Monday, January 16, 2012

ZOOM! Twins Add Powerful, But Fragile, Bullpen Arm

For Twins fans, the image is tough to forget.

Joel Zumaya was pitching to Delmon Young in the eighth inning of a late June game at Target Field. On a full count, the right-hander reared back and unleashed a 99 mph fastball, which Young fouled off.

It was immediately obvious that something went very wrong with Zumaya on the pitch, as he quickly clutched his right elbow and collapsed to the ground in extreme pain. His right hand was shaking violently as his coaches and teammates huddled around him near the pitcher's mound.

As it would turn out, Zumaya suffered an elbow fracture on the delivery, specifically to the olecranon, which is the top-most point of the ulna (shown to the right). It was the latest in a long line of arm injuries for the righty – the nature of the beast when your game is built around hurling triple-digit heaters – and it's kept him off the field for the last year and a half.

Zumaya can't have fond memories of Target Field, but it looks like he'll return to pitch at the site of his most gruesome injury, as he's reportedly agreed to terms with the Twins on a one-year deal. Pending a physical – which is no simple formality in this case – the reliever will earn a base salary of $800,000 plus incentives to serve as a much-needed right-handed power arm at the back end of the bullpen.

While auditioning in front of an army of scouts back in December, Zumaya was reportedly registering between 93-96 mph with decent command. That's a step back from his previous elite heat (his fastball was averaging 99.3 mph in 2010 before he went down) but it would still qualify him as the hardest thrower on the Twins' staff, and he'll likely add some ticks in spring training if he can stay healthy.

That's a big "if," obviously, as the newly added setup man will join a lengthy list of health question marks in Ft. Myers. Still, Zumaya is only 27, and broken bones tend to heal more reliably than torn ligaments. If the fireballer can finally make his way through a full season with good health – something he hasn't done since his rookie year in 2006 – he could provide a huge boost from the right side in the late innings.

And if things don't work out, the Twins won't be out much money, as his deal is non-guaranteed and his base salary is barely more than the club would've paid to keep Jose Mijares around. This is the kind of low-risk, high-upside signing that Terry Ryan should be looking to make whenever he can, especially with the payroll restrictions that have been imposed upon him.

The fact remains, though, that if Zumaya's arm fails him as it has in five straight seasons, Alex Burnett stands to be the top fallback option. We'll see if Ryan is done shopping for relief help.


Anonymous said...

Excellent low-risk, high reward contract. I was starting to worry that the Twins would do absolutely nothing with their woe-fully weak bullpen. Although Zumaya's success is, like 3/4 of the Twins' next year, dependent on his health, I'd still take Zumaya over Burnett and the other right-handers we have right now in our bullpen. Very "Ryan-like" signing...that's why I love the guy!

TT said...

I suspect Zumaya is going to disappoint a lot of fans. I think he is likely to be a back of the bullpen mop up guy. He really wasn't very good in 2008 and 2009. He had two good months in 2010, but was starting to struggle even before he broke down. The fact that his velocity is down over a year and half later is not a good sign either. His health is clearly a gamble, but its not just his health.

He does give them a guy with past major league success besides Capps and Perkins. But I think one of the young prospects stepping up as the right handed setup guy is more likely than Zumaya.

Jim H said...

Zumaya always seemed to be the kind of guy where the catcher put his glove in the middle of the plate, and the pitcher threw as hard as could on nearly every pitch, and then hoped it might be in the strike zone, somewhere. That works if you throw nearly 100 mph or have a lot of late unpredictable movement.

I don't remember a lot of movement on Zumaya's ball. I think he will pretty much have to regain his velocity or he will likely be in some trouble. He might be like a Hoey who just can't get away with throwing a fastball all the time.

Still, it is a pretty good signing. He could give the bullpen a different look, and as been pointed out by many, there doesn't seem to be a lot of risk on the Twins part.

Jim H said...

"I suspect Zumaya is going to disappoint a lot of fans. I think he is likely to be a back of the bullpen mop up guy." TT, this seems unlikely to me. I doubt he would be very useful as a multi-inning pitcher, even supposing the Twins would want to use him that way. He has always been a max effort, throw a lot of pitches guy. If you used him for more than one inning, he would be unavailable for days.

I think the worst case scenario is that if he is healthy but not quite back to his old self during spring training. If the velocity isn't quite there, or the control is worse than it used to be. Then you have decide if he is likely to regain his old form during the regular season or not. He could be a big liability if it takes months for him to find his old form.

TT said...

"I doubt he would be very useful as a multi-inning pitcher, even supposing the Twins would want to use him that way."

The Twins want him to be effective. But what do you do with a guy you can't trust in critical situations?

Jim H said...

"But what do you do with a guy you can't trust in critical situations?"

My guess is that Zumaya will have to be healthy and quite effective at the end of spring training. The Twins will have a lot of guys in camp this spring. If Zumaya is not back to what he was, the Twins have some choices and rather than go with a guy who is likely to have innings limitations and back to back outing limations and just I haven't pitched for 1 1/2 years limations, The Twins will go with someone else. Especially if he isn't awfully close to what he was.

