lawton deal in the middle of last season and pretty much stunk, going 4-6 with a 5.19 ERA in 68 innings for the Twins. His bad pitching, the Twins massive nosedive in the standings in last year?s second half, along with being acquired for one of the Twins best offensive players made Rick Reed a bit of an easy target for criticism. Fans wondered why the heck Terry Ryan would trade one of the best hitters from a team that was already struggling to find offense to acquire an old pitcher that was just adding to a starting rotation that had plenty of depth in 2001.
That was last year.
This year was an entirely different story for Reed. First of all, he pitched very well, leading the Twins in wins and innings pitched.
Secondly, the pitching staff that featured Mays, Radke and Milton all throwing 200+ innings in 2001 was devastated by injuries to all three of those guys in 2002 and Reed was needed to eat up innings and simply make his scheduled turn in the rotation every fifth game.
Reed fits in very well with the rest of the Twins starting pitchers because he doesn?t walk anyone and he doesn?t strike anyone out and possibly has the best control is all of baseball, he simply does not walk batters (1.2 walks per 9 in ?02 and 1.4 per 9 in ?01). He also doesn?t strike anyone out, averaging less than 6 per game in 2002.
Okay, so Reed doesn?t walk anyone and he doesn?t really strike anyone out, he sounds like Brad Radke, right?
Well, not exactly.
While Radke has been allowing an average of about 25 homers in about 220 innings per year, Reed has been giving up homers at a much higher rate. This year, he allowed 32 long balls in 188 innings of work, over 1.5 per 9 innings. Like most of the Minnesota starters, Reed is a very capable middle of the rotation starter, able to eat up innings and provide pretty good ERAs.
Unlike most of the Minnesota starters, Reed is old.
He will be 38 next season, which means those low strikeout totals are just going to get lower and those home runs are just going to keep flying into the seats. Depending on how many innings he pitches in 2003, Rick Reed only has one year remaining on his contract.
He will make $8 million in 2003, which is, like I said with the other three starters, a reasonable amount for a good, solid pitcher, but an awful lot for someone that isn?t dominant and is on a team with a low payroll.
The Twins should focus on dealing Rick Reed during the off-season for a few reasons:
1) He is old. It isn?t likely that he will improve upon this year?s performance and he will probably be worse.
2) He is coming off of a good season, which means his value is about as high as it is going to get.
3) He is in the last year of his contract, which likely makes him attractive to teams that need a short term solution and also makes him less desirable for a Twins team that is planning for the future, as well as the present.
4) If you don?t get something for him now, he is going to leave next year as a free agent and you will get nothing for him.
5) He is going to make $8 million. Chopping that salary off of the books would sure free up a lot of extra money for some of the Twins other players.
The Twins should try everything they can to trade Rick Reed. Maybe they can get a decent major league ready player or a young prospect, or maybe they will simply have to do a “salary dump” and get very little in return. Whatever the situation, they should deal him because of his age, his salary and the fact that they have a replacement ready to step in for him in?
I have been doing a lot of talking about starting pitchers that don?t strike batters out and that isn?t much fun, so let?s look at a guy who avoids bats with the best of ?em.
Johan Santana came to the Twins via the 1999 Rule V draft. Because of that, he had to stay with the Twins in the Majors for the entire 2000 season. The Twins did the best they could to give the 21-year old work, letting him mop up games in the bullpen and even giving him a few starts along the way. Santana struggled, which was definitely to be expected from a 21-year old that hadn?t pitched an inning above Single-A at that point.
Despite his struggles in 2000, Santana started the 2001 season with the Twins. He worked 44 innings, mostly in relief, before tearing a muscle in his pitching elbow and being put on the dreaded 60 day disabled list. Santana didn?t make the Twins out of spring training in 2002 and started the year pitching in the minor leagues at Triple-A Edmonton, where he absolutely dominated the competition:
75 Strike Outs
The Twins called him back up to the Majors on the last day of May and he continued his awesome pitching.
137 Strike Outs
For a 23-year old pitcher, those numbers, particularly the strike outs, are incredible. To put his K rate into context, he averaged 11.42 strike outs per 9 innings pitched. If he had enough innings pitched to qualify for the ERA title, Santana?s K rate would have ranked second in all of Major League baseball, behind only Randy Johnson.
Some pretty nice company on that list, 3 sure Hall-of-Famers and another, Schilling, who has been a top pitcher for years.
