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Article: The Perfect Crime: A Look Back at the Twins' Trade for Joe Nathan


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There was a time, particularly during his first stint as Twins GM, that Terry Ryan was a trading partner to be feared, largely because of his ability to turn throw-in prospects into major league contributors. There are stories -- likely apocryphal -- of opposing GMs deeming a low-level prospect untouchable because Ryan had been inquiring as to his availability. The reputation wasn’t without merit: Dave Hollins became David Ortiz; Chuck Knoblauch turned into Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Buck Buchanan (who was later spun for Jason Bartlett), Danny Mota, and cash; and Milton was subsequently dealt for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and Bobby Korecky. Not every deal came out perfectly, but Ryan consistently extracted enough extra value in trades to give his colleagues pause.It’s easy to look back at the deal that brought Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski as an obvious one to make. Joe Mauer was coming off a solid season between A and AA, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would take over behind the plate sooner rather than later. For that to happen, Pierzynski needed to clear out or change positions, and the latter wasn’t happening, so of course Ryan would deal him to clear space for Mauer.

 

But while Mauer was hitting well in the minors -- particularly for his age level -- he wasn’t beating down the doors. As a 20 year old, he hit .338/.398/.434 including a stint in the Arizona Fall League; Pierzynski hit .312/.360/.464 in the majors that season, earning a deserved All-Star selection. And at 26, it isn’t as though Pierzynski was at the end of his career, or even at the end of his prime, so Ryan’s decision to move him after back-to-back great season could have backfired badly had Mauer not made the jump as well as he did.

 

As it turned out, Ryan moved Pierzynski at the absolute peak of his value. While he remained a solid catcher through his age-38 season -- which shouldn’t be glossed over, that’s an incredible achievement -- he never returned to the All-Star Game and only twice put up above-average offensive numbers.

 

In return for this desirable asset, Ryan got a once-prized prospect who had lost a bit of his luster (Bonser), a converted outfielder who was coming off back-to-back seasons of injury issues (Liriano), and a former shortstop who wasn't far removed from shoulder surgery himself (Nathan).

 

A former first-round pick, Bonser had the pedigree to succeed, and (just like many of Ryan’s other finds) he did make contributions to the major league team, even if he was clearly the worst of the acquired players. He gave the 2006 Twins 18 starts and ended the year fractionally above average by ERA+ and with a 1.0 fWAR. Great? Hardly. But he was just 24, so it would have been a solid foundation for him to build on as he rose to being a mid-rotation piece...except that those 18 starts marked the best year of his career. Even if he wasn’t spectacularly bad, Bonser neither generated enough groundballs nor missed enough bats to make it in the majors and a torn labrum in 20009 ended his time with the Twins.

 

Liriano’s arm had already been an issue when the Twins acquired him and it would continue to plague him throughout his career, though to his credit, he has continued to rehab and make it back to the majors every time he has gone under the knife. Still, his career would be typified by terms like “serviceable” and “solid” were it not for his unforgettable rookie season in 2006.

 

His 2006 line is staggering: 3.6 fWAR, 1.00 WHIP, 2.16 ERA, and 10.71 K/9, but that actually undersells how good he was that year. Liriano wasn’t well-suited to pitching out of the bullpen, but that’s how he began the season (even recording a three-out save in a game which the Twins won by 10 runs, because of course he did) which included a three-inning relief appearance after the Tigers bombed Carlos Silva out of an April game. Liriano fared little better, giving up 5 ER in just 3 IP. Look at his numbers once he joined the rotation full time in May, and they’re even better: 1.92 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 112/28 K/BB ratio, and opposing hitters hit a pathetic .181/.244/.281 off of him. But the arm issues caught up to him once again. He threw just six innings after July 28 and would miss all of the 2007 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

 

His 2010 season showed glimpses of the form that had made him so unbelievably dominant in 2006, and the fact that he had 31 healthy starts means his counting stats look better, but he never did fully recover the form he had shown. He gave everyone a season to dream on and enough flashes of brilliance to bounce around the league for another decade and counting, but the consistent excellence he showed once seems to be part of his legend rather than his actual legacy.

 

The Baseball Prospectus comment on Nathan prior to the 2003 season began “Nathan continued his comeback from shoulder surgery in 2000, with a year that was impressive only relative to the year before. He was never a great prospect, even before the shoulder woes, but he could be a serviceable innings-eater in middle relief.” Put another way: If you don’t have a player like this in your minor league system, the cupboard is so impossibly bare, it beggars belief. You don’t trade for players like this, they just appear on your AAA roster as if placed there by an occult hand. And to be fair, eating innings is exactly what Nathan did in 2003: His first year as a full-time reliever in the majors, Nathan appeared in just shy of half the Giants’ games, racking up 79 innings in 78 starts.

