Monday, July 27, 2009

A League of Their Own

With just five days until Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline, rumors and speculation are sure to come to a fulcrum this week. Bill Smith has insisted that, while he's confident that the Twins are capable of winning the division as they're currently comprised, he's still "looking to see if we can make it better." A non-committal quote straight out of the Terry Ryan playbook.

If the Twins do elect to make a move, it's got to be one that augments the bullpen. While the infield has been a source of constant frustration and Joe Crede's shoulder problems raise further concern about the competency of that unit, the Twins do have the means to possibly address this unit internally. Steve Tolleson, Mark Grudzielanek, Luke Hughes and Danny Valencia are among the candidates to provide serviceable production in place of the team's current struggling infielders.

Yet, the team's bullpen problems have came into clear focus on the team's latest road trip. Last Monday, the relief corps aided in one of the biggest collapses in club history, coughing up seven runs in four innings as the Athletics erased a 10-run deficit. On Wednesday, they let the A's pile on after a dud outing from Glen Perkins, surrendering eight runs after the starter's early exit to turn a blowout into an outright embarrassment. A day later, the bullpen turned a two-run ninth-inning lead into a one-run tenth-inning loss.

The Twins bullpen has been thin all year, and the answer up to this point has been to call on former Triple-A starters like Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey to augment the unit. This is not a workable strategy. Jesse Crain had seemingly improved on some of the issues that were troubling him during his stint in Rochester, but quickly reminded us why he was sent down in the first place when he registered a quick loss in his first appearance back with the Twins on Thursday night. You can't win a division when your bullpen consists of four relievers who can only truly be counted on in low-leverage, mop-up type situations. But that's where the Twins are currently at.

If this team is to have any hope at all of bringing their bullpen back to respectability this season, Smith must add another solid arm before Friday's deadline. And the team that he should be engaging in talks with is the same team with which the Twins pulled off their last successful deadline deal six years ago: the Toronto Blue Jays.

The most attractive name in Toronto's bullpen is one that's been bandied about quite a bit in league-wide trade speculation, and that's Scott Downs. The left-hander is having an excellent season, with a 3.06 ERA and 33-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 1/3 innings. He has successfully filled in as the team's closer at times. Opponents are hitting just .207 against him. Yet, I don't see Downs as a realistic target for the Twins, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, his outstanding numbers have almost certainly inflated his value, and giving up a ton to acquire a relief pitcher in the middle of the season is almost never a wise choice. Secondly, I'm not sure Ron Gardenhire would know how to use him. While the Twins' manager has generally done a good job of running the bullpen (despite constant misguided complaints from the fanbase), he is very traditional about the way he uses his relievers. He likes to have a closer, a couple of hard-throwing eighth-inning relievers and a left-handed specialist, along with some usable middle-relief guys. I get the sense that his ideal bullpen set-up is the one the Twins had in 2006, with Joe Nathan holding down the backend, Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon (and later Pat Neshek) anchoring the eighth inning, and Dennys Reyes being used situationally to retire lefties. While Downs has been excellent and has been plenty effective against right-handed hitters, I do wonder whether Gardy would be comfortable with him as a straight-up eight-inning guy.

I tend to think the Jays reliever who the Twins should be targeting is Brandon League. If you look up League's stats, the first thing you'll probably notice is that he holds a rather unimpressive 4.70 ERA this season. That's a con. But let's run through some of his pros:

1) He's right-handed.
2) He's allowing less than a hit per inning and holds a very good 44-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings of work.
3) He has a 3.42 xFIP. Compare that to the rest of the Twins' setup options, such as Matt Guerrier (4.37), Jose Mijares (4.74) and Bobby Keppel (4.70).
4) He has a hard fastball that averages around 95 mph, and mixes in a quality slider and a changeup.
5) He's only 26, and is controllable for two more years.
6) He posted a 2.18 ERA last year, increasingly the likelihood that his high ERA this season is a fluke.

The Jays can afford to part with one of their relievers given their depth in this area, with Downs, League, Jason Frasor and Jeremy Accardo all standing as quality late-inning options. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi may also be willing to part with League for less than the others given his high ERA and arbitration-eligible status. If the demands are reasonable, this is a player that Smith should be aggressively pursuing. He would represent an immediate and potentially drastic upgrade to the team's bullpen.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While the Twins' manager has generally done a good job of running the bullpen (despite constant misguided complaints from the fanbase)

so having your best reliever throw such a small amount of innings is misguided? not using him in the biggest collapse this year? continuing to put jesse crain in high leverage situations? i am not sure what part is misguided. maybe you can help me out.

Nick N. said...

While I'd agree that Gardenhire's stringent usage of Nathan in "closer situations" is flawed, this is a trait he shares with just about every single manager in major-league baseball. It'd be great if Gardy would revolutionize managers' usage of closers, but it's probably an unfair expecation, especially from a guy as traditional as Gardenhire. As far as Crain... Gardenhire really can only work with what he has. Sadly, Crain might be the fourth-best reliever in this bullpen right now. At times he's going to have to be used in high-leverage situations.

Jewscott said...

Like I said, I like League and think he makes sense for the Twins bullpen. But trades don't happen in a vaccuum. What do you perceive Toronto's asking price for League? What's the maximum you'd be willing to give up for him? Do you balk if Riccardi comes out swinging and asks for Wilson Ramos in exchange? Same question, sub in Aaron Hicks for Ramos?

I guess what I'm saying is I see your point, but what if Toronto isn't all that accomodating?

Nick N. said...

Obviously I have no way of knowing what Ricciardi would demand in return for League. My ultimate point was that Toronto's outstanding bullpen depth might make them palatable to parting with him at a reasonable cost. Clearly we have no way of knowing what Ricciardi considers reasonable, but I've never gotten the sense that he's viewed all that highly there.

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