Friday, February 29, 2008

Mayor's Cup Round 1

I'm watching the Twins/Red Sox game on MLB.TV tonight. Awesome that let's you stream games - the NFL needs to do this! It's not quite working properly on my iBook (a little bit balky video), but at least I can see most of what's going on. I was particularly interested to see how some of the new Twins competing for spots look, and how some of the guys whose spots are secure would approach the game.

Span - made all the plays in CF, and had 2 good ABs: a solid, opposite-field single and a 6-pitch groundout. Laid off every ball.
Kubel - saw three pitches and made 2 outs. Not so good.
Cuddyer - saw 5 pitches and made 3 outs. Even less good.
Morneau - 1 for 2 with a nice, 2-strike, opposite-field single.
Young - 1 for 2 with a GIDP. Actually took the first pitch in both ABs!
Redmond - hard-hit GIDP, plus another groundout.
Buscher - nice 6-pitch AB that ended with a K on a high fastball. Really turned on an inside fastball in the 6th for a long HR. Made the plays at 3B.
Punto - saw 13 pitches in his 2 ABs. Flew deep into the LF corner, then beat out a grounder for an error - and didn't dive head-first into 1B! Also made a nice play up the middle for an out in the 1st.
Everett - didn't make much of an impression.
Gomez - nice job gunning out Pedroia at the plate, though Thurston was able to take 2nd on the throw. Had no chance to get the runner at the plate in the 6th, and again missed the cut and allowed Crisp to take 2nd. Saw 7 pitches and made 2 outs (would have been 3, but he is fast).
Pridie - flied to LF, then looked bad while striking out on 3 pitches in the 9th.
Jones - looked pretty bad in striking out with a runner on, then jammed himself and destroyed his bat on a foul pop in the 9th.

As for the pitchers:
Bonser - nice job. Very efficient.
Slowey - I thought he was on his way to a great night when he blew away Ortiz and Ramirez. He was one strike away, then missed his location to Lowell for a single. After a long battle with Youkilis, he opted to throw an off-speed pitch (where the fastballs had gotten the other guys), and Youk tagged it for a 2-run HR. After that, Slowey lost his aggressiveness in the zone, and fell behind the next 3 guys, giving up a 3-1 HR to Varitek, and walking the next 2 batters before being pulled in the middle of the inning. Pretty good stuff, but didn't handle adversity very well.
Bass - fell behind 5 of the 6 batters he faced, and the one he was ahead of lined a 2-strike single. Blecch.
Nathan - not very good command (1R on 2H and 1BB), but still struck out the side.
Humber - gave up an infield hit, but then got the DP grounder and struck out the last guy. Nice job.
Day - fell behind 4 of the 5 batters he faced (2BBs), but worked out of it (including 2Ks).
Gomez - quickly got the first 2 batters, then fell behind the next 3, yielding a walk, a single, and a 3-0, 3-run HR. Particularly disappointing considering that most of the damage was done to the lefty by lefties. Blecch.

Final score: Red Sox 8, Twins 3.

Not a very good game, all in all. I'd say the Twins looked like a team that's only been playing together for a week.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fantasy Life

My buddy Kenneth (as crazy about the Cardinals as I am about the Twins) decided to start up a fantasy league for this season. He's set up an 8-team league on Yahoo with weekly head-to-head scoring. He didn't want to use the default fantasy categories, because he's enlightened enough to see the distortions inherent in some of those stats (like Wins and BA). He also wanted to rate players on their defense, in the hopes of creating value for some of the less impressive offensive players. But, since some of the members of the league are less stat-obsessed than others, he tried to keep things pretty basic. The categories he chose for our league are:

Position players: OBP, SLG%, HR, RBI, E

Pitchers: IP, ERA, WHIP, Ks, Saves

I've spent far too much time already contemplating which players I could draft to kick ass according to that scoring system. It's already been a lot of fun, and the draft isn't until next Sunday. The default draft rankings don't really apply, because they're based on the usual categories. I feel a little like Billy Beane in Moneyball: I'm looking for players with qualities that are undervalued by the rest of the guys in the league. I've got a good draft strategy put together - I'll discuss it next week (don't want to tip off the competition!).

While ranking the players myself, I realized that Kenneth probably didn't quite pick the categories as well as he'd hoped. For example, most of the guys who hit a lot of homers have a high slugging percentage and a lot of RBIs, and they get walked a lot. So he's created a system which favors middle-of-the-order boppers far more than speedy defenders. There are a huge number of stat categories that Yahoo will compile (though not the newer SABR things like Zone Rating). The process got me thinking about which 5 stats would favor the widest variety of baseball talents. We always hear about the 5 tools of baseball: hitting, power, speed, glove-work, and throwing arm. What would be the best way to set up a fantasy league around those tools? What 5 stats would include the widest variety of excellent pitchers?

For the first two, I think Kenneth hit the mark.

OBP is the best available measure of hitting ability. It favors players who not only hit for a high average (basically a measure of a batter's knack for hitting the ball hard enough for the fielders not to have time to make an out), but who draw a lot of walks (a measure of pitch recognition, plate discipline and, often, the ability to foul off tough pitches). While sluggers like David Ortiz led the majors in OBP last season, little guys like Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits were in the top 25, so it's a stat in which players of all sizes can excel.

Slugging percentage is the best available measure of power. Home runs could do this as well, but guys who hit a lot of home runs will also have high SLG%. Slugging values not just HRs, but also extra-base hits and BA at the same time. So a .264 hitter who smacks 40 HRs (Adam Dunn) can be out-slugged by a .322 hitter with only about half as many HRs (Chase Utley). Speedsters who can leg out triples can also score well in this category (Curtis Granderson finished just behind Dunn). SLG% works for more than just the big guys.

There doesn't seem to be an ideal category for speed - nobody's come up with a single stat that measures the ability to steal bases, cover ground in the field, score from first on a double, and beat out infield hits. Of the situations I just listed, infield hits would probably be the most telling over the course of a season, but since Yahoo doesn't compile those, I have to go with steals. SB% isn't as good a choice, because some players amass a good percentage by being sneaky, not fast. I think we can assume that, over the course of a season, fast players are going to attempt a lot of steals, and so will accumulate a lot of SBs. If their percentage is low, they just won't accumulate as many as they might have - buyer beware.