The obvious question that accompanies a breakout season like Santana had in 2002 is, can he do it again or was it a fluke? Three of the leading indicators for the future success of pitchers are his strike out rate, his walk rate and his home runs allowed. As Voros McCracken?s incredible DIPS work will tell you, those are, essentially, the only 3 things that a pitcher has complete control over. So, let?s take a look at what Johan has done over his career in those 3 areas:
A couple of things jump out at me when I see those stats?
1) Santana hasn?t thrown very many innings. In the minors, he had a total of 49 innings above A-ball and despite being signed in 1995 and pitching every year from 1997-2002, he has only thrown a total of 581 innings in professional baseball.
2) Staying with the Twins at the back of the bullpen in 2000 and 2001 appears to have been a detriment to his development. He was rolling along in 1998 and 1999 at Single-A, racking up strike outs and pitching very well. Then he made the jump to the Twins in 2000 and 2001 and his strikeout rates plummeted, his walks went up and he started giving up more gopher balls. Certainly understandable from a kid jumping from Single-A to the Majors, but not exactly the best thing to do for a developing, young, inexperienced pitcher.
3) His home runs allowed rate at the MLB level seems to be out of line with the rest of his career. Looking at the stats, it looks like Santana is probably a pitcher that would give up about 1.2-1.3 homers per 9 innings at the Major League level. His 0.6/9 rate in 2002 appears to be a bit of a fluke.
4) He seems to have come in to his own in 2002. His strike out rate is back up, better than it is ever has been. I watched Santana quite a bit this season (and in 2000 and 2001) and it appears as though he has really worked hard to improve his breaking stuff and his change up, and that work has paid off big time. He still does a lot of his damage with his great fastball, but now he uses a devastating change up and a good curveball to get keep hitters off balance and rack up strike outs.
Whoever is responsible for Santana?s improvement deserves a lot of credit, as it is very obvious, beyond his stats, that he has really improved both his off-speed pitches and his confidence in throwing them.
That said, his breakout season, however great it might be, still consists of only about 150 innings pitched between Triple-A and the Twins, so all the “small sample size” warnings apply to Santana in 2002. But still, it is pretty hard not to get excited about his future. He?s young, he?s a lefty, he throws hard, he has good, improving off-speed stuff and his K-rate this season is incredible. More than any pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization, I believe Johan Santana has a chance to be something very special, a chance to be a dominant pitcher at the Major League level.
The Twins have a lot of good starting pitchers on the Major League roster, as you can see by the 4 starters I talked about prior to Santana. One thing they do not have is a guy who has a chance to become a true “ace,” a #1 starter, a dominant, top level pitcher starting pitcher. I think Johan Santana is that guy. They need to find a full-time spot in the starting rotation for Santana, whether that means trading Rick Reed or doing something else since he deserves a chance to make 30-35 starts and pitch 200 innings.
If he gets that chance, by this time next season Johan Santana will be a household name and one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Lohse was a pleasant and much needed surprise in 2002. He stepped up when Minnesota starting pitchers started dropping like flies and ended up 2nd on the team in innings pitched and wins.
Remember the 3 keys areas for a pitcher, Ks, BBs and HRs?
Well, Lohse doesn?t really do well in any of the 3. His strike out rate is very average, at best. He struck out only 6.2/9 in 2002 and 6.4/9 in 2001 and his minor league K rates aren?t much better, so this is probably the best his strike outs are going to get.
Lohse also walks quite a few people. While Radke, Reed and Milton were all checking in with BB/9 rates in the 1.00s, Lohse walked 3.5 batters per 9 innings in 2002. He also struggles keeping the ball in the ballpark, giving up 1.3 homers per 9 in 2002 and 1.6/9 last season. Certainly not horrible home run rates, but for a pitcher that doesn?t strike out many guys and doesn?t have very good control, they are a little higher than you would like to see.
That said, Lohse is still young, showed that he can pitch at the big league level and will be cheap for the next several years. He is very capable of providing exactly what the Twins need him to do, be their #5 starter.
I would expect his ERA to rise a little bit in 2003, as has DIPS ERA was quite a bit higher than 4.23 in 2002. As a 5th starter though, a 4.50 ERA and 175-190 innings pitched would be great and that is definitely something Lohse can give the Twins, and very cheaply.
If the Twins trade Rick Reed, their 2003 starting rotation should look something like this:
1) Brad Radke
2) Eric Milton
3) Joe Mays
4) Johan Santana
5) Kyle Lohse
If 2002 showed anything, it is that you can never count of starting pitchers to be healthy. Twins fans were excited about the prospect of seeing Mays, Radke and Milton pitch in 2002 after their outstanding seasons in 2001. Here are their combined numbers for those two seasons:
Not quite what Twins fans were hoping for. They were all injured and, when healthy, they all pitched worse than they did in 2001.
