No Relief in Sight: Why the Minnesota Twins Made the Wrong Move at the Deadline
As much as it may seem like its heading in that direction, this is not an indictment of the Orlando Cabrera signing.
As much as I would have liked the Twins to go after someone else for that role, Cabrera is an upgrade and competently fixes a lot of small quirks in the Twins line-up, like the need for someone to bat second that is not named Joe Mauer.
No, this an indictment of the Twins' decision to go after a hitter at all when their greatest need was on the other side of the batter-pitcher equation.
There is no question in my mind that inertia greatly impacts how teams view themselves and their needs, and that inertia hurt the Twins badly this time around.
In the early days of the Twins' success, they won games by "doing all the little things", which usually means some combination of pitching well, playing good defense, taking extra bases and not hitting home runs. In terms of those things that actually help a team win games, pitching well is second to none.
The 2006 squad, the ones nicknamed 'The Piranhas' by Ozzie Guillen, was the epitome of this mentality. They boasted the second best bullpen in baseball, the best in the AL, having posted an expected wins above replacement level (WXRL) of 16.201.
Their rotation was good too, putting the Twins in a position to win something on the order of 51% of their games irrespective of run support (this is to say, they slotted in with a .509 SNWP). If the offense gave the team enough runs to win, the Twins usually won; it wasn't the bullpen or the starter that was usually to blame for a loss.
Since then, the Twins have lost Brad Radke and Johan Santana out of their rotation, seen Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser lose entire seasons and battle ineffectiveness in others, and had their bullpen decimated by injury.
Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek were both supposed to be relievers of the future, but Crain hasn't been even remotely effective since his torn labrum and rotator cuff and Neshek hasn't seen the mound since 2007 because of his own injury struggles.
In 2007, their bullpen was ranked 11th in baseball with a WXRL of 11.278, and they missed the playoffs.
2008 saw Matt Guerrier grossly overused, the bottom fall out on Juan Rincon, and the under-use of the shockingly effective Craig Breslow; the team was 11th again and again spent October playing golf. Their WXRL fell once again to 8.628.
This season has been worse than either of the previous two, but you wouldn't know it from the numbers. Through July 31, the Twins are locked into 11th place, posting a WXRL of 6.001.
Here's why that's a very, very bad thing.
Matt Guerrier has returned to effectiveness and his WXRL shows it; his 3.410 figure is the seventh best in baseball. As good as Guerrier is, he'll always be second fiddle to Joe Nathan, the Twins' elite closer.
Nathan's mark of 3.500 is the sixth best in the game.
Add those two figures together and you get a WXRL of 6.910, .909 points higher than the team figure.
See the problem?
The only other reliever on this team that can get hitters out consistently is Jose Mijares, who is pitching primarily out of the LOOGY role, and while he's very good in that position, it limits his value.
That figure even flatters the Twins, who have been awful of late after their starter hangs up his glove for the night. Bobby Keppel is barely in the positive WXRL, but that's due to his strong start after his call-up. In his last six outings, totaling 6.1 innings, Keppel has given up 11 runs.
Yes, the Twins starters haven't been as good as billed either, their SNWP is below .500 and 10th worst in baseball right now, but the glaring problem right now has to be the bullpen.
GM Bill Smith and his staff acknowledged the need for a bullpen arm, but chose to invest their time in adding another bat, leading me to believe they didn't recognize how dire the situation really is. The Twins are known for having a good bullpen, and in the years they are successful, they usually do.
However, this is not one of those years and the problem needed to be addressed.
I will say this in defense of Smith and his staff: trading for relievers is probably the most difficult thing you can do as a GM. Good closers or high leverage pitchers are worth their weight in gold, and you will pay as though that were literally the case if you try to acquire an established reliever.
Finding the undervalued asset that will make the bullpen work is a difficult process to say the least, but it can often be the difference between being competitive and being frustrated.
Last season was Brad Lidge's year (he's since fallen off the proverbial cliff) but players like J.P Howell, Brad Ziegler, and Ron Mahay were all top 11 bullpen arms. The year before that, it was J.J. Putz, Rafael Betancourt, and Takashi Saito topping the list.
Sure, players like Mo Rivera and Joe Nathan are always in or around the top five spots, but the rest of the players who fill out the top 10 and make their teams very happy fluctuate wildly from year to year.
Nevertheless, when your bullpen has two tiers, one for the elite (Nathan, Guerrier, and Miajres) and one for players who can barely post even replacement level numbers, upgrading isn't that difficult.
There is still hope that the Twins can add help. Players like Heath Bell (established and pricey) are probably out of the question for two reasons: their price and the difficulty in passing them through waivers.
However, guys like Jon Rauch or perhaps even Matt Lindstrom could be had at lower prices, may make it through waivers, and would be a substantial upgrade over Jesse Crain, R.A. Dickey, and Bobby Keppel.
At a later date, I'll look at the Twins' internal options, but suffice to say, looking from without may be the surer way of securing help.
However Smith and his minions choose to look at the problem, the last two games have made one thing painfully clear: without bullpen help, the Twins are going to languish behind the Tigers and White Sox in the AL Central.
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