For glovework, I think fielding percentage would work better than errors. As I suggested earlier, I think Zone Rating would be best, but we're making due with what we've got. While fielding percentage is ignorant of a player's range (and dependent upon the good judgment of official scorers), it does, over the course of a season, generally reflect how likely a player is to field the ball cleanly and make a good throw. The players whose exceptional range puts them in position to suffer more errors will hopefully make up that value with their many stolen bases.

And for measuring arms, I choose Assists. This will do a good job of rewarding outfielders with strong, accurate arms, and catchers who throw out base stealers and field their position well. It may also make up for some of the troubles with fielding percentage by rewarding infielders who can get to more balls in the hole: more opportunities for errors, but also more assists.

For pitchers, I'd like to isolate their ability from factors like defense and ballpark as much as Yahoo's available stats will allow, while making middle-relievers as desirable as starters and closers. So my 5 scoring stats for pitchers would be:

IP: Indicates that a pitcher is durable and has the confidence of the manager.
Ks: A measure of the pitcher's stuff
BBs: A measure of the pitcher's control
HRs: Gotta keep it in the yard or you're in trouble!
ERA: The old standby. It's influenced by home park and quality of defense (and official scorer). But, over the course of a season, it's the best available stat for indicating how likely a pitcher is to keep their team in the game. Every pitcher is going to find himself in a jam; the good ones can get themselves out with little or no damage (one of the many reasons why Santana is making $20+ million/year and Kyle Lohse is currently unemployed).

By keeping saves out of it, teams in my fantasy league would have more incentive to draft Rafael Betancourt than Joe Borowski. As it should be.

Of course, it's easy for me to critique the league from where I'm sitting (the courch). Maybe I'll have to be the one to set it up next year.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oscar Joy

I've always loved movies. I've been wanting to work on them since I was little. I've had an opportunity to do that to a small degree since I've been living in LA. The Oscars have always been a fun night for me, not just because they celebrate some of the best films of the past year, but also because they give me an opportunity to put my prognosticating skills to the test.

I've been making Oscar picks since the mid-1990's, and I usually do pretty well (65%+). Last year, for the first time since 1997, I won my Oscar pool with 17 correct picks out of 24 (71%). This year, since it was so difficult to see them, I didn't make any picks in the short film categories, or in Foreign Language film. I went 13/20 in the categories I did call, right at my typical 65%. Though I am a trained film composer, I extended my streak of failing to correctly call the Original Score category to 6 years.

I was very pleased to see the Academy recognize the superior technical work done on the Bourne Ultimatum. I think those movies have reinvented the action genre, making it much more immediate and cerebral than other recent films. That innovation came across in the editing and, particularly, sound work on the films. Think of how many gunshots we've heard in movies; somehow, Bourne made that sound harsher and more visceral than anything I'd heard before. It was like hearing that sound for the first time again. Brilliant.

I was watching the awards with my wife and our friends, K&K, and we all jumped for joy when "Falling Slowly" from Once won for Original Song. After years of rewarding slickly produced, cheesy pop ballads that didn't appear in the movie until the end credits, I think the Academy has been getting this award right for the most part recently. "Lose Yourself" and "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" showed that the voters could look beyond genre to find the song that meant the most to the film that featured it, which, to me, is the spirit of the award. All of the nominees this year embodied that spirit (but where was the pie song from "Waitress"?), but Once was the film that depended the most upon music for its success. The earnestness with which the actors performed the songs made a very low-rent indie into something extraordinary. Inspiring for those of us who aspire to make films without having a lot of money with which to do it!

Favorite moment in the telecast likely thought up by a writer: Oscar's Tribute to Binoculars and Periscopes.

Favorite moment in the telecast likely not thought up by a writer: Bringing Marketa Irglova back out on stage to give her acceptance speech.

Quick Twins note: It's heartening to hear that Gardy is leaning toward having Mauer batting 2nd, and that he thinks he'll start with Young batting after Morneau. My lineup looks pretty good so far! Good reports on Jesse Crain's progress - hopefully Liriano will look as good when he shows up tomorrow.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


While perusing the odds and ends on Aaron Gleeman's blog today, I came upon this comment:

"Keeping Nathan in Minnesota is a luxury that the Twins can't afford if it requires something like $50 million over four seasons, and they'd be better off cashing him in for prospects at the trading deadline or taking compensatory draft picks when he walks as a free agent."

Aaron is not the first person to say something like this during the off-season, but it's beginning to grate on me a bit. I will admit that:

1. Paying a relief pitcher $12 million/year is a luxury, and that
2. It is risky to give Nathan a contract that would pay him 8 figures until he's 37, and even that
3. The Twins have in-house candidates (such as Neshek) who could fill the closer role for much less.

I considered all of these things back in the fall, and concluded that this summer would be the perfect time to trade Nathan (or that it would be fine to let him walk during the off-season), provided that:

The Twins would find a way to keep Hunter or Santana.

Those two are all-stars, fan favorites, and, had they remained in MN for another 4-5 seasons, would have been locks to have their numbers retired. Knowing that Santana had trade value, my preference back in October was to have the Twins re-sign Hunter. When the Angels signed him on Thanksgiving, my thoughts were:

"Rats. Wow, that's way too much money. I guess we have to give Santana an extension now."

The Twins said they were going to spend between $77-$80 million on payroll this season, and when Hunter moved on, that suddenly became difficult to do. Trading Santana on top of that makes it all but impossible to reach the available payroll. This fact is a problem for the franchise, because:

1. While they say they couldn't afford to pay Santana and Hunter what they were asking, the money they're leaving unspent says otherwise, and
2. The ownership already has a reputation for being miserly, and
3. The taxpayers of MN are providing considerable money to a new stadium, which is supposed to make it possible to keep star players in town, and
4. All-Star players are the main reason attendance has been dramatically improving in recent seasons.

Not everyone believes #4, but they should. Despite earning 3 straight division titles in 2002-2004, the Twins weren't able to crack the 2 million mark in attendance until 2005 (when they were barely over .500). Why? One of their players won the Cy Young in 2004. The Twins drew more fans in 2007 (with a losing record) than in 2006. Why? They had the reigning Cy Young, MVP, and Batting Champ. It wasn't just because they won 96 games in a storybook season. In 2002, they won 94 games the year after surviving the threatened contraction (just as good a story). But only 20,000 more fans showed up the following season because, well, who were those guys?

