Sunday, August 30, 2009

Twins acquire two relievers, lose minor league pitching depth

 In series of roster moves prior to the weekend, the Twins secured right-handed set-up man Jon Rauch from the Arizona Diamondbacks for a player-to-be-named and left-handed specialist Ron Mahay after he was released by the Kansas City Royals but lost surging pitching prospect in Yohan Pino to the Cleveland Indians to complete the Carl Pavano trade.
The availability of minor league arms shrank by one more as Pino was selected by the Indians.  Not surprising, Pino has compiled a stellar year split between AA New Britain and AAA Rochester.  In his past two starts, Pino tossed back-to-back eight inning performances while striking out 13, walking two and allowing just one run.  Complaints from the various levels of the farm system were vocal as the Twins have borrowed numerous pitchers this season as injuries and ineffective outings piled up leaving affiliates with undefined rotations as guys like Jeff Manship, Armando Gabino, Sean Henn, Brian Duensing waited for standby flights to the Twin Cities as new arrivals from the lower ranks arrived.  Where Pino would have projected with Minnesota is debatable as he was demonstrating great stuff as a starter, but, at the very least, he could have been a fairly decent reliever as he shut down right-handed batters (.181 batting average, 24 percent K/PA) in 2009. 

The Twins instead looked externally for candidates to fill the bullpen positions. 

A former closer while with the Washington Nationals, Rauch’s season opened to some powerfully unsexy numbers.  In 18.2 innings over 22 appearances, opponents slugged .530 off of him including three of his five home runs allowed.  It was this first-half performance that incited us to write Rauch off as “not a guy you would want in a Twins uniform late in a ballgame” for the TwinsCentric Trade Deadline Primer.  How were we supposed to know that Rauch would turn things around?  Post-May 25th, Rauch improved his location by dropping it down in the zone (51.4 percent post-May, 44 percent April-May).  Since then hitters have been unable to make as solid of contact, slugging just .364 off of him and he has procured a 2.84 ERA in 31.2 innings in 33 games.   

Complete with a neck tattoo, Rauch is a seriously imposing presence on the mound, but part of what makes him unique is the height which will allow him, as Bert likes to say, to “create that good downward plane” on his fastball.   His six-foot-eleven frame is reminiscent of the IDS building in a 1970s Minneapolis skyline when he is on the field.  With Matt Guerrier encroaching on yet another season of 75-plus appearances, obtaining Rauch provides relief for Guerrier who broke down at the end of the past two seasons from the heavy workload.  At 31 years old in September and a pre-paid tab for his arm next year, Rauch is a reasonable investment at the waiver deadline and particularly a better move in context of the organization’s timeframe for Pat Neshek’s return.

Ron Mahay, on the other hand, is flotsam that has fallen from the Royals organization.  Kansas City inked Mahay to a two-year, $8 million deal that was fueled by good intentions and in effort to capitalize on his successful 2007 season but the results were terrible when put into practice.  Following his season split with Texas and Atlanta in a year when he limited left-handed batters to a .189 batting average (.542 OPS), Mahay became a valued commodity for teams looking for bullpen help.  For whatever reason, the Royals opened their pocketbooks to a 36-year-old reliever coming of an artificially created career year and wound up with an expensive mess.   Mahay followed up the 2007 season by getting shelled by opponents for two straight years – even against same-sided batters who hit .269/.321/.429 off of him in that duration. 

The 38-year-old lefty has control problems leading to those pesky late-game base-runners (4.07 BB/9) which  is never a positive, at the same time, Mahay has also been a victim of balls finding holes (.360 BABIP) and more wind channels than average (14.5 percent HR/FB).   The Twins have been light on the left-handed arms since Sean Henn was sent back to Rochester and Brian Duensing was shifted to the rotation so Mahay will keep Jose Mijares from being overtaxed during the stretch run.   If the Twins curb his exposure to right-handed hitters (who are slugging .638 off of his fastball), Mahay’s got a shot at being a decent contributor for $80K for the remainder of the season.   Still, with the possibility that Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins may return as relief arms, Mahay’s role in September with the Twins appears increasingly foggy.

The moves were a long-time in the making; issues that should have been fixed in June or July rather than this late in the year.  The duel acquisition undoubtedly addresses two problems in the bullpen and, better yet, it removes the struggling Philip Humber from the mix -- a huge addition by subtraction.