Who is this guy?
Strangely enough, if you know the name 'Mike Venafro', it probably isn't because you remember him doing anything on the field. He's been largely average in his performance. If you're like me, you remember the name 'Mike Venafro' because he's the guy from Mondeyball that Billy Beane used to run interference with in 2002, as he tried (successfully) to acquire Ricardo Rincon from the Cleveland Indians. Beane wasn't able to trade Venafro, but anyone else who happened to be targeting Rincon was too busy thinking about our non-roster invite as a viable alternative.
Moneyball describes Venafro as a cynical, short, lefty sidewinder. His fastball clocks in around 90-91 mph, but can sneak up on hitters because of his throwing motion. He also throws a breaking ball which, when effective, can make him extremley useful against lefties. While the fastball and breaking ball are his primary pitches, he does also carry a change. One scouting report insists his primary weaknesses are "freezing up" with runners on base, and a tendency to tire as the season wears on.
If Venafro manages to make the 25-man roster, most likely he will be used as a LOOGY. His endurance and his history indicate that brief stints against left-handed hitters is how he could be used most effectively.
Year AB Avg Ops Runs AB Avg Ops Runs
2002 63 .270 .737 0 83 .337 .911 22
2003 34 .265 .666 0 44 .341 .839 10
2004 20 .200 .683 0 16 .438 1.069 5
2006 5 .200 .629 0 7 .286 .804 1
In his career, right-handers have hit .305 off of him, while lefties have hit only .239. In 253.1 MLB innings, his career ERA versus left-handers is 0.00; versus right-handers, 7.90. If you want an example of how a player can excel in one situation and fail miserably in another...Venafro is a great example.
Breaking into the league in 1999 with the Rangers, Venafro posted two quality seasons in a row, even though he allowed 1.5 baserunners per inning in 2000. He had the ability to make a batter hit the ball on the ground, but the advantage was neutralized by all the hits and walks he gave up. If you were patient, you could work a walk or wait for your pitch to saunter through your wheelhouse. His third season in the majors saw those peripherals catch up with him, as his walk-to-strikeout ratio was roughly 1:1, and since 2001 he's been the definition of the AAAA pitcher.
For Venafro to have a realistic shot at making the trip north with the Twins, there are three key points he can focus on for success.
- Maintain his domination over left-handed hitters. Lefty specialists will always have a role in the game, at least in how it's played now.
- His GB:FB ratio is in the top 15% of the league. If he can continue to induce ground balls, it could be a major component in turning his career around.
- Decrease the walks. Venafro has never been a strikeout pitcher at any level (6.83 K/9 in the minors, 4.65 in the majors), but working with Rick Anderson could at least improve the walk-per-strikeout ratio. A combination of control and ground balls could lead to a good season.
This summer will be Venafro's age 33 campaign. It's hard, at this point in anyone's career, to alter those things which have made you a success or have aided in your mediocrity. Fortunately for Venafro, he has enough going for him that moderate improvements in what's kept him from being a solid pitcher could be enough to make him more than effective in the right situation. Dennys Reyes, the obvious example, posted the best year of his career in 2006 after what was an average statistical career...although he was 29, not 33.
Carmen Cali, Randy Choate and Jason Miller are other southpaw non-roster invites along with Venafro. There's a good chance that one of them could earn a spot as a LOOGY, as Perkins could make the rotation and Reyes is the only straight left-handed reliever. Venafro fits the LOOGY label to a "T", and if he does have a good spring, the second lefty-specialist role could come down to him and Choate.