Look at Oakland: they had 8 straight seasons with at least 87 wins, and made 5 post-season appearances, yet their attendance has been in decline over the past 5 seasons. Why? Because they've lost their MVPs and Cy Youngs to trades and free agency, and the fans won't pay to see an anonymous team, even if they win. Fans take pride in their team - it makes them feel special to have one of their own earning League honors. The Twins now run the risk of falling into decline as Oakland has, and that would make it even more difficult for them to retain the talent that remains on the team.

The Twins made an important symbolic move by signing Cuddyer and Morneau to long-term deals just before TwinsFest. Though those guys are, for their careers so far, only slightly above average for their positions, the fans know them, and believe in their abilities, and it's comforting to know that they'll be around for the next 3 or more seasons given all the other changes we've seen this off-season. Mauer belongs in that core group as well, and he is also securely locked up through 2010. The only other proven all-star remaining on the team is Joe Nathan.

If you look at some Fantasy Baseball Rankings, you'll find that Nathan is considered one of the elite performers at his position in the game right now. Twins fans know how good he is. They will be demoralized if yet another of the star players they take pride in is given up as unaffordable, even though there appears to be ample money available to pay him his market value.

The Twins should always attempt to put the best possible product on the field that their resources will allow. That means building a winner. But it's just as important to keep as many of their home-grown stars around as can fit into the payroll. And, now that Santana, and Hunter are off the books, Joe Nathan can fit into the payroll for the next few years.

Jim Crikket followed up one of my comments to Gleeman with this:

"A little creative contract work is what's called for. There's room in the payroll budget this year so a nice immediate bonus with more moderate annual salaries over the next 3-4 years would seem to make sense."
(Who is Jim Crikket? Every comment I've seen from him is concise and insightful. Where's his blog?)

That's exactly what they should try to do. Match the Cordero contract (4 years, $46 million) by offering Nathan a 3 year, $40 million extension, structured at $12 million/year + a $4 million signing bonus.

I have a spreadsheet on my laptop that totals the Twins' payroll commitments over the coming seasons, and I plugged Nathan in at $12 million per season through 2011. Assuming the Twins stick with the talent already in the organization, I've got the 2010 payroll at about $75 million. That's less than they said they could afford this season in the year the new stadium opens. My 2011 payroll is a little under $100 million (which will probably be more or less league average by then), and that's anticipating 8-figure salaries for Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, and Liriano. I don't feel at this moment that it would be necessary to pick up Cuddyer's option for that season if there were more pressing payroll considerations. Who knows if Kubel will perform consistently enough to be worth it? Who knows if Liriano will prove durable enough to be worth it? But even if they're all worth it, it looks to me like the Twins could afford them, and Nathan too.

Let's look at it another way: what's a reasonable proportion of available payroll budget to spend on the pitching staff? 50%? I'll be conservative and say 40%. With Livan Hernandez, Juan Rincon, and Dennys Reyes all likely ending their time with the Twins after 2008, and a multitude of outstanding pitching rising throughout the minor-league system, the Twins project to have 50-75% of their rotation in serfdom or early arbitration for the next 4 seasons. Including $12 million/year for Joe Nathan, the total cost of the pitching staff should add up to no more than:

2008: $27 million
2009: $21 million
2010: $25 million
2011: $38 million

This assumes that average pitchers (like Silva and Lohse) will be dropped for a younger model before they become too pricey. Now here's the percentage of available payroll those totals represent:

2008: 35%
2009: 25%
2010: 28%
2011: 38%

This assumes that payroll will continue to increase by $6 million each season, a little less than the average amount the Twins payroll has increased over the last several seasons.

We just gave Joe Nathan $12 million/year for 4 years, and there's still going to be well over 60% of the budget available for the 13-14 position players on the team.

So, somebody explain to me, please, why is signing him not a luxury the Twins can afford?

Friday, February 15, 2008

2008 Twins Pre-Pre-Season: Waiting in the 'Wings

While I've been constructing the Twins' 25-man roster based on the players headed to spring training next week, I've had to leave a few notable names behind. Here a few of the guys who should start the season in Rochester, but could make some contribution to the Twins before the end of the season.

CF - Carlos Gomez
Arguably the most promising Mets prospect to come over in the Santana trade, Gomez was pushed very quickly through the Minors before making his MLB debut last summer. He lost a couple of months to a broken hammet bone in his left hand. That shortened season leaves him with only about 300 career plate appearances above AA. He got off to a nice start in 2007 at AAA New Orleans, batting .286/.363/.414 in 36 games. I'd like to see if he can build on that for the first 2-3 months of 2008 at Rochester. This has the added benefit of holding down his MLB service time, ensuring that he won't be eligible for Super-Two arbitration in 2010. When he does get the call, he'll immediately upgrade the Twins' center field defense from the projected Pridie/Monroe platoon, and he'll be a huge threat on the bases. If he's matured enough as a hitter by then, he has the potential to be an upgrade at the plate as well.
Predicted arrival date: July

OF - Denard Span
This year is likely Span's last shot to prove that he can be a part of the Twins' future. Because Gomez immediately leapt to the top of the prospect list, he's the long-term solution in CF. His development doesn't need to be rushed or disrupted this year. If one of the Twins' outfielders goes down early in the year, it should be Span who gets the first call-up. He'll be able to get his feet wet as a bench player, and will be especially useful for his defensive abilities. He needs to improve his stolen-base efficiency this season to be a complete threat as a baserunner, but he runs the bases well enough to be a solid pinch-runner as well.
Predicted arrival date: when Cuddyer, Young, Kubel, Pridie, or Monroe gets hurt.

IF - Alexi Casilla
Until 2007, Casilla had been a steady performer throughout his short professional career. He walks nearly as often as he strikes out, has a high minor-league OBP of .370, succeeds in over 75% of his stolen base attempts, and plays good defense up the middle. So his struggles with the Twins last season were a bit surprising, and he seemed to carry them back to Rochester with him. He made a ton of mistakes in every facet of the game. Basically, he showed that he hadn't reached a maturity level that would enable him to thrive in the majors yet. The signing of Adam Everett allows the Twins to give Casilla as much time in 2008 as he needs to fine-tune his game at AAA. Hopefully, he'll be more confident and reliable when he makes his next appearance.
Predicted arrival date: when Harris, Everett, or Punto gets hurt, or late summer.

