Monday, December 29, 2008

Creating Runs

In my last post, I compiled a bunch of stats that the Twins could, on average, be expected to amass in 2009. I guessed, based on individual players' career numbers, that the team would end up with 814 runs, 15 fewer than in 2008. But there are better ways of projecting how many runs a team should score based on their other stats, so I decided to take what I'd found and apply it to the various formulae for Runs Created.

In addition to what I'd put together already (AB, Avg/OBP/Slg, H, R, RBI, 2B, 3B, HR, SF, K, BB, HBP), I needed SB, CS, IBB, SH, and GIDP in order to plug all the numbers in. Here are those additional stats for my projected Twins lineup, again using career averages for the players aged 25-35 and 2008 numbers for the younger guys, adjusted for the projected number of AB:

Span: 34 SB, 13 CS, 6 IBB, 15 SH, 6 GIDP
Casilla: 11 SB, 3 CS, 0 IBB, 20 SH, 11 GIDP
Mauer: 8 SB, 2 CS, 13 IBB, 1 SH, 17 GIDP
Morneau: 1 SB, 2 CS, 12 IBB, 0 SH, 15 GIDP
Cuddyer: 7 SB, 3 CS, 4 IBB, 0 SH, 17 GIDP
Kubel: 3 SB, 1 CS, 2 IBB, 1 SH, 15 GIDP
Young: 14 SB, 5 CS, 7 IBB, 1 SH, 19 GIDP
Buscher/Harris: 2 SB, 2 CS, 0 IBB, 4 SH, 16 GIDP
Punto: 18 SB, 7 CS, 1 IBB, 7 SH, 9 GIDP

Redmond: 0 SB, 0 CS, 0 IBB, 0 SH, 5 GIDP
Tolbert: 15 SB, 2 CS, 0 IBB, 4 SH, 11 GIDP
Pridie: 8 SB, 2 CS, 1 IBB, 2 SH, 2 GIDP

Team Total: 121 SB, 42 CS, 56 IBB, 55 SH, 143 GIDP
2008 Twins: 102 SB, 42 CS, 48 IBB, 52 SH, 142 GIDP

Add those to the totals from the other categories:

Team Totals: 5598 AB, .285/.349/.426, 1595 H, 814 R, 768 RBI, 291 2B, 48 3B, 134 HR, 67 SF, 925 K, 555 BB, 35 HBP
2008 Twins: 5641 AB, .279/.340/.408, 1572 H, 829 R, 791 RBI, 298 2B, 49 3B, 111 HR, 72 SF, 979 K, 529 BB, 36 HBP

and I've got everything I need to calculate 4 different flavors of Runs Created.

RC: 826
RCSB: 840
RCTech: 840
RC2002: 850

I was surprised to find that, in every variation of the formula, my estimate of 814 runs proved to be conservative.

I'm not satisfied that I've given so many AB to Jason Pridie, or with the minor league numbers I had to use in his projection. Now that the Twins' have signed Luis Matos to a minor league deal, I think his MLB experience makes him a likelier bench OF for the Twins than Pridie. Better yet, he has MLB stats from which I can derive averages:

189 AB, .255/.312/.375, 48 H, 25 R, 16 RBI, 10 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 1 SF, 35 K, 13 BB, 3 HBP, 0 IBB, 8 SB, 3 CS, 3 SH, 4 GIDP

While Matos' MLB averages don't quite measure up to Pridie's minor league averages, they don't make a significant difference in the team projections. I'm sticking to my guess that the 2009 Twins, if healthy, should be able to surpass 800 runs scored, as they have done in 2 of the last 3 seasons.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Average is OK

In my previous post I included a rather clumsily laid out argument against the urgency for the Twins to acquire a "big, RH bat" this offseason. Basically, it was that all the regulars who performed really well last season were lefties - Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. That the righties didn't perform wasn't so much a reflection upon their abilities but rather that they just had a bad year last year, and they'll probably return to their career averages in 2009, which would be just fine.

In assessing how your team, on paper, ought to perform, looking at career averages is better than recent history - the larger the sample size, the better it will represent a player's actual ability. Of course, some players will get hurt, and their replacements will usually be a step down in production (although the Twins were able to fly in the face of that in 2006 and 2008), but you have to plan for the season as though everyone will be healthy and your best players will be on the field every day.

I compiled offensive numbers for the Twins' offensive players as I would use them next year. For everyone between the ages of 25 and 35 and with 3 or more years of MLB experience, I simply plugged in their career averages projected out over a full season of AB. I would expect the younger guys to improve in each of their first three years (like Scott Baker), though some regress (like Boof Bonser) and some more or less repeat themselves (like Delmon Young). Still, I feel improvement is common enough that it is fairly conservative to merely plug in their numbers from 2008 (again, projected over a full season for those who didn't start the year in the Majors). For those older than 35 (er, I guess that's just Mike Redmond), I also repeated last year's numbers, although a further decline from him as he turns 38 shouldn't be a surprise. The caveats:

1. Runs and RBI are tricky individual stats, since they depend on what's happening around the batter, and that cast is always changing over the course of a career. In order to make sure that they'd add up to something plausible, I checked the average number of R/RBI over the past 7 seasons. Typically, there are about 6% more R than RBI, owing to double plays, wild pitches and errors. I decided to multiply the total RBI by 1.06 and take the lesser of that run total or the sum of everyone's average runs. That led to me subtracting runs from several players' averages, mainly Matt Tolbert, Jason Pridie, Buscher/Harris and Denard Span.

2. Jason Kubel's 2006 numbers are a major outlier. Since there is a legitimate physical excuse for them (he wasn't fully recovered from his 2005 knee reconstruction), I decided to compile his career averages without his 2006 numbers.

3. I used some pretty detailed methods to project a combined line for the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon in my previous post - I simply plugged those numbers in here.

4. Since Jason Pridie doesn't really have any MLB experience yet, I just used his career minor league averages.

Here's what I got:

Denard Span: 650 AB, .294/.387/.432, 191 H, 126 R, 88 RBI, 30 2B, 13 3B, 11 HR, 4 SF, 112 K, 94 BB, 7 HBP
Alexi Casilla: 600 AB, .281/.333/.374, 169 H, 90 R, 78 RBI, 23 2B, 0 3B, 11 HR, 9 SF, 70 K, 48 BB, 3 HBP
Joe Mauer: 530 AB, .317/.399/.457, 168 H, 84 R, 78 RBI, 33 2B, 4 3B, 11 HR, 7 SF, 60 K, 75 BB, 2 HBP
Justin Morneau: 600 AB, .281/.348/.498, 169 H, 88 R, 117 RBI, 36 2B, 2 3B, 30 HR, 8 SF, 100 K, 61 BB, 4 HBP
Michael Cuddyer: 550 AB, .268/.344/.441, 147 H, 82 R, 78 RBI, 32 2B, 5 3B, 18 HR, 4 SF, 117 K, 59 BB, 7 HBP
Jason Kubel: 500 AB, .274/.336/.458, 137 H, 71 R, 80 RBI, 29 2B, 3 3B, 19 HR, 7 SF, 95 K, 50 BB, 1 HBP
Delmon Young: 575 AB, .290/.336/.405, 167 H, 80 R, 69 RBI, 28 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 5 SF, 105 K, 35 BB, 7 HBP
Buscher/Harris: 550 AB, .302/.363/.456, 166 H, 65 R, 98 RBI, 32 2B, 1 3B, 17 HR, 14 SF, 85 K, 53 BB, 1 HBP
Nick Punto: 475 AB, .252/.319/.332, 120 H, 62 R, 36 RBI, 20 2B, 5 3B, 3 HR, 4 SF, 88 K, 48 BB, 0 HBP

Mike Redmond: 129 AB, .287/.321/.333, 37 H, 14 R, 12 RBI, 6 2B, 0 3B, 0 HR, 1 SF, 11 K, 5 BB, 2 HBP
Matt Tolbert: 250 AB, .283/.322/.389, 71 H, 28 R, 13 RBI, 13 2B, 7 3B, 0 HR, 2 SF, 42 K, 15 BB, 0 HBP
Jason Pridie: 189 AB, .278/.323/.433, 53 H, 24 R, 21 RBI, 9 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR, 2 SF, 40 K, 12 BB, 1 HBP

Team Totals: 5598 AB, .285/.349/.426, 1595 H, 814 R, 768 RBI, 291 2B, 48 3B, 134 HR, 67 SF, 925 K, 555 BB, 35 HBP
2008 Twins: 5641 AB, .279/.340/.408, 1572 H, 829 R, 791 RBI, 298 2B, 49 3B, 111 HR, 72 SF, 979 K, 529 BB, 36 HBP

This bears out what I guessed shortly after the season ended this fall: while the 2009 Twins will undoubtedly have a lower BA with RISP and therefore score fewer runs, those losses will be mitigated by an increase in power by some players who had underperformed their career averages. Mauer and Morneau add 9 HR to the team total if they show their typical power. By replacing Carlos Gomez in the lineup will full seasons of Span and average Cuddyer, the Twins pick up a ton of walks and 13 HR while cutting about 30 K. Substituting Punto and Buscher/Harris for the AB given to Mike Lamb and Adam Everett also helps.

Fewer runs, but an increase in team BA, OBP, SLG%, HR and BB. The resulting .775 Team OPS would have been 5th in the AL last year after Texas, Boston, Detroit and the Chisox. That, combined with improved pitching and defense, should help the Twins maintain their run differential. The same rules apply for the pitching projections, with these caveats:

1. I'm only averaging bullpen members' numbers as relievers, so we'll use only Boof's half-season in the 'pen to project '09.

