Monday, November 12, 2007

What to do with Rincon

In an alternate 2007, the Twins would have passed on pitchers Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz opting to use Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey or Glen Perkins from opening day in the rotation, they would have declined to resign Rondell White instead electing to extend Torii Hunter's contract passed 2007 (before the season began when his stock was still reasonable), offered a minor league contract and an invitation spring training to Dmitri Young, traded a C-list pitching prospect for career minor leaguer Jack Cust, traded one or two of several pitchers from the farm system to the Milwaukee Brewers for Kevin Mench, and, most importantly, packaged Juan Rincon in a trade with one of several teams looking for bullpen help.

With the 2007 emergence of Pat Neshek as Gardenhire's 8th inning guy, it was apparent that Juan Rincon was being phased out of the primary set-up role to Joe Nathan. Rincon certainly did not aid his cause with his regression into a bullpen liability either. Some have questioned whether the decrease in productivity was directly correlated to his 2005 suspension for his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Following the 2006 season in which his strikeouts per game plummeted from 12.6 in 2004 to 10.1 in 2005 to 8.0 in 2006, Rincon avoided arbitration by signing a 1-year, $2 million dollar contract. The Twins were rewarded in 2007 by his worse season to date, posting averaging 7.0 strikeouts per 9 innings and surrendering 9 home runs in 59.7 innings (a horrid 16.1% home runs to flyballs ratio). Not only were his 63 appearances in 2007 a low in the previous four seasons and his ERA had inflated to 5.13, nearly 2 runs higher than his previous 3 seasons.

Gardenhire began dispatching Neshek into the 8th innings regularly in 2007. In 171 matchups in the 8th inning, batters were hitting a paltry .193/.278/.359 with 39 strikeouts (22.8% K%) and 18 walks (10.5% BB%). Meanwhile, Rincon was asked to retire 108 batters in the 8th inning and faired poorly letting hitters bat .313/.361/.525 with only 21 strikeouts (19.4% K%) but only 7 walks issued (6.4% BB%). The numbers indicate that Rincon certainly was around the strike zone but was being hit hard.

It was clear that Rincon was expendable. Despite a decline in production, Rincon (or rather the entity that he is) was still highly valued in major league baseball terms prior to and during the 2007 season. Focus after the 2006 season was the bullpen. Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore all gave lucrative contracts to relievers attempting to bolster ailing pens. Rincon, meanwhile, has been a proven set-up man still arbitration eligible. In mid-season 2007, teams were willing to part with young players for bullpen help: The Dodgers gave up Wilson Betemit for the Yankees Scott Proctor. Super utility player Ty Wigginton was traded to Houston for Dan Wheeler. Naturally, both Proctor and Wheeler had a better leverage considering Proctor had the most appearances the previous season and Wheeler had those coveted (yet overrated) saves in his resume. And neither were implicated in substance abuse allegations.

In 2007, Scott Proctor was having a down-year coming off a season in which he had 83 appearances with the Yankees in 2006. In 2006, the 30-year-old right-handed reliever was averaging 8 strikeouts per 9 innings while walking only 3 and giving up 12 home runs in 102.3 innings pitched. Aside from Rivera, Proctor was the most reliable member of the Yankees bullpen. In 52 appearance in 2007, Proctor's strikeout rate was down to 5.8 per 9 innings and his walk rate had inflated to 4.6. On July 31st, the teams on rival coast's made the deal sending Betemit to New York and Proctor as bullpen insurance in LA. While Proctor's strikeout rate improved slightly in the Senior Circuit (7.7 per 9) he still was putting people on base regularly (4.4 walks per 9). The Dodgers never really had faith in Wilson Betemit and had several prospects ahead of him at third base. While displaying some power, Betemit strikes out too frequently and is not that good with the leather. The 25-year-old Betemit hit .262/.322/.417 in three seasons of Triple-A. In retrospect, is that the Twins could have marketed Rincon to the Dodgers as their potential bullpen insurance and the Twins would have been happy to have another candidate for third.

Ty Wigginton was frequently mentioned on the rumor mill list because of his pop and ability to play all 9 positions. Tampa Bay was looking for anything with an arm that threw in the general vicinity of the plate. Houston had been playing musical closers with Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler. Wheeler was the likely candidate to move. His productivity was a swing-pendulum at one point in the season he was closing games and at others he was in mop-up duty. Wheeler's stock benefited the most from having saves. In 2007, he had trouble with runners in scoring position and 2-outs, a critical matchup where you would want your reliever to win on more occasions. In 45 matchups, batters hit .432/533/.622 and surrendered 18 runs. Rincon on the otherhand, was deployed 29 times in similar situations and rendered only 4 hits and 7 runs while limiting batters to a .154/.241/.154. In all likelihood, the Twins would have had to do some savvy marketing and package Rincon with another prospect to balance the Wigginton deal.

What is apparent is that the Twins do not understand how to evaluate the trade market. As confidence in Rincon was slipping withing the organization coupled with Neshek, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier's ability to provide the same output as Rincon was did in latter innings, the Twins should have been determined to unload him while the market was still high on right handed relievers.