3B - Brian Buscher
Buscher hadn't had a particularly note-worthy career before the Twins took him from the Giants in the minor-league Rule 5 draft last season. He'd shown a pretty good eye at the plate, but his power hadn't been anything special for a corner infielder. At 26, he was starting to be a little old for a prospect. But he absolutely exploded in 2007, shattering his career highs for average, slugging, and OPS. He went from AA to the majors while earning the organization's Minor-League Player-of-the-Year award. But the Twins signed Mike Lamb anyway. If Buscher can maintain his offensive production while improving his defense, he has a chance to displace Lamb at some point. In any event, we can expect to see him when corner infield depth is needed.
Predicted arrival date: when Lamb gets hurt.

1B - Brock Peterson
Peterson has been making a deliberate, steady climb through the Twins' system. After posting disappointing batting averages in 2004 and 2005 at class A, he remained in Fort Myers for 2006. His numbers improved tremendously, and he was able to mirror that success in New Britain last year. He's earned a trip to AAA, and if he can maintain those numbers at that level, he will have to be on the Twins' radar as a bench/DH candidate for 2009 and beyond. This year, he has a chance to see some time if the Twins expand their bench and want a left-handed slugger, or, heaven forbid, something happens to Morneau.
Predicted arrival date: September (or when Morneau gets hurt).

LHP - Brian Duensing
Duensing has flown through the system since being drafted in 2005. He posted a sensational 38/7 K/BB ratio and 1.07 WHIP in 9 starts at New Britain last year, earning a call-up to Rochester in June. In 19 starts he went 11-5 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of nearly 3/1. If his first 9 starts at Rochester this year mirror the start to his 2007, he'll be an excellent candidate to take a spot in the Twins' rotation should anyone falter.
Predicted arrival date: June

RHP - Philip Humber
Another component of the Santana trade, Humber was the 3rd overall pick in 2004 after dominating for Rice in the College World Series. He managed just 15 starts between A+ and AA in 2005 before needing Tommy John surgery. He returned for 13 starts in late 2006 and looked terrific, putting up ERAs in the mid 2.00s with a WHIP under 1.00 and about a K/IP at those same levels. His 2007 numbers in the PCL don't seem terribly impressive on the surface, but that league tends to be unfriendly to pitchers, and Humber's 1.24 WHIP actually lead the league. Mets Geek gave a nicely detailed analysis of Humber's career so far last fall. As good as he looks overall, he still had some endurance issues last year, and has thrown just 184.1 innings above Class A. I'd like to see what he can do in the more pitcher-friendly International League, especially now that he's more than 2 full years beyond his surgery. While he's by no means a lock, his progress so far suggests that he could be ready to join the rotation by early summer. Or, as Nick and Nick suggest, he could be an effective weapon in the bullpen as well.
Predicted arrival date: June

RHP - Nick Blackburn
Like Buscher, Blackburn's numbers in 2007 far exceeded his career averages. He'd had a pattern of struggling initially at each level, and needing an extra half year or so there before moving up. The additional time resulted in a substantial improvement in WHIP and ERA, showing that he needs time to figure out how to adapt to the improved competition at each stage of his development. That all changed at Rochester last summer, thanks mostly to a remarkable string of 41.1 consecutive scoreless innings. He had a similar episode during his first, 7-start stint at AA in 2005, but wasn't able to sustain that success into 2006. While it's possible that something clicked with him in 2007, I think he was just hot last summer, and that he's not as MLB ready as some people believe. If he does keep it rolling, however, it will be hard to keep him in Rochester for long.
Projected arrival date: late summer.

LHP - Carmen Cali
Cali was terrific at Rochester last season, posting a 2.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP while allowing just one homer in 47.1 innings. He was OK in his time with the Twins (for a rookie). The biggest difference was control: 2.46 BB/9 at Rochester vs. 6.86 in Minnesota. He's never had great control, and, at 29, may be too old to learn it. However, with Dennys Reyes an uncertain commodity, and Jose Mijares out until at least mid-summer with a broken elbow, Cali may prove to be the best option out of the Twins' pen when they want a lefty-lefty matchup. And, as questionable as Cali's resume may be, that is a situation which certainly puts him in a position to succeed. If he'll just throw stirkes.
Predicted arrival date: when Reyes is injured/ineffective.

RHP - Julio DePaula
DePaula also had a terrific season at Rochester - how remarkable (though not relevant) that he went 12-5 as a reliever! His K/9 was up, while his BB/9 was down, resulting in a 1.11 WHIP. He got lit up pretty badly in 20 innings with the Twins, and with the bullpen set up pretty much like it was in late 2006, I don't think he'll get to move up right away. But, at this point, he should get consideration should anyone get injured or prove ineffective. One major concern - his HR rate went through the roof last year. He gave up as many homers (8) in 2007 as he had in his first 5 pro seasons combined. Hopefully, that was just a fluke, but it's a number I'll be paying close attention to this year.
Projected arrival date: when somebody in the bullpen gets hurt.

So those are the guys I expect to see with the Twins before September. Understanding more about the tendencies of the PCL vs. the IL, I feel a little better about Span and a lot better about Humber. Hopefully, by mid-season, half of the talent acquired in the Santana trade will be on display for Twins fans, and we can start to feel like the deal wasn't as lop-sided as initially thought.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2008 Twins Pre-Pre-Season: Bench

Time for part 4 of my mini-series on the best team the Twins can field at this point. On to the bench...

Catcher - Mike Redmond
Between Redmond and Mauer, the Twins have had the best catching tandem in the majors over the past 3 seasons. How many teams can put in their backup and have him produce a .352 OBP, throw out a strong percentage of baserunners, and call a good game? He's getting on in years, so I'm not sure how much longer he can keep it up, but hopefully Mauer will stay healthy and give Redmond plenty of time to rest between his starts.

Outfielder - Craig Monroe
I mentioned him on Monday as a CF platoon-member. He's played all 3 outfield positions throughout his career, so he's an option to give Cuddyer or Young a rest here and there as well. Mostly, he'll be the first bat off the bench against lefties. If he's used almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, he has an opportunity to be reasonably successful. He's obviously overpaid for a bench player, but, then again, the Twins aren't exactly breaking the bank this year.

