Thursday, February 9, 2017

The return of Craig Breslow

Wednesday's news: Left-handed reliever Craig Breslow, aka "the smartest man in baseball," agreed to a minor-league deal with the Twins

This minor deal is intriguing because it has a past, present and future.

That was then

I promised myself years ago that I would stop relitigating (to borrow a current favorite of political spin doctors) the Twins' handling of Breslow in 2008-09, but I remain certain that the Twins lost the 2008 division title because Ron Gardenhire refused to use Breslow in meaningful situations.

The Twins picked him up on waivers from Cleveland in 2008, and even though he was the most effective non-Joe Nathan reliever the Twins had that year (at least until Jose Mijares was called up), Gardenhire didn't trust him with games on the line. Breslow got five holds and one save, but the save came in a three-inning stint in a game won 12-2. He coughed up only one lead all season, but of his 13 September appearances, nine came in games the Twins lost.

He had a 1.63 ERA in 2008, and the Twins lost out on the divisional title in a Game 163 -- a winnable division lost because of repeated multi-reliever meltdowns involving almost any arm in the pen except Breslow. Gardenhire viewed him strictly as a second LOOGY and mop-up man; he could have, should have, been more prominent.

He had a rough start in 2009, and the Twins waived him after just 14.1 innings. Oakland scooped him up, and he's had a pretty good run since -- although with a noticable decline in performance the past three seasons. Breslow is 36 now, so that's not a great surprise.

This is now

Faced with obsolence, Breslow has re-engineered his delivery, moving to a lower arm slot. In theory, this should make him tougher on lefties. Even though he has often been deployed as a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY), his platoon splits have generally been pretty even: .705 OPS vs righties, .693 vs. lefties. He hasn't been helpless against righties, and he hasn't been a true lefty killer either.

If the new delivery does what it's supposed to, Breslow might actually fit the way managers keep trying to use him. 

But the Twins have plenty of other LOOGY possibilities -- Ryan O'Rourke, Taylor Rogers, Buddy Boshers -- on their 40-man roster, not to mention Glen Perkins, a lefty reliever who might be on the roster but not in the closer role. It's not a given than the new delivery will work, and it's not a given that Breslow will make the roster even if it does.

What might be

Breslow told Ken Rosenthal that he had better offers elsewhere but chose the Twins with an (implied) eye to a post-playing role:

“The thing that resonated the most with me was the idea that I could impact the culture and impact the direction of the organization for longer than potentially my stay there might be,” Breslow said. 
“Derek (Falvey) is a really engaging and bright guy with a great vision for the organization. I’ve got no doubt that he’ll be able to be able to bring sustained success. The opportunity to be part of that at this stage of my career is one that is really compelling.”

Breslow has academic credentials unmatched in baseball (Yale degree, majored in molecular biophysics and biochestry). It's easy to imagine him in some sort of future role merging analytics and coaching.

But that's in the future, if at all; for now, the smartest man in baseball is trying to figure out how to get the next hitter out, how to extend his playing days.

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