 

Prior to the 2004 season, Prospectus noted that Nathan had looked leaps and bounds better the previous year than he ever had before -- and how right they were! -- but cautioned that this could be an aberration because it seemingly came out of nowhere. Here, too, they were right: 2003 was an aberration for Nathan, because for the decade following, he never again had a season as bad as 2003 when he was healthy for a full year.

 

2004 started with a closer-by-committee set-up with Nathan, Juan Rincon, and even a fleeting appearance from Joe Roa before he was relegated to mop-up duty, but by mid-April, the job was Nathan’s to lose. The next time someone besides Nathan would lead the team in saves was 2010, when Jon Rausch stepped in while Nathan was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

 

Like Liriano, there were serious concerns about Nathan’s ability to stay healthy during his time in the minors, but after he moved to the bullpen, those concerns all but vanished. He finished his career with the eighth most saves of all time and appeared in the 54th most games. Of the three players acquired for Pierzynski following the 2003 season, Nathan had by far the best career; taking everyone involved in the deal, only Mauer has a claim at being a better player than Nathan.

 

Whatever the Twins thought they were getting in Nathan, no matter how much Ryan and his staff believed that 2003 was indicative of what he could be, Nathan exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. He filled a hole that had existed since the end of Rick Aguilera’s second stint with the team (Mike Trombley notwithstanding) and held it down through some of the team’s best years post-1991. It’s fitting to see him end such a stellar career as a Twin.

 

The Pierzynski-for-prospects deal is widely considered a heist, Ryan’s Robbery if you will. Some of that is due to Pierzysnki’s decline and some is due to Liriano’s apotheosis in 2006, but given that Bonser added almost nothing and Liriano was more frustration than fulfillment, the idea that the trade was as lopsided as it was confirms just how good Nathan was: If the deal had been a straight Nathan-for-Pierzynski swap, would the reviews be all that much less glowing?

 

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I loved having Nathan and wish we could have capitalized on Liriano's talent for more good seasons, but I also feel like we did give up a lot.  A.J. loses support because of his prickly personality, but he was a really consistent and determined player.  I would call the trade even and, on our side, a little lucky too.

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I loved having Nathan and wish we could have capitalized on Liriano's talent for more good seasons, but I also feel like we did give up a lot. A.J. loses support because of his prickly personality, but he was a really consistent and determined player. I would call the trade even and, on our side, a little lucky too.

No way.

 

AJ lasted one year in San Fran, saw his OPS drop 100 points and was incredibly disruptive in the clubhouse. He was so bad that the Giants just non-tendered him rather than pay him what they would have had to in arbitration. They didn’t even look to trade him, they just wanted him gone. Giants fans hated him so much that a decade later when he was the backup catcher for the Cardinals in the NLCS, he was roundly booed by Giants fans. It’s insane that in one season, you can alienate a fan base so much they boo you when you’re a backup catcher a decade later.

 

Against that 1 year of disruptive awfulness, the Twins got:

 

1) A magical half-season, two full sub 4.00 ERA season and two bad seasons from Liriano

2) 260 saves, a 2.16 ERA, two top-5 Cy Young finishes and four all-star game appearances from Nathan

3) A half season of above average (106 ERA+) from his Boofness along with a quality start in the playoffs against Oakland.

 

A more accurate statement would be that in a straight up trade of AJ for Boof, the Twins win hands down. Boof fractured no clubhouses and had a nice season that includes a very respectable playoff start.

 

I just can't see this trade as anything but one of the biggest heists in modern baseball trading.

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I loved having Nathan and wish we could have capitalized on Liriano's talent for more good seasons, but I also feel like we did give up a lot.  A.J. loses support because of his prickly personality, but he was a really consistent and determined player.  I would call the trade even and, on our side, a little lucky too.

 

From an article about that Giants year:

 

That would be the notorious blowup that occurred in 2004 when Pierzynski was with the San Francisco Giants. In a story that ran in the Oakland Tribune that season, Pierzynski almost caused a mutiny among the Giants pitching staff.

 

"The pitchers arent happy with him. If they can trade him, that would be fine with me", one player said. Another called him a cancer.

 

Several pitchers questioned Pierzynskis work ethic. He was accused of giving his teams signs to the opposition and for criticizing Giants pitchers to the Padres Phil Nevin while Nevin was hitting.