Kelly V said...

Burnett is a nice guy I guess but he failed miserably last year.

Thsi is exactly the kind of move da Twins need to make. If it works, we're contenders. If not, nothing much invested.

Anonymous said...

Actually TT, Zumaya has been a very trustworthy and effective pitcher when healthy. The problem with him has been injuries not production. If he is back to his 2006 form or close to it then he bolsters the back end of the pen, maybe even a closer candidate. There is no way if he makes the team that he is used in a mop up role, there are plenty of dead, pitch-to-contact arms on the roster to fill that role. Zumaya is a late inning fireballer and could team up with Perkins and Capps to make a tough late inning pen. Nice try at analysis but you fall way short on this one, especially since they signed him to a one year deal for next to nothing.

Josh said...

It's a great risk-reward move from a financial standpoint, and it's exactly the sort of thing to do to boost the bullpen. I really believe that you can (and should) build your bullpen on the cheap and not spend huge dollars on guys that are usually highly replaceable and don't throw enough innings to justify the salary.

That said, it's a little more scary for the Twins this year, from a baseball standpoint. Why? Because you can't really count on Zumaya, making him one more guy the Twins are rolling the dice on this season. They just don't have enough guys that they can really count on to perform this year, which makes this entire season a crapshoot. All of their risks are calculated, and in isolation they're all very reasonable moves. In total, it gets a little scary.

That said, I don't see another great option at this point. With the money they have tied up in Mauer & Morneau they really don't have a lot of choices, not without really spending big money. And frankly, a lot of the free agent options that might have been "reliable" really aren't worth the money they're getting/asking.

It's a solid move. Doesn't fix the problem the Twins are facing, but only a year of good health will do that, i think.

TT said...

I don't think the Twins are going to let Zumaya go at the end of spring training. They aren't going to just throw away the $800,000 they would be on the hook for at that point. They might make that decision earlier in spring training, before contracts become guaranteed, if they are convinced he can't pitch. But I think it is much more likely if he shows any promise that they find a spot for him in the bullpen.

"Zumaya has been a very trustworthy and effective pitcher when healthy."

The last time that was true was four years ago. Whether health or other problems, he hasn't been consistently effective for any period of time since then even when pitching.

" Zumaya is a late inning fireballer"

He WAS a late inning fireballer. Obviously the hope is that he will be again. But whether he regains his velocity or not, he is a veteran on a staff that is likely to include a bunch of guys trying to prove themselves. Unless he shows in spring training that he has nothing left, they aren't going to let him go.

The responses here, based on his reputation 5 years ago, are exactly the reason I suspect fans are going to be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

TT....compared to the rest of the arms in the bullpen Zumaya still IS a late inning fireballer.

He was also very effective in 2010 before going down. Don't confuse injury with ineffectiveness. Ineffectiveness is a guy who plays all season and cannot produce. The injury to Zumaya in 2010 was a freak one not one of those lingering Twins injuries that makes a player worse than they should be. So your argument about not pitching effectively for over 5 years doesn't hold water when Zumaya was pitching well 2 years ago before the injury. If there were lingering doubts about his health or pitching ability the Twins wouldn't have signed him at all. The health issue should be cleared up when he goes through the physical, if he doesn't pass that he's not a Twin and you can find someone else to be disappointed in.

Anonymous said...

"The last time that was true was four years ago. Whether health or other problems, he hasn't been consistently effective for any period of time since then even when pitching."

Not effective even when pitching...hmmm...let's take a look at Zumaya's stat line from 2010 shall 31 appearances he posted a 2.58 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP, struck out 34 in 38 IP, K/9 of 7.98, with 11 holds and opponents racked up a .229 BA, .279 OBP, .307 SLG and a .586 OPS. Keep in mind that was 2010 and if you do the math correctly that is 2 years ago not 4.

The other thing to keep in mind even in his inconsistent seasons of 2007 through 2009 he put up better numbers than many of the stiffs the Twins have run through the bullpen the past few years...Manship, Burnett, Hoey, Mijares, Swarzak, Dusty Hughes and Slama to name a few. Plus Zumaya is only 27 plenty of upside and plenty of time to revive his career, especially moving from Detroit to Target Field.

Open the door TT and let a little optimism in.

TT said...

In 2010, Zumaya had a .818 WHIP in April, it went up to 1.227 in May and 1.444 in June. In short, he got off to a hot start in a season that was cut short by injury. But even before he was hurt, he was fading.

Yes, there are sample size issues, all round. He hasn't pitched much in 5 years. But his numbers during that time don't really support the idea that he is going to be the solution as the Twins late inning setup guy.

"he put up better numbers than many of the stiffs the Twins have run through the bullpen the past few years"

Which is why the Twins signed him and if "better than Dusty Hughes" is all you expect, then I agree, you probably won't be disappointed.