Tuesday, January 24, 2012

...And Slams Closed

In the baseball transaction equivalent of Jerry Maguire's proposal to Dorothy Boyd (somewhere Rod Tidwell is nodding in amazement and saying, "Well, this definitely was another way to go"), the Tigers found a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Well, technically not permanent, but 9 years is a long time in baseball. Prince Fielder will be filling the hole in the lineup opened by Victor Martinez' knee injury.

Several smart people have correctly explained how this will probably be a long-term liability for Detroit. But for 2012, they have done what seemed impossible a few days ago: upgraded over Martinez. While everything I said last week about regression and their unathletic defense and baserunning is still true (perhaps even more so), Fielder is easily going to be worth 4+ wins over whoever else they might have run out there. They are now a better team than they were last October, 90 wins is suddenly easily within their grasp, and the remainder of the AL Central is far back in the rearview mirror.

In this light, the Twins' conservative offseason strategy is vindicated. They would still do well to add one more high-upside veteran RHP on a 1-year deal, though. It should be done with the idea that he could be dealt in July or August for someone who can add longer-term value to the organization. Even a riskier guy health-wise, like Brad Lidge or Michael Wuertz, makes a lot of sense under the circumstances.

Though they aren't likely be much better than .500 as presently constituted, the Twins are well-positioned to improve themselves over the next two seasons. They are fielding a starting lineup of competent veterans. They finally have some impact players at AAA who could push their way onto the big league roster by September. Should they find themselves in contention, they will be in position to deal for help, thanks to some payroll headroom and a good crop of highly regarded prospects at the lower levels. Whatever they lose in-season could largely be replaced by the 5 top-75 selections they'll make in next June's draft. And, outside of the M&M boys, they have relatively modest payroll commitments for 2013, giving them flexibility to do even more smart shopping next winter.

The Tigers are in the driver's seat for 2012. The Twins have avoided committing too many resources to what will likely be a 2nd-place campaign. 2013 is when things will really get interesting in the division.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Door Opens

The Tigers won the AL Central handily last year. Their 95-67 record was 15 games better than the 2nd-place Indians. No other team in the division finished over .500. Though they have largely stood pat this offseason, the remainder of the division is so far behind the talent Detroit is returning that there has been little controversy in picking them as the favorites to repeat in 2012.

I wouldn't pick them to win 90+ games again, though. Their .318 team BABIP was the best in the Majors by a good margin, exceeding the league average by .024. Players from Miguel Cabrera to Alex Avila to Jhonny Peralta were well over their career norms in this regard. That factor alone makes a healthy regression in their offensive output likely. Throw in the fact that their Closer, Jose Valverde, didn't blow a save in 49 tries (5 blown saves would have been a very good percentage) - a feat he will almost certainly fail to repeat this year - and it's easy to see their win total dropping into the upper 80s.

But with the White Sox (mostly) rebuilding, the Indians short on resources, the Royals still probably a year away and the Twins facing a slew of injury concerns, the Tigers appeared to be the only member of the AL Central for whom 86+ wins was within reach.

Until Tuesday, when we learned that Victor Martinez will likely be out for the season with a torn ACL suffered during offseason workouts. V-Mart was a middle-of-the-order force for the Tigers last year, batting .330/.380/.470 with 103 RBIs. A switch-hitter, he had an .830+ OPS from both sides of the plate. At this point in the offseason, he will be difficult to replace.

There are FA DHs still available, but most of them are in the decline phase of their careers. None of Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero or Manny Ramirez could be expected to match what Martinez gave the Tigers last year. If I were them, I'd go for Pena, who crushes righties and is at least a good defender at 1B. He could push Cabrera to DH vs. RHP, and they would come out ahead in those match-ups. But they would be much more vulnerable vs. LHP.

Depending on who they get to fill their DH slot, the loss of Martinez probably will cost the Tigers another couple of wins. While their pitching should remain good, they now figure to be a below-average team at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Suddenly, 84-86 wins is looking like the best-case scenario for them. (That was the pace they were on at the trading deadline last summer, by the way, before finishing a ridiculous 39-16 over the last two months.)

Given the precarious health of several of their core players, the Twins have understandably been cautious about overcommitting themselves to the 2012 campaign. They've spent about $21M to bring in 6 FA, mostly on modest, short-term deals. They've replaced their own FA losses more or less equally, and added depth in a couple of areas. Plus, they were unlucky last year, in everything from health to outcomes of batted balls. They should score a lot more runs and allow a lot fewer this year. The improvements may even be enough to bring their RS and RA into balance, which would result in about a .500 team. Respectable, but not a contender. But with $100M already spent to get the team to that level, and the market value of a marginal win nearly $5M, the Twins obviously can't afford to add the extra talent needed to get them to the 86-88 win level.