2. However, I'm including Guerrier's numbers from his 3 spot starts, since none of them lasted longer than 4 IP.

3. I'm using Jose Mijares' minor league averages.

4. And I'm using Philip Humber's minor league averages - including from his starts.

Scott Baker: 33 GS, 195 IP, 209 H, 92 ER, 25 HR, 145 K, 43 BB, 4.23 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
Francisco Liriano: 33 GS, 190.2 IP, 157 H, 67 ER, 17 HR, 211K, 61 BB, 3.14 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
Kevin Slowey: 33 GS, 196 IP, 197 H, 87 ER, 27 HR, 150 K, 29 BB, 3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP
Nick Blackburn: 33 GS, 193.1 IP, 224 H, 87 ER, 23 HR, 96 K, 39 BB, 4.05 ERA, 1.36 WHIP
Glen Perkins: 30 GS, 174 IP, 211 H, 85 ER, 29 HR, 85 K, 45 BB, 4.41 ERA, 1.47 WHIP

Joe Nathan: 71.1 IP, 46 H, 16 ER, 4 HR, 85 K, 22 BB, 2.02 ERA, 0.95 WHIP
Jesse Crain: 69.2 IP, 63 H, 25 ER, 6 HR, 42 K, 23 BB, 3.26 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Matt Guerrier: 76.1 IP, 77 H, 31 ER, 10 HR, 52 K, 26 BB, 3.66 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
Craig Breslow: 75.1 IP, 61 H, 19 ER, 2 HR, 65 K, 38 BB, 2.27 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
Boof Bonser: 78 IP, 99 H, 51 ER, 12 HR, 83 K, 24 BB, 5.88 ERA, 1.58 WHIP
Jose Mijares: 70 IP, 54 H, 26 ER, 8 HR, 84 K, 40 BB, 3.39 ERA, 1.34 WHIP
Philip Humber: 65 IP, 62 H, 31 ER, 9 HR, 57 K, 20 BB, 4.29 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

Team Total: 1454.2 IP, 1460 H, 617 ER, 172 HR, 1,155 K, 410 BB, 3.82 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
2008 Twins: 1459 IP, 1568 H, 675 ER, 183 HR, 995 K, 406 BB, 4.16 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
2008 Rays: 1457.2 IP, 1349 H, 618 ER, 167 HR, 1,143 K, 526 BB, 3.82 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

How about that! Our 2009 staff puts up numbers nearly identical to Tampa Bay's 2008 squad, which finished 2nd in the AL. With Liriano replacing Livan Hernandez' innings the Twins get a huge spike in K and drop in H and ER. Guerrier returning to form solves a lot of the bullpen's problems. Mijares replacing Brian Bass takes care of the rest (provided he matches his minor league efficiency). And even if he doesn't, I'd be amazed if most of the Twins' starters failed to exceed these projections (for example, if they stay healthy and make 33 starts, at least a couple of them should be able to surpass 200 IP). Increased innings from the starters will lower the toll on the relievers, making them more effective - and more likely to realize their career averages.

The final piece comes from a defensive performance that reverts to the average under the Gardenhire years, at least in terms of how the errors lead to unearned runs. The Twins allowed a ghastly 70 unearned runs in 2008, by far the most of this decade. The average number of unearned runs allowed by the Twins in the last 8 seasons is 54. Improved play by a less green OF should help make up most of that difference. Casilla has made just 2 errors in 38 games at second base in the Dominican Winter League - at that rate, he would make only 8 errors over a full MLB season. And Punto should be an upgrade over the way Everett played last year.

If those things came together to bring the unearned runs back to average, the Twins would allow 671 R in 2009. That would make their run differential +143. According to the Pythagorean Expectation, that would give the Twins a record of 96-66. I may get into 2nd and/or 3rd order wins later on this winter if I'm still this bored and starved for baseball, but you get the idea. If the team the Twins have already assembled can just stay healthy and do what they normally do, they should be strong division contenders to say the least.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


As the offseason plods along, Twins fans continue to fixate on the areas the team said it wanted to improve for 2009: SS, 3B and RP. With Nick Punto signed to a 2-year contract, the Twins have settled for the status quo at short. That leaves fans only 2 positions in which to hope for an upgrade. The options at 3B have been underwhelming from the get-go, and yet people are so anxious about improving the position over last season that they get excited about every name that gets proposed, even though they're all essentially the same player. What's beginning to irk me is that that player is no better than the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon already slated for '09 if nothing better comes along.

The latest candidate is Ty Wigginton, recently non-tendered by the Houston Astros. This is his last year of arbitration, and it was estimated that he would make about $7 million/year, basically the same thing the Twins were offering Casey Blake. And Wigginton is a similar player, a career .270/.330/.460 hitter averaging about 20 HR a season and capable of playing several defensive positions. (Blake's career numbers are .264/.334/.447 with about 20 HR/season.) He is 4 years younger than Blake. So if you wanted to sign Blake for $7 million, you've got to want to sign Wigginton, right?


First of all, while Blake is a rather poor defensive 3B, Wigginton is awful. His career numbers at 3rd suggest that he'd be no better than Butcher -er, Buscher. Bad defense was, for me, the biggest reason to seek a different player at this position, and Wigginton doesn't deliver there.

Second, he's not going to hit any better than the Buscher/Harris platoon. His career-best .867 OPS last year was largely a creation of Minute Maid Park, where it's only 315 down the LF line and 360 in the power alley. That friendly to RH hitting environment helped Wigginton to a 1.081 OPS at home, vs. only .696 on the road. LF is considerably deeper in the Metrodome, so there's no reason to think Wigginton's power numbers will be nearly as impressive there - his career averages are probably a better predictor.

And then I feel I have to reiterate my reasoning for projecting decent offensive numbers from Buscher/Harris. This is the most misunderstood aspect of the Twins' roster right now. Though his .294/.340/.390 line with 9 doubles and 4 HR in 218 AB wasn't anything special, Buscher hit much better vs. RHP, .316/.362/.437 with 9 doubles and 4 HR in 174 AB. The resulting .799 OPS vs RHP is the least anyone should expect from Buscher in 2009.

He hit .244/.323/.329 with 1 double and 2 HR in 82 AB in 2007. The .730 OPS he put up in '08 is an overall improvement of .082. His OPS vs. RHP jumped over .100 points year-to-year. Small sample sizes, true, but indicative of the type of growth Buscher has shown at every level throughout his professional career.

Compare his first season at A+ ball (343 AB, .292/.354/.408, 14 doubles, 4 HR and 2 K/1 BB) to his MLB career so far (300 AB, .280/.335/.373, 10 doubles, 6 HR and 2 K/1 BB). In the following half season at the same level, he improved to .282/.367/.422, 12 doubles, 5 HR and 5 K/3 BB in 206 AB. That .027 increase in OPS was the smallest year-to-year improvement he's had at any level until AAA, when he went from awesome in 2007 to totally awesome in 2008. To whit:

2005 - AA Eastern League: 215 AB, .228/.304/.288, 8 doubles, 1 HR, 1.8 K/BB
2006 - AA Eastern League: 467 AB, .259/.321/.366, 23 doubles, 7 HR, 1.92 K/BB (+.095 OPS)
2007 - AA Eastern League: 247 AB, .308/.391/.478, 19 doubles, 7 HR, 0.97 K/BB (+.182 OPS!)
2007 - AAA International: 132 AB, .311/.374/.523, 7 doubles, 7 HR, 0.85 K/BB
2008 - AAA International: 185 AB, .319/.402/.514, 12 doubles, 8 HR, 1.05 K/BB (+.019 OPS)

Obviously, the bell went off big-time in 2007, but even before then, Buscher was the type of player who needed awhile to adjust to each new level. If we allow that he will show the modest improvement he did between his two years at A+, his overall MLB OPS should reach the happy side of .750 in 2009. But if you add that improvement to just his numbers vs. RHP, you'll wind up with an .826 OPS from Buscher's side of the platoon.

300 MLB AB is far too small a sample to accurately project Buscher's production for next year. The bottom end of the range should be his career split: .297/.354/.411 with 10 doubles and 6 HR and 1.64 K/BB over 350 AB. Not too bad from your #8 hitter. For the top end of the range, how about his overall numbers from 2 seasons at AAA? It isn't too outlandish to imagine that he could hit MLB RHP as well as he hit all pitching at AAA. That would be .315/.394/.517 with 21 doubles and 17 HR and 0.97 K/BB. I'll split the difference and predict .306/.374/.466 with 17 doubles, 13 HR, 33 BB and 44 K.

As for Harris, his 2008 splits vs. LHP were by far the worst of his career. In 2009, a return to at least his career average is likely. I'll give him 200 AB, since there are fewer LHP in the league (and it's a nice round number!). That would give him a .295/.360/.440 line with 15 doubles, 1 triple, 4 HR, 20 BB and 41 K.

So, in a full season in the #8 slot (550 AB), Buscher/Harris would hit .302/.363/.456 (.819 OPS) with 32 doubles, 1 triple, 17 HR, 53 BB and 85 K, while playing middling to bad defense.

Now, hot stove watchers, I have 2 questions for you:

1. Who's going to do better than that?
2. Would the extra production such a player could bring be worth the cost?

Wigginton might hit more homers, but with a lower OBP and just as poor defense, and he would cost 7 times what the platoon would. Garrett Atkins might play as well, but the Rockies want Denard Span as a starting point. The only player I can see who would be an improvement at low cost is Andy LaRoche. His defense would be better, and his minor league numbers suggest he has the tools to be a RH Justin Morneau.

The Pirates are apparently interested in Wigginton, too, which would be the ultimate vote of no-confidence in LaRoche. If they were to sign Wigginton to any multi-year deal, LaRoche would no longer have a future in their organization, and could certainly be acquired for similar pieces in the Twins' organization (like Philip Humber and Harris, for example). That's the only way I can see for the Twins to upgrade 3B without removing Major League talent and, thus, diminishing the team.

I don't think the anxiety is really about 3B per se. People look at last year's team and say, "We need a RH power bat!" Why? To protect the lefties? Here are last year's OPS vs. LHP for the Twins' left-handed batters:

Denard Span: .873
Joe Mauer: .939
Justin Morneau: .778
Jason Kubel: .704
Brian Buscher: .455
Mike Lamb: .263

On the whole, the Twins' LH batters did not need protecting. Span and Mauer were terrific. Morneau holds his own. Kubel's splits, like his overall numbers, are on an upward trend. Mike Lamb was dismissed. That leaves Buscher, who I propose only be allowed to face RHP, against whom he performed substantially better.

What's amazing about the Twins' performance vs. LHP last year was how poorly the RH batters did:

Carlos Gomez: .712
Delmon Young: .791
Adam Everett: .773
Randy Ruiz: .745
Brendan Harris: .714
Michael Cuddyer: .694
Mike Redmond: .627
Craig Monroe: .449

Gomez, Young and Everett all vastly exceeded their splits vs. RHP, which were poor enough to make their overall numbers disappointing. Ruiz missed his chance to cement a platoon DH spot by notching just 2 XBH in 33 AB. Cuddyer underperformed his career OPS vs. LHP by over .100 points, Harris by .086, Redmond by about .200 and Craig Monroe by more than .300. The young guys should improve and the veterans should rebound to around their career averages (well, maybe not Redmond - he's getting old now). In other words, the Twins do not need to acquire another RH bat in order to see their production vs. LH pitching improve significantly in 2009.

One last thing. If the Twins were to sign Wigginton, it would mean that they'll have invested about $11 million dollars a year to not improve the left side of the infield. Rafael Furcal just signed with the Dodgers for $10 million/year. Had the Twins pursued him, they could have had a left side of the IF costing about $11 million/year, just with $10 million going to Furcal and $1 million going to Buscher/Harris. That would have been an upgrade. Oh well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas

Baseball's Winter Meetings have concluded, and the Twins' big free agent signing was:

Nick Punto.

Punto's 2-year, $8.5 million (+option) contract means he'll be the Twins' opening day shortstop. This is somewhat disheartening because, of course, it doesn't make the team any better. Had Bill Smith been more bold or creative, there probably was a deal possible for a more impressive player.