Making it through an entire season with your 5-man rotation intact and making every start is just not realistic. The need for a 6th, 7th and sometimes 8th starter comes up and the Twins need to have options available to step in.
Not exactly the type of progression through the minors that you want to see from a former #2 overall pick in the 2000 draft. Johnson?s K rate is dropping steadily (12.0 to 8.8 to 6.7), his walk rate isn?t great and he is starting to allow a lot of home runs. In addition to his struggles on the field in 2002, his “attitude” off the field has been questioned as well. There was a story during spring training that when told he wasn?t going to make the team, Johnson had a bit of a tantrum in Ron Gardenhire?s office. I don?t have a problem with his attitude as much as I do with his pitching.
Johnson will almost certainly start 2003 as a starter in Triple-A. If his performance as a starter does not improve there, I would seriously consider a switch to the bullpen. Johnson has great “stuff,” his fastball works in the low-to-mid nineties and his breaking stuff is usually passable and occasionally very good.
At some point however, if his K rates continue to drop and his overall performance as a starter does not improve, a move to the pen is inevitable. Throughout baseball history, hundreds of top starting pitching prospects have struggled as starters and have been switched, successfully, to the bullpen. I would like to see what Johnson could do knowing he only had to work 1 or 2 innings at a time and only face a batter one time in a game. Many in the organization believe he could be a very good reliever, either as a right handed setup man or possibly eventually a closer, and I think it is about time they find out.
Like Johnson, Matt Kinney is not progressing the way the Twins had hoped. He had a very good minor league season in 2000, racking up 9.6 strike outs/9 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.
The Twins brought him up to the big leagues at the end of the year and he pitched okay, making 8 starts and throwing 42 innings with a 5.10 ERA. A candidate for a spot in the starting rotation in spring training last season, he had a bad spring and was sent back to Triple-A where he had a bad season.
Kinney has a live fastball and also mixes in a good curveball/slider combo and a decent changeup.
His strikeout rate is still okay; he averaged 8.1 Ks/9 in AAA last year, but only struck out 6.1/9 with the Twins in 2002. The dropping K rates, the struggles with control and the rising home runs allowed is probably not a good sign for Kinney becoming a top-level starter.
He is still fairly young and cheap, and he should be able to pitch relatively effectively if given a spot in the starting rotation. I would expect an ERA somewhere between 4.50-5.00.
His future, even as a back of the rotation starter is in some doubt though, because of injury. Kinney had a sore right shoulder in early July and was put on the DL for what was expected to be about 2-3 weeks and ended up missing the entire second half of the season.
That said, he is supposed to be healthy once again and I would expect him to be the top candidate to step in to the rotation if something happens to one of the top 5 starters in 2003.
While the pattern for starting pitchers at the big league level in 2002 was injuries, the pattern for starters in the Twins high minor leagues, from Adam Johnson and Matt Kinney to Juan Rincon and Brad Thomas, was heavy declines in performance.
Thomas dropped off the most from 2001, almost tripling his ERA, while striking out the same amount of batters, despite pitching almost 35 more innings. He also allowed 5 times as many homers (20) as he did the previous year (4).
Rincon fell quite a bit from last year as well. His strikeout rate at AA in 2001 (7.8/9) was pretty good, but it fell over a K per game at AAA this season. He allowed 3 more homers in half the amount of innings and his ERA jumped up 2 full runs.
All 4 pitchers, Johnson, Kinney, Rincon and Thomas, looked very promising at some point in last two years. However, for whatever reason, the Twins have failed to develop these young pitching prospects (a list that also includes former #1 pick Ryan Mills) past the Double-A level. That failed development is not only a bad thing for the current Twins team, as none of these guys look ready to step in and contribute very much, but it is also a bad sign for the future of the Twins starting pitching, which includes several very good prospects in the low minor leagues.
Another pitcher in the Twins high minors that is being talked about as a future starter for the Twins is Scott Randall. Talk about him centers on his outstanding record, 12-0, at Triple-A Edmonton in 2002. Obviously, any pitcher that goes 12-0 over the course of a season has pitched pretty well and his 3.25 ERA was very good too.
