Rarely has there been a player easier for Twins fans to like than Pat Neshek. The Brooklyn Park, MN native was drafted out of Butler University by his hometown team in the sixth round in 2002. He possesses a well established level of humility and a reputation as a player whose interaction with the fans is unrivaled.
These are all traits that have worked in Neshek's favor, but I think his most endearing characteristic is his uniqueness. Never before have we seen a delivery quite like his, and when he arrived on the major-league scene in 2006 none of us knew quite what to make of it. Neither did big-league hitters, apparently, as Neshek flat-out dominated, debuting in July and posting a 2.19 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and astounding 53-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 37 innings despite working with a fastball that barely edged 90 mph.
For the first half of the next season, Neshek continued to baffle AL hitters with his quirky arm action, delivering pitches from a side-arm slot and following through by hopping toward home plate on his toes (a style he'd adapted after suffering an arm injury in high school).
From his MLB debut on July 7, 2006 through July 7, 2007, Neshek accumulated one full season of pure relief dominance, hurling 79 innings with a 1.94 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 104-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It doesn't get much better than that, and it was startling to see from Neshek, a likable hometown kid who lacked the bulldog mentality, standout velocity or gravity-bending stuff that typifies elite late-inning relievers.
Unfortunately, whatever magic the right-hander was employing for that first year quickly dissipated. Neshek faded in the second half of the '07 season and has never really recaptured his electricity. Since the one-year anniversary of his first outing in the bigs, Neshek has a 4.79 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 47-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 50 2/3 innings.
As spectacular as he was that first year, Neshek walked a fine line with his lack of overpowering stuff and his reliance on a unique release. Eventually, the novelty of his delivery would wear off and big-league hitters would start to adapt; moreover, he needed every last tick of velocity for his approach to work and since suffering a torn ligament in 2008 that required Tommy John surgery, that consistent 90-mph heat simply hasn't been there.
As someone who greatly admires Neshek as a person and loves watching him pitch when he's on top of his game, I was fiercely hoping to see shades of his spellbinding rookie form this spring. Unfortunately, when I had the opportunity to watch him pitch an inning in Ft. Myers, I just didn't see it. His velocity remained stuck in the mid-80s; his once frisbee-like slider continued to lack its previous bite.
Apparently the Twins saw the same thing as they watched Neshek pitch this spring. They placed the righty on waivers on Friday, and this afternoon he was claimed by the Padres. Considering the Twins' huge questions in the bullpen and Neshek's minimal $625,000 salary this year, the move says a lot about the organization's feelings about the side-armer. If they don't make a move to fill his open spot on the 40-man roster (Bill Smith said in the article linked above that it could remain open for "two weeks or six months"), waiving Neshek would really signal a complete and total lack of confidence.
I'll miss Neshek, but it's important to note that despite his amazing performance in the year after he made his major-league debut, he simply hasn't been the same pitcher since. I hope he can resurrect his career in the National League, where fewer hitters have been exposed to his delivery and he'll move further and further away from surgery, but for the time being I'm going to have to trust the front office's evaluation that Neshek was not ready to contribute as a quality member of the Twins' bullpen this season.
The question is, where are those guys going to come from? Neshek, one of the players Bill Smith labeled a "wild card" for a rebuilt bullpen during the offseason, is now gone, and a number of other relief candidates have failed to impress this spring.
While I can't find it in myself to criticize the Twins' brass over letting go of a 30-year-old pitcher who hasn't gotten results in the majors for over three years, Neshek's release does nothing to alleviate my concerns about an increasingly dire bullpen situation that seems to have been completely ignored during the offseason.