Monday, June 23, 2008

Your 2008 Minnesota Twins

With 76 games in the books, it should be pretty clear to everyone what sort of team the 2008 Minnesota Twins are. Most regular players are between 250-300 PAs, most starters have made 10 or more starts, most relievers have appeared in 25 or more games, so the stats at this point are telling. Here are some of the the most illustrative team stats, along with their AL ranking:

BA: .272 (4th)
R: 365 (4th)
H: 716 (3rd)
2B: 135 (10th)
3B: 23 (1st)
HR: 46 (14th)
OBP: .327 (9th)
SLG: .394 (8th)
BB: 217 (12th)
K: 466 (6th)
SB: 48 (T-5th)
SF: 32 (1st)
Sac: 21 (T-3rd)
G/F: 1.34 (3rd)

Obviously, the Twins are a contact hitting team that doesn't over-swing (high BA, low HR & K), tries to use its team speed (high 3B, G/F and SB) and tries to do the little things (high SF, Sac). The offense is dependent upon timely hitting and running the bases - one individual rarely comes to the rescue via the HR. In order to build and sustain rallies, the Twins hitters have to put the ball in play.

Now, look at the pitching, ranking them so that good performance is 1st and bad is 14th:

BAA: .288 (14th)
ERA: 4.35 (10th)
R: 367 (12th)
H: 777 (14th)
BB: 187 (1st)
K: 426 (12th)
WHIP: 1.41 (10th)
HR: 86 (T-14th)
CS%: 30 (5th)
P/PA: 3.62 (1st)
OBP: .337 (10th)
SLG: .447 (14th)
QS: 40 (7th)

This is a pitching staff that throws the ball over the plate (low BB, P/PA) but doesn't have overpowering stuff (low K) and, consequently, often gets hit pretty hard (high HR, SLG, BAA, WHIP). It controls the running game pretty well, and is as likely to put together a QS as anyone. What this staff needs is a steady defense with tremendous range in order to run down all those balls in play.

How about it, D?

E: 53 (13th)
FPCT: .982 (12th)
Def Eff: .684 (13th)

Oops! That's not helpful. The Twins, so long known around the league for their pitching and defense, are bringing up the rear in those categories in '08.

Luckily, the rest of the division has major weaknesses as well. If the Twins want to stay in contention, they will need to make some changes. Their offensive formula is actually not a real problem (the 1st-place Angels are similar to the Twins in many categories, but have far better pitching and defense), so as they look to improve the defense, they might as well look for more of what they've got offensively - HR hitters will cost dearly and be in short supply anyway. On the pitching side, they need to cut down on hits and HRs while not adding walks. Here's how they should do it:

1. Remove Livan Hernandez from the rotation ASAP

Hernandez has, predictably, been the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Twins' pitching staff. He has personally amassed 103.1 IP, 60 ER, 150 H, 16 BB, 34 K, 13 HR. Put another way, in 15% of the team's total IP, Livan has allowed better than 18% of the ER, 19% of the H, 8% of the BB, 8% of the K, and 15% of the HR. The walks are nice, so we'd want to replace him with someone whose BB/9 is also around 1.00.

That person, of course, should be Francisco Liriano. His current line at Rochester is 71.2 IP, 33 ER, 66 H, 24 BB, 59 K, 5 HR. But, if you throw out his first 3 starts in April, when he had no idea what he was doing, here's what's left: 58.1 IP, 25 ER, 54 H, 12 BB, 49 K. That's a 3.86 ERA, 1.13 WHIP. Good enough. I have no doubt that he'll perform exceedingly better than Livan. I think, at the worst, he'd probably perform like Glen Perkins, but with fewer walks. At best, he could be somewhere between Baker and Slowey. Either way, it can only help the team.

2. Reduce the pitching staff to 11 members by designating Brian Bass or Boof Bonser

Bonser has had a knack for giving up runs this year. To do the same comparison I did with Livan: 75 IP (11%), 54 ER (16%), 92 H (12%), 23 BB (12%), 53 K (12.5%), 9 HR (10.5%). While his H, BB, K and HR are more or less proportional to the rest of the team (which is to say, not good), he has given up far more than his share of runs. Since being moved to the bullpen, his K and G/F rates have improved, yet he's managed to allow one or more runs in 5 of 6 appearances.

Bass, on the other hand, appears to have lesser stuff, but has been mostly getting the job done. His line of 47.1 IP (7%), 26 ER (8%), 58 H (7.5%), 17 BB (9%), 21 K (5%), 9 HR (10.5%) suggests that he has, on the whole, been less effective than Bonser, except when it comes to giving up runs. But that's the bottom line, isn't it? He's also been much better recently: Since they were both annihilated in Detroit on May 24, Bass has gone 16 IP, 6 ER, 17 H, 3 BB, 7 K, 2 HR for a 3.38 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, while Boof has gone 13.2 IP, 12 ER, 24 H, 6 BB, 13 K, 1 HR for a 7.90 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

With the rotation of Liriano, Perkins, Baker, Slowey and Blackburn all averaging about 6 IP/GS, there is clearly no need to have two mediocre long-relievers. Whether the Twins would find it more useful to stick with Boof, who has more talent, or Bass, who seems to use what he has better, is up to them. But they should bite the bullet and make that choice now, so that the offense can gain some options off the bench.