However, he struck out only 54 hitters in 105 innings pitched, which works out to 4.6/9 innings. Quite simply, a pitcher that strikes out four and a half guys per game in Triple-A is a poor bet to do anything valuable in the Majors, 12-0 record or 0-12 record. At the very best, Randall could be lumped in with the other 4 guys I talked about as possible #5 starters or long relievers with the Twins, although even that may be overly optimistic.
While the upper levels of the Twins minor league system are filled with struggling pitching prospects that only look capable of filling the back end of a big league rotation, the lower levels of the system have some very promising young starting pitching talent.
At the top of that list is 20-year old right hander J.D. Durbin. Durbin, a 2nd round pick in 2000, led the Midwest League (Single-A) in strikeouts and his 2002 season was pretty impressive:
The home run rate is a little high, especially for Single-A, but the K rate is very good and his control is good for a 20-year old strike out pitcher.
Along with Durbin, the Twins also had some other good, young starting pitching at Single-A Quad Cities this year. Among the guys that Joe Mauer was battery-mate for in 2002, Durbin, Colby Miller (155 IP, 139 K, 3.78 ERA) and Sandy Tejada (91 IP, 78 K, 2.76 ERA) look the most promising.
Going even lower in the Twins system, both rookie league teams had some exciting young pitching prospects on their rosters. Ricky Barrett, the Twins 7th-round pick this year out of the University of San Diego, made a very impressive professional debut, making 11 starts at Elizabethton, totaling 64 innings, 79 strike outs, a 7-1 record and a phenomenal 1.27 ERA. As a college player, Barrett was more polished than many of the rookie league players, but nonetheless, his debut was very promising.
Scott Tyler, the Twins 2nd round pick (45th overall) in 2001, also pitched very well at Elizabethton, making 13 starts and had an 8-1 record and a 2.93 ERA in 68 innings pitched. He struck out 92 and walked 46.
The Twins 2002 2nd round pick, Jesse Crain from the University of Houston, made his professional debut in 2002, pitching with Tyler and Barrett at Elizabethton. He was only able to get in 15 innings after signing, but he had incredible numbers: 0.57 ERA, 4 Hits, 18 Strike Outs.
As you can see, the Twins have some very talented and promising young pitchers in the low levels of their system. They key will developing them better than they developed the current crop of “major league ready” starters that have struggled mightily in the past year.
While the Major League rotation seems set right now with Milton, Radke, Mays, Santana and Lohse penciled in as the 5 starters and several decent options available to step in at the back of the rotation, Radke is nearing 30 and Mays is not a good bet to be with the Twins after his contract expires in 2005, which means the Twins will be needing starting pitching a few years down the road.
The Twins are not likely to start signing free agent starters to step into their rotation to fill possible openings, so they need to develop at least 1 or 2 of their Rookie/A-Ball pitching prospects into quality major league starting pitchers in order for their pitching staff to stay successful in the future.
My starting pitching plan: Trade Rick Reed and his big salary. Move Johan Santana into the starting rotation, along with Radke, Milton, Mays and Lohse. Focus on developing the starting pitching at the lowest levels of the minor leagues to someday replace Radke and/or Mays and pray that someone from the Johnson/Kinney/Thomas/Rincon group steps up and becomes more than a 5th starter.
Two seasons, almost identical numbers, with one big difference: Guardado led the AL in saves in 2002 with 45. The Twins decided to let their long time left handed setup man take a chance as their closer this season and Guardado did very well, although actually, his 2001 performance, aside from the saves, was slightly better. He allowed less hits and half as many homers in 2001, but that “45” in the “SV” column looks more important than any of that other stuff.
Guardado is a nice story. He was drafted by the Twins in the 21st round of the 1990 draft and was tried out as a starter at the Major League level, unsuccessfully. The Twins converted him to a relief role and he became “Everyday Eddie,” appearing in at least 60 games for 7 straight seasons.
At 32, Eddie is pitching better than he ever has. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high, his control is improving every year and he has cut down on his homers allowed, which were a major problem for him as recently as 2000.
The Twins have a team option on Guardado for $2.7 million in 2003 and they will certainly exercise it. At the end of next season however, the Twins will have a difficult decision on their hands. Guardado will be 33 years old and will likely be quite expensive to re-sign (as most “closers” are). A team with a low payroll cannot afford to spend $6-$8 million on a closer, especially one that is in his mid-thirties and not a good bet to be valuable throughout the life of a multi-year contract.
The Twins should try to work out a deal with Guardado this off-season, possibly a one-year extension onto his current contract that would keep him in Minnesota for both 2003 and 2004. If they could sign him for less than $3-$4 million for 2004, which is unlikely but certainly possible given Eddie?s tenure with the team, they should do so.
