Sunday, January 15, 2012

Twins add Joel Zumaya to the bullpen mix

The Twins have frequently been accused of not catering to power arms and also not taking risks on their offseason signings. On Sunday, they may have made inroads in both areas by agreeing to a deal, pending a physical, with former Tigers flame-thrower Joel Zumaya.

According to Joe Christensen, the Twins and Zumaya have agreed to terms of a deal worth $800,000, with the potential of adding another $900,000 of incentives based on innings pitched, pending a physical.

Fastest Fastball (2007-2010)
Joel Zumaya
Daniel Bard
Matt Lindstrom
Neftali Feliz
Jonathan Broxton
Brian Wilson
Jason Motte
Zumaya, the talented yet often injured pitcher, has drawn some interest this offseason. In early December, the free agent Zumaya was in Houston to throw off the mound in front of teams. Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi tweeted that a scout told him that “almost every team was there” to watch him. Reports from the Texas audition were that the 27-year-old right hander was throwing in the mid-90s, down slightly from his 98.5 mile-per-hour average from 2007 through 2010.

Based on this, several team courted Zumaya as a potential buy-low, reward-high type of arm. Both Boston and San Diego were engaged in talks with him but, as the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported, one AL team’s doctors did not believe that Zumaya would be able to pass a physical in order to be signed.  Because the concern, it is easy to see why he would be available for under a million.

As you can glean from the chart above, Zumaya’s fastball is pure diesel fuel. From 2007 to 2010, Zumaya averaged the hardest fastball in the majors. Although an impressive feat, his regular absence from the active roster was a true detriment.

After bursting onto the scene in 2006 as a hot-shot 22-year-old reliever, he supposedly destroyed his elbow in 2006 by playing Guitar Hero too much (a video game that is no longer available either). In 2007, Zumaya missed extended time when he dislocated his finger while warming up in the bullpen and threw just 33.2 innings that season. Those 33.2 innings would be the most he would throw in a single season outside of his rookie year. In November of 2007, he would require AC joint reconstruction in his throwing shoulder (which he injured removing items from his Southern California homes during one of the wildfires) and missed a substantial portion of the 2008 season. The following year he would re-aggravate the shoulder in July of 2009 and wound up on the DL as the pain kept him from being able to lift his arm above his head. Finally, in 2010 most Twins fans were witness to Zumaya’s elbow exploding (a fractured olecranon) on a 99-mile-per-hour pitch to Delmon Young. He would miss the entire 2011 season because of that last injury, which necessitated a subsequent surgical procedure to replace a screw that was inserted into his elbow after the fracture.

Given the laundry list of ailments, it wouldn’t surprise me that during his impending physical that those doctors discover that his elbow is being held together with rubber band and duct tape.

Clearly, there is an injury risk associated with him but when healthy, he’s been a dominate arm in the bullpen. Over his career, he’s thrown 209.1 innings, striking out 23.1% of all batters faced and holding opponents to a .213 average against. However, unlike the majority of his Twin counterparts, Zumaya’s been a bit erratic with his control. His 12.8 % walk rate dating back to 2007 has been one of the league’s higher numbers in that period. Because of the various injuries, you can see how they would affect his command, particularly in 2008 and 2009 when he was recovering from shoulder surgery (44 walks in 54.1 innings). Considering he is recovering from elbow surgery this time around, it is very possible that Zumaya will struggle with his control in 2012.

If things work out favorable for Zumaya in the health department, it is an exciting move that could transform the look of the bullpen, giving Ron Gardenhire a viable late innings right-handed option that was missing from the 2011 squad. At the same time, we must remember that Zumaya is coming off surgery that really has no comparables that would indicate how he will respond. Early indications suggest that the velocity is not quite what it was – as Phil Mackey tweeted, the Twins clocked Zumaya between 92-94 miles per hour – so while it is still good readings, you have to wonder if several ticks off the fastball (one that is thrown up and over the plate) translates into a few more hits. On top of that, there are some team doctors who simply do not think he would pass a physical let alone finish an entire season.

This is certainly an out-of-the-box move for the Twins. We’ve seen a steady history of safe bets - those low-risk/ low-reward acquisitions for the bullpen that have become the organization’s MO. Zumaya, who’s obviously a high risk with his injury history, yet he represents a very high reward. With less a million dollars invested, the Zumaya signing is a good gamble for Minnesota.