Assessing the Twins’ roster shuffling: Perkins for Crain, Pridie for Span

After a month on the disabled list with an elbow injury, Glen Perkins rejoined the rotation Tuesday night with six solid innings against the Pirates. Perkins missed slightly more time than initially expected but looked very good in his return start and said afterward that his elbow was pain-free. Anthony Swarzak filled in capably for five turns in the rotation and has now been joined at Triple-A by Jesse Crain, who in a surprise move was optioned back to Rochester to make room on the roster for Perkins.

Crain hasn’t been in the minors since 2004, when he saved 19 games with a 2.47 ERA and 64-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings at Triple-A as a 22-year-old before his MLB debut in August. Since then, he’s made 272 appearances for the Twins totaling 280 innings, posting a 3.57 ERA and 172-to-99 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing opponents to bat just .247/.315/.377. While the shape of Crain’s performance has varied wildly from year to year, for the most part he’s been a quality setup man.

He missed most of 2007 following surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder but bounced back amazingly well from that potentially career-ending combination last year with a 3.59 ERA and 50-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62.2 innings. Ron Gardenhire made an effort to give Crain a reasonable workload as he returned from surgery, but that all changed this season as he appeared in seven of the first dozen games before predictably landing on the DL with more shoulder problems.

Crain returned two weeks later with back-to-back scoreless innings but coughed up 12 runs on 19 hits and seven walks in 9.2 innings over his next 14 appearances. He’s never stopped pumping mid-90s fastballs at hitters and even averaged 94.1 miles per hour while struggling during the past month. But despite retaining that velocity, Crain’s fastball hasn’t been particularly effective since 2005, and his main off-speed pitch has changed from a high-80s slider to a high-70s curveball with disastrous results.

Whether the slider-curveball switch was made out of post-surgery necessity or design, it’s clear that he was far more effective when his mid-90s fastball worked in tandem with a hard off-speed pitch. Sadly, it sounds like the Twins aren’t aware of the switch hurting his performance, because Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that “the Twins want Crain to rack up innings at Rochester, so he can hone his sinker and curveball.”

I’m certainly in no position to tell someone how to pitch, and Rick Anderson has no doubt thought long and hard about how to fix Crain, but the numbers regarding the effectiveness of his slider and curveball are tough to ignore. Along with the change in his approach, what made Crain’s struggles so frustrating was that the Twins never really stopped trotting him out there in high-leverage spots and let him take a ninth-inning loss just hours before sending him to Triple-A.

Crain is still just 27 years old, and the combination of a mid-90s fastball and track record of success in the majors leaves him plenty of room to bounce back, but it would surprise me if he’s able to return as much more than a capable middle reliever given that his Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is at 4.72 since surgery, and he’s never racked up tons of strikeouts. Crain makes $1.7 million this year and will be arbitration-eligible for the final time in 2010, so he’s in danger of being cut in the offseason.

Along with activating Perkins from the DL and sending Crain to Triple-A, the Twins placed Denard Span on the shelf with an inner-ear infection and filled his roster spot with Jason Pridie. Span’s trip to the DL was backdated to June 10, so if medication cures his dizziness, he’ll be eligible to return next Thursday and Pridie will merely spend a week pinch-running and playing defense. Asking him to do more than that is a mistake, as my write-up ranking him as the team’s No. 29 prospect this winter detailed:

Jason Pridie had a breakout 2007 season, hitting .303/.352/.487 in 134 games between Double-A and Triple-A, which persuaded the Twins to acquire him from the Rays as part of the Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young swap two years after briefly holding him on their roster as a Rule 5 pick. Pridie predictably came crashing back down to earth at Rochester last year, performing so badly in the first half (.243/.276/.392) that a big second half (.326/.364/.522) left him at just .270/.305/.435 in 138 games overall.

Pridie has persuaded the Twins that he’s promising enough to acquire twice, but it’s tough to see him becoming more than a fourth outfielder given his non-existent plate discipline, horrendous strike-zone control and .278 career batting average. He’s an excellent athlete with good wheels and some pop in his bat, which is no doubt the combination of tools that had Twins scouts smitten, but Pridie has yet to consistently turn his physical ability into actual baseball skills and time is running out.

Pridie’s strong finish provides some reason for optimism heading into 2009, but even while putting up big second-half numbers, he posted an awful 51-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For the season, he struck out 152 times while drawing 28 non-intentional walks, which is abysmal strike-zone control that keeps Pridie from taking full advantage of his speed or power. He made his MLB debut in September and will likely see more of Minnesota this season, but right now Pridie is just an unused toolbox.

Since then, Pridie has hit .255/.285/.333 with a 41-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 games at Rochester, giving him a .277/.317/.433 career line in 1,160 plate appearances at Triple-A along with .248/.297/.360 in 907 plate appearances at Double-A. In other words, he can’t hit. My guess is that the Twins would’ve bypassed Pridie for another player if they felt that Span would be out for an extended period of time, as calling him up only makes sense because he was the lone outfielder already on the 40-man roster.

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