Infielder - Nick Punto
Speaking of overpaid bench players, here's $2.4 million man Nick Punto. He had a freakishly bad 2007 on the heels of his freakishly good 2006. His career numbers suggest that the reality is somewhere in the middle. He will certainly compete for the starting 2B job, but I think Harris' offensive potential should give him the edge. As someone who can play 2B, 3B and SS, as well as all 3 outfield positions, Punto is still a very valuable role player. And he's shown a pretty good ability to work counts and draw walks throughout his career, making him a decent choice to pinch-hit in a rally-starting situation (if he's pinch-hitting for Everett, for example). He needs to get back to basics and get every bunt down this year, a skill that failed him pretty badly in 2007. Returning to the utility role which suits him best, Punto can successfully carry on the tradition of Al Newman and Denny Hocking, and return to favor with the fans.

Infielder/Catcher - Jose Morales
This last spot is the hardest to call. Including Kubel, there are already 5 outfielders on the team, 2 catchers, and 5 infielders. Harris can play 3 IF positions. Punto can also do that, as well as fill in any outfield spot. Lamb can play 1B as well as 3B. There are 6 righties, 5 lefties, and 1 switch-hitter. I think the most versatile player they could add to the final bench spot would be Morales. He gives Gardy 3rd catcher insurance, so he won't have to be squeamish about using Mauer as the DH. He's a switch-hitter, and a good one, so he can be used to pinch-hit against whoever the other team sends out there. And he was drafted as an infielder, so he could be an option at first or third if needed. Plus, he has a career 1.000 BA in the majors! What's not to love?

So there's my roster. Now that it includes Livan Hernandez, the starting payroll will be about $63 million (including signing bonuses). I've allowed somewhat for the psychology of Mr. Gardenhire in my selections, but I also think that the guys on the cusp of the majors will benefit from a couple more months in Rochester. Tomorrow I'll talk about the contributions I expect them to make this season.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


It seems that the Twins felt the need to kick in a little extra money for the new stadium.

"These are enhancements," [Twins owner Jerry] Bell said. "We wanted to upgrade certain aspects such as the stone, the canopy and the scoreboard, as well as add more bathrooms and comfort areas."

None of the work is required according to the original design. The extra money will pay for an even bigger (103' x 57') HD screen and fancier stone on the facade, among other things.

"These aren't [cost] overruns or overages," said Kevin Smith, Twins executive director of public affairs. "These are fan enhancements we want to add, so ownership is putting in an additional $22 million to cover the costs."

"Our feeling is we get one shot at this, let's do it right," Smith said. "It's enhancements to promote A) better fan amenities, and B) a ballpark that we can still be proud of years from now."

Wow, aren't they nice to spend all that extra money on the fans? Isn't it interesting that the amount they kicked in corresponds very closely to the amount they're under-spending on their stated payroll?

Because the improvements they're proposing with this extra money are basically cosmetic and superficial, this smells mostly like a PR move to me. Will it be enough to pacify fans outraged that Hunter and Santana were allowed to walk away? I don't know, but I think it's a necessary gesture. A lot of fans thought that the money the Twins are saving on payroll this year was going to line the Pohlads' pockets. Instead, it will be visibly invested in additional amenities for the fans. That should generate a fair amount of good will, even though the expenditures aren't, strictly speaking, necessary.

However, as far as I'm concerned, this doesn't let the Twins off the hook in terms of signing-bonus money for the high draft picks this summer. The Twins are set to get 3 of the top 31 picks (thanks to Hunter's flight to the Angels), and they need to make them count. They should still be able to afford a couple million dollars to ensure that they bring in the best available prospects with each pick.

But, in the meantime, it's good to see them aware of how their off-season moves have affected the fans. And it's good to see them willing to spend some money to appease them. I think it will turn out to be a good investment for the Twins.

2008 Twins Pre-Pre-Season: Bullpen

Here is third part of my little series on the best roster the Twins can assemble right now. Today: the Bullpen.

Closer - Joe Nathan
Arguably the best closer in the league over the last 4 seasons. Perhaps passing his peak now that he's 33, but even if he were 50% less effective he'd still be 50% better than Todd Jones. I'd like to see him get an extension - I know it's an over-valued position, but the Twins suddenly have money to burn, and they can't let all their All-Stars walk. Anyway, this year shouldn't be too different from 2007: he should convert about 90% of his save opportunities. Hopefully, this year's lineup will provide him more leads, and he'll wind up with 40-45 saves.

RH Setup - Pat Neshek
I'm not very concerned about the loss of effectiveness Neshek experienced late last season. It was probably a combination of lack of conditioning, overuse earlier in the year, and poor execution. He's still young, and he's learned from it. His career has been stellar so far, and his numbers haven't been very different minors-to-majors. I expect him to handle 70-80 innings with an ERA well under 3.00 and more than one K/inning.

LH Setup - Dennys Reyes
Which Dennys Reyes will show up this season? The one who went 5-0 with a 0.89 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 2006? Or the one who went 2-1 with a 3.99 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 2007? I doubt Reyes will ever display his 2006 brilliance again, there's just no precedent for it in his career. 2007 was a bit worse than his career average, however, so I think we can expect him to be a little better, particularly in the BB department. Luckily, even if he's not magnificent, he has the easiest job in baseball: getting one left-handed batter out. Statistically, that plays strongly in his favor. I think he can still be reasonably effective in that role. But I'm not offering a contract extension any time soon.

RH Middle - Matt Guerrier
One of the few Twins to actually perform at the top of his game in 2007, Guerrier showed that he could thrive in more than just long relief. With Neshek and Nathan locking down the 8th and 9th innings, Guerrier can perhaps make the 7th his own. Or he can take the 8th when Neshek needs a breather. If Guerrier's 2007 is a sign of things to come, the Twins will be effectively playing 6-inning games this season (still a challenge, given their rotation). But, even if he reverts back to his 2005/2006 production (ERA's in 3.30s), the team will be in good hands.

