During Terry Ryan's lengthy tenure as Twins' GM, I don't recall one significant trade being made after the July 31 non-waiver deadline within a season. That's not to say it never happened, but nothing stands out to me. Ryan was occasionally (but not often) aggressive in late July, but that was generally the extent of this team's involvement in the mid-season trade market.
To say things have changed under Bill Smith would be an understatement. Last year, Smith made a move at the deadline, acquiring Athletics shortstop Orlando Cabrera, but that was hardly his best trade of the season. In August, he was able to acquire Carl Pavano from the Indians and later Jon Rauch from the Diamondbacks. Both helped the Twins to a late postseason berth and both have stuck around to play valuable roles this year as the Twins have built up a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central nearing September.
This year, Smith once again made a move near the deadline, acquiring Nationals closer Matt Capps to replace a stumbling Jon Rauch, and yesterday he once again managed to out-do that non-waiver deal with an August trade that could prove more meaningful. Smith sent a player to be named later to the Angels for their own closer, Brian Fuentes.
Fuentes won't close in Minnesota, where the Twins have made a significant investment in Capps by trading one of their top prospects for him. Instead, Fuentes will take over as the team's top left-handed specialist and will serve alongside Jesse Crain to set up Capps in the ninth.
The Twins underwhelmed me and many others last week when they responded to losing both Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay in a short span of time by adding mediocre left-hander Randy Flores to the bullpen. It's not that Flores is a terrible reliever, but adding a player like him doesn't seem like the move of a team aggressively pursuing a championship. Conversely, adding Fuentes seems exactly like that type of move. Fuentes, in his prime, was one of the league's best relievers, registering a 3.04 ERA and 1.16 WHIP -- along with a 302-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- in 263 2/3 innings while racking up 111 saves as Colorado's closer between the 2005 and 2008 seasons.
That track record led the Angels to sign him prior to the 2009 season as a replacement for Francisco Rodriguez, who had priced himself out of the team's desired range by setting a single-season MLB saves record in 2008. The move proved sound and helped remind us of how the closer role can be overrated; Fuentes' numbers were thoroughly unimpressive (3.93 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 3.9 BB/9IP, career-low 7.5 K/9IP) and yet he still managed to make the All-Star team and notch a league-leading 48 saves.
Fuentes, now 35, isn't quite the elite reliever he was during those prime years with the Rockies and he's now miscast as a closer. As a set-up man specializing in shutting down left-handed hitters, though, you can't do a whole lot better. He's been almost untouchable against lefties this season, holding them to a minuscule .377 OPS, and over the course of his career he's held port-siders to a .213 average. He's also good enough against righties that he can be used as a straight eighth-inning guy, which differentiates him from the likes of Mahay and (to a lesser extent) Mijares, who tended to struggle when exposed to right-handed hitters.
Crain and Fuentes figure to be one of the league's best set-up combos in front of Capps, reminiscent to the shut-down duo of Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier in 2007 and other dominating back-end relief combos from earlier in the decade. While both relievers struggled a bit in the early months of the season, they've both been insanely hot since turning the corner around the summer's mid-point; since June 20, Crain owns a 0.34 ERA and is holding opponents to a .141 average, while Fuentes owns a 1.41 ERA and is holding opponents to a .159 average.
If those two can continue to pitch the way they have over the past two months, the Twins will have the luxury of pushing Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch (and, eventually, Jose Mijares) into middle-inning roles. While that trio has struggled in recent weeks, they're hardly bad -- in fact, early in the season, they were the team's top three high-leverage options. If they can return to form, this bullpen will sport some impressive depth as the Twins move forward down the stretch and (hopefully) into the postseason. If not, well, fortunately Ron Gardenhire will no longer have to rely on them to get key outs late in games.
I think the acquisition of Fuentes clearly upgrades the Twins bullpen and helps strengthen them for the stretch run. Ultimately, whether or not this is a good deal for the Twins will hinge on which prospect they end up losing. Considering that general managers tend to overvalue the save statistic and Fuentes led the league in saves last season, the possibility certainly exists that the Twins could part with something valuable. However, it's already late August and the Angels had little use for Fuentes, who was earning $9 million this season. This has the look of a salary dump and while I suspect that the PTBNL might be a better player than many currently expect, I don't think it's going to be a hugely loss in the long run.
Fuentes has a vesting option for 2011 in his contract that activates if he finishes 55 games this year, but he currently sits at 33 so that's not going to happen. At season's end, he will become a free agent, along with Rauch, Guerrier, Crain and Mahay. The Twins will have some decisions to make at that point with Joe Nathan returning from Tommy John surgery, but for now they'll have the luxury of relying on a deep and strong bullpen for the remainder of the 2010 campaign.
Beyond the impact of the actual deal, I love the message that Smith and the Twins front office are setting by bringing in an established, proven player like Fuentes for the stretch run. This team is in it to win it, and they're not going to let a destabilizing bullpen stand in their way.