Now the injury to Martinez changes this calculus. The Tigers are nearly within reach, and one or two more judicious moves could elevate the Twins to the level of true contenders in the division. Look at it this way: if the Twins were 4 games back in the standings at the end of July, we'd expect them to make a move or two to take on payroll and go for the title. Surely, they are much more likely to make up that difference over 162 games than 55. They should spend the money now.

Roy Oswalt is there for the taking, for less than $10M. RH setup men like Dan Wheeler or Todd Coffey could be scooped up for less than $2M. The Twins could pick up Oswalt plus another reliever, kick Nick Blackburn into the bullpen as a long man/6th starter, and proceed into the season with a good pitching staff, all while spending a few million dollars less than they did on players at the start of last season. If things don't work out, they'd have a bunch of quality veterans they could deal in July and August while saving a bit of cash. If things do work out, it would be worth the extra expense, wouldn't it?

Alternately, the Twins could deal from their surplus of A-ball prospects to upgrade the rotation. At least half of those players won't amount to anything, and whoever is dealt can be more or less replaced with one of the Twins' 5 early picks in this June's draft. The Astros may be willing to eat some salary on Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers. Either one would be a huge upgrade over Blackburn.

In 2011, everything broke right for the Tigers and wrong for the Twins. A month before spring training, it's already clear that fortunes will be different in 2012. A little flexibility from the Twins now could position them to take advantage of some better luck in the coming season.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stopping Short

It was a busy month of December for Terry Ryan. He re-signed Matt Capps, signed Josh Willingham and Jason Marquis, parted ways with Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jose Mijares and Kevin Slowey, and brought in a crap-ton of NRIs for spring training. I think Brandon Warne of Fangraphs sums up the moves pretty well.

I'm optimistic that Capps will be better in 2012, but not to the point that I would prefer him to, say, Octavio Dotel, $1.25M and a supplemental draft pick. And I think Marquis has a good chance of being a solid back-end starter. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out, you're not going to do much better for $3M. Now, with about $100M committed, 39 guys on the roster and another 25 coming to Fort Myers next month, it appears that the Twins are done acquiring players. That's a shame, because though they've added some good pieces, this team doesn't look like it's going to be good enough to compete. And the $13M cut between the 2011 opening day payroll and the 2012 projection really seems to be holding them back.

The difference between Marquis' and Roy Oswalt's salaries looks like it will be around $5M. Both pitchers have durability questions they need to answer this year. But Marquis' upside is no better than #4 starter, whereas a healthy Oswalt is an ace. The 2010 versions of Oswalt, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano would make for a pretty strong rotation. With Marquis filling it out instead, league average seems like the best we can hope for. For $5M extra, the Twins could have had a good rotation instead of a mediocre one.

The lineup (if healthy) looks solid 1-7. Denard Span, Jamey Carroll, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit should get on base a lot and make opposing pitchers work. Danny Valencia should bounce back a bit after an usually poor BABIP showing in 2011. But the bottom 2 slots are going to be filled by Ben Revere and Alexi Casilla or Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Added to Span and Carroll, that's one more piranha than I'd want in the lineup. They'll score more runs than last year, but maybe not enough. For $1-2M, they could have picked up a Reed Johnson or Andruw Jones, a veteran with some pop who could have held the position down and given Revere some more PAs in Rochester.

The bullpen will have Capps, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, and a bunch of guys who weren't good enough to pitch in the Majors all season last year. There are still quite a few veterans who will be taking cheap, 1-year deals in the coming weeks. It would be great if the Twins could snag one or two of them - it would only cost them a couple million. That would be the difference between a reliable unit and one that could turn into another horror show.

It appears that the bench will consist of Drew Butera, Trevor Plouffe, Nishioka and Luke Hughes. Plouffe and Nishioka might still have some upside, but Hughes didn't show anything last year, and Butera is hopeless. By the start of spring training, there will be at least a dozen catchers accepting backup roles for less than $2M. Virtually anybody who hits the waiver wire would be better than Butera.

Ryan did a pretty good job with the limited payroll space he was given. The Twins will be far less exposed depth-wise in 2012, and that should ensure that they finish the year with a respectable record. Perhaps they're maintaining some flexibility to add payroll by trading for name players during the season. Maybe they need to reserve some money for signing the 5 high draft picks they'll be making. Or maybe they just don't want to invest too much in a hopeless cause - if Mauer, Morneau and Span don't return to health, and if Liriano can't figure out how to throw strike one, no amount of FA signings is going to save the season. But quality veterans signed to 1-year deals are assets valuable to contending teams, and an Oswalt or Jones might have earned a system-bolstering prospect at the trade deadline.

