Giants give up Nathan in deal for catcher

Updated: November 15, 2003, 12:45 PM ET
The Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- All-Star catcher A.J. Pierzynski was traded Friday by the tightly-budgeted Minnesota Twins to the San Francisco Giants for right-handed pitcher Joe Nathan and two minor leaguers.

A.J. Pierzynski
San Francisco Giants
137 11 74 63 3 .312

The minor-league pitchers are right-hander Boof Bonser and left-hander Francisco Liriano. The Twins will give up either a player to be named later or cash to complete the deal.

Pierzynski, 26, batted .312 with 35 doubles, 11 homers and 74 RBI in 137 games for the Twins this season. An All-Star in 2002, Pierzynski will earn a significant raise through salary arbitration from the $365,000 he made in 2003.

"It's one of those things that was eventually going to happen," Pierzynski said, reached on a golf course in Hawaii. "I was one of the first guys people had talked about. And they've got the guy coming behind me."

Minnesota has the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, Joe Mauer, waiting to take over as its catcher. Mauer was the Twins' minor league player of the year, batting .335 with Class A Fort Myers and .341 for Double-A New Britain.

"That's all part of the reasons we decided to make this trade," general manager Terry Ryan said. "We're dealing from a position of strength. We've got some talent at catching come up and some financial concerns, as far as making sure the pieces fit."

Generally, when the Minnesota Twins are involved in a trade, the first inclination is to think it's about economics. Naturally, small market teams have a smaller budget to work with to formulate wins. While A.J. Pierzynski remains one of the AL's best catchers, he's jumping up there in salary. And with the Twins No. 1 draft pick, Joe Mauer, ready rise up the ranks, Pierzynski has become expendable.

Twins general manager Terry Ryan has faith in his farm system. In fact, most of the Twins' players come up through their farm system -- they do a fantastic job producing players. It's Mauer's time, and the Twins are going to have to trust that he can contribute offensively as well as guide them defensively in calling games. I would expect Mauer to be added to the long line of successful farm hands in Minnesota.

By acquiring Joe Nathan and two minor-league pitchers, it's clear that the Twins are stockpiling their pitching situation. Which is a good direction for that club to go. Nathan is a decent pitcher, who many believe has been on the verge of becoming bonafide major leaguer. He's got great stuff and a great pitchers' body.

Meanwhile, by picking up a left-handed hitting All-Star, San Francisco has really upgraded offensively. In a tough NL West, the Giants can't afford to be in a rebuilding process -- they need to win. They've been knocking on the door of the World Series for the past two years, and at 38-years-old, they can't be too sure when Benito Santiago will call it quits. Pierzynski will be a good fit.

Owner Carl Pohlad wants to keep Minnesota's $56 million payroll the same, and Pierzynski, 26, will get a significant raise through salary arbitration from the $365,000 he made last season. After trading Pierzynski, general manager Terry Ryan might have to make more moves this offseason to keep the core of his roster intact.

First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and left-handed pitcher Johan Santana are among four other players eligible for arbitration, and relievers Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins and outfielder Shannon Stewart are free agents. So it was no secret the AL Central champion Twins had to make some moves this fall.

Pierzynski spoke with Mientkiewicz shortly after hearing the news, and they briefly lamented the limitations of a small-market club. Both players have spent their entire careers in the organization, debuting in 1999 on a team that used 18 different rookies.

"It's exciting, but I'm sad at the same time," said Pierzynski.

"It hasn't really kicked in," he said. "I'm still kind of in a state of shock."

Benito Santiago, the Giants' main catcher last year, has filed for free agency.

Nathan, 26, went 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 78 appearances for San Francisco last season. He led NL relievers in victories, and Ryan said he'll be used as a setup man.

In two-plus seasons with the Giants, Nathan went 24-10 with a 4.12 ERA in 121 games -- 29 starts. He made the major league minimum $300,000 last season.

Bonser, 22, who pitched in Double-A last year, was viewed by the Giants as a potential closer. Liriano, 20, ended the season in the Class A California League.

"While it didn't come up easy to give up Joe, we feel we've got some alternatives within the organization," San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean said. "It's not often you can send a right-handed reliever and two unproven prospects for a front-line, All-Star catcher."

Contacted two weeks ago by Minnesota about acquiring Pierzynski, Sabean was surprised to learn of his availability.

"We wouldn't have made the move if he wasn't an all-around player," Sabean said.

The Twins weren't eager to get rid of Pierzynski, but they were confident enough in Mauer and backup Matthew LeCroy to do it. LeCroy batted .287 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs in 345 at-bats, splitting time between designated hitter, catcher and first base.

"It's hard to replace a guy with A.J.'s talent," LeCroy said from his South Carolina home. "He was a big part of our team's success. ... Joe has done as much as he could. I think they think he's ready, and it's time for him to go out and show it."

Pierzynski got to know Giants star Barry Bonds when they both played for a team of major leaguers touring Japan following the 2002 season. He was excited that his fresh start is coming with a playoff team in Pac Bell Park, widely considered one of baseball's best.

"It's outside, so that'll be very nice," he said. "Playing in the Metrodome all these years gets kind of old and kind of stale."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press