This Sunday, sitting in a Chicago bar with knowledgeable fans of various Midwestern baseball teams, including the Minnesota Twins, news that the Twins placed reliever Pat Neshek on waivers broke via twitter. Reactions varied from “wait, what?” from the unaffiliated to the “[expletive deleted]” from the Twins fans in the group. Within 10 minutes, news broke, once again via twitter, that the Padres had claimed the 30-year-old righthander. Given the reaction from those who follow the organization as well as the speed with which Neshek was claimed, the move appears curious at best.
A look at Neshek’s career stats begins to explain the despair felt by the Twins fans at the table. Over his career, the sidearmer has posted a tremendous 10.5 K/9, and even with middling control (3.1 BB/9) and trouble with fly balls (32% GB rate), Neshek has a 3.05 career ERA to go with a 3.58 FIP and 3.61 xFIP. Both peripheral rates are solid for a reliever, and can produce nearly a full win over replacement in value over a 70 inning season.
Over the last three seasons, Neshek has thrown only 22.1 innings of mediocre baseball, including a completely lost 2009 to Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t been great in the minor leagues during his rehab either, managing only a 5.9 K/9 rate without improvements in other areas. Given the Twins’ supervision of these struggles along with Neshek’s spring performance, it’s entirely possible that they’ve seen something that suggests that Neshek is done and beyond repair as a Major League pitcher.
I find two problems with this idea. First, the Twins can’t afford to dump a reliever with even a small chance of contributing in 2011. After Joe Nathan, their bullpen quality drops heavily. The other six bullpen positions will likely go to Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, Jim Hoey, Dusty Hughes, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins. Slowey should be excellent in the pen (and should be a starter), and Capps and Mijares should be slightly above average. The others? ZiPS is not confident, and the depth just isn’t there.
The second problem is the most damning: Neshek still has a minor league option remaining, according to Dan Hayes of the North Country Times. Even if the Twins had decided that Neshek wasn’t ready to pitch on the Major League roster, they had nothing to lose by stashing him in the minor leagues and seeing if he could figure it out. Neshek’s ZiPS projection isn’t exactly pretty (4.57 ERA), but he’s a bit of a special case due to his injury; he would have a sort of twin peaks projection. One of the peaks would correspond to if he “finds it” again, and the other if his injuries have killed his MLB talent. A healthy Neshek may be projected for a 3.80 ERA or maybe even lower, which would put him on the same level as a Mijares or Capps.
A healthy and effective Neshek would be a huge boon to a Twins team which needs every win it can find in a tight AL Central. Instead it appears that the Twins have decided that dumping Neshek’s $625K salary is a more worthwhile endeavor than attempting to work him back to health. This isn’t the kind of mistake whose impact will be readily noticeable as the season wears on, but if right-handed batters clobber Twins relievers in the 6th and 7th innings this year, they will wish that Neshek was still around.