Thursday, January 10, 2008

Minnesota Draft Revisited: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda (pitcher edition).

(You can located part one (offensive) here, part two (Tim Belcher) here)

After rifling through all of the amateur drafts records the past week, I was struck by how different the Twins organization may have been had several players over the years been enticed to sign. To be sure, playing the 'What If' game is like attending a strip club: it is fun envisioning the titillating possibilities but at the end of the day you are still going home to your girlfriend or wife (for better or worse). Needless to say the ability to alter the past is reserved for the likes of Scott Bakula through his quantum leaps, but, like the strip club in the aforementioned analogy, it doesn't hurt to look.

1983. r2.29) Bill Swift

Like Belcher selected a round before him, Bill Swift declined the lowly Twins' advances and remained at the University of Maine for one more season only to be selected by a team that was just as loser-friend. After pitching for the USA Olympic Team in 1984, Seattle picked him with their 1st round, 2nd overall spot and rushed him into the lineup in 1985 after two months in the minors an in ill-advised move.

In 1984 the Marniers had as much credibility as the Tampa Bay Rays do today. Since their 1977 inception, Seattle had not produced a winning team. Far from. The closest thing the Puget Sound had seen to a winner was the 1982 squad that had a .469 winning percentage, a 76-82 team that could hardly be called competitive because they finished 17.0 games out of first. What Seattle did have to give them hope (similar to the Rays again) was a young core of pitching led by Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Matt Young, all of whom were under the age of 25 in 1984 and homegrown. Swift was yet another prospect to add to the promise of winning seasons to come.

Rushed along after only two months in the minors, Swift, along with the rest of the Mariners, looked overmatched in the major leagues in 1985. As a 23-year-old groundball-inducing righty that started 21 games and accumulated 120.7 innings, his peripheral numbers were an indication that he was not fooling anybody. His inability to strike people out (10.2% k%) was further exacerbated by his issuance of free passes (9.3% bb%) and was reflected in both his 4.77 era and his 6-10 record, but his 65% groundball rate was reason to give hope in Northwest. These are telling signs of a pitcher who is heavily reliant on a defense.

In 1986, Swift pitched in even fewer innings (115) while shuttling between Triple-A Calgery and Seattle. At times, he had flashes of brilliance. On August 30th, 1986, Swift battled New York Yankees and Tommy John for 8.2 innings in a 5-2 win. Over his 8.2 innings, Swift struck out 7, walked 4, only surrendered 2 hits and had a Game Score of 83. The high point of his short career made a quick pendulum swing the other direction as the losses began to pile up. In fact, he suffered through a stretch of losing five consecutive starts to end the season. The extra work in the minors only managed to raise his walk total to 55 (10.2% bb%) while tying his strike out total of 55 (10.2% k%). Swift missed the entire 1987 season because of a bone spur in his throwing elbow. Upon his return in 1988, Swift's walk total (65) eclipsed his strike out total (47) and soon became a fixture in the Mariners bullpen, both because of his spotty performance and his inability to remain healthy.

In 1991, Swift was the defacto closer for the Mariners and accumulated 17 saves. The Mariners figured that they should take the opportunity to sell high on Swift. After the 1991 season, the Mariners had enough of the 30 win-40 loss and 17 saves that Swift had provided and shipped him to San Francisco along with Dave Burba and Mike Jackson for Kevin Mitchell and Mike Remlinger. The shift down the coast proved beneficial to him. Once he landed in San Francisco, Swift led the NL in era in 1992 (2.08, 159 era+) and followed up with 21 wins in 1993 and finished second to Greg Maddux for the Cy Young award. In 1993, he had a career high in strikeouts (157). During this period, Swift's control, arm strength and stamina culminated into his best season of his career. Arm troubles and high altitude (a pitcher's worst combination) ultimately led to the end of his career.

Obviously an underwhelming choice to analyze and "second-guess" the Twins on for not signing when you consider the trajectory of his career: one that had several seasons of mediocrity (1988, 1989, 1990), several of good seasons (1991, 1992, 1993), an equal number of bad seasons (1985, 1986, 1998), and one of outstanding quality (1993). If you subtract his 30-40 record (.428 winning percentage) while with Seattle between 1985 and 1991, Swift finished 64-38 (.627) with San Francisco, Colorado and once again with Seattle. Of course this is entirely speculation, to say that Swift's career would have taken a different path had he signed with the Twins one would have to make numerous assumptions:

1) That the Twins, if they did sign Swift, would allow him to develop in the minors.

2) That the Twins had enough mature starting pitching to not have to call upon him until 1987 or 1988. (Viola, Smithson, Butcher, Blyleven, et al)

3) There was an easily identifiable candidate in the Twins rotation to have been replaced. (Straker, Niekro, or Carlton in 1987, Straker, Toliver and Lea in 1988)

4) That Swift would have been injury-free (or close to).

1988. r37.961) Aaron Sele

The Twins tried for Golden Valley, Minnesota native Aaron Sele in the 37th round in 1988 instead Sele opted to attend Washington State University were he played with John Olerud and Scott Hatteberg. After his college career culminated with WSU as the 18th-ranked team in the NCAA, Sele was drafted by the Boston Red Sox with the 23rd overall pick.

Beginning the 1993 season in Triple-A Pawtucket, Sele was summoned to Boston after yet another solid beginning to his season. The 23-year-old joined 37-year-old Danny Darwin, 30-year-old Roger Clemens, 33-year-old Frank Viola and 29-year-old John Dopson and helped low the average age to 30.6 years old - the second oldest in the league next to the Oakland Athletics. On a team whose pitching staff was aging by the inning, the Fenway faithful were looking to pitching to turn the team around from a cellar-dwelling 1992 season. Sele provided some excitement to the 80-82 Sox by winning his first 6 decisions and finished the season 7-2 with a 2.74 era (era+ 169). He came in third for Rookie of Year behind Tim Salmon and forgettable Jason Bere.

