'03 trade had major impact on A.J., Nathan
Duo, now playing for Rangers, were part of deal between Giants, Twins
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Twins had Joe Mauer getting close to the big leagues, so they were willing to talk about All-Star catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
The Giants needed a catcher to replace Benito Santiago, but they weren't willing to talk about Class A pitching prospect Matt Cain. The Twins really needed bullpen help, because both closer Eddie Guardado and setup reliever LaTroy Hawkins were free agents, so assistant general manager Wayne Krivsky, who had scouted the Giants, recommended Joe Nathan to general manager Terry Ryan.
"I saw closer-like stuff with the fastball and the slider," said Krivsky, who was among those who were asked this week to look back on the 2003 trade. "He threw an occasional breaking ball, but the fastball and slider were his bread and butter."
With all those factors in play, the trade happened on Nov. 14, when the Giants sent Nathan and pitchers Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano to the Twins for Pierzynski. The trade was made right at the end of the General Managers Meetings in Phoenix.
"We made that deal at the last minute," said Ned Colletti, the Giants' assistant general manager at the time. "In the cab to the airport, we were calling players."
Trades obviously have huge impacts on players' careers. For Nathan, it was the turning point of his career. For Pierzynski, it was a one-year stop before moving on to the city where he enjoyed the best years of his career.
Now two players who were once headed in opposite directions are together as teammates. The Rangers signed Nathan in 2011 and brought Pierzynski in this offseason to be their catcher after Mike Napoli signed with the Red Sox.
"We've come full circle ... it's pretty cool," Nathan said. "I knew with [Napoli] leaving we had a need at catcher, and A.J. was the best one available this offseason. We were all happy to get him over here."
They were both with their original teams at the time of the 2003 trade. Pierzynski had been a third-round pick by the Twins out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., in 1994. He became their starting catcher in 2001 and had three good seasons for them. The Twins won division titles in 2002-03, Pierzynski was an All-Star in 2002 and he hit a career-high .312 with 11 home runs and 74 RBIs in 2003.
But the Twins had selected Mauer with the first overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, and he was a local star from St. Paul who was getting closer to the big leagues. He split time between Class A and Double-A in 2003, hitting .341 in 73 games at the higher level.
"I knew something was coming, I just didn't know when," Pierzynski said. "I didn't know if they were going to give him one more year or do what they did. We had been in the playoffs back-to-back years, so I didn't know if they would do something or stick with what was working."
The Twins decided to do something. Pierzynski was not only coming off three good seasons, but he was also eligible for arbitration for the first time and headed for a big boost in salary.
"We thought Mauer was about ready to play," Krivsky said. "It was time for Mauer to get a chance, so we made it known that we were willing to discuss A.J. for a fair package.
Santiago had been the Giants' catcher for three years, including in 2002 when they went to the World Series. But he was 38 and was also a free agent.
"We really needed a catcher, and he was one of the best young catchers in baseball," Colletti said. "He was young and he also had experience, and he was a left-handed hitter and he'd come from an organization that had been very successful in developing players."
The Giants were also deep in pitching, which is what every team needs. In addition to Nathan, the Twins wanted either Bonser or Cain. Both had been first-round Draft picks -- Bonser in 2000 and Cain in '02 -- and were highly regarded prospects.
"The key to the deal was Nathan," Krivsky said. "Bonser was close to the big leagues and Liriano was the third guy in the deal. We tried to get Matt Cain. Our scout Mike Radcliff was very familiar with him, but the Giants wouldn't give him up. But we had good reports about Liriano from Instructional League.
"We liked Nathan. We thought he had a chance to close. I saw a guy with a really good arm, power slider, his arm action and delivery worked well together and everything was in sync."
The Giants had taken Nathan in the sixth round of 1995 Draft out of Stony Brook University. He was drafted as a shortstop but switched to pitcher on scouting director Dick Tidrow's recommendation. He was out in 2001 and most of '02 because of Tommy John surgery, but he came back strong in 2003 as a setup reliever, going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 78 games.
Nathan went to camp with the Twins as a candidate to be the closer, but Ryan wasn't impressed at first. Nathan started out slow in camp and was being clocked at 90-91 miles per hour.
"Terry Ryan looked at me and said, 'How hard did you have him throwing?'" Krivsky said. "Gradually, it got better."
Nathan ended up winning the closer's job. He spent seven years in Minnesota, recorded 260 saves and was a four-time All-Star.
"I don't know where I would have ended up with the Giants or if I would have had the opportunity to close there," Nathan said. "You just don't know. But I moved over to the Twins and a lot of things worked out well. For me, I'll always think that trade was huge."
Pierzynski spent just one season in San Francisco. He beat the Giants in arbitration, and that jumped his salary from $365,000 with the Twins in 2003 to $3.5 million in '04. It soured both sides.
"Let's just say it wasn't very amicable negotiations," Pierzynski said. "The whole arbitration process wasn't very fun. It was like we had been at war. But at the time of the trade, I was excited as heck. Barry Bonds was there at the height of his career, they had been in the playoffs two years in a row, I always enjoyed going to the city, that organization wanted to win and they spent money. I was excited as all get out."
Pierzynski had his typically solid season, hitting .272 with 11 home runs and 77 RBIs. But the Giants didn't want another arbitration hearing, so they released Pierzynski and signed veteran Mike Matheny. The Giants went 75-87 in 2005 while Pierzynski signed with the White Sox and was behind the plate when they won the World Series that year. He spent eight years with the White Sox before signing with the Rangers.
As for the Twins, Liriano was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006 before having to undergo Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2007 and has been struggling ever since to regain his once high level. Bonser spent three mediocre seasons with the Twins, going 18-25 with a 5.12 ERA, and he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2010. He's currently in Giants camp as a non-roster invitee.
The Giants looked smart for not giving up Cain. But they did give up one of the best closers in baseball and then let a durable, front-line catcher get away.
"Looking back, one of the reasons Nathan was in the deal is that we didn't know that he was going to graduate to being Joe Nathan," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. "Thank God we haven't made too many mistakes like that, but it's a fact of life when you trade for a need and it doesn't work out."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.