Sunday, March 20, 2011

End of the Neshek Era in Minnesota

The Pat Neshek era for the Minnesota Twins ended on Sunday with little fanfare. The 30-year-old right-handed reliever tweeted that he was “now a member of the San Diego Padres” and was heading west. Word spread quickly that the Twins had placed Neshek on the outright waivers, hoping to clear space on the 40-man roster, and the Padres nabbed him before he could clear and either get re-assigned or released.

Basically, Minnesota’s patience in Neshek’s ability to return to his pre-Tommy John surgery levels had run out. While most pitchers who undergo the procedure wind up having a rough re-introduction upon their return to the game, most find that in the second-year their velocities and control make a comeback. Consider Francisco Liriano’s 2010 season. In his second-year removed from the surgery, his results were almost polar opposites of his 2009 numbers. However, while Liriano took steps forward in winter ball and spring training prior to last season, demonstrating he had the stuff and the command to bounce back, Neshek, in his second spring training back since the surgery, had not showed anything indicative of a resurgence.

The Twins assistant GM Rob Antony reported over a week ago that Neshek was likely throwing 89 miles per hour - although Antony admits that he did not have a radar gun on the side-armer at that time. Antony continued to say that the Twins were impressed by the development of Neshek’s slider which was showing “more depth” in his more recent outings. From 2006 to 2008, Neshek’s slider was an unbelievable weapon for the righty. In that time he was able to miss bats a whopping 42% of the time when he threw his slider. This past season, Neshek’s slider only was able to get a whiff 11% of the time as he struggled to even get hitters to offer at the often errant pitch. Certainly progress in this department would be crucial to any kind of return to his former dominant self. Still, none of that would matter if he didn’t have a respectable fastball available to set that pitch up.

Without putting too much reliance on the accuracy of the Hammond Stadium radar gun, during my visit on March 8, Neshek was averaging just 82-to-84 miles per hour. This is roughly the same velocity he was hitting in his limited time with the Twins in 2010. Lending further credence to the fact that his velocity was down was that he was ripped hard throughout his inning of work. He allowed a massive home run to Lyle Overbay and each ball off of the opponents bats’ were like ballistic missiles. In all this spring, Neshek had given up six hits (three of which were home runs) in six innings of work. Although he posted a decent 5-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio possibly indicating that his control was on the verge of return, it was apparent that, despite their claims to the contrary, his stuff was not at the level the Twins were anticipating at this stage of his recovery.

That being said, even with his slow rehabilitation, it would seem to be a foolhardy decision to expose a pitcher with the potential upside of Neshek to the waivers in order to clear space on the 40-man roster when he had a minor league option left. What’s more curious about the decision is that the front office opted to hang on to a pitcher like the 28-year-old Eric Hacker, a minor league free agent signed this past winter, who has little upside and has had a more tumultuous spring than Neshek. In six innings, Hacker has allowed 13 hits and nine earned runs. Hacker, two years Neshek’s junior, has only sampled the bigs with Pittsburgh while producing some mundane numbers a career starter in the minors.

There may be other unspoken reasons for the Twins to take the chance on losing him to another ballclub aside from his performance alone. For instance, Neshek irked organization last year when he took to the social media outlets but tweeting and Facebooking his irritation over the “misdiagnoses” of his finger injury and the time lost due to the team’s doctors. Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not his unique mechanics may be a leaving may be leaving him susceptible to further elbow injuries. While Twins top brass likely did not take this into consideration given that not too many teams focus on the biomechanics of baseball, Neshek’s overall motion seems to place a lot of stress on his elbow and would make some wonder if he can ever fully recover. Opening up that spot for someone like Carlos Gutierrez or Kyle Waldrop – both of whom have turned heads this spring and have a future with the organization while Neshek dropped out of favor - makes sense both in the short-term and long-term for the team.

Credit is due to the Padres who have scooped up an arm that may have some use in it in addition to having the added comfort of a remaining option. While Neshek’s spring performance doesn’t inspire much confidence that he is heading towards the typical second-year after rebound from Tommy John surgery, San Diego can move Neshek to Triple-A and monitor his progress until he is deemed ready. If he can improve on his velocity and command, the Padres have scored a late innings arm that can overwhelm right-handed opponent, supplementing their bullpen at a very low cost. In short, it is a very savvy move for the NL West team.