The moves the Twins have made give them a chance to be respectable, but not much of a chance to contend. A payroll more like last year's could have greatly improved their chances. I'm not sure there would have been much harm in trying.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November Notes

Twins sign IF Jamey Carroll for 2-years, $6.75M

I felt the Twins ought to add the best available FA defender to bolster their middle infield. That would have been Clint Barmes. However, there are a lot of things Carroll does better than Barmes:
  1. Get on base (.356 career OBP vs. .302)
  2. Steal bases (26/32 over the last 3 seasons vs. 18/31)
  3. Hit RHP (.695 career OPS vs. .671)
  4. Catch the ball (.987 career fielding % at SS and .991 at 2B vs. .971 and .982)
  5. Sign for 7 figures ($6.75M over 2 years vs. $10.5M)
Barmes has a big edge in range, though, and that would have been very valuable to the Twins' ground ball pitchers. And, though he's aged gracefully the last couple of years, Carroll is getting a bit long in the tooth. If he degrades physically, this is a big overpay. And if Tsuyoshi Nishioka gets his act together and Alexi Casilla puts together a full, productive season, this is a lot to pay for a utility guy. But Carroll is just about an ideal #2 hitter to place between (the hopefully healthy) Denard Span and Joe Mauer. His lack of power won't be a problem if the big boys hit behind him. Considering that several of the other MIs on the FA market are getting even more money, it doesn't look too bad. It's certainly a move that improves the team.

Twins sign C/RF/1B Ryan Doumit for 1-year, $3M.

I was hoping that a bat-first backup C would be better at, you know, catching. Doumit is more of an insurance policy against prolonged absences from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. But such a thing was absolutely necessary, and Doumit's positional flexibility makes him a good fit. In good times, he'll DH or play RF while hitting about as well as Jason Kubel, all for only $3M. Pretty good signing.

Texas Rangers sign CL Joe Nathan for 2-years, $14.75M

This bummed me out. Texas gave Nathan just about exactly the deal I wanted the Twins to offer him. It sounds as though Nathan's decision wasn't so much a matter of money as preferring to play for the Rangers, a team that is at the peak of its competitiveness right now. Basically, in what could potentially be the last contract of his career, he figured he had a better chance at a ring with them. It's an endorsement of their organization, but it's also a vote of no confidence in the Twins. This is part of why I thought it was important for the front office to make one or two impact moves (probably trades) very early in the offseason: it would have showed the free agents around the league that this team is serious about competing in 2012. Carroll and Doumit, though nice pieces, don't send that message clearly enough. Based on the present state of the Twins' and Rangers' rosters, Nathan made the right decision.

Oh well. We'll show him.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement

There were big changes with free agency and the draft, most of which will benefit the Twins, especially this year. The Elias ranking system was abolished, replaced by a more limited system in which only a handful of superstars will cost a signing team a 1st-round pick (with only the bottom 10 finishers from the previous season exempted). Effectively, this means that Michael Cuddyer will not cost a new team a draft pick, while still providing the Twins the same compensation. It also means that Matt Capps will provide the Twins a supplemental pick even if they don't offer him arbitration. Letting Cuddyer, Capps and Kubel walk, added to the #2 draft position the Twins "earned" with their abominable 2011 season, should net the Twins something like 6 of the top 50-60 picks in next summer's draft, including 2 of the top 30. If I'm Terry Ryan, I'm not even talking to those guys right now.

The draftees have been utterly stripped of leverage by a draft tax so severe I can't imagine many teams will dare to go over slot. And the signing deadline was moved up to mid-July. So now the Twins can confidently select the best talent available with each pick, offer them slot, and send them to the minors for at least 6 weeks. An influx of so much top young talent should make it a little easier for the Twins to part with some bankable prospects while attempting to bolster the major league roster through trades.

