Minnesota Twins sign Joel Zumaya

The Minnesota bullpen suddenly looks a lot more powerful, as the Twins agreed to a contract with flame-throwing relief pitcher Joel Zumaya. Pending a physical, the former Tiger will

Zumaya has a medical history that makes Wile E. Coyote look safe and healthy by comparison, but because of the way the contract was structured, this deal carries little if any risk for the Twins. It is a non-guaranteed Major League contract, meaning that the Twins don’t owe Zumaya a cent if he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training. If he does, the deal will pay him between $800,000 to $1.7 million, depending on how much he pitches and how many incentives he incurs.

Even if Zumaya earns the full amount, it could be an incredible deal for the Twins. At 27 years old, Zumaya is in his Major League prime, and he has been a very good setup man since 2006. For his career, Zumaya is 13-12 with a 3.05 ERA, five saves, 1.35 WHIP, and 9.0 K/9. But it’s his pitch arsenal that makes him stand out. Few pitchers in the world can match Zumaya’s fastball velocity: the pitch has averaged 98.5 mph over his career. He compliments that fastball with a low-80s curve.

So why was a pitcher of this caliber available on such a team-friendly deal? Because he hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2010. Specifically, he hasn’t pitched since June 28, 2010, when he blew out his elbow in a game against the Twins. You can view the video of the injury here, along with the MLB.com story about the Zumaya signing, but I don’t recommend it. Zumaya was in such obvious pain that the video itself is difficult to watch without cringing.

That wasn’t Zumaya’s only injury. His hard-throwing style seems to put a lot of stress on his arm, and he has missed significant time in every season since 2006. In fact, that was the last year he topped 38.1 innings in a season. Putting a player like this on the Twins, who used the Disabled List 27 times last year, might be a recipe for disaster. If I were Ron Gardenhire, I’d at least be sure to keep a first aid kit within arm’s reach every time Zumaya warms up in the bullpen.

But as long as pitching for the injury-prone Twins doesn’t kill Mr. Zumaya, this is a potentially great move. Terry Ryan is actually taking a page from the Bill Smith playbook here. For all his faults, Smith was a genius when it came to adding under-the-radar role players to fill out the roster. Smith brought in Jim Thome, Carl Pavano, and Brian Fuentes, and Orlando Cabrera, all of whom helped the Twins make the playoffs in one season or more. Zumaya could be a succesful addition in the same vein.

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