RH Middle - Juan Rincon
I would not have offered Rincon a contract this year. His K/9 has been steadily declining over the past four seasons, while his WHIP has been rising. Not a trend that merits paying a middle-reliever $2.48 million. But, he's under contract, so he's going to get one more chance. While his 2007 BB/9 ratio was the highest it's ever been at 4.22, the number that really jumps out is the HR/9. It had been a superb .23 and .24 in 2005 and 2006 - last year it jumped to 1.36. Rincon was suddenly more than 5 times as likely to give up a home run. The 9 he gave up in 59.2 innings in 2007 were as many as he'd given up in 233.1 combined innings over the previous 3 seasons. Yikes! Interestingly, last years' abysmal season brings his career major league totals very much in line with his career minor league totals. He may have been overachieving his first couple of years in the bigs, or it took the league a little longer to figure him out. Last year was hopefully a bit of an anomaly; there were apparently many extenuating circumstances in his personal life that made things difficult for him mentally. Optimally, if he can recover to his career averages, he'll throw 70-80 innings, and put up an ERA of around 3.50 with a little over 8 K/9 and a WHIP of around 1.33. That's decent, and he won't be in many high-pressure situations, so there's a good chance he can contribute.

RH Middle - Jesse Crain
Crain seemed like the heir-apparent to Nathan until last season. He had shown an ability to rescue other pitchers from jams that was almost magical. His effectiveness for 2008 is very much in doubt. He had season-ending surgery last May to repair a torn labrum and his rotator cuff. Very few pitchers have regained their form after such work. By all accounts, Crain has fulfilled his rehab program, and is ready to go for spring training. I'll be very interested to find out what sort of velocity and ease-of-motion he's able to produce. If he can get it back, he'll be a huge asset to the bullpen, potentially another Guerrier. Until then, he'll be in low-pressure, mop-up type situations.

LH Long - Glen Perkins
Perkins gets the last spot in bullpen, and not just because he's from my alma mater, Stillwater Area High School. He's been effective throughout his pro career, and even more so in his limited Major League use so far. He was decent before he went on the DL last May, and terrific in his brief time back with the team in September. He's been a starter throughout his minor league career, and should get the first crack at the rotation if/when one of the starters falls apart. Meanwhile, I'd expect him to have plenty of 3+ inning stints in relief of disappointing starters in the early-goings. He could also be used as a situational lefty when necessary.

Considering the contract situations and recent track records, there really isn't a lot of space available in this bullpen. It's essentially the same 'pen that was so excellent in 2006. That it should have 7 members to start the season is essential given the uncertainty surrounding the young rotation. Crain, Reyes and Rincon need to recover their former brilliance; Nathan, Neshek, Guerrier and Perkins just need to keep up the good work. Hopefully this crew will find fewer demands placed on it as the season progresses.

Tomorrow: the Bench.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Livan Large

Well, crap.

No sooner do I post a projected rotation, than the Twins sign Livan Hernandez to a 1-year, $5 million contract (with incentives up to $7 million!). Here, at last, is the dreaded free agent signing, this year's Sidney Ponson/Tony Batista.

We all knew this was coming.

Gardy and the Twins weren't likely to have the nerve to field a rotation full of mostly unproven youngsters, no matter how high their upside. They had already invited Zach Day to camp, and Randy Keisler. Now they add Hernandez, and at $5 million, you can be sure he'll be heading north the last weekend of March.

It's hard to be enthusiastic about a guy who put up a 4.93 ERA in the NL last season. Surely, there are guys who finished last year in Rochester who can do at least as well as that, right?

Well, eventually, yes. But as I pointed out earlier, most of our AAA studs who have rampaged through the minors get lit up pretty badly the first time they run into Major League hitters. In most cases, they benefit from filling out their time at AAA a bit more. I think that's probably the case for Humber, Duensing, and Blackburn, the guys who are closest at the moment.

Humber has so far logged 148 innings above AA, and most of that was spent recovering from Tommy John surgery. I'd feel more comfortable giving him a couple more months in Rochester to get his velocity and K/9 back up toward pre-surgery levels.

Blackburn rocketed through 3 levels of the organization last season, but in so doing has worked just 112.1 innings above AA. His 2007 numbers so far exceeded his career averages, I'd like to see if he can sustain that level of performance for a couple months before considering him fully ready to pitch in the big leagues full time.

Duensing has also been moving quickly through the system. He's amassed just 116.2 innings above AA, and 216.2 innings above A+. If his first 9 starts at Rochester this year are like his first 9 at New Britain in 2007 (4-1, 2.66 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), then the Twins can think about calling him up in June.

Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation I've projected (Baker, Liriano, Bonser and Slowey) is young and inexperienced. Liriano will likely be on a pitch-count to start the year, and Bonser has yet to show an ability to pitch deep into games. I expect the Twins to field a 7-man bullpen, but even that could be taxed if they have to pitch more than 3 innings a night.

Hernandez gives the Twins a veteran starter to appease the manager, and a proven workhorse to save the bullpen every fifth day. His lowest innings total in the past 10 seasons is 199.2 - he leads the majors in IP over that span. Until recently, he'd been pretty effective at keeping runs off the board, too (although he had the good fortune to be playing in some of the better pitcher's parks in the NL). He's likely to give the Twins 6+ innings a start, with an ERA between 4.50-5.00. That's not great, but it's probably better than the younger guys could give if they were rushed to the majors, and then they'd likely be sent down again anyway. This way, they can get their work in at Rochester, and Livan can give the bullpen a rest.

Hopefully, he'll pitch well enough to draw some appealing trade offers from contenders in June and July. Since he'll be a free agent again next year, he'll have every incentive to produce to the best of his ability. The Twins might be able to pick up a couple more nice pieces, make space for a talented (and well-prepared) rookie, and send Livan to a contender. A good deal for everybody.

So, based on the assumption that Livan will not be with the team in August, I think this signing is OK. We'll see how it works out...

2008 Twins Pre-Pre-Season: Starting Pitchers

Moving along with the best team the Twins can make out of their current roster, here are my picks for the starting rotation:

1. Scott Baker
Twins fans, meet the new ace of the staff. 48 career starts and all, now that Santana is gone, Baker is the best we have left. And he can be quite good. He can also be horrendous. But he's been such a solid performer in his minor league career, you have to think he's going to put it together at the major-league level soon. Maybe he already has: in 14 starts after the All-Star break last year, he went 6-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 91.2 innings of work. That's an average of 6.1 innings per start. His WHIP is still higher than I'd like to see, but the results are coming. For all the talk about him needing to show more consistency, he really only had 6 bad starts in 2007 out of 23 (3 were against the White Sox?!), so even last year he gave the team a pretty good chance to win almost 3/4 of the time. I expect him to build on his strong second half and give the team 200+ innings in 2008.

