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August 15, 2008 at 10:41 AM

Why Twins wanted Washburn

Some folks out there are having a tough time understanding why the Minnesota Twins wanted to take Jarrod Washburn off the M’s hands. This is understandable, given how the Twins have a reputation for building from within with cheap, cost-effective homegrown talent. They have a stable of young pitchers, like Nick Blackburn, who the Mariners have gone after before. Remember the Adrian Beltre talks last month? Yes, Blackburn was a name that came up at that point. Did he come up in the Washburn talks? I don’t know. But the M’s wanted a starting pitcher in the Washburn deal, from what I was told yesterday. Not necessarily him, though.
This article from the Star Tribune explains yesterday’s talks pretty well from the Minnesota perspective.
No, this was not, as we mentioned yesterday, a “block” move by the Twins.
We’ve had this discussion before, but at this time of year, when playoff berths are up for grabs, teams tend to suspend the normal value judgments made on players. Even the so-called “good” teams have been known to do this. Especially when it comes to relief pitching. Think of what the Boston Red Sox gave up last summer in sending outfielder David Murphy, starting pitcher Kason Gabbard and teenage outfielder Engel Beltre to the Texas Rangers for a two-month rental of a washed-up-looking Eric Gagne.
Does this make Red Sox GM Theo Epstein a moron? No. After all, he still won the World Series. And that’s always the goal. Not building a fantasy super-team. The goal is always to make the playoffs, then go as far as you can. The money generated off that can offset tons of moves that look foolish in hindsight.
It’s why the Tigers shipped off catcher Pudge Rodriguez for reliever Kyle Farnsworth, of all people.
Why yours truly was not against dealing catcher Jeff Clement for an eighth inning reliever last year. If the alternative is to not make the playoffs, then sometimes you have to swallow hard and bite the bullet on a deal that would otherwise look lopsided. In hindsight, dealing Clement or Wladimir Balentien for Octavio Dotel or Al Reyes would now seem foolish. But how foolish? The M’s have a surplus of minor league catchers. Balentien strikes out whenever he isn’t hitting a home run. We still don’t know how either will turn out. When Adam Jones was still here, Balentien was an afterthought. If the M’s make the playoffs last year (had they not blown a 5-0 lead at home to the Angels, capping it with Rick White on the mound, who knows how things might have played out?), then Jones likely remains in Seattle and no one remembers Balentien.
But in truth, the moment Bill Bavasi failed to deal for another eighth inning guy, the 2007 season was over. The team knew it, the gassed relievers knew it. They crossed their fingers and prayed for a miracle. Prayed that Rick White, a washed-up waiver claim, might be their cheap “miracle answer” but he wasn’t. The fact White was on the mound pitching in key games shows you just how dire the bullpen situation was. Don’t even go by the stats. Talk to the relievers and they’ll tell you: the bullpen was teetering on the edge of collpase come August. So, by not picking up a bullpen answer, the M’s wrote off their 2007 playoff chance. Now, we’re almost through 2008 and still no playoffs. Come 2009, there likely won’t be any either.
Still, heck, the M’s have Balentien. They have Clement.
Some teams, though, would take the chance of missing the prospects for a playoff shot. Is Epstein incompetent? No, he isn’t. Is Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski incompetent? Only if you’ve lived in a cave the past 20 years without access to baseball coverage.
I’m not writing this to justify my support of a prospects-for-reliever deal last year. You’re all going to have your opinions on it and may even be right in the end. I may have been wrong. But I’m trying to explain to you the mentality that goes into baseball decisions this time of year. It’s easy to look at one-sided deals and say “That GM must be crazy!” Or, you can try to understand why things happen this way. Why even brilliant GMs like Epstein can make insane-looking moves this time of year.
Now, on to why the Twins would take all of Washburn’s salary and maybe give up even more.