On the bright side, the team didn't get any worse, either. The Twins' great strength right now is their good, young, cheap starting rotation, and everyone in baseball knows it. Smith was wise not to trade away any of the starters for a player who would represent only a marginal upgrade over the status quo (i.e. Jack Wilson). It's encouraging to see him showing such good sense.

Looking around the division, I don't see the moves that have been made so far helping the Tigers and White Sox very much - the Twins are still safely ahead of them on paper. The Royals have made some improvements, but probably not enough to make up 13 games in the standings. The Indians should be the major competition - their moves, combined with contributions from healthy Victor Martinez, Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner, should be able to bring their win total into the high 80s.

As I stated earlier, the same Twins team that finished last season can win 88 games again provided they remove Carlos Gomez' anemic RH bat and replace it with Michael Cuddyer's healthy RH bat. It isn't unreasonable to assume that several of the younger players will make incremental gains in their numbers as they continue to adjust to the league, meaning the starters should throw more innings with a lower ERA, and Denard Span, Delmon Young, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher should get even more comfortable. Jesse Crain should be better in the second year back from his surgery, and Matt Guerrier should rebound to somewhere close to his career numbers. It's a roster that doesn't need any desperate action.

If Punto is the weakest hitter in it (batting 9th), I think that's OK. He plays above-average defense at SS, he's a threat to steal bases, and he does a pretty good job of working counts. As long as he can keep his OBP closer to .350 than .300, he'll be a solid contributor.

The remaining pieces the Twins might like to alter are 3rd base and the bullpen. I believe the Buscher/Harris platoon should be able to produce a combined OPS of at least .800 from what I project will be the #8 spot in the lineup, which would be pretty good. It's their defense that's the problem. The trouble is, the only third basemen I've heard discussed as possible alternatives either don't hit any better or don't field any better or both. In spite of that, many of their teams are demanding someone from the Twins' rotation in a trade - no thanks.

A particularly irksome development on this front is the news that Adrian Beltre recently put the Twins on his list of teams to which he can block a trade. Speculation is that this move was conceived by his agent, Satan - er, Scott Boras - to force the Twins to basically bribe him into waiving the no-trade clause. How cynical. But really, Adrian, do you want to spend your walk year in the middle of a rebuilding in Seattle or in the middle of a pennant race in MN? Which situation will produce the gaudier stats, playing with a bunch of kids in a pitcher's park, or batting with Span and Joe Mauer constantly on base in front of you? In 10 full seasons, Beltre has significantly exceeded an .800 OPS only twice - he's nothing more than a defensive upgrade over Buscher/Harris. Considering he's already going to cost a player or 2 in a trade and earn $12 million, I don't see any reason to bend over backward to give him more. He should be lobbying to get out of Seattle and come play for us. Who needs that?

Joe Crede is the best remaining free agent option. Like Beltre, he's had just 2 seasons with an OPS well over .800, but plays pretty good defense. Coming off 2 injury-shortened seasons, He'd probably be available for a cheap, short-term deal. None of the potential trade partners are worth the loss of a starter they'd require - though I still think Andy LaRoche could be extracted from Pittsburgh for some relatively painless pieces such as Philip Humber and Boof Bonser. Smith and Gardy say they're comfortable going into spring training with Buscher and Harris as their third basemen, and they should be. Just make sure you work like crazy with them on their defense.

As for the bullpen, I really don't think it's as bad as it seems. After all, 4 of the returning members (Joe Nathan, Jose Mijares, Craig Breslow and Crain) actually pitched quite well in 2008. If Guerrier were to rebound to his career averages (3.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP) he'd be a perfectly decent contributor. That leaves a long-relief spot for either Bonser (who can't possibly repeat last year's badness - can he?), Humber or Rule 5 pickup Jason Jones. That group would probably be OK as is, though I'd still welcome a free agent and AAA guys like Bobby Korecky to the mix.

The Twins aren't doing much so far this winter, but they don't really need to. They can compete for the division title with what they've got. Winning in the playoffs is a different story. With some serious upgrades, they could be World Series contenders. With the status quo, they're going to need some good breaks.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Short Sales

It looks as though the Dodgers will win the Casey Blake sweepstakes (awwwwww), so the Twins can now turn their attention to other players. With the Tigers signing Adam Everett today, there has been talk that the Twins might now be interested in Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, who the Tigers had been courting recently. Since the season ended, I've been emphasizing that any moves the Twins make (especially trades) should be a clear improvement over the status quo. At the SS position, that means Nick Punto.

Is Wilson an upgrade? Here are their career averages per 508 ABs (Wilson's career AB total divided by 8 seasons. Punto's defensive numbers apply only to his time at SS):

Wilson: .269/.312/.375, 25 2B, 4 3B, 7 HR, 29 BB, 61 K, 4 SB, .978 Fielding %, .846 ZR
Punto: .252/.319/.332, 21 2B, 5 3B, 3 HR, 52 BB, 94 K, 19 SB, .977 Fielding %, .857 ZR

More interested in the recent past? Here are their 3-year numbers:

Wilson: .281/.328/.390, 1325 AB, 74 2B, 4 3B, 21 HR, 84 BB, 138 K, 8/18 SB, .980 Fielding %, .830 ZR
Punto: .258/.327/.337, 1269 AB, 58 2B, 15 3B, 4 HR, 134 BB, 215 K, 48/65 SB, .966 Fielding %, .851 ZR

Basically, Wilson will hit for more power, but will reach base no more often than Punto. The low BB & K totals tell me that Wilson is a hacker who doesn't go deep into counts. His greatly reduced triples total and ZR in recent years tell me that he's already lost a step. Wilson is owed $7.25 million in 2009 with an $8.4 million club option for 2010 ($0.6 million buyout). Punto could be signed for far less than that, and the Twins wouldn't have to give up any other players to get him.

Given their relative strengths, I'd rather have Punto - provided he's the #9 hitter, meaning Carlos Gomez spends the season on the bench or in the minors. The few extra bases Wilson would likely get over Punto wouldn't be worth the added costs of acquiring him. I'd rather have a guy at the bottom of the lineup who works counts and can steal a base anyway. If the Twins are really interested in Wilson, then they ought to just sign Punto.

However, there is still Rafael Furcal. When the offseason began, he seemed to be well out of the Twins' league. But that might not be the case anymore. He hasn't turned out to be a Type A or B free agent, thanks to an abnormally poor 2007 and an injury-shortened 2008; the Dodgers did not offer him arbitration. He earned nearly $30 million over the past 2 seasons, so, of course, he doesn't want his next contract to be a huge step down from that. That's probably why he turned down the A's recent offer of $9-10 million/year for 4 years.

But with other teams that were targeting shortstops filling the void with lower-cost options, a large market for Furcal's services doesn't look like it will materialize. That leaves Furcal with a decision to make - accept a long-term deal for less money than he thinks he's worth, or negotiate a short-term deal for good money and hope that his performance earns him a bigger long-term contract in a year or two, while he's still relatively young (he's 31 now).

The Twins should be able to accommodate him in either scenario. If he's willing to sign a 4-year deal for a low 8-figure salary, that's a relative bargain for one of the premier free agent position players. If he'd rather do 1-2 years for $15 million/year, the Twins have the payroll space available for that as well, and the team's risk is lower. Remember, the Twins offered Torii Hunter $15 million/year just 13 months ago. If they were offering Blake $6 million/year, and figuring at least $3 million for Punto, that's already upwards of $9 million they had budgeted for the left side of the infield. With Buscher/Harris slated to earn less the $500,000 each, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to get to $12 million or so for a long-term deal on Furcal and keep those guys as a 3B platoon, something the Twins have indicated they'd be OK with if they could get a good SS.

Furcal would be quite a good SS. Adding his numbers to the above comparison (again, career averages are per 508 ABs):

Career: .286/.352/.412, 25 2B, 6 3B, 9 HR, 51 BB, 72 K, 28 SB, .966 Fielding %, .834 ZR
3-year: .293/.362/.420, 67 2B, 15 3B, 26 HR, 148 BB, 183 K, 70/92 SB, .969 Fielding %, .838 ZR in 1378 AB

As you can see, Furcal matches Wilson's power and Punto's plate discipline while hitting for a much higher average and stealing far more bases. He gives up a little bit defensively, but not enough to be a huge concern (the Twins could always swap him with Casilla if they think his range is slipping). Furcal is a gigantic upgrade over the status quo and therefore worth spending some money on. He would enable the Twins to send Alexi Casilla to the bottom of the order and give the Twins a proven leadoff hitter should Denard Span get injured or regress. If Furcal would sign for at least 2 years, the likelihood of him leaving the Twins as a type A or B free agent is pretty good, meaning they'd get an extra draft pick or two when he moves on.

The Twins have the means to acquire one of the best available shortstops and substantially improve the team without having to trade any of the young players who were so valuable to their success in 2008. I think they should at least offer Furcal a richer deal than Oakland did. Meanwhile, as long as they're talking to the Pirates in Vegas, why not take a gamble on Andy LaRoche? Bringing him in to play 3rd could really pay off.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Ron Gardenhire let it slip earlier this week that, in his mind, Delmon Young is currently 4th on the Twins' OF depth chart behind Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez. That seems strange to me considering that Young outhit Gomez by a healthy margin in 2008, though Gomez certainly has the advantage defensively by a long ways. It's also been rumored that the Twins are listening to trade offers for Young. Since his sophomore season didn't show a huge improvement over his rookie year, his stock is probably relatively low right now - not the best time for a trade. It doesn't make sense to me that the Twins would be so quick to turn around a guy who they paid a pretty high price for just last year - especially one who showed some significant improvement over the course of the season.

I started wondering if maybe there wasn't some coaching psychology going on here. Consider Young's history: #1 overall draft pick, reached the Majors a couple weeks before his 21st birthday, started all but 1 game in his first 1.5 seasons. He had such a sense of entitlement that he didn't even think he had to respect the umpires. Coming to a new team as the centerpiece of a big 6-player trade, then starting each of the first 52 games, he might have felt that he was too important to keep out of the lineup, even though he was only hitting .258/.319/.328 with 6 doubles, 4 triples and 0 HR.

But after a listless 0 for 6 during the first game of a 3-game set with the Royals, capped by a defensive miscue that turned a bloop double into a game-tying inside-the-park HR, Gardy decided Young could use a rest. The finale of that series was the first game Young didn't start since September of '06. A simple gesture - after all, everybody needs a break (even those, like Morneau, who never get one), but a significant one, too. It sent Young the message that, no matter how important everybody says he is, he's got to perform on the field if he wants to play.

From that point to the end of the season, Young hit .306/.347/.443 with 22 doubles and 10 HR. His only poor stretch came the last 2 weeks of August, after he'd injured his ankle on August 18th. Getting rest when he needed it probably helped to keep him fresh, but it also was a constant reminder that he'd better produce if wanted to play.

