Monday, March 02, 2009

Endgame Mystery

We have a mystery. Let's see if we can solve it.

The bullpen's performance last summer fueled plenty of speculation about minor league alternatives. The most common names were relievers from Rochester, or closers from further down the ladder, like Rob Delaney or Anthony Slama. None of them were called.

Instead, when rosters were expanded in September, the Twins suprised us by promoting left-hander Jose Mijares from AA-New Britain. When asked about this, Ron Gardenhire mentioned the evaluations Mijares had drawn from those in the organization:

"Mijares was throwing the living fire out of the ball."


"Molitor told me midseason that he'll be in the big leagues before the year's out," Gardenhire said. "[Minor league pitching coordinator] Rick Knapp said that's a very good callup, well-deserved. ... I saw his fastball at 93-94 miles per hour."

But Gardenhire wouldn't see that 93-94 mile per hour "living fire" in a game until almost two weeks later. Mijares didn't appear in his first big league game until 9/13.

It wasn't for lack of need. During those two weeks, the team struggled, and they did so because the bullpen struggled. The Twins were swept by the Blue Jays, lost a series to the Tigers, and took two of three from the Royals. For four of the six losses, the losing pitcher was in the bullpen.

Was Gardenhire trying to protect Mijares? Gardenhire has often been criticized for not trusting young players enough, or protecting young players too much.

If that's the case, Mijares is an extreme case. Because not only didn't Mijares pitch in the six losses, he also didn't pitch in the three wins - and they were all blowout wins. The final scores of the Twins three wins during that stretch was 10-2, 7-1, and 7-2.

Were the Twins protecting Mijares arm? After all, he had broken his elbow and only had been pitching since the middle of the year. If so, they overcame their caution in a hurry. Over the second half of that month he was used ten times.

And that was because those reports Gardenhire had from the organization were dead on. About a week after his first major league game, he was already trying out for the eighth inning role that had eluded the Twins all year. He bridged a 4-1 win for Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan on Sept 21st. He was the first option for the rest of the season. He gave up just one run over his ten appearances.

So that's our mystery. Why wasn't he used earlier? There's no sign that health was the issue. Maybe Gardenhire was protecting him, or didn't trust him, but just how much trust does one need in a 10-2 game? Not using Mijares for the first two weeks of that month could be viewed as the biggest strategical blunder of the season. And it was done by a manager whose bullpen-building skills are often listed as his greatest strength.

Well, it might have something to do with the messages that the Twins have been sending Mijares' way since the offseason began. First, Mijares was cut from his winter ball team and received a very public message from GM Bill Smith. The Strib gives us the details:

But after suffering two playoff losses for Tigres de Aragua, Mijares had a rift with manager Buddy Bailey and walked out on the team, Twins officials confirmed Thursday.

Mijares, 24, returned to the Aragua team but only after skipping multiple games. Bailey didn't use Mijares again and soon cut him from the playoff roster, even though Mijares had posted a 1.40 ERA in 28 regular-season appearances for de Tigres.


"If he comes to camp thinking he's a lock for our bullpen, he'll probably be in Rochester after our first cuts," Smith said. "If he pitches the way he did in September, he has a good chance of making our club."

Hmmm, first cuts, huh? That sounds ominous, especially considering the reports that the already large-boned Mijares packed on some extra pounds this offseason.

But first cuts also seemed unlikely after learning that Boof Bonser would be out for the season. Or it would if the the Twins hadn't kept up the pressure. The news that they were talking with Juan Cruz would've created a roster crunch that would jeapordize Mijares spot on the 25 man roster.

Juan Cruz signed with the Royals this weekend, but the manager has also created some of his own drama by pondering entering the season with just an eleven-man pitching staff. With five starting pitchers, that would mean that one of the seven projected bullpen arms would be left behind. And Mijares is the only projected bullpen arm left with options.

Given the messaging that has happened so far this spring, it's likely the Twins started those messages back during the first days of a September call-up. Viewing an attitude or some behavior they didn't like, they sat a vital asset on the bench. Gave him a "time out" to think about how opportunity can be fleeting.

And perhaps we don't have such a mystery after all.


GM-Carson said...

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Give it a shout out please!

Nick N. said...

Your point is well-taken.

A few things. First, I'll note that Mijares didn't actually join the team on September 1. You may recall that his visa was delayed so he was unable to join the team in Toronto, where they opened the month of September. Mijares didn't suit up with the Twins until September 5, meaning that his delay was more like one week than two.

Second, I'll note that there was little reason to expect Mijares to command the ball as well as he did during his brief stint with the Twins last year. This is a guy who walked 5.1 batters per nine innings in the minors, so the Twins probably wanted to make sure they could be comfortable that he'd be able to go in and throw strikes before pitching him in tight games during a playoff race.

Of course, that doesn't explain why he wasn't being used in blowout victories. My take is that Mijares was not originally called up to play a significant role in the bullpen. The Twins already had three left-handers in the pen -- Dennys Reyes, Craig Breslow and Eddie Guardado -- and my feeling is that they called up Mijares in order to give him a taste of the big-league clubhouse and let him get some bullpen sessions with Rick Anderson, while perhaps getting some live game action later in the month. Once they actually threw Mijares in a game and saw how he handled his business, it forced them to adjust their plans.

You could be right that the delay in his debut was related to attitude problems, but to me it seems far more likely that they simply wanted to get a good look at him in some bullpen sessions before throwing him into a live game, and their schedule was pushed back a bit due to the visa issue. After all, this was a 23-year-old kid who'd thrown just 36 innings all year long. By pitching as effectively as he did, Mijares forced the team's hand over the second half of September.

Thanks for following up with this post, John. Good stuff.