INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pittsburgh Pirates announced they have acquired right-handed reliever Duke Welker from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for left-handed starter Kris Johnson. The move swaps two Indians standouts from the 2013 International League West Division championship season, both of whom made their Major League debuts with the Buccos last year.
Welker (potentially) returns to the Tribe after being included as the player-to-be-named-later portion of Pittsburgh's original trade with Minnesota which included an exchange of outfielder Alex Presley for first baseman Justin Morneau on Aug. 31. The hard-throwing righty led Indianapolis' staff and ranked tied for eighth in the IL in games (48) last year, while also setting a new career high in saves (9) after he filled in as the ex tempore closer in Vic Black's absence.
He also struck out one batter over a combined 1.1 perfect innings of relief for his parent team in Pittsburgh.
"I just know I'm here and have a good opportunity with a great team and a good group of guys," Welker said when asked of his emotions during his Major League debut. "I'm just excited to be here. I don't know when it'll hit me."
Similarly, no one in the International League really knew how to hit Welker during his original stint with the Tribe. Prior to the right-hander's first call to the Majors, he made 11 straight appearances without allowing an earned run, a span in which he surrendered just four hits with only nine walks and an impressive 20 strikeouts. League batters eventually found a way to tag Welker for a few runs throughout the campaign, but the Pirates prospect still concluded the 2013 season with a solid 3.57 ERA, allowing 25 earned runs in 63.0 innings of work.
Welker's counterpart will be a missed commodity for the Indians after Johnson took home hardware as the team's Starting Pitcher of the Year in 2013. The southpaw anchored a strong Indianapolis rotation and concluded the campaign with the best ERA in the International League (2.39), marking the Tribe's first league leader in ERA since 1984. The IL Midseason All-Star also ranked among league leaders in WHIP (4th, 1.17), average against (5th, .234) and wins (T-7th, 10).
"I think one my biggest things this year has been more focus and preparation between each start," Johnson said of his rediscovered control on the mound last year. "It's helped to get me back out on the mound and be more consistent."
Johnson, like Welker, also made a strong MLB debut with the Buccos last season. Called into duty in the 11th inning of a tied contest against Arizona on Aug. 18, Johnson preserved the deadlock with 5.0 scoreless frames of relief before he surrendered two runs in the 16th inning to suffer the loss. His historical - and for the most part, impressive - feat marked just the third pitcher in Pittsburgh's franchise history to hurl at least 6.0 frames of relief during an MLB debut. The left-hander wrapped up his 2013 campaign with an 0-2 record and 6.10 ERA in four outings with the Pirates.
With both hurlers making strong cases for a spot on Pittsburgh's pitching staff, Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington told MLB.com that swapping Johnson and Welker was largely based on both teams' needs entering the 2014 season.
"When we checked in with the Twins this offseason, it became apparent that we preferred the bullpen option and they preferred the starter option," Huntington said.