The Arizona Fall League

Apart from the ascendant Brian Dozier, the Twins didn't appear to be sending much help to the Mesa Solar Sox. Aaron Hicks was the big name in the contingent, but he has yet to have an impressive full season in A-ball. Brett Jacobsen, Bruce Pugh and Dakota Watts lived up to my low expectations, but the remainder of the group used the opportunity to raise their stock. Keep in mind that the AFL is an extreme offensive environment - the average hitter slashed .286/.362/.454, and pitchers had a 5.53 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 2/1 K/BB.
  • Dozier completed his breakout campaign with a .296/.358/.454 performance - essentially league average. However, if you add his 1 for 2 with a HR from the Rising Stars game, his line puffs up to .300/.361/.482. Looks like he'll be a better hitter than Casilla and Nishioka, and possibly Carroll. He remains firmly in my plans for 2013.
  • Chris Hermann appeared in just 15 games but made a huge impact when he was out there. He hit .380/.456/.620 with a 6/7 K/BB ratio. A catcher at the upper levels who can hit! I hope the Twins will start him in Rochester next year.
  • Stalled as a starter, the Twins sent MN native Cole DeVries to the bullpen in 2010. It took him a year to get comfortable, I guess. After a pretty good regular season, he turned in one of the best pitching performances in the AFL, with a 3.12 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 19/3 K/BB in 26 IP. Could he be the next Matt Guerrier?
  • Best of all, Hicks finally took a step forward. His .294/.400/.559 line was good for the 13th best OPS in the entire league. In fewer than 1/4 the ABs he had in Fort Myers, he maintained his 2B pace, quadrupled his 3B rate and nearly tripled his HR rate. Prior to the fall, it was probably a bit iffy whether he would be promoted to AA next April, but the display of in-game power he put on should be enough to ensure that he progresses. That keeps him potentially on pace to join the Twins by 2014.

Here's how Joe Christensen breaks down the 2012 roster with the guys on the 40-man at this point. It includes a bench of Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe or Rene Tosoni, Luke Hughes and Drew Butera, and a bullpen of Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, Alex Burnett, Lester Oliveros, Jose Mijares, Esmerling Vasquez and Jeff Gray.

Plenty of work still to do, Mr. Ryan.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Hope Is Kindled

I'm a glass-half-full guy. If there's any reasonable chance of some upside in a situation, I'll look for it to come about. I stay positive, and it helps keep my outlook on life sunny.

That applies to my status as a Twins fan, as well. Right to the end, I expected good things from Delmon Young. I thought Francisco Liriano was going to be great in 2011. I even keep rooting for Shooter Hunt to find the strike zone again. Whatever the prevailing wisdom regarding expectations for the Twins, I'm usually inclined to take the over.

This offseason, for the first time in a long while, that was not the case. The weight of Bill Smith's poor moves had so far overwhelmed his good ones that it became clear that the man simply didn't have the ability to accurately evaluate talent. He didn't understand that JJ Hardy was a valuable asset that one doesn't just throw away. Or that Matt Capps is a good but not great pitcher. Or that Jose Morales is a much better player than Drew Butera. The Twins' roster needs a lot of fixing, and there was no reason to think that Smith was going to go about it in a way that would actually improve matters.

But, most of all, it was his apparent unwillingness to shake things up that troubled me. I wanted to see the entire training and conditioning staff fired at 9:00AM on September 29th. Not only didn't that happen, but Smith later indicated that the very same people would be in place again next season. As I noted in my Offseason Blueprint, no amount of tinkering with the roster is going to make the 2012 Twins back into winners if Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span can't play 130+ games each. It is imperative that at least 2 of the 3 return to full health and productivity. Entrusting that crucial task to the same group of bumblers who failed over and over to keep the players on the field was the last straw for me. I was resigned that the Twins would be losers again next year.

Then, yesterday, like a beacon on a mountaintop, came the unexpected news that Smith had been fired, to be immediately replaced by Terry Ryan, the architect of the Twins' success for most of the past decade. Instantly, my outlook changed.

Ryan hasn't been afraid to let treasured familiar faces walk when their free agent price tags get higher than their expected performance. Eddie Guardado, Jacque Jones, Corey Coskie... the only time he really blew that sort of evaluation was with David Ortiz. That sober gaze is required this offseason as the Twins decide how far to go to retain Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and Jason Kubel.

While Ryan didn't nail every trade, he had a knack for knowing when to pull the trigger on a deal that would return the most value. The AJ Pierzynski for Nathan, Liriano and Boof Bonser trade alone blows away everything Smith did. But there were also effective trades of Chuck Knoblauch, Eric Milton, Bobby Kielty, and smaller deals that brought in eventual contributors like Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, and Alexi Casilla. It will take some trades to restore the organization to health in 2012 and beyond, especially with the payroll likely to come down a bit. I would expect Smith to get cheated in those deals. But I expect Ryan to have the upper hand.

Should Cuddyer and Kubel sign with other teams, the Twins may find themselves with 5 of the top 60 or so draft picks next summer. In his 1st tenure, Ryan drafted 22 players in the 1st and supplemental rounds. 17 made the majors, with 8 delivering at least 3 WAR to this point in their careers (and Ben Revere, Chris Parmelee and Kyle Waldrop are just getting started). He had 3 clunkers in a row from 1998-2000 (Ryan Mills, BJ Garbe and Adam Johnson), but otherwise his 1st round drafting record is pretty solid. In the 2nd round, he hit on Jones, Jesse Crain, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Joe Benson. Though it's still early to evaluate what will become of Smith's picks, it's disconcerting that so many of them already appear to have stalled for one reason or another. I certainly feel comfortable turning the responsibility for making those selections over to Ryan.