Why not sustain that reminder into the off-season? Rather than let Young feel confident that his substantial hitting advantage over Gomez is enough to guarantee him a starting spot next year, why not motivate him to improve the parts of his game where Gomez has the edge, namely defense and baserunning? Maybe that would make him work harder in the off-season, coming to spring training in shape, focused and ready to get better.

Check out this report from Lavelle. He seems to be thinking what I'm thinking. Apparently Young is working out hard this off-season, losing weight and getting stronger. If I'm right about the message the Twins were trying to send, it sounds like Young has received it. I wouldn't give up on him just yet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Horror Show

As I follow the reports of the Twins' on-going discussions with Casey Blake's agent, I feel like I'm watching a cheap horror movie. You know, the type that makes you want to yell things at the screen, like:

"Don't split up!" or
"Don't get out of the car!" or
"Don't guarantee him 3 years!"

Blake is 35. He's not going to get any better, and will probably get worse. Over the past 3 seasons, he has averaged an .803 OPS, 31 doubles, 2 triples, 19 HR, 49 BB, (8 HBP), and 112 K. For his career as a 3B, he has a .952 fielding percentage and .749 zone rating. Those are the numbers we can expect from Blake - though a decline is likely the further he gets into his 30s.

As Aaron Gleeman and I simultaneously concluded a few weeks ago, the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon can be expected to match that production. Buscher had a .799 OPS vs. RHP last year, Harris has a career .800 OPS vs. LHP, with 8 doubles, 0.3 triples, 2 HR, 10 BB and 20 K per 100 AB. It's tough to project Buscher based on only 300 MLB ABs, but he put up about 6 doubles and 6 HR with about an 11/10 BB/K rate vs. RHP at AAA. Give Harris 200 ABs and Buscher 350, and it's not hard to see them matching Blake's numbers. Last year, Buscher had a .938 fielding percentage and .774 zone rating; Harris is at .949 and .753 for his career.

Basically, Bill Smith is proposing to pay Blake $6 million a year to do no better than Buscher and Harris will do for league minimum. That's a bad idea by itself - but it gets worse! The Twins have a guy in Rochester named Luke Hughes. He's a RH batter with decent power and a so-so glove at 3B. He's been spending about a year and a half at each level of the minors, meaning he should be MLB ready by 2010. And then there's Danny Valencia, recently named the Twins' #5 prospect by Baseball America. He's also a RH batter with good pop and an OK glove. He's in AA now, and will probably be ready to join the Twins by 2011. Should a fading Casey Blake get paid $6 million/year to stand in front of both those guys?

Signing Blake for 2009 is probably not worth it. Having him around in 2010 is almost certainly not worth it. Having him around in 2011 is definitely not worth it. You might as well shovel money on the fire. Or throw it out the window. Or take a crap on it. Don't do it, Bill! Let the Dodgers keep him - they've shown that they're more than happy to plug aging players in front of their young prospects (Nomar Garciaparra, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent). If you want to upgrade third base, that's great, but actually upgrade it!

In other news, Gardy has leaked that he thinks next year's starting OF should be Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Carlos Gomez. Wrong! Unless Gomez magically figures out how to shorten his swing or lay off pitches out of the strike zone, he's not good enough to play in the Major Leagues at all, let alone displace Delmon Young. Gomez was one of the 5 worst hitters in the league last year. Young, though not as good as advertised, hit .290 and showed improvement over the course of the season. At this point, giving up Young's spot in the lineup to Gomez costs the Twins about 80 points of OPS. Young's BB/K ratio: 1/3. Gomez': almost 1/6! Don't start Gomez, Gardy! Eeeeeeeek!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

GM for a Day

MLB's Winter Meetings are fast approaching, during which the glacial pace of this hot stove season is expected to pick up considerably. While I look forward to having some actual moves to talk about (other than obvious stuff like picking up Mike Redmond's option or offering Dennys Reyes arbitration), it will also mean the death of limitless fantastic possibilities. So, before reality has a chance to intrude, I'm going to outline what I'd try to do to improve the Twins for 2009, given their projected financial and human resources and the players who are at least rumored to be available via trade and free agency.

As I laid out a few weeks ago, the Twins could probably expect to win 88 games again next year simply by retaining Reyes and Nick Punto and sending Carlos Gomez to AAA. That was before I found out Pat Neshek would be lost for the season, leaving the Twins with the largely unproven Jose Mijares in the driver's seat to earn the 8th-inning role he performed so well over the final weeks of the season. The bullpen really hurt the Twins last year, and there are 2 ways to try to solve the problem:

1. Spend some of the (considerable) available cash on a probably overpriced free agent arm, or
2. Try to take some pressure off the 'pen by compressing the number of innings they have to throw.

I'm going to opt for the latter. The other area everyone agrees could be improved is the left side of the infield. I'm assuming that a Brendan Harris/Brian Buscher platoon would play slightly below-average defense with an OPS of about .800, and that Punto as the starting SS would play splendid defense with an OPS of .650-.700. That's what we're trying to beat with any new players.

Since the Twins managed to increase their attendance over 2007 by about 6,000 fans, I'm going to assume that the payroll trajectory that was in place at this time last year still applies. In other words, the team should have the money available to fund about $85 million in player salaries.

Step 1: Re-sign Reyes

People say we can let him go because Craig Breslow and Mijares can handle the match-up lefty role for less money. But those guys also get right-handers out better than some of the righty pitchers in the Twins' 'pen. So I'd rather have Reyes around to get that one tough lefty batter with men on base - he's more likely to keep the ball in the infield via a strikeout or grounder than the other two. They would then be free to start innings with the bases empty.

An effective bullpen lefty is a very tradable commodity, should the Twins feel they need to make room for someone else later on.

Jeremy Affeldt is a pretty similar pitcher - a little better at getting righties out, not as good at getting lefties. He throws more innings, though, so the Twins should be able to sign Reyes for a little less than Affeldt's 2-year, $8 million contract with the Giants - let's say 2 for $7 million. That sets up this bullpen:

Joe Nathan - closer
Jose Mijares - 8th inning
Jesse Crain and Reyes - matchups
Breslow and Boof Bonser - long relief and matchups

Step 2: Acquire Andy LaRoche from the Pirates

A super-prospect just a year ago, LaRoche was injured in spring training last year and never found his groove in 2008. He was skipped on the Dodgers' depth chart in favor of Blake DeWitt, then traded to the Pirates in the deal that sent Jason Bay to the Red Sox and Manny Ramirez to LA. Finally given the starting job he was blocked from in Los Angeles, he proceeded to hit a woeful .152/.227/.232 in 49 games for Pittsburgh. The Pirates have another competent third baseman at AAA, and are most in need of improving a pitching staff that ranked 28th in the Majors in ERA and 29th in BAA and walks allowed.

This time last year, LaRoche would have commanded a premium player in a trade, but his .560 OPS through his first 111 Major League games has put an end to that. I would offer the Pirates Philip Humber and Harris. Humber, like LaRoche, was a highly valued prospect a year ago, having led the PCL in WHIP in 2007, but lowered his stock with a poor showing in 2008. To his credit, he seemed to finally put it together after the All-Star break, putting up a 2.60 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over his final 8 starts with a 51/11 K/BB ratio. He followed that up with a decent September out of the Twins 'pen. So it's at least possible to argue that Humber is back on a quality trend.

Harris, as disappointing as he was in the Twins' lineup, would be an upgrade (offensively, anyway) over SS Jack Wilson, whom the Pirates are attempting to trade, at a fraction of the cost. He would also be able to fill in at 3rd if they want to give Neil Walker a little more time.

So the Pirates would get an everyday IF and mid-rotation starter for a player who, so far, hasn't shown anything at the Major League level. Humber is out of options, and I don't see the Twins having a spot for him, so he's someone the Twins have to try to deal. LaRoche becomes the right-handed part of the 3B platoon, making Harris superfluous. The Twins don't stand to lose much by making this trade - if LaRoche continues to be an MLB bust after a couple months, they can call up Steve Tolleson or Trevor Plouffe from Rochester.

But I think LaRoche's 2008 was equivalent to Scott Baker's 2006. You just don't dominate every level of the minor leagues and then suck in the Majors. I put a lot more stock in the 2,000+ PA he's had in the minors (hitting .295/.382/.517 with a HR every 19 AB and 4/5 BB/K rate) than the 300-some PA he's had in Majors. He's also got considerably better defensive range than Buscher. If he puts up the kind of numbers he did in the minors, then the Twins have got a patient, RH hitter with pop to stick in between Mauer and Morneau for the next 5 years. The downside is so small - I'd take that risk.

Step 3: Acquire JJ Hardy from the Brewers

With CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets both likely to depart as free agents, the Brewers need to replace some serious innings. They've got an in-house SS they're ready to promote, so Hardy is on the block in order to land some pitching help. He's a 25 HR hitter with a solid glove, just entering his prime at 26 years old, and won't be eligible for free agency until 2011. That means getting him is going to sting a little bit.

I'd offer the Brewers Nick Blackburn and Matt Guerrier. Blackburn was the Twins' #1 prospect a year ago, and had a strong rookie season (he easily would have won 15+ games with better run/bullpen support) capped by his impressive 1-0 loss in the playoff at Chicago. He won't replace Sabathia, but he should be able to give the Brewers 200+ IP for the next 5 years. His ground ball tendencies should also be helpful in HR friendly Miller Park.

Guerrier fell apart at the end of 2008, but that was the first time in his big-league career that he sucked for any prolonged stretch. He's likely to rebound back to his career averages, which are pretty solid (3.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP). Guerrier has expressed interest in starting again, but he'll never get a chance to do it with the Twins. He's going to be reasonably affordable for the next 2 years.

The Brewers would be trading 2 years of strong production from their SS for 5 years of solid, mid-rotation, innings-eating pitching from Blackburn and 2 years of steady middle relief or back-end of the rotation pitching from Guerrier. It also likely saves them $10 million, give or take, in arbitration money they'd have to give Hardy, which they can spend on signing another free agent starting pitcher. The Twins enormously upgrade their production from the SS position at a cost of - I'll say - $13.5 million over the next 2 seasons.

Step 4: Acquire Jake Peavy from the Padres

I'm really dreaming now, huh? With Blackburn gone, the Twins have a spot in the rotation available, and why settle for filling it with Kevin Mulvey? Peavy has been one of the elite pitchers of the NL over the last 5 seasons, and would immediately become the ace of the Twins' young staff. He's under contract through 2012 with a club option for 2013, the total value of which would be $81 million for 5 years or $63 million for 4 years. Either way, the Twins get a pitcher who compares pretty favorably with Johan Santana for about $4 million a year less than they offered him last winter.

The Padres expect their attendance to drop off drastically, so they're looking to slash payroll. They want pitching help and an IF to start with. It sounds like they're headed for a '99 Twins style rebuilding, meaning they can start some players who might ideally spend another few months in the minors. My proposed package for Peavy: Carlos Gomez, Luke Hughes, Bobby Korecky, Anthony Swarzak and Kevin Mulvey.

