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Updated: July 29th, 2010 12:48am
Mackey: With trade deadline looming, reliever is Twins' biggest need

Mackey: With trade deadline looming, reliever is Twins' biggest need

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

With the July 31 trade deadline looming, one thing is clear after the Minnesota Twins' 6-4 win and series sweep over the Royals; general manager Bill Smith probably doesn't need to trade for a run-producing bat.

The Twins (56-46) are now 10-4 since the All-Star break, moving 10 games over .500 for the first time in more than a month. The offense is clicking, the pitching staff is temporarily stabilized, the weather is amazing, and birds are chirping.

Or something like that.

But before anyone gets too excited, remember A.) the Royals are bad, B.) the Orioles are terrible, and C.) in order to reach the same plateau as the Yankees, Rays and maybe even Rangers, the Twins probably need to pull a few strings.

Here are the Twins' three biggest trade-deadline needs, complete with rambling thoughts and analysis:

1.) A reliable, late-inning relief pitcher with potential to close

The ultimate devil's advocate to suggesting the Twins need relief pitching help more than anything else is the fact that the current bullpen owns the second-best ERA in all of baseball (3.16). If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

Well, consider this the calm before the storm, and consider me a paranoid bullpen weatherman who sees a cold front on the horizon. Specifically in the late innings. Against good teams.

Jon Rauch picked up his 21st save of the season on Wednesday afternoon, which was a much-needed momentum boost for a guy who has not been particularly sharp over the last month. By his standards, Rauch is having a solid season -- 3.05 ERA and 3.48 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) to go along with 27 strikeouts, nine walks, and three home runs allowed in 38 1/3 innings. If he continues at this pace, 2010 could be considered the best season of Rauch's career.

But Rauch isn't Joe Nathan, and it remains to be seen if he's capable of keeping the Twins afloat against elite teams in high-leverage, late-inning situations (i.e. the Yankees. In the playoffs). Doubt justifiably lingers.

And that isn't an indictment on Rauch. He has a track record as a solid seventh and eighth inning reliever, and that's the role the Twins originally brought him in to fill last summer. He was cast as closer in an emergency situation after Nathan's elbow injury, and it's difficult to argue that anybody else on the 25-man roster would do a better job.

Jesse Crain has been the team's hottest reliever since the beginning of June, but that doesn't mean he's suited for ninth-inning duties. In fact, Crain so much as admitted two weeks ago to having some anxiety about a set bullpen role.

With all of that said, it's no wonder the Twins' front office has kicked the tires on several relief pitchers over the last couple weeks.

Here are some of the names that have been linked to the Twins: LHP Scott Downs, RHP Jason Frasor, RHP Kevin Gregg, RHP Matt Capps and LHP Javier Lopez.

To go along with Tom Pelissero's report of the Twins' flirtations with the Blue Jays, Fox Sports' John Paul Morosi reports Minnesota actually has a scout assigned to scope out the entire Toronto bullpen.

Of course, there may be more, but of those five, the only two who are clear upgrades over Rauch are Downs and Capps. Frasor, Gregg and Lopez are just bodies who would simply provide more depth.

Capps is a 26-year-old righty with a 94-mph fastball who makes $3.5 million this season heading into his final year of arbitration. He currently sports a 2.80 ERA and a 3.51 FIP to go along with 37 strikeouts, nine walks and five home runs allowed in 45 innings. What sets Capps apart from Rauch is his superior "stuff," and his track record -- prior to a dismal 2009 season -- of being not just a solid late-inning option, but one of the best in baseball from 2006-2008.

Downs is a 34-year-old lefty with a 2.34 ERA and a 2.99 FIP with 35 strikeouts, 10 walks and two home runs allowed in 42 1/3 innings. Over the last four seasons, Downs has posted ERAs of 2.17, 1.78, 3.09 and 2.34, to go along with FIPs of 3.24, 3.39, 3.33 and 2.99.

He is a stud, and the Blue Jays know it. Reports indicate Toronto is looking for a top prospect in exchange for Downs, who is projected to be a type-A free agent at the end of the season.