But, most warming to my soul, were the comments Ryan made demanding accountability from the training staff. I may yet get my wish for big changes in that department, and if I do, the Twins' chances of bouncing back next season will be that much better.

I don't know if there is any other single transaction the front office could have made that would do as much to change the franchise's fortunes for the better. I hope Ryan resigns Nathan and lets the other free agents walk. I hope he finds the right pieces to upgrade the defense and the lineup. I hope all the walking wounded can return to full strength in 2012. I hope.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

2011-12 Offseason Blueprint

This is my answer to the question of how to compose the 2012 Twins roster as inspired by the Twinscentric bloggers in their Offseason Handbook. All estimated salaries are derived from there.

I begin with first principles:
  1. If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span together account for $40M of the Twins' payroll. They comprise 3 of the first 4 spots in a productive offensive lineup, and each plays average to outstanding defense in the field. Coming off of injury-ravaged 2011 seasons, they are huge question marks looking ahead to next year. Any stable roster for 2012 must include viable backup options for each of them. But, realistically, if at least 2 of the 3 can't provide a full season of playing time at their respective positions, we're screwed.
  2. If you're going to pitch to contact, you've got to catch the ball. And the Twins are going to pitch to contact. Full seasons of Scott Baker and good Francisco Liriano would help, but with Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey under contract or team control for 2012, there are going to be a lot of balls in play. Whoever I bring in to try to bolster the lineup had better be at least an average defender.
  3. No free passes. The Twins' pitchers had their worst K/BB ratio in over a decade, and I didn't like it. Whoever I bring in to bolster their pitching staff must have a proven track record of avoiding walks.
  4. Don't block the kids. Some good prospects are finally reaching AAA next year. Joe Benson, Chris Parmelee and Brian Dozier are in my plans for 2013, with Kyle Gibson, Alex Wimmers, Tom Stuifbergen, Aaron Hicks and Chris Hermann on the radar for sometime between then and 2014. As I bring in free agents, I don't want to give out contracts that would force me to overpay aging veterans for the same production I could be getting out of home-grown talent for the league minimum.
  5. How could they be so shallow? The lack of quality depth on the 40-man roster was an absolute killer for the Twins in 2011. I'll be looking for every opportunity to upgrade from the replacement-level dreck that has been residing there. I'll scour the waiver wire and the minor-league free agent pool for castoffs who may yet have some upside.
With that established, here's what I would do with the current roster and a budget of about $115M:

Free agent decisions

I let Matt Capps walk with no offer of arbitration - there's no question he'd make more there than on the open market. I let Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer walk as well, though I offer each of them arbitration. I think they're in line for multi-year deals, which would violate #4 above. Kubel doesn't offer enough versatility - he basically whacks RHP but is a liability in the field, on the bases, and vs. LHP. Cuddyer won't be as good in 2014 as Joe Benson will be, but he'll be making 20-25 times as much. No thanks. If, however, either one of them for some reason accepted arbitration, I'd happily take them back on a one-year deal.

I would bring Joe Nathan back for a 2-year, $14M contract with a $7M option for 2014. A lot of people have noticed that he was much better after his DL stint in June. But, really, it was only his April that was awful. That month he allowed 10 ER in 9 IP on 9 H (2 HR) and 7 BB with only 7 K. From then on: 35.2 IP, 29 H, 14 ER, 5 HR, 7 BB, 36 K. He came to the mound with the lead 20 times and only gave it up once. It's a bit of a premium to pay, but it's worth it to keep around a real Twins star who has already established himself as one of the franchise's all-time greats. A lot of the truly elite relievers have held up well through their 30s, and Nathan is in that league.

Arbitration Eligibles

I'll offer contracts to Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Alexi Casilla and Jose Mijares. Phil Dumatrait and Matt Tolbert will not get contracts. Jason Repko has his uses as a speedster who can play solid D at all three OF positions. I'd still be interested in keeping him in the system, but on a minor league deal.

40-Man Roster

I am going to cut everybody who no longer has a semblance of upside. I wouldn't have dropped Anthony Slama, but the other real-world cuts so far (Tolbert, Repko, Dumatrait, Rene Rivera and Brian Dinkelman) are a good start. I'd also jettison Jeff Manship and Luke Hughes. I'd add Angel Morales, Tyler Robertson, Yangervis Solarte and Tom Stuifbergen. Pending the second half of the Arizona Fall League season, Cole DeVries looks like somebody worth protecting, while Bruce Pugh does not. I'm not the slightest bit worried that the organization will permanently lose anybody in the Rule 5 Draft who hasn't yet reached AA.