Gomez is a liability in the Twins' lineup right now. He doesn't appear to be close to hitting at the level of Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young or Jason Kubel - 4 OF all under team control for at least the next 2 seasons. By the time Cuddyer's option comes up, Dustin Martin should be ready to fill that slot. And Ben Revere looks to be on pace to arrive in the Twins' OF by 2012 at the latest, and then there's Aaron Hicks right behind him. Gomez has the tools to be a better player than Span someday, but by the time he figures out how to use them, there will be others in the system who can fill his role just about as well. So he's expendable.

Hughes got on a lot of people's radar this spring with a fantastic performance at AA (.319/.385/.551 with 15 HR in 70 games). He finished the season at Rochester and is currently participating in the Venezuelan Winter League. He's expected to be a member of team Australia in the World Baseball Classic this spring. If he stayed in the Twins' system, he'd probably be ready to contribute at the Major League level in the 2nd half. But I've just acquired Andy LaRoche, who I believe will hit for just as much power with a better BB/K ratio and a better glove at 3B. If we think about moving Hughes to 2B, there's Steve Tolleson - a similarly sized RH-hitting 2B - to consider. In a full season at AA, Tolleson hit .300/.382/.466 in 343 AB, compared to Hughes' 2008 total of .309/.369/.524 in 391 AB. I'd rather have the OBP. Tolleson makes Hughes redundant.

Korecky doesn't have a spot in the Twins' bullpen. But at his age (29), and with his career minor league numbers (3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), he deserves a chance somewhere. He's served as Rochester's closer for the last 2 seasons, and it just so happens that the Padres need a closer now that they've decided to cut Trevor Hoffman loose.

Swarzak and Mulvey finished 2008 at AAA and were recently rated the organizations' #6 and #8 prospects, respectively. But with the Twins' rotation crowded with young guys who are still 3 or more years away from free agency, and with talented arms like Jeff Manship and Tyler Robinson coming up behind them, these guys become surplus. Swarzak would ideally have a few more months at Rochester before reaching the Majors, but Mulvey is definitely ready to start now.

It was disappointing for a lot of Twins fans last winter when the Santana trade didn't net the Twins any MLB-ready talent (nope - Gomez wasn't ready). The Padres fans won't have that problem. They may have to push some of these guys a little faster than they might have liked, but by the second half of 2009 they will have turned their Ace pitcher into 2 high-ceiling starting pitchers, a 3B/2B with good power potential, a setup man or closer, and a CF with the wheels to track down balls in their spacious outfield - all cheaply under team control for at least the next 5 seasons.

As for the Twins, while dealing away a bunch of good players that they might have had a hard time finding spots for, they receive a dominant top of the rotation starter. Not that Francisco Liriano or Scott Baker couldn't have filled that role, but that's the beauty of it. I'm perfectly confident in Baker, Liriano and Kevin Slowey as the Twins' 1-3 starters; I'm extremely confident in them as 2-4 with Peavy at the top. If it wasn't before, that certainly makes the Twins' rotation tops in the division, and matches them up well with Boston, LA and Tampa - the teams they'll likely be facing when they make it to playoffs this year.

Of course, Peavy could always nix this with his no-trade clause. Would he want to come play for a perennial winner in a brand-new stadium? He's OK with going to the Cubs, so I know the cold weather isn't freaking him out. Maybe he wouldn't allow it - it'd be interesting to see.

Step 5: Lock up Mauer and Kubel

Many people (me included) thought Joe Mauer was more valuable to the Twins than Justin Morneau this season. He's proven that, when healthy, he's one of the very best players in the league. If the Twins wait until next off-season to sign him to an extension, they're going to risk getting into the same mess they were in with Santana. I'd offer Mauer an extension that pays him in the neighborhood of Morneau's $14 million/year, something like 4 years, $63 million + a $5 million signing bonus. That locks up one of the league's most talented all-around players through his age 31 season.

As for Kubel, it's been a long road back from the knee ligament injury he sustained in the AFL 4 years ago (as someone who recently had major knee reconstruction, I can certainly empathize), but his numbers are definitely headed in the right direction now. If the Twins wait until next year to sign him to a long-term deal, I suspect his performance will push the price way up. As it stands, his numbers compare pretty favorably with those of Cuddyer, so I'd offer him the very same contract they just gave Cuddyer last year (minus the signing bonus - Cuddy had a 24 HR, 102 RBI season on his resume, Kubel doesn't): 3 years, $20.25 million with a club option for 2012 at $10.5 million. That would lock Kubel up through his age 30 season - years that I suspect will be very productive, and a bargain at that price.


Starting with a team that should win around 88 games and compete for the division title, I've created a team that should win around 95 games and go deep into the playoffs. I've upgraded an already outstanding rotation, taking pressure off what should be a balanced, solid bullpen. I've added power to the lineup while maintaining a high OBP and improving the R/L balance and IF defense. If things break the way I expect with LaRoche and Cuddyer bounces back from an injury-plagued season, the lineup could look like this:

Span (.390 OBP)
Mauer (.410 OBP)
LaRoche (.370 OBP, 25 HR)
Morneau (30 HR)
Cuddyer (25 HR)
Kubel (25 HR)
Hardy (25 HR)
Young (.300 BA)
Casilla (.330 OBP)

On the bench, we've got Mike Redmond to back up Mauer, Buscher (initially) to platoon with LaRoche and spell Morneau (let's make sure we do that once or twice next year, OK?), Matt Tolbert to fill in around the IF, Jason Pridie to pinch-run and add range in the OF, and Randy Ruiz to DH and PH vs. lefties. Everyone in the rotation is capable of throwing 200+ IP. The bullpen has 3 lefties and 3 righties, anchored by one of the best closers in baseball.

Including the signing bonus for Mauer and the $3 million still owed Mike Lamb, the payroll comes in at around $82 million, still leaving a few million available for signing draft choices or acquiring someone over the summer. The Twins gave up a lot of talent to attain these upgrades, but nobody they were imminently dependent upon over the next couple of seasons. (You'll notice that I've traded away 3 of the 4 players acquired for Santana - shows you what I think of that deal!) I think the offers for LaRoche and Hardy are fair, but if they need to be sweetened a little, we could throw in a AAA reliever (Tim Lahey or Mariano Gomez), catcher from the 40-man roster (either Jose Morales or Drew Butera - we'll need one of them in 2010, but Wilson Ramos is ready to go after that) or some other mid-level prospect from the low minors.

I doubt Bill Smith will actually do as well this off-season. Then again, for somebody who works in the real world, that's to be expected.

Monday, December 1, 2008

They Only Beat Themselves

The tremendous goal-line stand and subsequent 99-yard TD the Vikings put together in the 2nd quarter last night have the potential to be a defining moment in this heretofore disappointing season. We've seen this sort of thing before heading into December, and the Vikes have a way of blowing it, but you at least have to feel good about the way the defense is playing. The only scores they allowed in the game came on a 65-yard slant and scurry by Devin Hester and a 4-yard "drive" that followed a Gus Frerotte interception.

And that got me thinking. Since the NFL doesn't have the equivalent of MLB.TV, I haven't been able to follow the Vikes as closely as I'd like. But in the few games I have seen, it seems like all the TDs the defense allows come as the result of big plays, or a short field following a turnover, or a penalty. In other words, mistakes. The Vikings don't give up TDs because they get outplayed. They only seem to give up TDs when they screw up.

To test that theory, I reviewed the opponents' scoring drives from the first 12 games of this season. The Vikings have given up 29 TDs so far. 8 of them came with the defense on the sidelines (6 TDs have been given up by the special teams, costing the Vikings close divisional games at Chicago and Green Bay). Of the 21 TD drives allowed by the defense, 8 started in Vikings territory as the result of a turnover or poor kick coverage. That leaves 13 TDs in which the opposing offense didn't have a short field to work with in 12 games - pretty stout defense.

But furthermore, of those 13 long TD drives, 10 contained either a play of 25+ yards or a defensive penalty. While it is possible for a big play to be the result of an outstanding individual effort on the part of one or more offensive players, in most cases they are the result of blown coverage or bad tackling by the defense. This implies to me that the vast majority of the TD drives the Vikes' defense allows are more the result of their own mental lapses than of being inferior to their opponent. The baseball equivalent would be of a pitcher who has dominant stuff but loses the game when one bad pitch gets jacked out of the park (i.e. Scott Baker in the 1-0 loss to the Rangers this past July).

While it's frustrating that the Vikes have lost a bunch of games because of their own mistakes, it's also heartening to realize that their mediocre record is their own fault. Mistakes can be cleaned up, after all. There's nothing coaches and players can do to make up for inferior talent, which is not the Vikings problem. If they play their best, they can keep up with any team they've faced so far - even the ones they lost to.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Prospects for 2009

Earlier this week we got news of two big events on the prospect front. The Arizona Fall League wrapped up with the Phoenix Desert Dogs (the team the Twins' farmhands play for) winning their 5th straight championship, and Baseball America released its list of the top 10 Twins prospects. Last year, those same events centered around Nick Blackburn, who won the championship game of the AFL and received the #1 prospect ranking from BA. He went on to contribute greatly to the Twins' unexpected success in 2008. Will any of this year's crop have something to offer in 2009?

Baseball America's Top 10 Twins Prospects

#1 - Aaron Hicks - The 14th overall pick in this year's draft, Hicks had a terrific debut in rookie ball, hitting .318/.409/.491 with an excellent 28/32 BB/K ratio and 12/14 SB. Baseball America gave him top marks among Twins' prospects for plate discipline, athleticism, outfield defense and outfield arm. Certainly an exciting player to watch, but he's only just turned 19, so I think even a meteoric rise through the organization wouldn't see him in a Twins uniform until 2011.

#2 - Ben Revere - The Twins' first-round choice in 2007, Revere also had a stupendous 2008. He flirted with .400 for much of the season in Beloit before settling for .379/.433/.497 with a 27/31 BB/K ratio and 44/57 SB. As well as he's playing, the Twins don't seem to be in any hurry with him, so, like Hicks, I wouldn't expect to see him in MN for at least 3 more years.

#3 - Wilson Ramos - Joe Mauer's heir-apparent (unless they sign him to an extension right away), Ramos has been remarkably consistent through his first 3 professional seasons. In the Gulf Coast League, he hit .286/.339/.435, in Beloit he hit .291/.345/.438, and in Fort Myers he hit .288/.344/.434. He's got good pop and is an excellent defender. But, again, the Twins have been content to give him a full season at each level so far, meaning we can expect to see him in 2011.

#4 - Jose Mijares - An offseason auto accident broke Mijares' elbow, setting him back in 2008. He progressed through 4 levels as he regained his groove, including an impressive September call-up in which he allowed just 1 ER on 3 H in 10.1 IP. Overall for 2008 he had a 1.91 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 47 IP, with a 8.81 K/9. With Pat Neshek out and Dennys Reyes likely cut loose, Mijares would have to have a ghastly spring training to keep from making the team. If he's healthy, he should give the Twins 60-70 IP in 2009, and could be one of the keys to their season.

