Thursday, December 02, 2010

Twins bullpen just got lighter

Earlier in the offseason, Sam Miller of the Orange County Register pointed out that 12 of the 34 free agents classified as Type A – meaning teams would have to forfeit draft picks to sign them – were relief pitchers. Tagging this many relievers with this status certainly devalues a lot of the talent. With the market salivating for unencumbered middle relief help, the Twins may have ultimately tossed two steaks in to the shark tank.

On Tuesday, Jesse Crain turned down the Twins’ offer of arbitration, which should come as a surprise to no one. After coming off of a terrific second-half of the season, the 28-year-old Crain was one of the few relievers to have a solid showcasing in 2010 without being shackled to a Type A status. On the other hand, a week ago Tuesday, the team decided not to extend arbitration to Matt Guerrier, who was given Type A status, as the 32-year-old would stand to make a plush raise over his $3.15 million salary from 2009.

With both of their late innings pedigrees and the fact that they are not restricted by Type A status, teams are now eagerly targeting the righties. Recognizing that they have a very favorable climate, the two Twins relievers are currently seeking three-year deals.

After turning to his slider more Crain transformed into one of the most reliable relievers in baseball. From June 1 on, when the deployment of his slider noticeably increased, Crain held opponents to a .189 batting average while striking out 45 in 46 innings of work and allowing just two home runs in that time (he’s only allowed five home runs dating back to May 17, 2009). MLB Network’s Peter Gammons tweeted that Crain was possibly the hottest reliever left on the market after the Tigers’ signed Joaquin Benoit. By his count, Gammons had 11 teams interested in his services.

Toronto has been one of the more outspoken teams seeking his services. Without a brand-name closer and in the midst of what they insist is a “re-building process”, the Blue Jays feel that Crain is the right candidate for them. Rather than sign a closer at a closer’s price, they would likely ink Crain to a contract similar to Benoit’s (three-years, $16.5 million) and allow him to audition for the closer’s role – a job that Crain has expressed interest in. Because almost all of the other team’s on Gammons’ list have closers, the Blue Jays and their vacancy may entice Crain into departing from Minnesota.

Given his age and track record, Crain should easily get a three-year deal. Guerrier, meanwhile, is probably hindering his marketability somewhat by requesting a three-year deal.

Admittedly, as much as I’ve tried in the past, it’s hard to argue with his results. In the past two seasons, he’s been one of the most reliable relievers (223.2 innings, 4th most) with a decent average against (.238) and WHIP (1.22). In spite of the impressive track record, what he doesn’t possess is any of indication that he can sustain this going forward.  He doesn’t miss bats and he doesn’t get an absurd amount of groundballs (although he’s decent at avoiding rocketed line drives). What’s more is that his batting average on balls in play (.259) is one of the lowest in that time plus his FIP has lagged significantly behind his ERA (-0.98). Not to mention, in that time he’s also allowed the second-most home runs (29) in baseball. Given the circumstances, a team doing their due diligence would likely avoid dishing out a multi-year contract with that kind of volatility. 

That notwithstanding, several teams have an obvious interest. In addition to the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays, the Boston Red Sox are rumored to be interested in Guerrier. While a very stats-friendly ballclub, the Sox play in an environment in which right-handed hitters can have a lot of success. When you play there for 81 games, you want to make sure that you are fully prepared to deal with that scenario. In his career, Guerrier has held right-handed hitters to a good .235 average which would appeal to Boston’s front office. However, righties have hit fly balls 40% of the time. So while that .235 career average or .210 in ’10 might seem appealing now, given the close proximity of the Green Monster and his home run proclivity, Guerrier’s pitching style might not be all that conducive to Fenway.

Beyond Crain and Guerrier, the Twins are poised to lose Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes. Combined, the foursome worked 78.1 of the 113.2 innings in save opportunities last season.  The Twins are not one to build their bullpen through free agency – which means overspending in price and years - and it is highly unlikely that Ron Gardenhire would be satisfied heading into the season with the untested lot of Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama or Rob Delaney as his 7th and 8th inning bridge. Furthermore, in spite of Joe Nathan insistence to the contrary, it’s hard to imagine him returning at his pre-surgery form in 2011.

One possibility that is surely on Bill Smith’s mind is to trade J.J. Hardy for bullpen help. While a less than ideal solution that weakens the team in the middle infield, clearly Hardy can bring in a useful, low cost arm. Because the team has little intention of keeping him past the 2011 season, he’s likely the perfect trading piece in their view, particularly given the competition’s need for shortstop and their belief that Alexi Casilla can handle a full-time position.

It remains a possibility that the Twins will attempt to retain either Crain or Guerrier (’s Kelly Thesier hints that the team may try to bring Crain back) but for now, the market appears too attractive to the pair to pass up and the organization will have to look to fill those vacancies in other ways.