Failing that, they shouldn?t make the mistake of giving a mid-thirties closer a big money, long-term deal. If anything, Guardado?s great 2002 season should show the Twins that a closer is a relatively easily created thing, and can be done by taking a good setup guy and moving him from the 7th and 8th innings to the 9th.
If they are unable to sign Guardado to a short-term extension for a reasonable amount, the Twins have another left handed setup man that could definitely do the job?
Amazingly, Romero, like Eddie Guardado, was a 21 round pick of the Twins (in 1997). He was one of the top relievers in all of baseball this season and should be the Twins poster child for converting struggling starting pitchers (like Adam Johnson) into relievers.
Romero was one of the keys to the Twins division winning 2002 season. In spring training he was battling for the #5 starter spot in the rotation, but somewhere along the way he was switched to relief and made the club as one of the last men in the bullpen.
A 0.59 ERA in April and a 0.56 ERA in May and the setup job was his.
He works with a plus fastball, a decent curve and an excellent changeup. His strike out rate is very good, but not great, he has some control problems and he does a great job limiting home runs (well, at least before Troy Glaus in the ALCS).
Despite this being his first successful season in the big leagues, Romero is not especially young at 26. He is a good bet to be the Twins best relief pitcher for the foreseeable future, working setup for Eddie Guardado and then possibly taking over the closer role in a year or two.
Latroy. Latroy. Latroy. It seems like he has been a Minnesota Twin forever. He started out in 1995 as one of Minnesota?s bright, young starting pitchers, along with such renowned talents as Frank Rodriguez, Pat Mahomes and Jose Parra. He had an 8.67 ERA that year and followed it up with ERAs of 8.20, 5.84, 5.25 and 6.66 over the next 4 seasons.
For some reason, the Twins decided to stick with him and they converted him into a reliever (yet another example of that). In his first season in relief, Hawkins pitched very well, having the best ERA of his career by about 2 runs, pitching 88 innings and even saving 14 games. The Twins thought so much of his performance, his first non-horrendous season of his career, that they gave him a new contract that paid him $1.45 million in 2001 and $2.3 million this year.
Latroy started the 2001 season as the closer and actually did reasonably well for the first part of the year. He successfully saved his first 9 opportunities, blew a save against Kansas City and then saved 5 more in a row. So, at that point, he was 14/15 in saves, although he was more than a little shaky in doing so. He went on to save 14 more games while blowing 8 save opportunities and had an absolutely rancid August, allowing 12 runs and 16 hits in only 7 innings of work, and he eventually lost the closer job late in the year to Eddie Guardado.
It looked like Latroy?s 2000 season was a complete fluke, a 3.39 ERA in the middle of 6 seasons in the in 5.00s and 8.00s. But, they still had him under contract for 2002 at $2.3 million dollars, so they kept him in the bullpen and made him the official mop-up man, as evidenced by his grand total of 1 decision (a win) in his first 30 appearances.
Amazingly though, Latroy was pitching very well. He had a 1.15 ERA in August, 2.08 in May, 1.72 in June and 1.17 in July. Then, just when I started to get a little confidence in him, he had a 6.75 ERA in August, before finishing with a nice September (1.29 ERA). Overall, a very good season for Hawkins.
The Twins have a $3 million option on him for 2003. $3 million for a guy coming off of a season with a 3.39 ERA in 80 relief innings is certainly a reasonable price. But, this isn?t just any reliever, this is a guy with a career ERA of 5.38 and a total of 2 seasons out of 8 with an ERA under 5.00. Not to mention, the Twins aren?t the type of team that can be paying $3 million dollars to very many relief pitchers.
I have no doubt that there are many teams in baseball that would jump at the chance to pay Hawkins $3 million in 2003 and probably a lot more for several years. I just don?t think the Twins should be that team. They need to conserve payroll and a good place to start would be by declining his option.
The $3 million could be better spent on paying the salary increases from the various arbitration eligible players, instead of a reliever with a horrible track record and a 50/50 shot of being completely useless. Other than Hawkins, Guardado and Romero, the other members of the excellent Twins 2002 bullpen were all basically taken off of the scrap heap.
Mike Jackson was signed to a minor league contract ($500,000) before spring training and ended up making the club and pitching well in the first half of the season, before getting injured and struggling in the second half (and post-season).