 

I don't 100% believe that AJ would give away signs and all that. He always seemed to need to win so that's hard to believe. But if he was being shunned by the team? Maybe? Regardless, the fact that players thought he was doing this is insane enough.

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This is certainly one of the most memorable trades in Twins history.... The summer of Frankie Liriano was unbelievable, even if it only lasted for a couple of months. That was probably the first time I've seen a slider thrown in the low 90's. 

 

What makes me sad is that there hasn't been another trade that comes to mind over the last 13 years where the Twins are clear winners. That needs to change with the new regime. 

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What makes me sad is that there hasn't been another trade that comes to mind over the last 13 years where the Twins are clear winners. That needs to change with the new regime. 

 

This isn't on the same level (which is unfair as the AJ trade is a poor litmus test, like comparing modern presidents to Lincoln) but the Ben Revere trade was pretty fantastic. The Twins didn't play Ben Revere (OPS+ since leaving the Twins = 84) and instead got Trevor May. May's been banged up but that's a pretty clear winner for the Twins. And we even got to sell Van Worley to the Pirates (which sounds bad when you think about it in 1700 terms).

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From an article about that Giants year:

 

That would be the notorious blowup that occurred in 2004 when Pierzynski was with the San Francisco Giants. In a story that ran in the Oakland Tribune that season, Pierzynski almost caused a mutiny among the Giants pitching staff.

 

"The pitchers arent happy with him. If they can trade him, that would be fine with me", one player said. Another called him a cancer.

 

Several pitchers questioned Pierzynskis work ethic. He was accused of giving his teams signs to the opposition and for criticizing Giants pitchers to the Padres Phil Nevin while Nevin was hitting.

 

I don't 100% believe that AJ would give away signs and all that. He always seemed to need to win so that's hard to believe. But if he was being shunned by the team? Maybe? Regardless, the fact that players thought he was doing this is insane enough.

 

AJ made Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent seem to be great teammates... 

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This isn't on the same level (which is unfair as the AJ trade is a poor litmus test, like comparing modern presidents to Lincoln) but the Ben Revere trade was pretty fantastic. The Twins didn't play Ben Revere (OPS+ since leaving the Twins = 84) and instead got Trevor May. May's been banged up but that's a pretty clear winner for the Twins. And we even got to sell Van Worley to the Pirates (which sounds bad when you think about it in 1700 terms).

 

Hmm, yeah I could squint and see a win there. It hasn't moved the needle much to improve the organization, but still a win. I'm hoping that Falvey/Levine get a big win like the Kluber trade for Cleveland, and the Hamels trade for Texas. 

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Hmm, yeah I could squint and see a win there. It hasn't moved the needle much to improve the organization, but still a win. I'm hoping that Falvey/Levine get a big win like the Kluber trade for Cleveland, and the Hamels trade for Texas. 

 

I don't think you have to squint to see a win. Releasing Revere would be a win. Getting some money from the Pirates for Worley and not playing Revere would be a win. Getting back a quality guy who profiles as a back-end bullpen piece or #3/#4 starter is a clear win in flashing neon letters that you can see from a mile away.

 

I think the issue is that you're looking for either another AJ trade or a Texeira trade. To the first, that AJ trade is a once-in-a-generation trade, you can't expect to get hit by lightening twice.

 

For the second, I'd say two things. Teams are better at trading today - they value prospects more and they know their own guys more. Team are looking at numbers way more than they did and it's harder to sneak someone into a trade. Secondly, the Twins haven't had a Texeira, a Hamels or a Sabathia to trade. You get the crazy prospects with great players and we haven't had them.

 

You have to scale clear win to the trade. Trading away Revere, anything that is positive is a win. Anything like a Trevor May is a big win. Wouldn't be same if it was Hamels for May.

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"....(even recording a three-out save in a game which the Twins won by 10 runs...."

 

A misprint here. It was a three inning save. The other is impossible to achieve.

 

Nonetheless, a great read. Nathan was lights out, and trading Liriano brought us the joy of Escobar. 

 

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I recall several times hearing that Nathan was acquired because the Twins scouts thought that Joe Nathan could be an upper-level reliever despite never having pitched in that role prior to the acquisition.

 

I remember years ago I called in on the WCCO radio show when they were interviewing Terry Ryan, and they fielded my question: What in particular are you looking for, especially in the case of Joe Nathan, that you think best allows a player to go from mediocre or bad starter, to good or elite reliever, other than not having a choice because they are incapable of being a starter?  I think I threw Juan Rincon's name in that mix too.  

