Twins address bullpen problems — finally

It took 15 months in the wake of Pat Neshek‘s elbow injury last May, but the Twins finally addressed the bullpen by adding a veteran setup man over the weekend. In fact, they added two within the same hour Friday afternoon. Left-hander Ron Mahay, who’d been designated for assignment by the lowly Royals a few days earlier, agreed to a one-year contract worth a prorated share of the minimum salary, and the Twins traded a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks for right-hander Jon Rauch.

Mahay will be a situational lefty and with only five weeks remaining he’s unlikely to throw more than 10 innings for the Twins, limiting his potential impact. Originally an outfielder when the Red Sox made him an 18th-round pick in 1991, Mahay became a full-time pitcher five years later and started a six-year run as one of the league’s better setup man in 2003, at the age of 32. He went 15-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 283 strikeouts in 336.2 innings from 2003-2008, posting a mark above 4.00 just once during that span.

He pitched his way out of Kansas City this year with a 4.79 ERA and .313/.382/.545 opponents’ line in 41 innings. For comparison, Justin Morneau is at .290/.378/.545. Normally a sustained track record of success makes someone a sound bet to bounce back, but Mahay is 38 years old and wasn’t great last season either. Mahay is better than Sean Henn and worse than Craig Breslow, which means that the Twins could have saved themselves some trouble by not making that ill-advised swap in the first place.

Predicting how Mahay will perform in what will likely be at most 10 innings in Minnesota is impossible, but he’s a reasonably effective pitcher and for a cost of about $100,000 and no prospects, the price was certainly right. Not a good move. Not a bad move. Just a move. Rauch is a different situation, because along with getting him for the rest of this season, the Twins have added him for next year at $2.9 million. He also cost a PTBNL, which makes it difficult to evaluate the trade until that prospect is revealed.

For instance, the Twins announced that the PTBNL going to Cleveland for Carl Pavano is Yohan Pino, which makes that deal less appealing than it appeared initially. Pino isn’t a top prospect by any means, turns 26 years old soon, and seemingly never earned the Twins’ trust because of underwhelming raw stuff. However, his numbers in the minors have been strong at every level and this year he’s posted a 3.03 ERA and 108-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 113 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

A worry
If the Twins were willing to part with an intriguing mid-level prospect for 10 starts from Pavano, it worries me what they may send Arizona for Rauch, but in the meantime let’s focus on his value. Originally taken by the White Sox in the third round of the 1999 draft, the 6-foot-11 righty went 16-4 with a 2.66 ERA and 187-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 166 innings during his first full season to earn Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America, who ranked him as MLB’s fourth-best prospect for 2001.

Two months into the next season Rauch needed surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff, and like so many pitchers who undergo those career-threatening operations, he was never the same. He spent the next three years at Triple-A reestablishing himself as a solid but unspectacular starter and posted a 6.51 ERA in 10 games with Chicago. “I just don’t have the same arm,” Rauch later explained. “Things didn’t work out like they should’ve with my rehab. I’m just thankful I can still go out and get hitters out.”

Traded to the then-Expos for Carl Everett in July of 2004, Rauch reinvented himself as a reliever only to undergo another shoulder surgery. There was less damage to repair the second time around and he actually made it back in September. Despite being less than a year removed from his second shoulder surgery, Rauch emerged as the workhorse of the Nationals’ bullpen in 2006, logging 91 innings in 85 appearances to rank second among NL relievers in both categories while posting a 3.35 ERA.

He led the majors in appearances the next season, working in 88 games with a 3.61 ERA and 71-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87 innings. With closer Chad Cordero hurt, the Nationals handed ninth-inning duties to Rauch last year and he had 17 saves with a 2.98 ERA and 44-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 innings before being dealt to the Diamondbacks in mid-July. And then he fell apart. Rauch was 0-6 with a 6.56 ERA following the trade, including allowing 15 runs in his final 14 innings.

It looked like more of the same when he gave up 17 runs through 18 innings this year, but he bounced back with a 2.52 ERA and 22-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his next 36 innings before Friday’s trade. In slightly more than a calendar year with Arizona he had a 4.87 ERA and 57-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 78 innings, serving up 11 homers. That’s a steep decline from his time in Washington, and given his shoulder problems and huge workloads. it wouldn’t be shocking if he’s simply wearing down at age 30.

Rauch became a full-time reliever in 2006 and since then he’s the only pitcher in baseball to appear in 300 games. He’s been ridden very hard and has shown clear signs of decline even while getting back on track lately. After going from Washington to Arizona, his strikeouts dipped 20 percent, his walks rose 25 percent, and he served up 30 percent more homers, and this year’s strikeout rate is the worst of his career. Fortunately he’s still a capable reliever and isn’t that far removed from being a very good one.

Why so late?
Waiting until now to bring in some bullpen help is mind-boggling because the Twins are clinging to their playoff lives at 4.5 games back with 32 games remaining and the team’s middle relief has been a weakness for the past 250 games. While the front office sat on their collective hands for 15 months the bullpen trotted out Rochester-caliber arms Henn, Brian Bass, R.A. Dickey, Bobby Keppel, Luis Ayala and Philip Humber and the washed-up remains of Eddie Guardado and Juan Rincon for 240 innings.

Better late than never, perhaps, but making a move like this last season could’ve put the Twins into the playoffs, and making a move like this a couple months ago could’ve left them without needing to mount a miracle comeback in September. Rauch and especially Mahay aren’t going to have a huge impact in five weeks, but adding Rauch for next year at $2.9 million is certainly a reasonable price and should be a worthwhile pickup depending on the PTBNL. Still, probably too little and definitely too late.

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