Closing the Book on the A.J. Pierzynski Trade


The trade of Francisco Liriano to Chicago marked the end of an era. Coincidentally, it reunited him with a certain catcher whom the Twins dealt away to get Liriano in the first place. We can now close the book on what many view as the most lopsided trade in Twins’ history. On November 14, 2003, Minnesota sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser, and Liriano. As every Twins fan knows, it worked out pretty well. Now that all four players have finally moved on to other teams, we can analyze exactly how well.

This trade peaked (at least as far as the Twins are concerned) on July 28, 2006. On that date, Liriano pitched eight strong innings against the Tigers, with whom the Twins were locked in a struggle for the AL Central title. He did not receive a decision in the 3-2 loss, but he did fan 12 Tiger batters. After the game, Liriano’s ERA stood at 1.96, and his record was a dazzling 12-2. He seemed the prohibitive favorite for he AL Rookie of the Year award, if not the Cy Young. Bonser had a 5.30 ERA through five starts, but he had shown plenty of promise in his rookie season, notably including a start against the Cubs in late June in which he held Chicago scorless into the seventh inning. And Nathan was well into his reign as one of the AL’s preeminent closers. Pierzynski, meanwhile, had bolted to Chicago after one unimpressive season with the Giants.

That July 28, the Pierzynski trade looked like one of baseball’s all-time trade coups, right on par with the Reds’ trading Frank Robinson to the Orioles or the Red Sox trading Babe Ruth for a Broadway musical.

The results since have been a little more of a mixed bag. Liriano missed his next start, lost a game, and then underwent a bout of Tommy John Surgery. Bonser was the AL Rookie of the month that September, going 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA, but he never fulfilled his potential after that. He hung around with the Twins for two lackluster seasons, then spent a little time with Boston and Oakland before re-signing with San Francisco on a minor league deal this year. Nathan is the only one who stayed at the top of his game after the 2006 season. He remained an excellent closer through 2009 before his own Tommy John experience. He is now the closer for the AL West-leading Texas Rangers.

As for Liriano, he led Twins fans on a six year journey of thrills and disappointments. Sadly, he averaged about three disappointments for each thrill. There were just enough positive moments to make us hope that he’d turn a corner, but more than enough negatives to have us pulling out our hair in frustration. Liriano’s final line with the Twins was a 50-52 record in 156 games, 783.1 innings pitched, a 4.33 ERA, 788 strikeouts (9.1 K/9), 3.7 BB/9, and one complete game. Great strikeout numbers, but everything else looks like the line of a league-average pitcher. Since the end of 2006, though, his numbers are far worse than league average: 37-47, 4.69 ERA, 1.4W2 HIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.0 BB/9.

If you just look at the numbers, using Wins Above Replacement as a guide, the Twins came out way ahead in this one. Pierzyski’s one season in San Fran netted 1.3 WAR for Barry Bonds‘s team. In Minnesota, Liriano earned 15.4 WAR, Nathan added 15.1, and Bonser contributed 4.1 for a total of 34.6 WAR. That’s a net gain of 33.3 WAR for the Twins. Not too shabby!

How does that compare to some other notable Twins trades? The Chuck Knoblauch trade brought in Eric Milton, Brian Buchanan, and Christian Guzman for a net gain of 14.0 WAR over the 7.7 Knoblauch gave the Yankees. The Frank Viola deal in 1989 netted about 27.5 WAR, thanks mostly to Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera. Numbers aside, that deal also was crucial in bringing the Twins their second World Series title two years later.  But the most lopsided of all is the trade on Rule 5 draft day in 2000 that sent Jared Camp to the Astros in exchange for Johan Santana, a move that brought 37.3 WAR to the Twins. So on paper, this looks like one of the best trades the Twins ever made, but not #1.

But then we have to consider some intangibles. First, at the time of the trade, Pierzynski seemed a completely expendable player, because the Twins planned to install super-prospect Joe Mauer in the catcher position. In the long term, Mauer obviously did a great job filling that role. But he suffered a knee injury in 2004 that robbed the Twins of most of his season. As a result, Minnesotans had to endure 353 plate appearances by Henry Blanco, whose .206/.260/.308 batting line did not help the team much. Could the Twins have fared better in 2004 if they had Pierzynski’s bat? Could he have provided a timely hit or two to help get the team past the Yankees in the ALDS? Probably not, but it’s possible.

Another intangible is the stress and anxiety we felt every time Liriano took the mound. I can’t speak for every Twins fan, but I know there was a part of me that was hoping Liriano would strike out 12 batters and throw a shutout every time he took the mound. He had just enough moments of glory – like the no-hitter at Chicago or his 15 K performance against he Athletics this summer – to keep that hope from dying. But almost every start he crushed that hope a little bit by walking batters and giving up line drives at the worst possible moment. It’s quite a relief that we’ll never have to deal with that particular frustration again!

And what does this trade say about Terry Ryan, the man who pulled it off? I’m afraid that it might have built some Liriano-like expectations into all of our minds. After Ryan executed this trade, it built him up in the minds of fans as some sort of General Manager superstar. We started to expect blockbuster moves like this on a regular basis. Perhaps those high-expectations are part of the reason everyone is so disappointed Ryan only got two meh-level prospects in return for Liriano last week,.

So when you add it all up, this was a very good trade, but not the all-time great swindle that it once appeared to be. The Twins got some real, tangible benefits in exchange for Pierzynski, but the trade also might have done a little more harm than we thought.