Twins’ addition of pitcher Carl Pavano is even better than it first looks

Carl Pavano
REUTERS/Chris Roussakis
Carl Pavano, a former Cleveland Indian shown pitching against Toronto last month, made an impressive debut with the Twins on Saturday.

Most of the e-mails, comments, and tweets sent my way Friday afternoon weren’t particularly enthused about the Twins shipping a player to be named later to Cleveland for Carl Pavano, which makes sense, given his lengthy injury history and ugly-looking 5.37 ERA in 21 starts with the Indians. However, even before shutting out the first-place Tigers in his Twins debut Saturday night, there were plenty of reasons to like the Pavano deal.

For one thing, the price was right. Pavano signed a one-year deal with the Indians this winter that pays $1.5 million in guaranteed money and $5 million in potential incentives based on starts and innings. Because he’s been healthy and effective for the first time since 2004, those incentives began to kick in recently and Cleveland’s rough financial situation made shedding that commitment a no-brainer. From the Twins’ point of view, Pavano costs $500,000 up front and is then basically paid on a per-start basis.

If he pitches well and stays healthy for the remainder of the schedule, Pavano will take the mound 10 or 11 times for the Twins while costing around $1.5 million, because under the terms of the deal, they’re on the hook for just one-third of his salary, base or incentives. Toss in a Player to Be Named Later who’s not expected to be a significant prospect and for a couple million bucks, the Twins get a veteran starter for the final third of the season. Of course, whether that’s a worthwhile investment depends on his performance.

Certainly his 5.37 ERA in 21 starts with the Indians wasn’t pretty, but that doesn’t accurately portray how he’s pitched this year. Pavano had a brutal Indians debut, coughing up nine runs while recording three outs on April 9, and finished the first month at 0-3 with a 9.50 ERA. However, in his final 17 starts for the Indians, he went 9-5 with a 4.68 ERA and 72-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 107.2 innings. Plus, even with April included, Pavano had a 4.15 xFIP with the Indians that would have led the Twins’ rotation:

  xFIP
Carl Pavano 4.15
Scott Baker 4.17
Kevin Slowey 4.44
Francisco Liriano 4.69
Nick Blackburn 4.99
Glen Perkins 5.07
Anthony Swarzak 5.38

Perhaps it says more about how disappointing the Twins’ rotation has been this season than how well Pavano has pitched, but either way it’s not tough to make a case for him being an upgrade with Kevin Slowey out following wrist surgery and Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, and Anthony Swarzak struggling recently. According to xFIP, the Twins’ top starter has been Scott Baker at 4.17, and Pavano is nearly identical at 4.15, which is interesting, given how similarly their seasons have gone.

Through four starts, Baker went 0-4 with a 9.15 ERA, but he’s gone 9-3 with a 4.05 ERA and 93-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts since. Through four starts, Pavano went 0-3 with a 9.50 ERA, but he’s gone 10-5 with a 4.40 ERA and 77-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts since. Obviously at this point in his career, it would be silly to suggest that Pavano has the ability to be an impact starter, but while in Cleveland he pitched far better than his 5.37 ERA and far better than most of the Twins’ starters.

His acquisition improves the rotation at a relatively minimal cost both in terms of money and prospects, and the move looks particularly shrewd now that Perkins is facing more arm issues. When the Twins pulled the trigger on Pavano, they did so with the intention of making either Liriano or Perkins a reliever, which may have strengthened the bullpen and rotation. Thanks to Perkins’ shoulder problems, what the move does instead is keep the Twins from turning to Kevin Mulvey or Brian Duensing in the rotation.

I’m much higher on the Pavano trade than the Orlando Cabrera deal, because while somewhat similar in theoretical value, their actual usefulness to the Twins is much different. Pavano upgraded the rotation and allowed the Twins to either add Liriano/Perkins to the bullpen or avoid turning to an untested, likely poor starter. On the other hand, Cabrera didn’t really upgrade much of anything, because rather than simply replacing Nick Punto he just moved Punto to another position while benching Brendan Harris.

Prior to the Cabrera trade, shortstop was split evenly between Punto (54 starts) and Harris (49 starts). In theory, Cabrera’s arrival allowed the Twins to shift Harris to second base and make Punto a backup, but because Ron Gardenhire is uncomfortable with Harris’ defense there, what we get instead is Punto or Alexi Casilla at second base and Harris on the bench (or at third base, whenever Joe Crede is hurt). In other words, Cabrera replaced Harris, not Punto and Casilla, and that’s hardly a huge upgrade.

Both trades were reasonable low-wattage pickups, but Cabrera involved giving up the 60th pick in last year’s draft, whereas Pavano cost a marginal prospect and some cash. Beyond that, Pavano is a clear upgrade to a sagging rotation while Cabrera merely shifts a problem to a new spot. And perhaps most frustratingly, both deals show that slightly above- or below-average players are more available and less expensive to acquire than the Twins’ maddening lack of action over the past 15 months suggests.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 08/10/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    Maddening lack of action over the past 15 months is the key phrase here. The fact that these come so late may mean that the Twins have given up on 2009 like they did 2008. I keep hearing Justin Morneau’s words about the need to see some action to by the Twins in putting together a strong team to get Joe Mauer to resign. The M & M crew need some support to shore up the line up. At least both Span and Gomez are starting to pick it up so the outfield questions are getting answered. Too bad Delmon Young has had a better year to make him better trade bait for the off-season.

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