Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Pierzynski/Prior Paradox

A few weeks ago, I heard about a poll of Twins fans asking whether they would rather have the duo of current Twins Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan as a battery or the "ones that got away", AJ Pierzynski and Mark Prior. I must say I was somewhat surprised to hear that most chose the latter, if only because people have fallen in love with the potential of hometown hero Mauer and the immediate success that Nathan has found in the closer role. Still, on further review, it is hard to deny that, at least for now, the team would be much better off with Prior and Pierzysnki. I don't think this is the case for the long haul, since Pierzynski is already 28 and at his peak, and Prior - while a great pitcher - is going to have arm problems his whole career and would have been very difficult for the Twins to keep as he quickly would have been out of their range of affordability.

This season, Mauer and Pierzysnki have been about equally productive hitters. Pierzynski has shown more power, with his 8 home runs doubling Mauer's, but Joe's average and OBP kill AJ's (JM .307/.390; AJ .265/.338). At first I was going to say that Pierzynski has an upper hand in that the White Sox don't have to deal with such a tender injury situation with their catcher in which he must sit out seemingly every third game, but a look at the stat sheet quickly shows that AJ has played in only one more game than Joe and that Mauer actually has one more at-bat on the year. Guess AJ hasn't been playing as much as I'd thought. Defensively, Mauer is clearly superior because AJ has trouble blocking pitches and doesn't have nearly the arm. Still, I don't think the Twins would mind having Pierzynski's powerful stroke and feisty attitude at this point. Down the road, clearly Mauer will be the better player. Right now, you could go either way. Both players will gain All-Star consideration.

The pitching part of the equation is where separation is made. Nathan is one of the best closers in baseball, but does he have the value to this team that Prior would? Mark has made 9 starts for the Cubs this year and posted some pretty impressive numbers. He's 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA and opposing batters are hitting a paltry .194 against him. The strikeout number isn't as high as one might expect for him, just 9.57 K/9 (though certainly nothing to scoff at), but he's clearly getting the job done. Nathan has been excellent despite some recent control problems, but could the team do without him? With a seemingly ready replacement in Jesse Crain, I would venture to say yes. We would lose a little in the pen, but gain much more in the rotation.

So when looking at this issue from all sides, my opinion is that, yes, the Twins probably would be better off with Pierzynski and Prior this season. However, in the long-run, I don't think there is much doubt that Mauer will become a tremendous player and Nathan's arm will probably go through less trouble than Prior's. The Twins are a team constantly building for the future, and having Nathan and Mauer in place keeps that future looking very bright.