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The Curious Case of the Minnesota Twins’ Mike Pelfrey Signing

Posted by Tom Schreier , 23 June 2015 · 2,340 views

minnesota twins terry ryan mike pelfrey reclamation projects
While the Minnesota Twins are a homegrown team that relies heavily on players from their farm system to sustain success in the major leagues, reclamation projects are an important part of their team construction. Once-highly-touted prospects or players that have had some big league success and saw a dip in production with their former team for various reasons are often of interest to a team in a mid-sized city looking to get the most value out of their signings.

These players are relatively low-risk and high-reward based upon their perceived potential and low cost to sign. If they pan out, the organization looks smart for turning around the career of a player that was once considered a top prospect. If they don’t, they can be released for relatively little cost to the team other than the cost of giving playing time to a struggling player.

For a team like the Twins, who play in a mid-sized market and have relatively parsimonious ownership, this is a way to get potentially high-end talent without high cost or long term commitment. Pelfrey, a high draft pick who had two strong years as a member of the New York Mets, signed to a one-year, $4 million deal in 2013 following Tommy John surgery. Then, in a much scrutinized move, was re-signed for two years, $11 million following a tough first year.

Fifteen million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but it is relatively cheap for a former first round pick who had two strong seasons as a member of the Mets in 2008 and 2010 — so long as he pitches like the player he can be.
Pelfrey was awful in his first year with the Twins. He came back from Tommy John surgery faster than expected, pushing himself to get back on the mound against doctor’s orders, and felt the effects of accelerating his return timetable. He was 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA (79 ERA+), pitching 152.3 innings in 29 starts, making the $11 million extension he received the year after that much more perplexing. “He’s coming off Tommy John, he came back quickly, and we thought, ‘Okay, that’s a good starting point, but there’s more to come.’ That’s the reason,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said when asked why the team re-signed Pelfrey. “And he showed some flashes, and he certainly showed the velocity and stuff like that, so we thought, ‘All right, he’s over the hump on the Tommy John response,’ and now all of a sudden we’re gonna get more. Well, unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

He only made five starts in the first year of his second contract, finishing last season with a 0-0 record, 7.99 ERA (50 ERA+) and only 23.2 innings pitched. “Last year was awful,” says Pelfrey, who has always been accountable, even during his most trying times with the Twins, “so this offseason I came in and worked my tail off to … honor that two-year deal and be the best I could, and I thought I put myself in a pretty good situation.”

Pelfrey has been the best pitcher in the starting rotation this year, going 5-3 with a 2.97 ERA (136 ERA+) in 13 starts. His play merits All-Star consideration and will likely garner a large contract for him in the offseason. A player playing out of his mind in a contract year is not unheard of — Joe Mauer hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs the year before he signed his $184 million extension, and Kurt Suzuki made his first All-Star team on a one-year deal last season — and Pelfrey was certainly upset when he was assigned to the bullpen out of Spring Training, perhaps providing an incentive for him to pitch well in the rotation.

Pelfrey, however, attributes his success to three things: He’s in good health, his split-finger has given him the “pitch that he’s lacked for 30 years,” and his sinker is much better. “First time in a couple years, maybe since Tommy John, I don’t have to make my sinker move,” he says. “I can just throw it, and it has that natural sink, which it always had before.”

Pelfrey has had a split-finger since 2010, a year in which he went 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA (107 ERA+), but he had it revamped by bullpen coach Eddie Guardado in Spring Training this year. “To be honest with you, during Spring Training we’re watching these guys throw in the spring, and he’s throwing his splitty, and I looked at him and, jokingly, I go, ‘What is that pitch?’” says Guardado, chuckling. “He goes, ‘It’s my split finger, dawg.’ And I go, ‘That ain’t gonna work.”

Guardado says sometimes he has trouble working with veteran pitchers, given that they have had a track record of success and are often stuck in their ways, but Pelfrey didn’t take much time to get the split-finger down. By the end of Spring Training he was throwing it with ease, giving him a pitch that falls out of the strike zone, which complements his mid-90s fastball, curveball and sinker. “It’s like a new toy,” says Guardado, “He worked with it every day, and I just showed him the grip. Did we talk about it a little bit? Yeah, absolutely. But he did it all on his own. I’d like to take the credit, but he’s a hard-worker, man, so it’s all good.”

The split-finger, complemented by a naturally moving sinker, has given Pelfrey more confidence on the mound. His usually plodding pace has been improved upon. In many ways, the Twins have the pitcher they’ve always wanted right now. Health is always a concern for players, especially pitchers, but it’s rare for a veteran player like Pelfrey to all of a sudden have another weapon in his arsenal. It’s easy to look back and say it was a good signing now, but it took some fortitude and, frankly, stubbornness for the team to retain him after a tough first year.

It wasn’t just his potential, though, that enticed the Twins; they also liked his leadership. “It doesn’t hurt,” says Ryan. “It’s always nice to have a little bit of that veteran presence in any part of your club, especially when you’re talking about the rest of that starting staff, they’re relatively young.”

He was given a corner locker in the team clubhouse, and according to his teammates, he’s very approachable and has a way about him of offering constructive criticism without making a struggling teammate feel the need to get defensive. “He’s easy to talk to, he’ll come up to talk to you about certain things he sees, and he’s definitely a leader,” says Kyle Gibson, 27, who is in his third year with the team. “I think he approaches every situation like that very well. He’s not gonna come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you were really bad today, and this is what I saw.’ He’s gonna ask you questions, he’s gonna try to approach it in the most mature way possible, because that’s the kind of guy he is.”

Gibson, like Pelfrey, is a sinkerball pitcher who has undergone Tommy John surgery. He says that the two were able to speak freely about the difficulty of coming back, as well as the mental hurdles every player has to go through during the ups and downs of a season. “He’s been a guy who I’ve talked to about learning how to attack with my fastball a little bit better at certain times,” says Gibson. “I’m always trying to talk to him about something just because I feel like going through the surgery, whether it’s how we were feeling last year or the year before, I’m always a guy who’s looking to learn something, and that’s a great guy to learn from.”

In some ways it’s unfortunate that Pelfrey is coming into his own in a contract year at age 31. He’s a Scott Boras client, so he’s unlikely to come back on a discount, and the Twins suddenly have plenty of depth in the starting rotation. Still, for the time being he’s one of the best pitchers in the league, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The team is finally competitive again, Phil Hughes is off to a slow start, so the team is in need of an ace, and Pelfrey has no doubt left a meaningful mark on the younger pitchers, especially Gibson. “So far I’m glad that it’s working out,” says Pelfrey, “but there’s a lot of baseball left, so we’ll just keep it going.”

This article was originally published on the Cold Omaha section of 105TheTicket.com.

Tune in to The Wake Up Call every Sunday at 8:00 am to hear the crew break down the week in Minnesota sports.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tschreier3.

  • jorgenswest, dbminn and howieramone2 like this

Thanks for writing the article, it's a great read. Yep, big Pelf has gone thru a lot. I'm hoping they keep him after Santana comes back. After watching Millone nibble at corners all night, giving up 10 hits in 6 innings, I just don't see sustain success. Nolasco can be shipped off to the Sioux City Canaries.

It's a contract year. 'Nuff said. He produces he gets a BIG multi-year contract. Otherwise, he's one of those mid-level signings.