Monday, February 11, 2008

Philip Humber: The Next Joe Nathan?

I had a dream last week. In this dream, the Twins had not yet announced the Johan Santana trade, but indications were that a deal with an unknown team was in place and that a press release would be made available by the team shortly. I fully expected Santana to be headed to the Yankees, with 21-year-old wunderkind Philip Hughes coming back. The idea was tantalizing -- the Twins would be losing their historically great southpaw, but getting back an absolute stud with legitimate potential to fill the massive void left by Santana's departure. Hughes and Francisco Liriano at the top of the rotation for the next five years? My mouth watered. I think I drooled into my pillow a little bit.

The announcement was made. The Twins had traded Santana. I rushed to my computer to read through the official press release. "The Minnesota Twins announced to today that they have traded two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana for a package that includes right-handed pitcher Philip..." Yes, this is looking good... "H..." Oh baby! "u..." How long until Hughes Twins jerseys are available at the Pro Shops?? "...mber." WHAT?! I woke up in a panic. Thank goodness it was only a dream, and the Twins didn't really trade Santana for a package whose most attractive player might be a marginal pitching prospect who posted a 4.27 ERA in Triple-A last year. Oh wait... yes they did.

There was a time when Phil Humber's career path appeared headed in the direction that Hughes' has gone. Selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft by the Mets after a dominating career at Rice University, Humber had the makeup and stuff of a guy who could rocket through the minor leagues and be pitching at the top of an MLB rotation in no time. Sadly, elbow problems and Tommy John surgery have derailed Humber, and at this point he is far from a guarantee to develop into a strong major-league starter. At one point, it might have been realistic to say Humber could replace Santana as the Twins' ace, but at this point it would be difficult to make that case. Then again, it's entirely possible that the Twins wanted Humber in the package not as a replacement for Santana, but instead as a replacement for another elite Twins pitcher who may be on his way out.

Humber and Joe Nathan are alike in a number of ways. Nathan is 6'4" and 205 lbs. Humber is 6'4" and 210 lbs. Nathan came to the Twins as the most major-league ready pitcher in what was essentially a veteran-for-prospects swap. Ditto Humber. When he's at his best, Nathan relies on a speedy fastball and a nasty breaking pitch to fan opposing hitters. The same can be said for Humber.

Like Humber, Nathan was almost exclusively a starter as he traveled through the minor leagues, but obviously he thrived upon shifting to the bullpen. Could Humber experience the same type of success with a switch to the 'pen? It would be a logical move. Humber has struggled to regain the velocity on his fastball and bite on his curveball since undergoing surgery on his elbow. Working in shorter bullpen stints, he may be better able to utilize his stuff. The lesser workload might also lower his risk for injury. Additionally, moving to the bullpen can be beneficial for pitchers who struggle with control -- that certainly was the case for Nathan, who walked 4.56 batters per nine innings as a minor-leaguer but has never seen that number exceed 2.86 since becoming a full-time closer in the big leagues. The Twins are going to be needing to add some power arms to their bullpen in the near future, with Nathan and Juan Rincon both likely to be gone after next year and Eduardo Morlan no longer in the organization.

It's unlikely that anyone acquired in Mets trade is going to become the next Johan Santana, but if Humber can become the next Joe Nathan, it will make the deal a whole lot more palatable. I think he could do it, but maybe I'm just dreaming.

9 comments:

ubelmann said...

I was kind of thinking this the other day. It's worth noting that--as near as I can tell--Humber is out of options, so if he's not rotation-ready at the end of spring training, we'll find out how he looks in the 'pen.

Joe Nathan is a pretty high bar to set, but Humber could be a guy that would thrive out of the 'pen.

S.Chancellor said...

There is really no way to put a good spin on the Santana trade. If our hope is that one day Humber makes a good closer...

On the other hand, as twincites.com noted, the Twins have 22 million dollars to spend.

I would like the Twins to trade half the farm to TB for Scott Kazmir. I say "half the farm" in jest, of course, but I strongly believe that the Twins need to make a bold, bold move. I do not know one Twins fan who has anything positive to say about what the club has done (on balance).

We will all regret for years and years to come what the team did last week. We traded a modern-day Sandy Koufax. Worst trade in the history of the franchise.

Jewscott said...

My problem with the Nathan/Humber comp is that Humber has lost a lot of velocity, and it's hard to pin your hopes that it's going to come back at this point. Velocity is generally the first thing that comes back after TJ surgery (most pitchers actually throw harder because their arm is pain-free for the first time in awhile.) It's the other stuff (command, feel for breaking and off-speed pitches) that takes time to come back. That Humber didn't throw as hard in 2007as he did in 2006 (which was still slower than the 93-94 his fastball sat in college) isn't a good sign.

It's hard to recover from a loss of pure stuff. Ask Adam Johnson.

Nick N. said...

ubes: Indeed, I didn't mean to imply that Humber will be as good as Nathan, just that he could follow the same path. Good catch on the options, I hadn't noticed that.

S. Chancellor: I'm not a big fan of this trade either, but I think you're exaggerating how bad it is. It's far too early to call it the "worst trade in franchise history."

If Humber develops into a solid closer, Guerra progresses and becomes a top-of-the-rotation starter, Mulvey settles in the middle of the rotation and Gomez becomes a dynamic offensive weapon while winning Gold Gloves in center field, this deal will have to be viewed as a success. Now, granted, it's very unlikely that all of those things will happen, but if even a couple of them do, the Twins will not be regretting this trade.

jewscott: You make a valid point, however I would give these two rebuttals: 1) while it is generally true that pitchers get their velocity back pretty quick after TJ surgery, it is not always the case (as I recall, it took Bedard about a year to get back to full velocity); 2) it's not like Humber's stuff is completely gone, as his K-rate in Triple-A last year was still pretty decent. Moving to the bullpen almost always gives a pitcher a bump in velocity, so perhaps it is just what Humber needs to move back toward that mid-90s velo he had in college.

halfchest said...

Very interesting thoughts here. I hadn't thought about Humber in the bullpen but it kind of makes sense when you look at the surplus of pitchers at AAA and ML. I'd say the signing of Hernandez makes this even more likely.

Jeff said...

I think you guys are gonna like Humber.

Anonymous said...

Not sure Joe Nathan would be all that thrilled, but why not move big Joe to the starting rotation?

He was a pretty darn good starter at AAA Fresno and, as a starter with some pretty average SF teams, he had a winning overall record.

Nice to have him as a closer, but if there aren't all that many saves to be had, what's the point? See if Neesh, Matty Guerrier,Rincon, Humber or Blackburn can close. With so many question marks with all these young starters, including Humber, why not give it a try?

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