I want to act as quickly as possible on these, because they'll determine what I'll need to pick up in free agency and how desperate I need to be to get it.

Acquire SP James Shields and C Kelly Shoppach from the Rays for SP Liam Hendriks, OF Ben Revere, RP Carlos Gutierrez and OF Oswaldo Arcia.

I really need to be aggressive on this one. The Rays have until Monday night to make a decision on Shields' $7M and Shoppach's $3.2M options, and they'll almost certainly decline Shoppach's. It may be possible to sign him (or a similar player) for less in free agency, but I don't mind the price tag of the option. He's a buy-low throw-in for the Rays, and the $300K they'll save on his option would no doubt be put to good use elsewhere. And he helps me save face a little, because giving up 4 good prospects looks better when you get 2 veterans in return instead of just 1. Over the past 3 seasons, Shoppach has been a roughly average defender. Against RHP he's Drew Butera, but vs. LHP he's had an OPS well north of .800.

Shields is the prize, and here we're buying high. The Rays surely would love to keep him, with his 3 reasonable option years, but with their under-attended stadium, they can ill-afford to devote 15% of their payroll to one player. Even without Shields, they'll have an elite rotation, and they already have 2 more quality starters stashed in AAA Durham. Plus, the Rays are run by former Wall Street guys, and they must understand that Shields' value will never be higher than it is right now. That's why it'll take a huge package to bring him to MN. But he's the 2nd coming of Brad Radke, a relentless strike-thrower with a plus changeup and a propensity to serve up the long ball. I'll make sure that when I part with him in a couple years, he's a Type A who's sure to decline arbitration, thus recouping picks to replace half of this trade package.

Revere has been expendable for me for a couple of years now. No power, no arm - I just don't want him in the same lineup as Span. He's a useful backup, but I'll look to cover that another way until the wave of OF prospects reaches the upper minors. Revere will be an upgrade for the Rays over Sam Fuld, who didn't outperform Revere by much as a 29-year old, and doesn't project to get any better. Revere will fit right into the Rays' super defense and crazy base-stealing.

Hendriks is tough to part with, but he's the only man standing with any value at the upper levels. The Rays won't let go of Shields unless they can maintain the depth of their SP. Hendriks can go right into line and be ready to contribute for them by the 2nd half of 2012 if injuries should decimate their rotation.

Gutierrez has a great sinking fastball, but he doesn't control it well enough for me to think that he'll be a great contributor to the bullpen. Kyle Waldrop and Guerra get plenty of grounders, too, but they throw a lot more strikes. I'll count on them to step up instead. For me, Arcia is the least appealing of the Twins' OF prospects. At 20, he's already filled out to the point where there's not much chance of him becoming useful in the field. All the other kids can run. By shipping these two, I don't have to protect them in the Rule 5 draft, and save a couple of roster spots.

Acquire C Chris Iannetta, OF Seth Smith and RP Rafael Betancourt from the Rockies for SP Carl Pavano and 3B Danny Valencia.

This is why I really need Shields. The Rockies are looking for an innings-eater and someone to platoon with (or possibly replace) Ian Stewart. They have catching depth at the upper levels and have never really loved Iannetta. Smith becomes expendable if they sign a free agent OF (Cuddyer, perhaps?). They're rumored to have some interest in Pavano. I think Valencia is likely to be at least a league-average 3B for the next couple of seasons, but he's especially good against LHP, and Troy Tulowitzki's spectacular range could make up for some of his defensive shortcomings.

Iannetta is an average catcher with outstanding patience and plus power. He loses a lot of slugging while facing RHP, but his OBP remains high against them. And he looks like Albert Pujols when you compare him to Drew Butera.

Smith is basically another Jason Kubel, but with a better glove, some baserunning ability, and 3 years of team control. He's scorched RHP in his career (.881 OPS) but has struggled against southpaws.

Any reliever who can thrive in the rarefied air of Denver is worth a look. Betancourt absolutely refuses to walk anybody (1.2 BB/9 over the last 2 seasons) and has averaged 9.6 K/9 for his career. He adds a RH option to compliment Glen Perkins in the setup role.

Free Agents

I'm going to assume that the M&M boys and Shoppach are going to get the lion's share of the time at DH, so I'm not going to hire a regular there. Between Iannetta and Shoppach, I've got Mauer covered. Mauer will be Morneau's backup at 1B until Parmelee is ready to stick. I'll move Plouffe over to 3B - the .262/.317/.401 line he posted from August 15th on is pretty close to the league average for the position, he's got plenty of arm for the hot corner, and his not-quite-enough for SS range might be OK there. But I still need some Span insurance, a good-fielding SS, a backup IF who can excel at 3B, and a corner OF to platoon with Smith.