#5 - Danny Valencia - This is a pretty impressive place for a 19th-round pick to find himself. Valencia has earned his way up the prospect list by hitting .305/.361/.485 over 4 levels since he was drafted 2.5 years ago. His numbers took a hit when he was promoted to AA this summer - he hit .289/.334/.485 in 69 games in New Britain. He kept his slugging up with 10 HR, but his BB/K rate got way out of wack - before AA, it had been about 1/2, but it was about 1/4 in those 69 games. Not to worry. Valencia put up a similar .291/.332/.422 line with a 1/3 BB/K ratio in his first 61 games in Fort Myers, then blew up to .336/.402/.518 with about a 2/5 BB/K rate in his first 60 games there this year. That alone suggests to me that he will be spending at least the first 2 months of 2009 in New Britain.

#6 - Anthony Swarzak - He's landed somewhere in the #5-#7 range on this list for 5 straight years. Despite having his worst career ERA, WHIP, K/9 and HR/9 through 20 starts at New Britain, he was promoted to Rochester, where he allowed just 9 ER on 41 H over 45 IP in 7 starts (6.1 IP/start). His K/9 dropped even further, however, so he's got an adjustment to make. He made 40 starts at A+ and 34 at AA before advancing, so I'd be surprised if he turns up in a Twins uniform before September of next year.

#7 - Shooter Hunt - The 31st overall pick in this summer's draft (thanks to the departure of Torii Hunter - Hunt/Hunter!), Hunt demolished the competition in Rookie ball. In 19 IP, he allowed just 1 ER on 4 H and 6 BB with 34 K. After his promotion to Beloit he continued to put up nice numbers in most areas, averaging less than a hit and more than a strikeout per inning. But he screwed himself by walking 27 in 31.1 IP, resulting in an ugly 5.46 ERA. Control, you must learn control! He's at least 3 years off.

#8 - Kevin Mulvey - Good to see someone from the Santana trade on this list! Mulvey did OK at Rochester, but you'd like to see such a highly touted prospect put up better numbers, particularly considering the International League's tendency to favor pitchers. He had a slight increase in his walk rate over his 2007 at AA, but an alarming 4-fold increase in HR allowed in 2008. He's also got just 321 professional IP on his resume. Still, I suspect he'll get the first call if someone from the Twins' stretch-drive rotation gets hurt or falters next year.

#9 - Carlos Gutierrez - The Twins' 2nd first-round pick this summer (27th overall), Gutierrez already rates the organization's best fastball. At 25, he was quite old to be drafted, so the Twins dropped him straight into the Fort Myers bullpen. He pitched well in 16 appearances, allowing 6 ER on 23 H and 7 BB with 19 K in 25.2 IP. Now he's 26, so I'd bet that the Twins will continue to push him through the system. But even so, I doubt he'll be anything more than a September call-up in 2009.

#10 - Angel Morales - Like Adam Dunn with a better batting average, Morales had a monster year at Elizabethton, hitting .301/.413/.623 with 15 HR in just 54 games. But ugh, the strikeouts - 72 in just 183 ABs! That makes Carlos Gomez look like Paul Molitor. Morales just turned 19 last week, so, unlike Gutierrez, I predict that the Twins will take their sweet time with him and hope that he's ready to take on MLB pitching by 2012 or so.

Some promising players, but only Mijares is likely to have a significant impact in 2009.

Arizona Fall League

The AFL, unlike most of the Twins' minor leagues, greatly favors the hitters. Over its 38 game season, the average hitting line was .293/.369/.473, and the average pitcher put up a 5.79 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Bear that context in mind as we look at the performance of these prospects.

Rob Delaney - Even for a guy in some pitcher-friendly environments, Delaney's performance over the past 2 seasons has been stupendous. He began 2008 in Fort Myers, where he had a 1.42 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 31.2 IP, with a sensational 34/4 K/BB ratio. At midsummer he was promoted to New Britain and was even better, sporting a 1.05 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in 34.1 IP with a 38/7 K/BB rate. His AFL numbers weren't anywhere close to that (including the championship game 13 IP, 16 H, 6 BB, 11 K, 4.85 ERA, 1.69 WHIP), but were still a little better than league average. Also, Delaney improved as the season went on, allowing just 1 ER on 7 H and 1 BB with 7 K in 7.1 IP over his final 6 appearances, suggesting that he may have made a quick adjustment to the higher level of competition. Between that and his otherworldly performance at New Britain, I'd be surprised if Delaney doesn't start the season in Rochester next spring. He could be someone the Twins look to if the bullpen is struggling midseason.

Tim Lahey - Control has been Lahey's problem throughout his professional career, and this fall was no exception. Though he managed to avoid giving up many runs (3.97 ERA thanks in part to allowing 0 HR in 11.1 IP - a rarity in the AFL), he had a lousy 8/6 K/BB rate. While his AFL performance is encouraging enough to earn him a good look in spring training, there's nothing in his track record to suggest that he'll be able to beat out Boof Bonser or Philip Humber for a middle relief spot with the Twins in 2009 - most likely he'll repeat at Rochester.

Jeff Manship - The Twins should be pleased with Manship's progress since he was drafted in the 14th round in 2006. After a solid half-season in Fort Myers (13 GS, 78.2 IP, 2.86 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 63/20 K/BB and 0 HR allowed!), Manship was promoted to New Britain. There, in almost the same number of innings (76.2) he essentially maintained his K/BB ratio (62/24), but allowed 22 more H - including 8 HR. His AFL numbers indicate improvement over his AA performance: a better than average 5.01 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 32.1 IP and an excellent 29/8 K/BB ratio. Still, I'm guessing he'll begin 2009 back in New Britain, and won't have an impact with the Twins until 2010 at the earliest.

Anthony Slama - It's not clear why Delaney was promoted this summer while Slama remained in Fort Myers, when Slama's numbers were arguably even more fantastic: 71 IP, 43 H, 110/24 K/BB, 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 0 HR allowed(!). Considering he had never faced anything above A+ hitters, it's perhaps not surprising that his first 12 appearances against AA and AAA studs didn't go so well. His AFL line of 10 IP, 14 H, 9 ER, 7 BB and 10 K (though still 0 HR) shows that there's an adjustment he needs to make. He'll be 25 in January, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to get him moving through the system. He'll begin 2009 no lower than AA, and if he has another season like 2008, he'll likely get a call-up to the Twins in September.

Dustin Martin - Of the 6 players the Twins collected from the Mets' farm system in the Luis Castillo and Johan Santana trades, Martin had the strongest 2008. His .290/.355/.447 was well above average for the Eastern League - his only glaring negative was a high strikeout rate (125 in 510 AB). That trend continued in the AFL, where he hit .314/.397/.449, but struck out 37 times in 118 AB. He should wind up at Rochester next year, where he'll need to work on making contact a little more consistently. If he can do that, he might move ahead of Gomez on the depth chart before too long, and certainly will be considered should an OF go down during the season.

Steve Tolleson - He was overshadowed by the spectacular numbers Luke Hughes put up, but Tolleson also had a terrific offensive season for the Rock Cats. He hit .300/.382/.466 with a solid 44/74 BB/K ratio. He was even better in the AFL, batting .383/.449/.543 with a 11/16 BB/K rate. He will certainly join Hughes in the Redwings' IF to start 2009, and could be called up should the Twins need IF depth as the season moves along.

Danny Valencia - One of the few hitters who failed to take advantage of the happy offensive conditions in the AFL, Valencia hit just .209/.254/.270 with a 7/25 BB/K rate. Since that line is reminiscent of Nick Punto's 2007, needless to say, Valencia's AFL experience did nothing to accelerate his progress through the Twins' system. I'd guess he's still at least 2 years away from a shot with the Twins.

So, despite some exciting prospect news earlier in the week, the only help the Twins are likely to get from those guys next year is in the bullpen or as injury fill-ins. I'll look at some other prospects who might be a bit closer to having an impact in the coming days.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


For once, I was pretty pleased with the way the MLB awards were handed out this year. Normally, the writers make at least one terrible call based on won-lost record or RBIs or - even worse - team performance. They had a great opportunity to do that again with NL MVP, with Phillie Ryan Howard a mile ahead in HR and RBI, but wisely gave the award to Albert Pujols instead, despite his team failing to make the playoffs. Sure, Johan Santana once again missed out on the Cy Young due to poor run support, but Tim Lincecum was clearly the next best choice, finishing in the top 3 in the NL in IP, K, ERA and, yes, W.

The Twins didn't pick up any of the big awards after Joe Mauer's batting title. Mauer also took home a Gold Glove, and he and Justin Morneau were given Silver Sluggers for being the best hitters at their respective positions (a little strange, considering Kevin Youkilis topped Morneau in BA, OBP, SLG% and HR). Despite missing out on the hardware, the Twins did get some pretty serious respect from the voters.

Ron Gardenhire came in 2nd in the Manager of the Year voting, the 4th time he's been runner-up for the award. I'll be the first to admit that he is often very slow to make personnel changes, and he pretty consistently makes some bad picks out of spring training. But the fundamentals of the team are always pretty strong, and by July, he's usually got things figured out. The Twins seem to outperform the projections every year, and Gardy's leadership is most likely a factor. His career win percentage is now .549 (average season: 89-73). He has his shortcomings, but I'm still glad to have him around through at least 2011.

Morneau came in 2nd for AL MVP and Mauer was 4th. Each of them received more than one first-place vote. Morneau might have come even closer had he managed one more big hit over the season's final 2 weeks - that might have brought him the RBI title and brought his team to the postseason. For him to finish ahead of Youkilis shows tremendous respect from the national writers. The same goes for Mauer, who drew a lot more votes than you'd expect for a big #3 hitter who had just 9 HR and 85 RBi. Clearly, the Twins have 2 elite players in the heart of their lineup, and don't need too much more around them to be a perennial force in the division. (Also, this wouldn't be a bad time to start thinking about an extension for Mauer - don't want to end up in the same situation they were in with Santana last year.)

It was also nice to see a couple of Twins rookies get some votes in the ROY balloting. Denard Span drew 3 3rd-place votes even though he spent almost half the season in the minors. Had the Twins wisely chosen to give him the CF job out of spring training, his numbers might have been better than those of the 3rd-place finisher, Jacoby Ellsbury. And Nick Blackburn got 1 point. His season was bookended by 1-0 losses, and in between he got 5 no-decisions after handing a lead to the bullpen. How many more votes would he have earned with 15 or so wins to go along with his 4.05 ERA and 193.1 IP?

