On Saturday afternoon, I met with a few Twins bloggers at Joe Senser's in Bloomington to discuss baseball over snacks and drinks. The gathering provided me with an opportunity to meet John Meyer (of Twins Most Valuable Blogger) and Parker Hageman (of Over the Baggy) for the first time, catch up with the affable Seth Stohs, and engage in another friendly yet contentious debate with John Bonnes over Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young (suffice to say we fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in our standpoints on both players). The outing also afforded my mother the opportunity to, upon learning of my plans from my Facebook status, take the following shot: "What kind of luncheon do people go to at 2:30 in the afternoon? Oh wait, this is a bloggers luncheon." Well played, mom.
Of course, we also had to talk a little bit about what qualifies as perhaps the Twins' biggest offseason move thus far -- the signing of reliever Luis Ayala to a one-year, $1.3 million deal. And that's just what we did... talk about it a little bit. Ayala just isn't someone worth getting excited about. He's got a history of pitching well, having posted a sub-3 ERA in each of his first three seasons as a big-leaguer, and he has some experience closing games. But he's 31 years old, missed the 2006 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and posted a 5.74 ERA and 1.45 WHIP between the Nationals and Mets last year. A right-handed reliever who has a history of posting solid ERA figures despite underwhelming peripherals and who is looking to bounce back from a miserable 2008 campaign... Ayala basically seems like another Matt Guerrier.
Now, I don't mean to say that Ayala is a terrible addition. He's a sinker specialist who seemingly has a decent chance to provide some quality innings this year, and it's tough to pout too much about a one-year commitment at just over a million dollars. What I find more interesting is that the signing of Ayala could very well signal that either Boof Bonser or Philip Humber is gone. Both those players are out of options, and the Twins were going to have a hard time bringing them both north out of spring training as it was. By signing Ayala to a contract and (at least in my view) essentially guaranteeing him a spot in the bullpen, the Twins are seemingly pushing one of the Bonser/Humber duo out the door.
Prior to Ayala's signing, a seven-man bullpen for the Twins would have probably looked like this: Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow, Jose Mijares, Bonser and Humber. With Ayala entering the fray, the Twins will either have to start Mijares in Triple-A or say goodbye to one (or both) of Bonser and Humber. That could present a difficult decision for Ron Gardenhire. While there's technically no downside to starting Mijares in the minors (and it's probably the option I'd choose), this would leave the Twins with only one lefty in the bullpen and would rob the team of its best non-Nathan relief option during the last month of the 2008 season.
If it comes down to it, the choice between Bonser and Humber is not an easy one. Bonser showed some devastating stuff after moving to the bullpen last season, and members of the organization have publicly mused that he could eventually blossom into a dominant setup man, so this doesn't seem like the proper time to give up on him. Humber came on strong in the second half for Rochester last year, and allowing one of the four prospects that came back in the Johan Santana trade to simply walk away one year later would probably not reflect well upon the organization.
While it makes sense to carry all these pitchers into spring training and let things sort themselves out (at least one of these relievers is bound to get hurt or perform horribly), there's some risk involved in this course of action. Humber and Bonser are both talented enough to have some semblance of trade value, so carrying them to the end of spring training and then being forced to lose them while getting nothing back would be a mistake worth avoiding.
Signing Ayala doesn't strike me as the type of move that provides a clear, decisive upgrade to the bullpen, but it could pan out. If, however, the move forces the Twins to part with either Bonser or Humber while receiving nothing in return, it could end up hurting more than it helps.