Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding relief

The Twins most glaring roster deficiency was exposed late in the game on Thursday night.

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and the Rangers leading by a run, Josh Hamilton laced a triple that split Ben Revere and Jason Kubel. Due to the overuse of the other arms (Capps, Nathan, Burnett, etc), the left-handed Phil Dumatrait, a minor league free agent that had spent the bulk of the season in Rochester, would be left to face the Rangers right-handed delegates.

Dumatrait quickly fell behind Michael Young – who was two-for-three on the night – and the Twins called a mound conference and made the decision to put Young on first to pitch to the dangerous Nelson Cruz, who was oh-for-the-game. The prevailing logic was that Young was swinging a hot bat while Cruz was ice cold. This would have been the perfect time for Ron Gardenhire to bring in his lights-out, death-to-same-sided-hitters right-hander out of the ‘pen.
The problem is there is no lights-out right-handed reliever.

Alex Burnett has ranged from brutal mess-to-adequate while Anthony Swarzak has been able to chew through multiple innings when need. Neither is ideal during those high leverage innings in the latter third of the game. Matt Capps now serves as the right-handed set-up man but given his heavy usage in the beginning of the season (which may have led to his poor performance) the Twins would be better served curtailing his deployment in the second-half. All three had thrown recently too. This left Dumatrait to battle Cruz.

With the non-waiver trade deadline a little over 48 hours away, let’s take a look at some of the arms the Twins have been associated with and some arms that they are not currently linked to but, for the sake of fiscal responsibility, should be considering:
Drew Storen (WAS):
He has got about everything you could want – youth, a power arm, ability to get a strikeout and club-controlled paychecks for several years. Of course, that doesn’t come cheap. The Nationals have reportedly taken a shine to Denard Span, who himself has an extremely team-friendly contract himself while playing a coveted up-the-middle position, and even Washington has changed their minds on whether or not Storen is on the trading block.  
While other analysts have been giddy over his age, cost control and potential to be the “closer of the future”, I am a bit more apprehensive of his mechanics and what that means for his health. Similar to his rehabbing teammate Stephen Strasberg, Storen also throws with the “inverted w” arm action. As Strasberg’s injury has brought the potential dangers of throwing with an inverted w to the forefront, there has been a laundry list of pitchers who use this method that ultimately wound up with UCL problems.
To be sure, injury potential exists for all pitchers. After all, throwing overhand is against the body’s natural biomechanics. Even guys who have impeccable conventional mechanics like Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker will inevitably having elbow issues. It’s just the nature of pitching. Then there are guys that carry around with them big red flags – like Storen’s arm action. If you are a team that plans to invest heavily in a player by committing one of your best young position players, you would want confidence that his UCL isn’t going to snap in his second year.
Unless the Twins find a way to pry Storen away without surrendering an everyday player like Span or a top prospect, the team would be advised to move along for now.  
Koji Uehara (BAL):
Uehara’s contract and Baltimore’s realistic asking price - the Orioles recognize that his age (36) and injury history tarnish his otherwise excellent resume - has made the Japanese reliever a highly desired target at the deadline.  
In the past two seasons, Uehara has gone all yakuza on opponents. His 8.77 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is second only to Edward Mujica. His 33.5% strikeout rate is the fourth-highest in baseball. His 14.9% swinging strike rate is the fifth-highest. His 0.82 WHIP tops all relievers in that time. This is an impressive track record.
What’s more is that Uehara’s contract would also provide the Twins with some bullpen assistance in 2012. The Orioles gave Uehara an incentive-laden deal which stated if the reliever pitched in 50 games or finished 25, his option for $4 million in ’12 will be triggered. Given the uncertainty with Matt Capps a free agent and Joe Nathan’s expensive option looming, Uehara would give the Twins a financially reasonable bullpen arm that has the potential to close if need be.
Rafael Betancourt (COL):
Like Uehara, Betancourt is a 36-year-old reliever that throws strikes. Betancourt also finds himself right behind Uehara’s 8.77 strikeouts-to-walks ratio with a very good 8.25, the third-highest mark in that category. He shuts down right-handed hitters (20.25 K/BB and .210 average since ’10) which would make him welcomed in the Twins ‘pen, however, unlike Uehara, opponents have an easier time making solid contact leading to a very high 15 home runs allowed (one more than Matt Capps). Part of it is due to playing in the thin Rocky Mountain air but it is a trait that has followed him over from his days in the smog-filled air of Cleveland.
If the Twins trade for Betancourt, he brings along the potential of two additional years as he is owed $4 million next season with a mutual option for $4.25 million in 2013 (that comes with a $25,000 buyout that would likely be exercised).
Matt Lindstrom (COL):
The one-time closer for the Marlins and Astros, the Rockies signed Matt Lindstrom to set-up Huston Street. Armed with a 95-plus mile per hour fastball complemented by a slider, you expect Lindstrom to be a strikeout artist but his K-rate is below the league average. He has a herky-jerky motion which disrupts timing but that fastball comes in extremely straight. On the plus side, Lindstrom has allowed just one home run despite playing in Colorado.  It’s possible that if the Twins were to acquire him, they may be able transform him just like they did Jesse Crain.
He’s younger than the aforementioned Uehara and Betancourt and also signed for multiple seasons. Lindstrom’s contract calls for $3.6 million in 2012 and an option for $4 million in 2013 which may be overpaying for that “proven” label.
Wilton Lopez (HOU):
The Astros grabbed Lopez in a waiver claim from San Diego and have received more than the minimal price they paid to obtain him back in 2009. The 26-year-old reliever induces a ton of groundballs (56.7% groundball rate) and is particularly effective against right-handed hitters. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.90) is fifth-best among relievers since the start of 2010 while limiting them to a sub-1.00 WHIP.
As the NL Central doormat, the Astros are sellers and it is likely Lopez – who hasn’t been tied to any rumors up to this point – might be available for a substantially lower cost than any of the other names on this list. He isn’t dominating but his skills against righties would add depth to the Twins bullpen.
Brad Ziegler (OAK):
You want a ground ball? Brad Ziegler will get you your friggin’ ground ball. So far this season, hitters have beaten the ball into the earth over 70% of the time. This sort of skill set is perfect for when there are fewer than two outs, a runner on first and a right-hander up. You can already mark the “6-4-3” on your scorecard in advance.
Like most side-winding types, Ziegler exhibits a significant platoon split, getting slapped around by lefties. Nevertheless, for situational use, Ziegler is one of the best. He’s making a $1.25 million this season which means the Twins would owe him less than $1 million for his services but he is about to hit his first year of arbitration this winter which will spike his earnings up.
Billy Beane, GM of the A’s, operates like he is a vendor within a Turkish Bazaar, buying and selling and finagling all over the place. He recognizes his team is in sell mode and has actually made it known that some of his pieces, like Ziegler, can be had for a reasonable amount. Ziegler would be a very functional component to the relief staff.
As a recent article in ESPN the Magazine pointed out, teams typically trade with teams that they have familiarity with. In the cases of Washington, Baltimore, Oakland and Colorado, the Twins have had recent interaction with them (although we might want to forget the outcomes of the Washington-Baltimore deals). This may increase the likelihood of a transaction happening between those clubs as opposed to forging ground to get Lopez in Houston or another team.

The Twins are focused on ensuring whatever move they make not only helps this season but also has an impact for next year – which is why the majority of these moves make sense as are all are available in 2012.