The Twins have some very exciting players on the roster, and most of them are just entering their prime. They're all under team control for at least the next two years. We have a lot to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Neshek


Pat Neshek's attempted recovery appears to be on the same trajectory as Francisco Liriano's in 2006 - meaning that we should get Neshek back in some pretty decent form by mid-2010. As important as Neshek was to the Twins' 2008 plans, he was just as important for 2009, and his absence changes the calculus for the Twins' offseason moves.

First of all, the Twins have lost all luxury they might have had in disposing of their present in-house options. I had been advocating that they make an effort to re-sign Dennys Reyes, but I think that's essential now. If Jose Mijares is going to be the primary 8th-inning setup man (and, after his splendid September, it's got to be his job to lose), and Craig Breslow is a 6th or 7th inning option, then the Twins will still need that matchup lefty to bring on in the middle of a dicey inning. Reyes has done the job against lefties for 3 seasons with the Twins, holding them to a .531 OPS, striking them out at a high rate and inducing a ton of grounders.

Say Nick Blackburn runs into trouble in the 6th inning, leaving the game with 2 on and only 1 out and the big lefty coming up. Reyes can come in and face him with a high probability of a strikeout or DP grounder. Jesse Crain could finish the inning against the subsequent right-hander, and you'd still have Breslow and Mijares available to pitch complete innings in front of Joe Nathan.

I'd been ambivalent about the Twins keeping Matt Guerrier around for next season. No longer. Though he melted down in the final 3rd of 2008, he was very effective for 3 and a half seasons before that. I don't doubt that he'll bounce back and pitch more like his old self in 2009, particularly if he's allowed to return to some lower-leverage situations. Boof Bonser should also be brought to spring training and given an opportunity to show that his strong finish to the season out of the bullpen was an indication of things to come.

The Twins should also be hesitant to trade away any of the AAA relievers who were performing well last season, including Bobby Korecky and Ricky Barrett. Those folks, along with Arizona Fall League participants Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama, should be invited to spring training and given the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Twins' 'pen.

There is ample payroll available for free agents, and so the Twins should look into some of the available right-handers. I would be interested in giving a shot to some of the veterans who are coming off recent injuries - guys like Brendan Donnelly, Keith Foulke or Jason Isringhausen. Each had tremendous stats prior to their DL troubles, and bring a wealth of experience working in high-leverage situations. One of them might be willing to join a contender for a low-base, high-incentive contract while he proves that he can still compete.

Finally, I think this takes any potential moves that would have involved a member of the rotation off the table. With question marks in the bullpen, the Twins cannot afford to put themselves in a situation where they might need to get more than 15 innings from their relievers every trip through the rotation. The 5 starters they have now are very likely to average more than 6 IP/start. The closer the starters can get to Joe Nathan, the better. Therefore, the Twins should only consider moving minor league pieces in a trade, which probably limits them to working with the very worst teams in the league. Otherwise, they should look to free agents to upgrade their roster.

Speaking of the worst teams in the league, it has been suggested that nobody from the Nationals would be untouchable. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman would be another guy to potentially target - his career numbers are about on par with the Buscher/Harris tandem, but he'd be a bit of an upgrade defensively.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fixing the Left

The left side of the Twins' infield, that is. Now that the World Series is over, the Hot Stove season is upon us. is running a series briefly assessing the needs of each MLB team for 2009. Jonah Keri had some decent insights about the Twins, such as this one:

"If not for an ill-advised bout of loyalty toward washed-up sunk cost Livan Hernandez, the Twins might've beaten out the White Sox for the AL Central crown and made some noise in the playoffs with their deep pitching and the deadly duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau."

Well put. And while I think he may be overstating the potential value of Kevin Mulvey and Anthony Swarzak for 2009, he is largely on the mark. He concludes his piece with this:

"If the Twins do little more than stand pat this offseason they should still be dangerous, especially if Cuddyer and Neshek bounce back from injuries and Young takes a step forward. Solid bullpen contributions from the next wave of pitching prospects combined with one well-placed trade for a shortstop or third baseman would make the Twins the favorites to win the division in 2009."

Correct. As I outlined last month, the Twins are in better shape than any of their rivals for 2009. If they merely show the fortitude to ask Carlos Gomez to work on his game in AAA, they can have a solid lineup even with their existing players, because the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon would be batting 8th, and Nick Punto or Matt Tolbert would be batting 9th. Do not go trading right-handed power bats (Michael Cuddyer) in order to acquire other right-handed power bats! And absolutely do not go trading any starting pitchers unless the return is unimpeachably awesome!

And when I say unimpeachably awesome, I mean drastically better than what we have now. Overall, Twins 3rd-basemen were most unimpressive in 2008, but Mike Lamb did a lot to drag the numbers down. Buscher's OPS ended up at .730, obviously subpar for a 3B, but bear some things in mind:

1. His R/L splits were severe - .455 OPS vs. LHP, .799 vs. RHP, including all 13 XBH.
2. He's been a slow starter at each level of the minors, improving his OPS each year once he had 250-300 ABs (he currently has 300 career MLB ABs).

Based on his past performances, I would say that Buscher is likely to do no worse than an .800 OPS vs. RHP (the only sort he should be facing) in 2009, and there's a very good chance that he could do much better.

Harris, for his part, amassed a .721 OPS in 2008, and had virtually identical numbers against RHP and LHP. Earlier in his career, though, he hit lefties much better (almost .900 OPS in 2007). For his career, he's hit .295/.360/.440 vs. LHP, an .800 OPS.

So, the Buscher/Harris platoon can be expected to OPS at least .800, which, were they one player, would put them solidly in the middle of the MLB pack among 3Bs. The downside is that neither one of them is a particularly strong fielder or baserunner.

Conversely, Nick Punto's OPS can be expected to land somewhere in the mid .600s (it was .664 over the past 3 seasons), but he is an above-average defender and baserunner. (Punto's value as a versatile defender, switch-hitter, and baserunner make him worth keeping in a bench role for the next couple of seasons. I would advocate the Twins signing him to a 2-year deal at $2.5-$3 million/year, but with incentives that would up his salary if he ended up starting. For example, add $1 million if he goes over 300 PAs, and another million if he goes over 500 PAs.)

When we think about potentially trading for people who could upgrade these positions, it would be a mistake to consider just the value of the incoming player compared to that of the outgoing player. Rather, we should look at how much of an improvement the new player is over the baseline - is what we're adding a net gain compared to what we're giving up?

Consider one of the current trade rumors: Michael Cuddyer and/or Kevin Slowey/Nick Blackburn for Garrett Atkins. Over the past 3 seasons, Atkins' OPS away from Coors Field is .790, and his defense is only a little better than that of Buscher/Harris. Cuddyer's career OPS is .785. While replacing Cuddyer in the outfield with Gomez would greatly improve the Twins defensively, it would be a net loss to the lineup, since Gomez is only a .650 OPS hitter right now. Replacing Blackburn or (gulp!) Slowey with Philip Humber would also likely diminish the rotation a bit, all so Atkins could play essentially just as well as what we've already got. No thanks.

Here are the career OPS numbers for the other available 3Bs (either free agents or available for trades), and a brief rating (+, - or =) on how their defense compares to Buscher/Harris:

Casey Blake: .781, =
Russell Branyan: .813, =
Joe Crede: .753, +
Mike Lamb: let's not go there
Doug Mientkiewicz: ditto
Ramon Vazquez: .686, =
Adrian Beltre: .786, +
Andy LaRoche: .560, +
Kevin Kouzmanoff: .753, =

As you can see, none of those guys has historically hit very much better than Buscher and Harris can expect to. A lot of them would hit more homers, but would be on base much less often overall. The few who play better defense are a bit of a step down at the plate. Blake, Beltre and Atkins mash lefties, but are average or worse against righties, the sort of pitchers a regular 3B will be facing most of the time. Crede's splits are opposite.

None of these guys bring enough to merit the sacrifice of any of the Twins' projected starters. Were I Bill Smith, I would only offer trade pieces I didn't think I could use, like Boof Bonser, Humber, Bobby Korecky, etc. A couple of teams might be deep enough into rebuilding that they'd be willing to take on some of the 2008 Rochester pitchers. The best trade would be with Pittsburgh for LaRoche. The Pirates need all kinds of pitching help - guys like Matt Guerrier and Humber should look pretty good to them. LaRoche was a top-50 prospect for 3 straight years before injuring his thumb in spring training. He went on to have a horrendous 2008 in the Majors, dropping his stock a great deal. He still has plenty of upside, and has shown a terrific eye at the plate at all levels. If he were to bounce back to the numbers he put up in the minors (career line: .295/.382/.517), the Twins would have a right-handed bat to stick between Mauer and Morneau for the next 5 seasons.

As for the free agents, Crede is the best choice. He's been hampered by injuries the last 2 seasons, and is therefore likely to take a 1-2 year deal for reasonable money in order to try and raise his value for his next contract while he's still in his low 30s. If he could repeat his 2006 numbers (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR), the Twins would have the bat they're looking for, while also improving themselves defensively. If he performs closer to his career average, they're still getting good pop from their #8 hitter. But I'd definitely keep Buscher around in case Crede gets hurt again.

There are a lot more options at shortstop. I'll repeat the exercise from above (in comparison to Punto's defense), and also rate how the available players compare to Punto's baserunning.

Orlando Cabrera: .721, -, -
Juan Castro: Yeah, right!
Alex Cintron: .713, -, -
Alex Cora: .660, =, -
Craig Counsell: .687, =, -
David Eckstein: .712, =, -
Adam Everett: Been there, done that
Rafael Furcal: .764, -, +
Chris Gomez: .685, =, -
Cesar Izturis: .629, =, =
Edgar Renteria: .753, -, -
Omar Vizquel: .693, +, =
Michael Young: .788, -, -
JJ Hardy: .775, -, -

Young and Hardy would certainly command at least Blackburn in a trade. Young's numbers have declined for 3 straight seasons - with his best years behind him, he wouldn't be worth it. Hardy, however, is just 26, and has averaged 30 doubles and 25 HR the past 2 seasons. Though he doesn't have Punto's range and isn't much of a threat on the bases, his hitting ability more than makes up for it. Having that much more production from shortstop for at least 2 seasons would be worth the potential dropoff in performance from Blackburn to Humber or Mulvey.

As for the free agents, Furcal would be the best all-around choice. Coming off of back surgery that cost him most of last season, he may not be in position to command the sort of years and dollars he otherwise would have and, like Crede, may take a shorter deal in order to up his value while he's still relatively young. Even so, he would probably get 8 figures, but the Twins have enough payroll space available in 2009 and 2010 to sign one splashy free agent.

The other intriguing option would be Vizquel. His bat has declined drastically over the last couple of seasons, but he's still a superlative fielder and savvy small-baller. He might be a good fielding influence on Alexi Casilla, and Gardy would love putting plays on while he's batting out of the #9 spot.