2. Fransisco Liriano
A lot of folks really want to take it easy on Liriano, and I can't blame them. With Santana in NYC, Liriano is the only hope for the franchise in terms of a #1 starter. When he was healthy in 2006, he was actually better than Santana. By all accounts, he's gone through his Tommy John surgery rehab patiently, and is in great shape to head for spring training. Because he's already 15 months into his recovery, a lot of the conventional wisdom about a pitcher's first season back from TJ surgery may not apply. However, if the Twins want to take it easy and keep Liriano on a strict pitch count, I think that's a sensible thing to do. And the best way to keep him to a regulated schedule will be to start him every 5th day. If they want to be conservative with his workload, to limit him to between 60-80 pitches per start in the early goings, they can just pull him out after 4-5 innings. The Twins' bullpen is good enough to absorb that for awhile, particularly if it has 7 members. Half a game of Liriano and half of the bullpen should be very competitive against most teams' #2 starter.

3. Boof Bonser
How many times in 2007 did Boof look great for 4-5 innings and then suddenly implode? In innings 1-3, he allowed an OPS of .749. In innings 4-6, it was .882. Only 30 players in all of baseball had an OPS higher than that. The Yankees' team OPS was "only" .829. Eek! Hopefully, Boof's efforts at better fitness this off-season will translate into longer, more successful starts. Otherwise, there will be plenty of replacements in Rochester waiting for their mid-season chance.

4. Kevin Slowey
Slowey's June call-up was completely out of character with the rest of his pro career. In the minors, he had given up 0.43 HR/9 and 1.22 BB/9. In 7 starts before the All-Star break, he gave up 13 HRs and 9 BBs in just 37 innings. No correlation whatsoever with the guy who was absolutely dominating the International League. When he came back up in September, it was a different story. In 6 games, he gave up just 3 HRs and 2 BBs in 29.2 innings, allowing an opponent's BA of just .240. That's more like it. I look for Slowey to be perhaps the steadiest member of the rotation. As long as he can throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard, he'll keep the team in the game.

5. Livan Hernandez
This is not a sexy choice, not someone I'd expect to see in the rotation in August, but he's signed for $5 million, so we're stuck with him. And that won't be such a terrible thing. I'm not convinced that Philip Humber or Brian Duensing are ready just yet, and I think Nick Blackburn is probably overrated at the moment. The other guys in my projected rotation did not fare well in their initial callups:

Baker - 3-3, 3.35 ERA in 53.2 innings in 2005, but then he went 5-8, 6.37 ERA in 83.1 innings in 2006
Liriano - 1-2, 5.70 ERA in 23.2 innings in 2005
Bonser - 2-2, 5.30 ERA in 35.2 innings before the All-Star break in 2006
Slowey - 3-0, 5.80 ERA in 37 innings before the All-Star break in 2007
and I'll throw in
Matt Garza - 3-6, 5.76 ERA in 50 innings in 2006.

All of those guys were kicking butt in AAA prior to their first major-league opportunities, and all benefitted from an additional couple of months there afterwards. So I'd like to see Blackburn, Duensing and Humber put together at least 2 more good months at AAA before I'd give them a shot on the Twins. So Hernandez, the most experienced starter in camp, can do the team a bit of a service by eating innings the way he always has. He can probably manage an ERA of 5.30 or better, so that's likely a better contribution than we can expect from the youngsters in the short term. But he has to be the #5 guy - it's much more important that my 1-4 guys get their regular turn. At Livan's age, it's probably a good idea to skip him whenever possible (it looks like he'll only have to make 8 or 9 starts before June 1). Hopefully, he'll pitch well enough to have some trade value in the summer, and the extra time in Rochester will work out for the next wave of young guys the way it did for Garza and Slowey last year.

Obviously, nobody can be certain what these guys will actually do every 5th day. It's crucial that Liriano return to his 2006 form, even if only for limited innings. Boof has to pitch deeper into games. I think Baker and Slowey are ready to give the team 6+ innings just about every time out, so their games should be a bit less of a concern. The rest is going to fall upon the shoulders of the bullpen.

But that's a topic for tomorrow.

Monday, February 11, 2008

2008 Twins Pre-Pre-Season: Lineup

With spring training fast approaching, the blogosphere has come alive with organizational rankings and guesses about the Twins' roster. With the Santana deal finally done, what else are we going to do? The links at the left will lead to some very interesting thoughts along those lines. Here are mine. This roster assumes no further free agent signings, and will be amended periodically during spring training as certain people establish themselves.

