Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Twins turning to Toronto for help?

1500ESPN’s Tom Pelissero relayed yesterday afternoon that the Twins were in contact with the Toronto Blue Jays, possibly seeking bullpen help. This report would corroborate the speculation of Star Tribune beat writer La Velle Neal who noted that the Twins would be interested in adding another bullpen arm. After scoring runs by the dozens in Baltimore and Kansas City, it seems highly unnecessary to require bullpen help. After all, the team is posting an American League-best 3.17 ERA so far this season. 

Of course, this is potential a case of smoke-and-mirrors as the team also has a 4.41 xFIP out of the bullpen. Additionally, in July, the Twins second-city players have accumulated a gaudy 4.55 ERA – possibly indicative of tired arms that have been overused while starters have called it quits early in the game. If the Twins expect to dash to the finish line with the White Sox in the Central, reinforcements are needed. 

KSTP’s Joe Schmit tweeted that the Twins were not in contention for the 34-year-old left-hander, Scott Downs. Of Toronto’s stable of relievers, Downs may be the most desirable of the lot, especially if his $4 million price tag for 2010 says anything about it. While the majority of long-term contracts to relievers wind up not worth the paper they are signed on, Downs has fulfilled expectations. After signing a three-year, $10 million contract in 2008, he has emerged as one of the game’s most consistent bullpen arms. In the past three seasons, Downs’s 3.44 xFIP has been the 12th-best among the game’s relievers. Meanwhile, for those that prefer ERA, Downs has been the fourth best in that category (2.28) as well. What makes him particularly attractive for the later innings is his restrictive home run nature. During the course of his current contract, Downs’s 0.46 home runs per nine innings in the seventh-lowest among those qualified relievers. As a pitcher who rarely breaks 90-mph with his fastball, Downs earns his living hitting the areas just below the strike zone. This has made him a very effective groundball-oriented pitcher (59% GB since ’08) and very difficult to elevate with power.

With Jesse Crain rebounding to form and Matt Guerrier producing well in later innings, it seems unlikely that the Twins require a right-handed reliever but the Blue Jays have several of those options available too. One-time closer Jason Frasor is one such target. In three consecutive years, Frasor has struck out roughly 20% of his total batters faced while incorporating a split-finger fastball to increase the total amount of groundballs induced in recent years. However, Frasor’s ERA (4.66) has outpaced the anticipated results due to a precipitous amount of balls finding turf. For his career, Frasor holds a .296 BABIP but is carrying a hefty .376 BABIP this season, which is one of the highest in baseball despite having significant groundball tendencies. With the exception of the walks, Frasor has a skill set that could play well in Minnesota as, like Downs, he is miserly with the home runs and is a groundball pitcher. Aside from the walks, the Twins typically do not acquire split-finger pitchers so those two elements would probably He’s nominally cheaper than Downs (slated to make $2.65 million in ’10) and a free agent for the first time in his career after this season.

Like Frasor, Shawn Camp is another right-handed reliever with late-inning pedigree and high leverage experience. Unlike the previous two candidates, Camp is not known for his ability to entice a strikeout. Camp relies on command of his pitches but can get plenty of off-balanced swings with his changeup and slider combination. Likewise, this repertoire gets him plenty of grounders as well (55% career rate). Camp is favorable of a matchup against right-handers (a career 3.25 K/BB ratio) lefties have proven to be a tougher puzzle for him. For his career, left-handers had hit .328/.389/.515. His presence may require some managerial savvy as the amount of available left-handers out of the pen is now limited to Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay. Still, his $1.15 million contract makes him an attractive acquisition and without the Type A label of Scott Downs, Camp would require a much smaller package to obtain.

Lastly, reigning Blue Jays’ closer, Kevin Gregg, was signed after a hellacious season in Chicago’s Wrigley Field combating the prevailing winds. While in a Cubs uniform, Gregg surrendered a career-high 13 home runs and was constantly influx with his closer’s position. Toronto signed him on the cheap ($2.75 with option in ’11 and ’12) in February. Gregg started his season in Canada well, converting 14 of 16 save opportunities while limited opponents to a .250 batting average and 27 strikeouts in 23 innings pitched. From June on, his control waned some (mostly attributed to a five-walk outing against Tampa) leading to a 5.12 walks per nine innings and he blew another two saves in 11 tries as his ERA inflated to 4.70. He’s increased the usage of his cutter, leading to more grounder, yet his ability to hit the strike zone is of concern.

With a relief staff full of arms ready for the trade, Toronto has four viable options that could be had at a relatively low price. Here’s an excerpt from the Blue Jays’ section of the 2010 TwinsCentric Trade Deadline Primer written by Jays' blogger Will Rainey: 
“Just as unexpectedly, it has been bullpen inconsistency that has undermined the team's pitching efforts. Coming into the season, it was widely assumed that the Jays, who'd had the best bullpen in the game over the previous three seasons combined, had not only a solid crew but depth from which to trade as the deadline approached. While it's still true they have movable parts, those players have not spent the first half burnishing their trade value. It is true that reliever's ERA can be one of the most misleading of stats, since one or two rough outings can skew the overall figure badly, but one can't help noticing that several of the Jays relievers have had those blowups. Most frustratingly, these seem to occur most often against the division rival Rays.” 
Because they are undervalued right now, the Twins may be able to land any of the four at a reasonable price and help distribute the workload around more in the later innings.