Sign OF Coco Crisp (3-years, $24M), SS Clint Barmes (2-years, $8M), IF Nick Punto (1-year, $1M) and OF Andruw Jones (1-year, $2M).

Crisp is a switch-hitter with range enough to excel in any OF position. He's an elite base-stealer. And he's got just a little more pop than Span. I like him a lot more than Revere. I'm skeptical that he'd command a 3-year deal this offseason (I'd shoot for 2 + an option), but I'll do what I have to do in order to get him. 3 years buys Aaron Hicks some extra development time at the upper levels, and if Hicks progresses, Crisp always seems to be a coveted trade piece.

Barmes is the best defender at SS who doesn't suck with the bat. He doesn't offer anything as a base stealer, but hopefully between Span, Casilla and Crisp I've got that covered. With him on board I'll have the luxury of sending Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the minors if he doesn't show improvement this spring.

We all know what Punto can do. He'll give a good PA as a PH, he's an asset as a PR, and he'd be a defensive upgrade in the late innings. Hopefully the projected starters play well enough to keep him in a bench role.

There are a number of guys available to fill the RH corner OF slot. Jones would be the best combination of bat, defense and baserunning. If I can't get him, Reed Johnson, Cody Ross, Johnny Gomes or Juan Rivera would be fine substitutes. This is potentially an area in which I can wait to see what the market brings in December or later.

The Result

Catchers: Mauer ($23M), Iannetta ($3.55M), Shoppach ($3.2M)
Infielders: Morneau ($14M), Casilla ($2.5M), Barmes ($4M), Nishioka ($3M), Punto ($1M), Plouffe ($420K)
Outfielders: Crisp ($8M), Span ($3M), Smith ($2.6M), Jones ($2M)
Rotation: Shields ($7M), Baker ($6.5M), Liriano ($6M), Blackburn ($4.75M), Slowey ($3.3M)
Bullpen: Nathan ($7M), Betancourt ($4M), Perkins ($1.8M), Mijares ($700K), Duensing ($500K), Swarzak ($450K), Waldrop (or Hoey, Oliveros, Vasquez, etc.) ($420K)

Including Nathan's buyout, that comes to just under $115M. A typical lineup:

vs. RHP: Span, Crisp, Mauer, Morneau, Iannetta, Smith, Plouffe, Casilla, Barmes
vs. LHP: Span, Crisp, Mauer, Jones, Iannetta, Shoppach, Plouffe, Barmes, Casilla

I'm counting on bounce-back years from the holdovers and typical production from the new faces. If that happens, we're in business. If the injuries and ineffectiveness persist, hopefully there are few pieces I can cash in before the trade deadline next summer.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Scapegoat

Who's to blame for this fiasco? There has been an abundance of failure this season, and there will undoubtedly be changes for 2012. It would be great to find an individual whose removal would assure an upturn in the Twins' fortunes for next year. But, when a team loses 30+ wins year-over-year, can any one person account for the fall?

If I had to single out a player, it would be Matt Capps. From the beginning of the season until he was taken out of the Closer role in mid-July, Capps went 15/22 in save opportunities with a 4.76 ERA and 7 HR allowed in 39.2 IP. The Twins lost 6 of those 7 games that they were leading late. Had he converted at least 3 more of those opportunities, the Twins would have been trailing the Tigers by just 3 games in the last week of July, putting them in a clear position to deal for reinforcements and potentially head off the free-fall they've been in since the trade deadline. Capps has been better lately, but still has blown 2 leads while holding just 3, and has lost 2 games that were tied when he entered. Basically, he single-handedly cost the Twins at least 5 wins, which is a ton for a guy who's only pitched about 5% of the team's total IP. But even if he'd been great, it probably wouldn't have been enough to turn things around.

It's typical to lay blame for a disappointing season upon a head coach or manager, but I don't think Gardy deserves much. He's coming off a tremendous, Manager of the Year season. His staff is the same group of coaches who have consistently led the Twins to competitive finishes. Prior to this year, the only 2 seasons he didn't have his team in contention were 2005 & 2007, when the offense failed to support the pitching staff thanks to flukishly low BABIPs. There are certainly a couple of managerial decisions that contributed to the mess. He should have reinstalled Joe Nathan as the Closer 2-3 weeks earlier than he did. And his misguided displeasure with JJ Hardy's 2010 performance seems to have been a factor in prompting that trade and, consequently, a significant downgrade to the SS position. But more often than not, I've felt bad for Gardy. He only got to play his opening day lineup a couple of times. He frequently had to work with a short bench. Basically, he had no choice but to pencil in a bunch of guys who weren't ready to contribute at the Major League level.