Sele had several noteworthy seasons after a trade to Texas in 1997 (for Damon Buford and Jim "DUI" Leyritz):

-1998 with Texas. Finished 19-11 (.633 wpct), era+ 113, 17.5% k%. Selected to the All-Star team. Lost one game in the ALDS to the Yankees.

-1999 with Texas. Finished 18-9 (.667 wpct), era+ 107, 20.2% k%. 5th in Cy Young voting. Lost in his only start against the Yankees in the ALDS.

-2000 with Seattle. Finished 17-10 (.629 wpct), era+ 102, 15.0% k%. Selected to the All-Star team. Won against the White Sox in the ALDS. Lost again to the Yankees in the ALCS.

-2001 with Seattle. Finished 15-5 (.750 wpct), era+ 116, 9.5% k%. Won in the ALDS against Cleveland. Lost against the Yankees once again in the ALCS.

What is most telling about Sele is that he is heavily reliant on the performance of his team. When he had his Cy Young candidate season, his team was 95-67. When he had a 15-5 record in 2001, Seattle was setting a major league record for wins in a season. Conversely, in 2003 Sele finished 7-11 on an Anaheim team that was 77-85.

The Twins would not have been the recipients of great pitching considering they could not offer the kind of offense needed to support a pitcher like Sele. However, overlooking the small detail that the Twins lacked starting pitching from 1993 through 1999 (aside from Brad Radke), Sele was also a Twin killer. He had more victories against the Twins then any other team (which is more indicitive of the Twins offense in those years). Over the course of his career, Sele through 139 innings against the Twins and had a 17-4 record and a 3.37 era.

1967. r11.217) Al Hrabosky

The Twins took a shot for the left-handed Mad Hungarian in 1967 and did not sign. In 1969's draft, the St. Louis Cardinals snatched him with their 1st round pick (19th overall). By 1970, the Cardinals deployed him early at the age of 20 to the bullpen where he made 16 appearances in 19 innings. Between 1971 and 1972 Hrabosky pitched in only 6 games. 1974 was his coming out party:

-In 65 games, Hrabosky threw over 88 innings, struck out 82 (22.2% k%) and had an era+ of 123 and received MVP votes and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting.

-In 1975, Hrabosky finished with a 13-3 record over 65 appearances and 97.3 innings. He stuck out 82 again (20.8% k %) and had an era+ of 229(!), allowing him to creep up in the voting for both MVP (8th) and Cy Young (3rd). He also had 22 saves.

-In 1976, once again displaying dominance, Hrabosky finished with 13 saves and threw in 68 games. His strikeouts dipped to 73 (17.9% k%) but his era+ of 107 was still very good.

Having the Mad Hungarian would not have radically altered the Twins in any way. The Twins were pretty solid with Bill Campell in 1974 and 1976. Regardless, having another solid arm in that bullpen could have helped allivate some of the workload from a bad starting rotation in 1976.

1998 r17.499) JJ Putz

What's not to like about this one? Selected one pick before BJ Ryan (who did sign with the Cincinnati Reds), Putz opt not to sign and return the the University of Michigan. He was drafted one year later by Seattle and signed. Like most modern closers, Putz began as a starter in the Mariners farm system. Between 1999 and 2002, Putz was a decent starting prospect. He had a rough adjustment period in Double-A, where he went 10-19 with a 3.76 era. The front office in Seattle decided to reallocate his arm into the bullpen at Triple-A Tacoma. Putz adjusted nicely and threw 86 innings and managed 11 saves while striking out 60.

Brought up the highway to the big club for a taste in 2003, Putz finally solidified himself as a fixture in the Safeco bullpen in 2004, working mainly as a part-time set-up man (while obtaining 9 saves). In 2006 the 29-year-old Putz emerged as one of the top tier closers with his 36 saves in 78.3 innings and 102 strike outs (he was dispatching batters at an unearthly 34.3% k%). In 2007, he topped his previous saves total with 40 in 71 innings and struck out 82 (31.5%).

Obviously Joe Nathan is probably one of the best closers in this century, but had we selected Putz, it would have been considerably easier to show Juan Rincon the door.

honorable mention

2000. r1.31) Aaron Heilman

Has been solid in the Shea bullpen. Since 2005, has made 208 appearances and has a 21.1% strike out rate coupled with a low 8.8% walk rate during that period. Meanwhile Juan Rincon has in 213 appearances during that same time accumulated a 21.8% strike out rate and a 9.0% walk rate -- only to have been paid $2.52 million more for the same efforts.

honorable mentions of players drafted who never actually ended up in the major leagues but made a pretty good career out of news anchoring and football.

1988. r13.337) Mike Pomeranz

The Twins drafted Kare 11's future lead anchor out of Princeton in 1988... and he did sign so this one sort of doesn't jive with the predication of this list, but he didn't quite make it to the bigs either. He finished in High-A with the Twins and played in the Orioles systems in Low-A before retiring. Which is a shame because goddamn, would that hair have looked good on a Donruss or what?

1971. r39.771) Joe Theismann

A hell of an athlete, Theismann was drafted out of Notre Dame by the Twins in 1971 as a shortstop. Yes, football was his calling but you have to think that as Lawrence Taylor was snapping his tibia and fibia on Monday Night Football, you have to wonder if he thought that the diamond would have been a safer venue. (Note: If you haven't scene this clip before, watch the "reverse angle" shot of Theismann's leg and try not to spew. Then go buy Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side").