At this point, the only player I can see worth trading a projected starter for would be JJ Hardy. The Brewers are going to need some pitching, so it's a deal that could easily be worked out. But my ideal scenario would be for the Twins to sign Rafael Furcal to a reasonably short-term deal for $12-ish million/year while trading some of their spare pitching parts for Andy LaRoche. Those guys, at the top of their games, could eventually provide the Twins with this lineup:

1. Span
2. Furcal
3. Mauer
4. LaRoche
5. Morneau
6. Cuddyer
7. Kubel
8. Young
9. Casilla

Very good OBP 1-7, a nice mix of R/L, good speed as the lineup turns over. That lineup, combined with an intact pitching staff, would certainly compete for the top spot in the division. But even without big improvements on the left side of the infield, that pitching staff would probably take the Twins pretty far.

Once again, I urge Mr. Smith: don't repeat your mistakes from last year, weakening the team with trades and signings when what you already had in the system was actually better. Would it be nice to have more power from 3B and SS? Absolutely. Will it make this team a champion? Not if we rob Peter to pay Paul.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The More Things Change

In my 32 years on this earth, I haven't been witness to very much profound history. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signifying the end of the cold war, was probably the biggest deal of my life until last night. That wall had been in existence for 28 years, the German nation divided for 44. The wall that fell last night with the election of Barack Obama has been with us ever since the first slave arrived on this continent nearly 400 years ago - our nation has been divided since its inception.

As a middle class kid from lily-white Stillwater, MN, I can't pretend to know the depth of affirmation that was felt by the black community last night. I have never known what it's like to feel as though the ideals and opportunities of our wonderful country didn't really apply to people like me. But it was evident on the many faces throughout the country, jubilant and tearful, that America had renewed itself in millions of hearts and minds. I had supported Obama because I believed he could be the thoughtful, pragmatic, concensus-building leader our nation has been hungering for, and because the Republican party that opposed him pandered to the worst aspects of our nature in trying to defeat him. I really hadn't considered until a few days ago just how much Obama's election would mean to the growing minority population. Good for them.

(But if you think America has turned a corner into an era of equality for all, I would point you to the results of the ballot initiatives in CA. There, in one of the 3 most progressive states in the union, voters showed more compassion for factory-farm chickens than for gays and lesbians. It's absurd that a state constitution can be changed by a simple majority of the voting public, but the sales tax cannot be increased without 2/3 of the vote. This structural problem is one of the many reasons that California is a mess right now.)

The voters delivered a mandate last night, but it wasn't for Obama, though his 52.4% of the popular vote was the highest total for a Democrat since the year I was born. And it wasn't for the Democratic party, whose net of 19 House seats and 5 Senate seats so far is actually lower than a lot of people predicted. The mandate was for change - change of legislative and regulatory priorities, and change of tone in Washington.

Many of John McCain's supporters were voting for change as well, hoping that his history of bipartisanship and independence from his party would lead to better things from the government. His exceptionally gracious concession speech was evidence that he had understood the message from the electorate. Now that the campaign is over, I hope he will return to the senate as the maverick he has historically been, putting his country ahead of his party and working with the new administration to solve the considerable problems that face us.

Obama's acceptance speech indicated that he understood the directive from the voters as well. He was humble and generous in reaching out to those who did not vote for him, suggesting that he has no intention of pushing around the diminished Republican caucuses. If he is to succeed as a President, he needs to govern in such a way that at least the moderates on the other side can get on board with his policies.

To that end, here are a few things I'd love to see happen between now and the end of January:

Build a Team of Rivals

Obama's transition is already off to a better start than Bill Clinton's, with a team in place and an offer out to Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff. Emanuel is a fairly moderate democrat, having riled liberals with his stances on welfare reform and free trade, so his selection tells us that Obama is aiming for the center.

He can prove it even more strongly to the rest of the country by emulating the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln. That group had representatives from both parties, in an effort to hold together the remaining constituencies of a disintegrating union. They had their own agendas, but Lincoln deftly placated each faction while convincing them to support his policies. Whether Obama has the same political skill remains to be seen, but he would do well to start off with at least a couple of moderate Republicans in his administration.

Many have speculated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be invited to stay on in his post when Obama takes the reigns. Another obvious choice would be Colin Powell, whose endorsement of Obama a couple of weeks ago was influential in lending credibility to the candidate. Powell could resume his work in the State Department, which he left in frustration in 2005, or perhaps be a national security adviser. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel are Republican senators with great expertise - Obama might tap them as well.

Be a Check on the Congress

One of the many failures of the Bush administration was its unflagging complicity with the Republican Congress. Bush didn't veto a single measure until the Democrats took over in 2007 - 6 years into his Presidency. That's not the relationship between the branches of government that the Founders envisioned.

The Republicans made it an issue down the stretch that the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid congress would run wild with liberal legislation with a Democrat in the White House. Obama can soothe the fears of nervous conservatives by vetoing bills that do not pay for themselves or fit with the focus of his agenda. And, while we're on the subject...

Shake Up the Congressional Leadership

Why should Pelosi and Reid automatically get to retain their positions? There have been enough moderate Democrats elected in formerly Republican districts over the past couple of cycles to seriously pull the aggregate balance of the caucus toward the center. Pelosi is from one of the most liberal districts in the nation - she is absolutely justified in offering liberal policies that represent her constituency. But does she represent the Congressional Democrats as a whole? Why should she be the one who sets the priorities?

Reid has been at times obnoxiously combative with the Republicans. Will he be able to set the conciliatory tone the Democrats need if they are to deal with monumental issues troubling the country? Does he have the temperament to reach across the aisle and quickly move important legislation?

Remember, Congress' approval ratings are very near those of President Bush - abysmal. Reid and Pelosi had 2 years to show that they were going to change the way things worked on Capitol Hill, and I don't see that they were able to. I'd love to see each of them at least challenged when the new caucuses convene in January. Even if they are ultimately reconfirmed, it would at least show everyone that the Democrats are serious about trying to govern for the center.

Reconcile with Lieberman

With the filibuster-proof 60-seat majority likely out of reach for this session, Senate Democrats may be tempted to punish Joe Lieberman for his active support of McCain - especially his prominent speech at the Convention in Saint Paul. But, even though they don't really need his help in the caucus, it would send a positive signal to everyone if they kept him in. It would show that they don't intend to be punitive, that they want to work with McCain supporters.

The next few months will be a time of important choices for the new Democratic regime. If they don't take seriously the voters' demand for change in Washington, they'll find out in 2010 and 2012 just how quickly the voters can change their minds.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Congratulations to Phillies on last night's 3-2 win. It's good to see they still remember how to play baseball after their week off.

Baseball's asinine postseason schedule was introduced last year on the theory that the World Series would get better ratings if it started in the middle of the week. Does that really help? The last 4 Series haven't been particularly scintillating - the Champs lost a grand total of 1 game - and I'm not sure what kind of ratings they're going to get with a Tampa/Philly series under any circumstances. The minimal gains the broadcasters may or may not achieve are absolutely not worth the distortion of the competition that occurs under this format.

MLB has accommodated the later World Series start by stretching the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. Instead of one day off before the first Divisional Series begin, now there are 2 - and the competitors of the White Sox/Rays series had 3. There was an extra off-day added between games 4 and 5 (not needed this year - meaning each LCS competitor had 3 days off before that series). There is now - and this is the killer - an off-day between games 4 and 5 of the LCS even though there is no travel. And there is an extra off-day between game 7 of the LCS and the start of the World Series.

These 4 extra off-days in the early rounds of the playoffs are heinous for a number of reasons, the least of which is probably the deteriorating fall weather in the northern cities. With start times set for after 8pm Eastern time, the games are certain to last until after 11pm, getting into what can be some awfully frigid low temperatures. As we've seen the past couple of Aprils, baseball is harder to play in the cold - pitcher's have a harder time gripping the ball, hitters can have some painful swings. The closer we get to November, the more likely we are to face these adverse conditions. Are those conditions what we want to see the most important games of the year played in?

More crucially, the extended schedule interferes with the balance of the teams established over the course of the regular season. This doesn't happen in the other major sports. In the NFL, there is one game per week, and also one playoff game per week (with the frequent exception of the extra week to hype the Super Bowl). In the NBA and NHL, teams typically play about 3 games per week, and also play about 3 games per week in the playoffs. In MLB, there is a game almost every day - the All-Star break is the only time in 6 months teams will get consecutive days off - and yet the playoffs under the current format are riddled with off-days.

The cool thing about baseball is that there is nowhere to hide over the course of a 6-7 game/week for 6 months schedule. In the other sports, because of the frequent off-days, you can play your best guys every night. But in baseball, if you only have 3 good starting pitchers, you're going to have to run your 2 weak ones out there every 5th day and take your lumps. If you have 3 reliable relievers, your going to have to rest them every couple of days and cross your fingers with your lesser pitchers. Your starting catcher is going to need to rest at least one game a week. And so on. The teams with the best top-to-bottom talent will rise to the top of the standings because they can still put a strong team on the field even when they're resting their studs. (Imagine what the NFL would be like if teams had to start their 3rd-string QB every third game!) Also, there are very few 2-game series during the regular season, and no 1-gamers (unless you need a tiebreaker - sigh).

The extended schedule totally disrupts this reality. The extra off-day enables the Game 2 starter to pitch Game 5 on full rest. A 3-man rotation could pitch all 7 games of a series and only have to work on short rest once (Game 1 to Game 4). The best relievers could pitch an inning in every game and never exceed their normal regular season workload. The starting catcher can play in every game. With at least one fewer pitcher required, a team could add an extra bench player or two - speed or matchup enhancements they would have loved to have during the regular season, but couldn't afford. In short, a playoff team under this format could be a different team than the one that slogged through the regular season.

I would prefer to see the rhythm of the playoffs more closely resemble that of the regular season. If it's so important to the broadcasters to begin the World Series on a Wednesday, here's what I'd propose:

One league's Divisional Series begin on Tuesday after the season, the other's on Wednesday. They should play for 5 consecutive days - 2 in one city, 3 in the other. It would be up to the higher seeded team to decide whether they'd like to begin the series with 3 games at home or finish with 3 home games. I suspect most would opt for the latter, figuring they could split on the road and then force their opponent to close it out in hostile territory - though they may decide that the pitchers they have lined up to start the series do better at home - or whatever. The series conclude on Saturday and Sunday.

It's now the 2nd week of October. One LCS begins on Monday, the other on Tuesday. They play for 7 consecutive days, 3 in one city, 4 in the other. Again, the higher seed gets to choose the order. These series conclude on Sunday and Monday. After a travel day for the later finisher, we're ready to begin the World Series on Wednesday - but of the 3rd week of October instead of the 4th.

If the early rounds go the distance, you're looking at 12 games in 13 days, just like the regular season. If teams decide to hide their #5 starters or ride their best bullpen arms, they're risking some serious fatigue. That gives the advantage to the teams that have the confidence to use everybody on the roster - just like they did all summer long when they were winning enough games to make it to October in the first place.