Starting lineup
1. 2B - Brendan Harris
Lacking a mature, prototypical leadoff hitter, Harris looks like the best choice. In 2007, his first full MLB season, he compiled an on-base percentage of .343. His career minor-league OBP is .365. He's shown good plate-discipline throughout his career, and will likely improve in that area as he gets even more of a feel for big-league pitching this season.
2. C - Joe Mauer
Add me to the list of people who like Mauer in this slot. Having yet to showcase middle-of-the-lineup power, but with a career OBP pushing .400, and an ability to put the ball in play when necessary, this is a terrific spot for him.
3. RF - Michael Cuddyer
Am I losing you here? Cuddyer may never hit .300, but he's got decent pop (I suspect he'll improve on his power numbers from 2007), and he's always shown a good eye at the plate. His OBP has typically been 70-80 points higher than his batting average, and he usually has about a 2/1 K/BB rate. He can keep a rally going.
4. 1B - Justin Morneau
Not much of a surprise here. The $80 million man needs to be hitting cleanup. Despite his miserable second half in 2007, Morneau has generally been a stingy hitter; hopefully he can relax and do his thing like in 2006. He's certainly the best long-ball threat on the team, and the cleanup spot should provide plenty of RBI opportunities.
5. DH - Jason Kubel
It looks like Jason may have finally turned the corner - his final months of 2007 were reminiscent of the magnificent numbers he put up in the minors. He should have plenty of people on base in front of him. I look for him to work pitchers and hit a lot of line drives.
6. LF - Delmon Young
Some may surprised to see Young so far down in the lineup. He's scooted up to the Majors at a pretty young age, so I feel that he has a bit more developing to do before he becomes the #3 or #4 hitter a lot of people project. The biggest concern right now is his plate discipline - so far in his MLB career he's pretty much swung at everything. If he can become a little more selective, he has a chance to move up in the order. Until then, I look at him as a potential rally-killer, someone who could let a pitcher off the ropes in one or two pitches (like, say, Jacque Jones often managed to do).
7. 3B - Mike Lamb
I was tempted to put Lamb in the 6-spot, but you know that's way too many lefties in a row for Gardy's taste. He's had excellent plate discipline throughout his career, and has a good chance of sustaining any rallies that survive Mr. Young. It will be interesting to see how many at-bats he gets against lefties, but I think he should at least get a shot at playing everyday to start the season.
8. CF - Jason Pridie (vs. righties)/Craig Monroe (vs. lefties)
I'm stealing this idea from Twins Geek. I would like to see Span, Pridie, and Gomez each get another half-season at AAA, but there clearly isn't room for that. Pridie seems to be the most ready to hit, particularly if he's put in a position to succeed vs. righties only. Monroe will surely get some playing time to justify his salary and veteran-ness, and he will be at his best against lefties. His eye isn't wonderful in any circumstances, but I'll take his K/BB rate of 2.69 vs. lefties over the 3.41 rate he has against righties. Pridie can come in for defense late in the game. This solution has the added benefit of holding down Gomez' service time - if he starts the season in the majors, he could be eligible for arbitration in 2010. Phooey on that.
9. SS - Adam Everett
Obviously, he should get as few at-bats as possible. Hopefully, he can work the pitchers a little bit, and make a lot of productive outs.

Working pitcher and sustaining rallies - that's what this lineup is designed to do. A pitcher should have to throw at least 20 pitches before Young grounds into a double-play on the first pitch. This lineup should be better than 2007, but I think Delmon's the key to the whole thing. If he starts to develop some discipline at the plate, this lineup should be able to deliver a ton more runs than last year.

Tomorrow: the starting pitchers.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Monday

Taking a break from the Twins to reflect on some of the other momentous goings-on in America.

First of all, grudging congratulations to the Giants, who made it a far better Super Bowl than I expected. Eli Manning has earned some respect. The play where he slipped out from under 3 would-be sackers and hurled it downfield to David Tyree, who made a sensational catch off his helmet, will go down as one of the classic moments in Super Bowl history. Those are the kinds of spectacular, game-changing individual efforts that make even Giants-haters jump off the couch and applaud. They are the efforts that make champions. Hard-fought and well-deserved!

The group I was in was mostly disappointed with the commercials. I thought the Tide spot with the talking stain was the best. Barkley stalking Wade with his T-Moblie Fav 5 was a pretty amusing culmination to that campaign. Loved all the stunt work in the Planters spot. Otherwise, I found most of the commercials either nonsensical, or unnecessarily gross (I don't want to see a heart jump out of someone's chest - I'm eating here!).

Tomorrow is election day in CA, as it is in about half the country. As an independent in one of the most consistently blue states in the country, I can expect to see California's 55 electoral votes (or about 20% needed to win the presidency) go to the winner of the Democratic primary. Luckily, independents have been invited to participate (not by the Republicans though - boo!), so tomorrow is my most realistic opportunity to help determine who will be president this fall.

Let me first express my disappointment with the structure of the primary system. I would have liked the opportunity to vote for Bill Richardson, an actual government executive with substantial foreign policy experience. I might have liked to vote for John Edwards, whose unflagging support of the poor and working class was a welcome antidote to the relentless support of the rich and corporate interests shown by Washington over the last several years. Probably his policies would have been too one-sided and not ultimately the best thing for the country, but his was a good voice to have in the race. To say nothing of Dodd, Biden, and even Kucinich.

But despite the fact that the state of California moved its primary schedule up dramatically, all of these candidates have already fallen by the wayside. Too difficult for most of them to raise funds after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the least diverse states in the country. The primary system needs to be retooled to allow all the states the opportunity to weigh in on all the candidates - Iowa and New Hampshire don't always make the best choices! Given the flaws, I'm thankful that at least 2 candidates remain on the Democratic side, and 4 for the Republicans. Tomorrow will be a very meaningful day for both sides.

So my choice comes down to this: would I rather see Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama get 20% of the votes they need for election from my state?

Ultimately, it's not a difficult choice.

Ever since November 2002, when I was watching the election returns on MSNBC, and Chris Matthews rather jubilantly predicted that it would be Clinton vs. Jeb Bush in 2008, I've been working against that scenario as actively as I can. Jeb Bush wisely decided that his family name wasn't so valuable any more and stayed home. But here is Hillary. Why? Are there only two families in this country capable of producing a president? I believe in variety, spreading the wealth. If the Twins were playing the Cubs in the World Series, part of me would actually feel good if the Cubs won (well, I've already enjoyed 2 Championships in my lifetime). That so much of America seems locked into this little Clinton/Bush box is abhorrent to me.

And furthermore, she just rubs a ton of people the wrong way. When we were talking about the candidates last fall, my sweet, 83-year-old grandmother went off on Hillary with a burst of venom I imagine hasn't passed her lips since the days of Joseph Stalin. It struck me as very irrational to hate Clinton so much, but the feeling is real, and she's not the only one who has it. It seems like the only candidate this year who can unite the Republican Party is Hillary Clinton. Understanding that, I don't see why she has as much support as she does.

I'm going with Obama. Not only is he inspiring multitudes of young people to participate in their government (something essential to the future health of the nation), but he has a political style that I believe will bring results. He's not the most liberal guy in the world; he's made compromises with the other party, as well as with corporate America. He's going to do things as President that will really disappoint the left, but that will please the center, and hopefully not completely infuriate the right. I see him as the sort of guy who could get his sponsored legislation passed with 70% of congress behind it, instead of the bearest majority on party lines. Hopefully, he can make Washington a less partisan place, and that would be very good for the country.

Finally, tomorrow is Mardi Gras. Has their ever been another day in American History in which the people were expected to show both civic responsibility and debauchery?

Gotta love this country!