In order to win the World Series, the Twins need a reliable late-inning bridge with a stone-faced anchor. Is Rauch that guy? I have serious doubts.

2.) A starting pitcher

I feel like I spend half my life chastising people who put too much stock into short-term sample sizes throughout a baseball season, so yes, it may seem hypocritical to suggest -- after solid starts this past week by Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing -- that starting pitching isn't the Twins' top priority.

Baker, Slowey and previously Nick Blackburn were all pitching extremely poorly heading into the All-Star break, so to determine based on one solid trip through the rotation that the Twins' starting pitching core doesn't need an upgrade could be considered short-sighted.

I would argue that pressing the panic button on a Twins' starting pitching staff that has largely underachieved at the bottom of the rotation all season is also short-sighted. They're bound for a turnaround.

With Cliff Lee and Dan Haren off the board (and Roy Oswalt, who is a notch below Lee and Haren, owed $15 million next season), the Twins are left to sift through second- and third-tier pitchers on the trade market, which is exactly what they currently have anyways in Baker, Slowey, Blackburn and Duensing.

The Twins must decide if trading for a guy like Ted Lilly -- whose 4.49 FIP and league-leading 51-percent fly ball rate aren't likely to translate well to the American League or mesh with the Twins' lack of outfield range -- is worth giving up a semi-valuable prospect and/or eating a chunk of the $5.5 million remaining on his contract.

The same applies for any other potential trade target, such as Brett Myers (whose 3.10 ERA and 3.52 FIP are career lows, but how much do you trust that to continue in the AL?), or even a guy like Tom Gorzelanny (3.22 ERA, 3.33 FIP, only four home runs allowed in 86 2/3 innings).

If the Twins can acquire a second- or third-tier pitcher for a bargain-bin price, then yes, it probably makes sense to pull the trigger. But how likely is that?

The best option is for Baker, Slowey and Duensing to simply pitch up to the standards they are capable of.

As for the top of the rotation, here's the reality: Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano are the one-two punch. Liriano is the so-called "ace," and his numbers this season back up that title (3.35 ERA, a league-leading 2.13 FIP, only two home runs allowed, and 139 strikeouts to just 36 walks in 129 innings).

Pavano (3.21 ERA, 3.85 FIP, and only 22 walks in a team-high 148 2/3 innings) is having a career year himself, or close to it.

Is that enough to beat the Yankees? Maybe not. But it's the best the Twins can do in this current market. And it's not as bad as people think.

3.) A right-handed bat off the bench

This seemed like a much more pressing need when Delmon Young was hitting .219/.288/.375 on May 1, but since he has apparently reincarnated himself as Vladimir Guerrero's clone, the Twins are no longer desperate for a right-handed bat.

Michael Cuddyer has also picked up the slack lately, extending his hitting streak to 13 games and raising his batting line back to .278/.346/.441.

Danny Valencia has also emerged as a relevant right-handed bat, and even though he's bound to come back to earth at some point, he poses a threat the Twins didn't have two months ago.

If Young has indeed reached a new plateau in his career, if Cuddyer provides serviceable offense during the last two months of the season, and if Valencia's bat remains relevant, the Twins' starting lineup (.277/.348/.413 vs. lefties this season) should continue to fair well against southpaws, especially considering Denard Span and Joe Mauer each fare extremely well against them as well (Justin Morneau too, when healthy).

A right-handed bat off the bench would be a luxury at this point, but certainly not a necessity. Brendan Harris was supposed to fill that role, but he currently sits in Rochester and isn't on the 40-man roster.

Jason Repko (.324/.410/.559 in 34 at bats, plus amazing outfield defense) has been a nice fit off the bench as a right-handed option and defensive replacement, but he could wind up as the odd man out once Orlando Hudson and Morneau return from injuries (Repko has a minor-league option left).

Plus, Repko isn't nearly as good as the offensive production this month suggests. He can hold his own, but pitchers aren't exactly nibbling at the corners when Repko pinch hits in the ninth inning.

Unless something falls into their laps for essentially no cost, the Twins should probably sit on what they currently have from the right side of the plate. And it appears as if that's the game plan, because all is quiet on the right-handed bat trade front.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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