In the 2003-04 off-season, Mauer was coming off a tremendous minor league season. Between High- and Double-A, he hit .338/.398/.434 (.832) with 37 extra-base hits in 135 games. Baseball America awarded him the Minor League Player of the Year and he would be named the number one prospect that off-season. St. Paul’s hometown boy seemed destined to take his place behind the plate at the Metrodome.
Blocking Mauer was Minnesota’s starting catcher in 2003, AJ Pierzynski, and he was coming off a strong season himself. He had an All-Star season in 2002, but the 2003 campaign might have been his best in a Twins uniform. He slashed .312/.360/.464 (.824) with 49 extra-base hits in 137 games. He would only have one other season with a higher OPS in his entire 19-year career.
Minnesota was ready to hand the reins to Mauer, which left Pierzynski as a tradeable commodity.
From the Giants perspective, the trade didn’t look that bad on paper. Pierzynski was in the prime of his career as a 26-year old catcher that was coming off a 4.5 WAR season. To top it off, he had three years of arbitration left, so he wasn’t just a rental player. Regardless of his attitude problems, he was a very good player at a tough position that should have gotten quite the return.
From the Twins perspective, well… it’s tough to know what they were thinking at the time. Joe Nathan was a 28-year old reliever that was coming off his first decent season in the bullpen. There had been previous concerns about his shoulder and the possibility of those things lingering. Liriano hadn’t pitched more than 80 innings in any season of his professional career and he had injury concerns of his own. Boof Bonser saw his strikeout rate and velocity drop in the year before the trade.
At the time of the trade it looked like San Francisco had fleeced the Twins, but baseball is a funny game.
Hindsight is 20-20
Twins fans know what happened after the trade. AJ Pierzynski played one season in San Francisco and hit .272/.319/.410 with 41 extra-base hits. He was worth 0.3 WAR that season. Even though, he could have been arbitration eligible for two more seasons, he had caused so many headaches for the Giants that they let him go at season’s end. He ended up in Chicago and helped the White Sox to the 2005 World Series title.
Minnesota got quite the value from their cast-off pitching trio. Nathan would turn into one of the best relievers in the game and accumulate 18.4 WAR during his seven years with the Twins. Liriano exploded onto the scene in 2006 and it looked like the Twins would be unstoppable with a Johan Santana and Liriano combo. Tommy John surgery stopped that dream from becoming a reality, but Liriano was still able to accumulate 9.3 WAR in his Twins tenure. Bonser pitched over 390 innings for the Twins, including one playoff start, and was worth -0.3 WAR.
Terry Ryan and Minnesota’s scouting department must have known what they were getting in Nathan, Liriano, and Bonser. They also knew what they were giving up in Pierzynski.
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