One of the moves the Mariners tried to make last year, even before shifting their focus to relief pitching at the trade deadline, was to acquire another starting pitcher. Remember those Dontrelle Willis rumors? The M’s wanted to bring in another starter, and then would have very likely moved Miguel Batista into the eighth-inning setup role. In my mind, that would have been a shrewd move. Even though Batista was the best starter the M’s had going for much of last year. He was also a former closer.
We saw in 2005 how the Anahaeim Angels fared when starter Kelvim Escobar, coming back off injury, was made into a late-season reliever. Escobar threw 19 relief innings over nine September outings, holding opponents to a 1.90 ERA and a .169 batting average. He struck out 17 batters and walked only four. That’s the type of eighth inning dominance the M’s needed when it mattered in 2007.
In the playoffs, Escobar had 15 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings during the six games he appeared in. I saw all of Anaheim’s post-season games and still contend that the only thing that prevented them from winning a World Series was two freakish ALCS plate appearances by A.J. Pierzynski of the Chicago White Sox (both against Escobar). On one play, catcher Josh Paul forgot to tag Pierzynski on an inning-ending Escobar strikeout in the dirt. On the other, Escobar tagged Pierzynski with the wrong hand on a dribbler up the line. Both plays saw Pierzynski reach first base safely and game-winning rallies followed.
But otherwise, Escobar to the eighth-inning role might have won Anaheim its second World Series.
So, inserting a starter, even a very good one, into a late-season bullpen role can work out very well.
The M’s might have held on much longer last season had Batista, instead of White, been pitching to Kenny Lofton of the Indians or to Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels in the two games that ultimately put the nails in Seattle’s 2007 coffin.
And now, the Twins are in a similar situation. Because of the collapse of the highly favored Tigers, they have an unexpected shot at the post-season. Against a White Sox team no one had all that much respect for heading into 2008 and which still might fade down the stretch. Though the Twins appear poised to have future playoff shots, you just never know in this game.
So, when the Twins look at their bullpen and see that gaping hole caused by the elbow injury to Pat Neshek, they are asking themselves some serious questions. Like, can they afford to go down the stretch — as did the M’s last season — without a capable bridge to closer Joe Nathan? Or, must they do all they can to get another eighth-inning arm in there, even if it means taking on Jarrod Washburn’s contract?
If you’re going to take a guy out of that Twins rotation, you can’t just replace him with a Class AAA guy who’s going to go five innings. Well, you could, but then you’d be one of those teams that builds for the future and misses the present-day playoff shot.
Say what you want about Washburn, but he’s gone six or seven innings on a regular basis since late-May, without giving up a ton of runs. Put him in front of that Twins defense and — if some of your theories about him being lucky hold true — he should produce even better results. Maybe Denard Span can take away some of those home runs he gives up?
Anyhow, Washburn, in theory, should prove no worse than a No. 3 starter for the Twins of he keeps doing what he’s been doing and has a better defense behind him.
That allows the Twins to maintain what they’ve done to this point in the rotation, as well as seriously upgrade in their late-inning relief. And when you consider what past teams have done to acquire bullpen relief this time of year, taking on Washburn’s salary doesn’t exactly rank among the craziest moves ever. It’s why I still think these teams might be able to work something out. Maybe not for another starting pitcher. But for a decent prospect who can be moved to Seattle ahead of time, say for a player-to-be named (with Washburn being put on waivers again after that). Or, you can just do an honor system thing and work out who gets what, or what happens if Washburn was to be claimed by someone else. Word of mouth gets around fast in this game and nobody would deal with the Twins or M’s if they tried to pull a fast one on each other. You can work out a gentleman’s agreement and get a Washburn deal done on a second try. Or at least try to get one done. This isn’t the schoolyard. Honor still means something in baseball.
So, anyway, there you have it. That’s why the Twins wanted to do a Washburn deal. Don’t yell and scream at me. I’m just trying to explain it to you. We can either keep scratching our heads every summer and proclaiming every GM an idiot when he makes what looks to be a lopsided deal for some late-inning relief, or we can try to understand the mindset.
Yes, the playoffs are what matters in this game. Building for the future has its place. And it is key to getting into position to make the playoffs, as the Twins have shown. But sometimes, even with the best laid plans, you need that final push. And the “wait until next year” rule doesn’t apply. Some GMs wait for next year the rest of their careers. This time of year, when it comes to these decisions and evaluating talent, all bets are off. Sometimes, a GM will sleep better at night just making the move and not wondering “what if?” for years afterwards.



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