Part of that was the result of poor scouting. Somebody recommended to the front office that Tsuyoshi Nishioka was capable of being an every day middle infielder in The Show. Somebody thought that Eric Hacker, Scott Diamond, Jim Hoey and Dusty Hughes were worthy of 40-man roster spots. Those scouts might find that their jobs are on the line now, or at least that they've lost some of the credibility they once enjoyed.

Part of it was the result of poor player development. With the exceptions of Anthony Swarzak and Chris Parmelee, the common thread running through all the guys the Twins brought up from the minors was that they were bad at their jobs. Position players that couldn't hit. Pitchers who couldn't throw strikes, or miss bats, or keep the ball in the yard. Baserunning blunders. Inability to execute with RISP and less than 2 outs. The reinforcements couldn't do the big things, but they couldn't do the little things either. The Rochester coaching staff already got the axe after producing back-to-back 90-loss seasons, and the organizational shakeup may not stop there.

But part of the reason that Rochester struggled so much was that the players who began the season there didn't have much upside to begin with. A few who did have some favorable projection - Alex Burnett, Swarzak, Rene Tosoni, Luke Hughes, Ben Revere, Trevor Plouffe - were called up to the Majors multiple times, some before they were ready, some into part-time roles that kept them from establishing much of a rhythm. A few others were lost to injuries - Kyle Gibson, Anthony Slama and David Bromberg, for example. But guys who had been discarded by other teams - guys like Steve Holm and Rene Rivera, Phil Dumatrait, Chuck James, Hacker - were never expected to contribute much to the Twins. When the tattered depth chart forced them into service, the dreadful results should have come as a surprise to no one.

It was clear going into the season that the depth on this team was paper-thin at several positions. Bill Smith has to be accountable for that. Several rival GMs did a much better job of building depth. Tampa Bay, for example, had even more desertions to its playoff-caliber bullpen than the Twins did. But they rebuilt on the cheap, and their unit owns a solid ERA and the second-fewest blown saves in the league. Still, I don't think it would have been reasonable for Smith to expect that so many of the journeymen he signed to flesh out the AAA team should have found their way onto the Major League roster.

The biggest problem with the 2011 Twins is that the 1st-string guys weren't able to play together. They had to use the DL 27 times this season. And that didn't even account for all the games lost to injuries. Regularly, 1 or more players were held out of the lineup for several days with "day-to-day" injuries, shortening the bench for Gardy. Too frequently, those guys wound up on the DL eventually, anyway. Whatever the initial estimates for recovery times, it always seemed to take longer for people to heal. On more than one occasion, a player came back, played poorly for a short period, then went right back on the shelf.

I'll try to quantify how much injuries hurt the Twins this year. Joe Mauer appeared in 82 games this year, including just 52 at Catcher. His 333 PA were about 55% of what he would accumulate in a healthy season. Justin Morneau played 69 games (we'll call that 45% of a healthy season). Denard Span played 70 games (45%). Jason Kubel and Alexi Casilla were at 70%. Nishioka was at 45%. Nick Blackburn made 80% of the 33 GS we would have liked to see. Francisco Liriano made 75%, Scott Baker 64%. Joe Nathan's 44.2 IP were only 64% of the roughly 70 IP he worked in typical seasons.

Apply those percentages to the salaries those guys earned this season, and you wind up losing nearly $30M. Throw in the DL stints for Delmon Young and Jim Thome prior to their trades and you're easily over that. The Twins' opening day payroll was in the top 10 in baseball, but injuries effectively reduced it to the bottom 12. A likely contender was turned into nothing special.

It is the job of the training staff to keep the players on the field. They should put the players on a workout regimen that will give them the strength and flexibility to play at their peak level of performance without breaking down over the course of the long season. When injuries occur, they need to diagnose them quickly and accurately, and realistically assess what the recovery time will be. They need to put hurting guys on a rehab program that will get them back to 100% within their projected timetable.

The Twins' training staff conclusively failed to do this. The injuries began in the offseason and lingered through September. The team the Pohlads paid for never came together. Head Trainer Rick McWane, Assistant Trainer Dave Pruemer and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Perry Castellano do not have the same track record of success that the coaching staff has earned. In fact, they have drawn criticism from a number of players over the past couple of seasons for the mishandling of various injuries. I don't know the degree to which they did or not, but it's pretty clear to me that there must be somebody out there who could fill their roles better. If I were running the show, I'd make it my 1st order of business on Thursday morning to fire all three of them. That would be a solid 1st step toward making things go better in 2012.