3. Down with Gomez, up with Span

I've only been lobbying for this since spring training, so it should come as no surprise. That magic "excitement" that Gomez supposedly brings to the game has been waning in June, almost to the point where I'm no longer aware of it. For example, Gomez has only 2 SB since May 11 in 8 attempts. He has also has just 9 XBH, 7 BB, and 40 K in those 40 games. Where's the chaos, the game-changing speed? He continues to rush himself in the outfield, bobbling grounders/transfers and over-throwing the cutoff man. He has provided the Twins with 11.45% of their ABs, but has only 9.8% of the XBH, 5.5% of the BB and 16.1% of the K. His line of .269/.302/.379 is below the team average.

Wasn't he supposed to be a 5-tool player? Mostly, we've just seen 2: speed and defense. The arm is too inaccurate to rate highly, the power has been minimal and the hitting mostly quite bad. When he comes up in the middle of a big rally, he's usually the one that makes an unproductive out. Without him stealing bases at a ferocious rate, I'm afraid the rest of his weaknesses get the better of him. He could benefit from 1-1.5 years in AAA, just as Baker, Slowey, Casilla and Span have.

In Denard Span, the Twins have someone who has accumulated more than twice the BB and fewer than half the K of Gomez in about half the PAs at Rochester. His SB efficiency, thanks to a recent slump, is about on par with Gomez'. He has shown he can drive the ball, hitting about 28% of his H for XB and tying his career high for HR in just 100 AB. I haven't seen any reports that his range would be a large net loss from that of Gomez, and his accuracy would make up for his less-powerful arm. Basically, I think he can make most of the plays Gomez makes and match or exceed his XBH and SB contributions while walking vastly more often and striking out vastly less. Span is much more likely to keep a big inning going than Gomez.

4. Upgrade the SS position

Brendan Harris has recently gone on a hot streak that has justified his existence at last after about 6 weeks of futility. We knew going in that he was a subpar fielder, but he hasn't been hitting either. He hit .277/.330/.361 in April (his good month!), .217/.320/.289 in May, and his recent spurt of 8 H in 5 G has raised his June numbers to .243/.270/.343. In his 240 AB (9.13%), he's drawn 20 BB (9.2%) against 58 K (12.45%), including 2/18 this month. He is 1/2 in SB attempts. And we all know that his range at 2B and SS is a joke.

By taking him out of the lineup, the Twins can hopefully acquire a SS who will put the ball in play more often while getting to far more balls in the field. The option that occurred to me as I watched the games last week: Christian Guzman. He's in the final year of his contract, so the Nationals should be looking to move him. He's only making $4.2M, so it won't bust the bank. We know he likes to play the Twins' brand of baseball, and he's been playing it very well for the past two seasons. He's currently in the top 10 in the NL in BA, and he's 7th among MLB SS in ZR. Offer the Nats Brendan Harris plus something decent from the minors (Brian Duensing?) and get the negotiations started. Bring Guzie back!

5. Get rid of Craig Monroe

His 6 HR have come in fairly spectacular moments, but Monroe has been an overall disappointment. He was supposed to be the right-handed power the Twins could bring in against lefties, but in 53 ABs vs. LHP, he's hitting .113/.190/.170 with 1 HR, 5 BB and 13 K. I don't know if it would be worth it to keep him around long enough to even out his splits (he's currently .286/.333/.600 vs. RHP with 5 HR, 5 BB and 25 K). You can see from his high K rate vs. either kind of pitcher, he's probably going to be the one who kills the rally. Looking at his overall numbers as a percentage of the total team ABs: 123 ABs (4.68%), 6 HR (13%), 10 BB (4.6%), 38 K (8.15%). The Twins may miss out on those all-in moments like his game-tying jack in KC, but they'll more than make up for it by filling his spot on the bench with some who can more consistently put the ball in play.

6. Trade the Leftovers

The available trade pieces on the 25-man roster are:

Livan Hernandez
Boof Bonser or Brian Bass
Mike Lamb
Brendan Harris
Adam Everett
Craig Monroe

Interesting that these were the guys brought in during the off-season...

From Rochester:

Anybody but Jose Morales and Trevor Plouffe, really.

Make those trades! Pick up Guzman. Go get a right-handed hitting 3B with plus range if you can. Add a veteran bench player. If there's a starter available who has better potential than the young guys, go for it. There are plenty of possibilities.

My revised lineup (Span, Casilla, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Young, Buscher, Guzman) should have a little bit better range up-the-middle while putting together more positive ABs and striking out less. By dropping Monroe, Gomez and Harris, the Twins subtract 171 K (36.7% of the team total!) and replace them with Guzman (23 K in 333 ABs), Span (29/35 BB/K ratio in 165 ABs between AAA/ML) and Jason Kubel (17/22 BB/K since the embarassing month of April). Given their current K rates, this trio would have about 87 K in the same ABs as the group they're replacing - about half as many. Substituting those numbers, the Twins would currently rank #1 in the AL in fewest K, while also moving up the list in BA, OBP and fielding.

The pitching staff (Liriano, Baker, Slowey, Perkins and Blackburn in the rotation, Nathan, Guerrier, Reyes, Crain, Breslow and Bass/Bonser in the 'pen) should give up fewer hits while striking out more. When you take out Hernandez and Bonser, the already departed Juan Rincon, and the not-ready mess of Liriano's 3 appearances in April, the remaining staff has this line: 466 IP, 487 H, 184 ER, 59 HR, 119 BB, 312 K, 3.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP. I expect Liriano's numbers to be in the neighborhood of Slowey and Baker, but with fewer HR, so he should be a positive contributor to the K/BB rate and WHIP. Who knows what his ERA would be. It appears that this pitching staff is capable of ranking in the top 5 or 6 in the AL in ERA and WHIP.

The Twins can compete for the division title this year while playing their brand of baseball. They just have to finish filling the roster with guys who actually play that brand of baseball well.

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