There's nothing quite like ringing in 2009 -- and a belated Happy New Year to all of you, by the way -- with a surprise early-morning transaction, even if it's not of a tremendously consequential nature, and the Texas Rangers, according to MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, have evidently delivered the goods:
The Rangers moved to upgrade their bullpen Wednesday night by reaching a tentative agreement with free-agent right-hander Derrick Turnbow on a one-year contract.
Turnbow chose the Rangers over the Marlins and Pirates, in large part because of his familiarity with new pitching coach Mike Maddux, according to agent Damon Lapa. Maddux was Turnbow's pitching coach in Milwaukee.
The low-risk acquisition of Turnbow, a 6' 3," 200-pound right-hander whose 31st birthday will be on celebrated January 25th, has Maddux's fingerprints all over it; MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan reported on Wednesday evening that Turnbow had received Maddux's recommendation, though to what degree that factored into the organization's decision to ink Turnbow is not immediately clear.
Turnbow's minor league deal presumably includes an invitation to big league spring training, and would pay the strikeout artist the guaranteed sum of $925,000 if he makes the Opening Day major league roster; $325,000 in performance incentives are also included, though it's not yet certain whether the payout of those is contingent on total appearances, innings pitched or games finished in 2009.
[Update: Per Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News, the performance incentives are based on appearances made, and he has been tendered a formal invitation to big league spring training.]
There's also no word on whether the contract features an out clause that would allow Turnbow to request his unconditional release if he failed to survive the multiple rounds of spring roster cuts and was reassigned to minor league camp; you may recall that right-hander Jason Davis invoked a similar clause in March 2008 after being signed to a minor league deal two months prior, and, after declaring his free agency, was summarily snapped up by the Pirates, who then assigned him to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Claimed off the scrap heap by the Brewers following the 2004 season, Maddux promptly harnessed the talented fireballer's erratic control and prescribed the mechanical adjustments that would transform the native Tennessean into a star seemingly overnight. Turnbow tied Danny Kolb's club record of 39 saves in a single season in 2005, notching a 1.74 ERA and 1.08 WHIP for Milwaukee while posting a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 64-to-24 in 67.1 innings and narrowly missing out on the 2005 Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award, which ultimately went to fellow right-handed closer Chad Cordero -- ironically enough, another veteran reclamation project that the Rangers have been kicking the tires on in recent weeks.
Since that memorable 2005 campaign, however, Turnbow's mound fortunes have badly faltered. The high-90s heat and tight, filthy mid-80s slurve that originally vaulted him to success remained a part of his arsenal, but his newfound control vanished, and he has failed to walk fewer than six batters per nine innings at any professional stop he has made since. The inherent volatility often found in relievers is a blessing and a curse all at the same time, frequently provoking meteoric rises and falls, and in Turnbow's case, his rapid decline in effectiveness precipitated a simultaneous decline in fan and organizational confidence.
After being relegated to mop-up duty during the 2008 season's first month as a result of his singularly abhorrent control, the final straw came on April 30th at Chicago, when Turnbow yielded six earned runs on four hits and four walks in just two-thirds of an inning, tossing just 21 of his 43 pitches for strikes in what ultimately turned out to be a 19-5 blowout loss for the Brewers.
Milwaukee designated their woebegone right-hander for assignment two days later, outrighted him to Triple-A Nashville seven days after that, and then helplessly stood by and watched what Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel later termed a "near-total command meltdown," with a floundering Turnbow yielding 41 free passes in just 18 innings with the Sounds. A late-July MRI revealed a slight undersurface tear of Turnbow's rotator cuff, which ultimately did not require surgery but did prompt his immediate shutdown; agent Damon Lapa presently asserts that his client will be 100 percent healthy for the start of spring training.
Unfortunately, health is but one obstacle impeding Turnbow on his quest to regain his former stardom. The below video showcases Turnbow (and his devastating fastball/slurve combination) in action during the Brewers' 4-3 home victory over the Cardinals on June 10th, 2006, less than a month before the onset of his cataclysmic second-half collapse:
Notice the healthy radar gun readings? They weren't quite so healthy in 2008, as Baseball Info Solutions' pitch data indicates that he lost no less than two miles per hour of average velocity on both offerings between 2007 and 2008, and while both that phenomenon and his particularly egregious lack of control can be fairly attributed to his injured rotator cuff, expecting Maddux to resurrect his broken former pupil might be expecting just a bit too much.
Then again, stranger things have happened. Just don't bet too heavily on seeing Turnbow in a Rangers uniform come June 1st, and particularly not as the closer.
Texas is almost certainly not finished browsing the salvage yard; in addition to the aforementioned Cordero, the Rangers are believed to have looked at free-agent right-handers Jason Isringhausen and Guillermo Mota (the former of whom pitched many times against Maddux's Brewers during his six-year tenure in Milwaukee, and the latter of whom was semi-effective as a Brewers reliever in 2008 -- one can only presume Maddux is quite familiar with both), and have explored left-handers Brian Shouse, Dennys Reyes, Joe Beimel, Will Ohman and Eddie Guardado.
The Rangers reportedly came close to signing right-hander Joe Nelson just before Christmas, but the Rays snatched him up with a one-year, $1.3 million contract.
[Additional Reading: "What's All The Fuss? Part 2" by Beyond the Box Score's Harry Pavlidis, a thorough analysis of Turnbow's Pitch f/x data.]