Sunday, August 30, 2009


Things have been getting very interesting in recent days as Bill Smith tries desperately to plug the gaping holes in the Twins' pitching staff. The Twins have already made two acquisitions, with rumors of more to come by Monday's deadline.

Ron Mahay, a 38-year-old LHP, was DFA by the Royals, so the Twins were able to sign him for the prorated league minimum without having to give anybody up in a trade. Mahay has never had great control, walking 4.4 batters per 9 IP over his career. But he's mostly been effective since 2003 despite working in the pitching unfriendly environs of Arlington, TX for 5 of those seasons. However, he's been fading recently, allowing a 9.00 ERA in August while getting banged around at a .371 average and allowing 4 HR in just 7 IP before his release. Ostensibly, he will only be facing lefties, who he has held to a .284/.314/.469 line this season, a .783 OPS. That's not so good, but he's been able to bounce back from poor months in April and June with solid performances in May and July, so we'll have to hope that pattern continues for him in September. At least he's a better option vs. a lefty in the 6th of 7th than Bobby Keppel (.848 OPS).

Back on the soapbox for a minute: Mahay is probably the final word on a position that has been as disastrous as any for the Twins this season: LHP #2, or the LOOGY. Sean Henn allowed a 1.280 OPS against lefties in a misguided attempt to replace Craig Breslow, whose first 6 weeks of the season were shockingly bad (11 BB and 3 HR in 14.1 IP). The stretch for Breslow was so unprecedented, as was the early-season success of Henn at AAA, that the Twins should have expected each of them to regress back to their career norms. This is, in fact, what happened, as Breslow has put up a 3.32 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 40.2 IP since being claimed by Oakland. Including his poor start in MN, his OPS vs. lefties for the season is .629. Of course, had the front office made any effort at all to retain LOOGY extraordinaire Dennys Reyes, they could have signed him for about $1.5 million a year. His OPS vs. lefties is .531, something the playoff bound Cardinals are very much enjoying, I should think. So, while it's great to see Bill Smith striving to improve the team here in late August, the effort is at partially necessary because he wasn't smarter back in the spring.

Jon Rauch, one of the bullpen workhorses of the NL, joins the Twins for a PTBNL. After 3 1/2 splendid seasons with the Nationals, he was traded to Arizona, and did not take well to one of the NL's premiere hitting environments. He was lit up for a 6.56 ERA with the D-Backs last season, and then got off to a horrible start in 2009, allowing 10 ER on 15 H and 5 BB in his first 9.2 IP. Since then, he's been back to his old self, with a 3.02 ERA since the beginning of May and only 2 HR and 6 BB allowed in 31.2 IP since June 1st. His acquisition not only means that Gardy won't have to ride Matt Guerrier into the ground, but that the Twins now have 3 credible late-relievers who can set up Joe Nathan. Best of all, Rauch is under contract for 2010, deepening the bullpen mix for next season and taking considerable pressure off Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser as they try to recover from their surgeries. The short-term and mid-term benefits of this deal look pretty good. We'll have to see which player winds up completing the trade, but at this point, I like this transaction a lot.

Brad Penny - The Twins' rumored interest in Penny doesn't please me. I didn't think much of him when he faced the Twins back in April, and the Red Sox think so little of him that they let him go. The only really good month he's had this season was June, when he faced the NL teams he was familiar with 3 times and held them to 5 ER over 16.2 IP. That makes his ERA vs. AL teams 6.02, and 6.25 vs. AL teams other than the Twins. Jeff Manship can probably do better than that. Let Penny go back to the senior circuit.

Rich Harden is much more intriguing. He's been a health disaster, spending time on the DL in every season since 2003. But he's been awesome when he makes it to the mound, a dominant #2 starter, if not an ace. He's been especially good since the All-Star break, allowing just 10 ER on 25 H and 16 BB with 60 K in 50 IP. He's already had his DL stint for this season, so perhaps his injury troubles are out of the way for the rest of 2009. The Twins have made a waiver claim on Harden and have until Monday to work out a trade.

Harden would come at a fairly substantial cost for someone who would make, at best, 7 regular season starts for the Twins. His remaining salary will be a little more than $1.3 million, though the Twins certainly have payroll space available. Perhaps more significantly, Harden is about to be a Type A free agent, meaning that the Cubs could expect to get a first-round and supplemental round draft pick next season if he signs with another team. They will want 2 players with pretty high upside in return for trading him. The Twins must decide whether 2 such players, plus the money, is worth it for 6-7 starts by Harden and 2 extra draft picks of their own.

For me, this is a no-brainer: finish the deal. Harden has better stuff than Scott Baker. Were the Twins to take the 6-7 starts currently slated for Manship and give them to Harden, they are likely to win at least 2 more of those games. Manship keeps the ball in the yard, and is an intriguing prospect for 2010 or 2011, but he's not a good bet to help the Twins make up their deficit with the Tigers. Harden can be a difference-maker. What's more, if the Twins were to overtake the Tigers and reach the post-season, their present rotation (or one with Penny) makes it unlikely that they would last more than 4 games in October. But, as the 1987 Twins proved, you only need two good starting pitchers to win a post-season series. With Baker and Harden fronting the rotation, and Rauch, Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Nathan at the back end of the bullpen, all of a sudden the Twins are contenders. Bill Smith has an opportunity to make this team legitimately good enough to win - he just has to have the stones to give up something decent in return.

What should that be? When we're talking about compensating someone for high draft picks, I don't think we have to get too far above the low minors. Recent supplemental or 2nd round picks like Carlos Gutierrez or Billy Bullock should be on the table. With the Twins' OF situation as settled as they want it to be for the next 2 seasons (Cuddyer, Span, Kubel, Young and Gomez all under team control), 3 decent bench options at AAA in Jason Pridie, David Winfree and Dustin Martin, and 1st-round super prospects Ben Revere and Aaron Hicks due to arrive in the majors between 2012-2013, why not deal one of the other OF in between? I heard a rumor that AA RF Rene Tosoni was part of the package for Harden. Apparently not true, but he's just the sort of guy who should be.

It's hard to part with good prospects, but what are they for if not to help the big-league team win? The beauty of this situation is, they will be replaced next summer with 2 more good prospects. If 2 guys who may or may not ever fulfill their promise as MLB talent can be turned into an elite starter for the stretch run of a pennant race, I say do it.

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