Tony Fiore was released by Tampa Bay in 2001 and then signed a minor league contract with the Twins. He pitched the majority of the year at Triple-A Edmonton in 2001 and made a couple of September appearances for the Twins. In 2002, he started the year back at Edmonton before being called up to the Twins and pitching extremely well in a long relief role.
Bob Wells was let go by Seattle in 1999 and signed as a free agent with Minnesota. He pitched well for them in 1999 and 2000, putting up 3.81 and 3.65 ERAs in 86 and 87 innings pitched. He struggled badly in 2001, ending the year with a 5.11 ERA and in 2002 he struggled terribly early on, was sidelined with an injury and pitched pretty well after coming back, finishing the year with a 5.90 ERA in 58 innings of work.
Jackson, Fiore and Wells are examples of why teams do not need to spend millions of dollars on guys like Latroy Hawkins. There are always going to be veterans like Jackson looking to resurrect a career or minor league journey men like Fiore looking to catch a break or Major League castoffs like Wells looking to stay in the Majors.
And they can all be had very cheaply.
With Guardado in the closer?s role for at least another year and Romero firmly entrenched in the setup position, the Twins need to find a few guys like Fiore or Jackson every year to fill in the gaps of the bullpen. This can either be done by promoting players from within the organization or going out and signing guys to free agent deals or minor-league contracts for at or near the minimum.
Within the organization, the Twins do have some interesting reliever prospects, if there is such a thing. Minor league relievers tend to not have the greatest Major League careers, for whatever reason. Many successful relievers in the Majors were actually starters throughout their minor league career and into their time at the big league level. However, occasionally a successful minor league reliever succeeds in the big leagues.
A few Twins relief prospects to keep an eye on:
Balfour was signed in 1997 out of Australia (along with Brad Thomas) and was converted to a full-time reliever in the middle of the 2000 season. In his first full year in relief, 2001, he dominated Double-A, putting up incredible numbers. Like most Twins pitching prospects, his ERA rose quite a bit in 2002, but unlike others, his peripheral numbers stayed very good. His strikeout rate, always very good, went up a notch in 2001 (13.0/9 IP) and 2002 (11.2/9 IP). His control has gotten better and he has become very good at keeping home runs to a minimum.
If any Twins minor league reliever has a shot to be successful in the Major Leagues, it is Grant Balfour. He deserves to be given a full-time role in the Minnesota bullpen in 2003 and beyond.
Other interesting Twins pitching prospects:
Juan Padilla: The Twins Double-A closer had a very nice 2002 season, posting a 3.31 ERA in 65 innings, along with 52 strike outs, 18 walks and 29 saves.
Beau Kemp: Twins 31st-round pick in 2000. 2.51 ERA with 46 Ks in 43 IP at Quad City in ?01 and a 0.66 ERA and 49 Ks in 68 IP at Fort Myers this year. The ERA is a lot lower than the rest of his stats would suggest, but anyone that puts up a 0.66 ERA is worth keeping an eye on.
Travis Bowyer: Split time between rotation and bullpen in ?02, racking up 90 Ks and a 2.16 ERA in 92 total innings. Control is a bit of a problem after he issued 46 walks those 92 innings.
Pat Neshek: 6th-round pick in 2002 out of Butler, made a great pro debut with 0.99 ERA and a 41/6(!) strikeout to walk ratio in 27 innings at Elizabethton.
Matt Vorwald: 7th-round pick in 2001 out of U of Illinois, pitched very well 65 innings at Quad City, all in relief, totaling 77 strike outs and a 2.34 ERA.
My relief pitching plan: Try to extend Guardado cheaply for 2004, if not let him go after 2003 and allow Romero to take over closer duties. Decline Hawkins? $3 million dollar option for 2003. Focus on signing Tony Fiore/Mike Jackson type relievers to fill in the rest of the bullpen behind Guardado and Romero. Possibly look at converting Adam Johnson to a relief pitcher as soon as 2003 and definitely for the future. Give Grant Balfour a job in the Major League bullpen right now. Continue to develop minor league prospects with the hope of plugging them into the bullpen as setup men or long relievers.
So, that?s my plan.
It involves little, if any, increases in the team?s payroll (relative to the rest of the league) and it focuses on making good decisions on who to keep long term and who to let go and replace with younger, cheaper, talent from within the organization.
It is a plan that can work practically, economically and, most importantly, on the field. It allows for the acquisition outside talent via the trading of player such as Jacque Jones and Rick Reed. It is very flexible and can be adjusted accordingly if a rise in payroll becomes a reality. And, it is just over 15,000 words!
Anyone know if Terry Ryan reads Baseball Primer?
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