 

He was unable to provide any kind of discernible answer.  It'll go down as a great Twins trade, but I've never been convinced that Nathan's success as a reliever/closer was much more than luck on the scout's and Front Office's part.

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You didn't go far enough in your analysis of Liriano's 2006 year.   My memory is that he was talking about arm strain before he gave up 4 runs in 4 innings against Detroit and his ERA went from 1.96 to 2.16 so as a healthy starter his ERA was well under 2.00.   If Santana goes into the HOF he might owe it to Liriano getting hurt that year.    With a 12-2 record, sub 2.00 ERA and about 10 starts to go I thought Liriano was looking good for the Cy Young that year instead of Johan.

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He was unable to provide any kind of discernible answer.  It'll go down as a great Twins trade, but I've never been convinced that Nathan's success as a reliever/closer was much more than luck on the scout's and Front Office's part.

 

I think it's at the connection between luck and skill. There's no way Terry Ryan knows every player in every system well enough to answer that with any authority. The Twins had a list of players they liked in every team's system. Nathan's was a name on that list and one that they pushed in the talks. That's skill and that's process. They pushed for a player and it worked out.

 

They do that every day and just about every one doesn't turn into an MLB player, let alone a Team HOFer. That's the luck part. You're influencing a 100 sided dice so that two sides work for you rather than just one.

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What I remember is Twins fans booing AJ when he came back with the White Sox. Maybe it was mostly because he's a bad ass and was with the White Sox but I remember thinking we shouldn't be booing him, we should be thanking him - that was not only arguably the greatest trade in Twins history, it also allowed Joe Mauer to take over as catcher. 

 

I'm guessing we'll see Joe Nathan in the Twins HOF at some point. Still remember when I got my picture taken with him at Twins Fest after he had been traded to us but before he had played a game, hard to believe that was 13 years ago. But when I was listening to Michael Cuddyer's HOF speech I was remembering reading an article about him and the headline was something like "Top Twins prospect also does card tricks." Yes, I am getting old...

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For the second, I'd say two things. Teams are better at trading today - they value prospects more and they know their own guys more. Team are looking at numbers way more than they did and it's harder to sneak someone into a trade. Secondly, the Twins haven't had a Texeira, a Hamels or a Sabathia to trade. You get the crazy prospects with great players and we haven't had them.

 

Not trying to argue but are teams really better today? How many trades haven't happened because a team wouldn't trade prospects and those prospects never did anything?

I would argue both the Revere and Span trades are proof that trading prospects don't always come back to haunt you. For the most part we got less than zero from Meyers and so far not much from May.

 

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Not trying to argue but are teams really better today? How many trades haven't happened because a team wouldn't trade prospects and those prospects never did anything?

I would argue both the Revere and Span trades are proof that trading prospects don't always come back to haunt you. For the most part we got less than zero from Meyers and so far not much from May.

 

No, you make a solid argument. I don't have any evidence - it would take someone with a lot more time and resources to go back and see if teams have gotten better at trades. I guess my point would be more that it's harder to sneak someone onto a trade who has bad overall numbers but a few indications of potential. Teams just have so much more information on their own players - they're more likely to properly value their guys. Total guessing on my park but teams that scouted well (like the Twins) might have been able to have a slight edge in finding secondary talent before teams started creating statistical departments to track guys?

 

The Span trade was a dud (though I still like it - sometimes the results don't back up a solid process) though not as much because of Span. He's had a nice enough career since but his OPS+ has been 100 for his career. He basically has had two nice years and three mediocre years since. Meyer was a fun prospect but sometimes they don't work out. Still like swinging for the fences from a position of strength. The real issue was bailing on Span's replacement (Gomez) early.

 

I guess we disagree when it comes to May. Revere was a clearly flawed player who the Phillies somehow fell in love with (really inexplicable, he'd never put up a .700 OPS and was a noodlearmed light-hitting corner OF) so anything you get for him is great. And they got back May, who looks like a nice set-up man or 4th starter. Those are both pretty valuable and the Twins have four more years of control. Maybe May doesn't pan out but it's way too early to say that for sure.

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Without AJ we haven't won a single playoff series since 1991.

 

 

Think about that.

And the Sox won in 2005 with him. I think his year with the Giants and then being non-tendered was a 'you need to grow the **** up' experience for him. Sox fans and teammates loved AJ and what he brought to the team. I don't think the Sox win in 2005 without him.

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