Saturday, January 31, 2009

Minor League All-Stars

Other guys, notably Aaron Gleeman and Josh's Thoughts, are doing an admirable job of ranking Twins prospects. I'm enjoying learning about some of the guys in the Twins' system via these brief write-ups. Since they've got the rankings covered, I want to do something a little different with the minor leaguers. I looked over the numbers from last season in order to try and put together a complete team of All-Stars from the 4 full-season teams. I leave out the Rookie ball teams because the dominance some players show there could just be the result of small sample size. The lack of extensive numbers leaves me too dependent upon the scouts, who may not be looking for the same things I am. So I'll just pick from guys who played at Beloit, Fort Myers, New Britain and Rochester in 2008.

My hope was that the Twins' system would yield at least one compelling standout at each position, a few reserves, plus a 5-man rotation and a 6-man bullpen. That would show that there is at least someone on the way at every potential slot the Twins could need. As you'll see, reality came up a bit short, so some of these picks are, admittedly, a stretch to call All-Stars. But they're the best the Twins have right now.

When looking at the minor league statistics, it's important to remember the context. These leagues are more pitcher-friendly than the AL, so numbers that look outstanding for a pitcher may be just average, and numbers that look middling for a hitter may be quite good. Here are the averages for each league in 2008:

Midwest (Beloit): .252/.322/.371; 3.68 ERA
Florida State (Fort Myers): 256/.329/.376; 3.81 ERA
Eastern (New Britain): .264/.338/.403; 4.22 ERA
International (Rochester): .263/.331/.404; 4.10 ERA
American League (Twins): .267/.335/.420; 4.35 ERA

With those in mind, here are my picks:

Starting Lineup

Catcher: Wilson Ramos
.288/.346/.434, 462 AB, 13 HR, 37 BB, 103 K at A+ Fort Myers
The only catcher in the system with significant playing time who was able to outperform his league's averages at the plate. Interestingly, he's posted essentially the same line at each stop in the system so far (.286/.339/.435 in Rookie ball, .291/.345/.438 at A-). That gets less impressive the further he goes, so I hope he'll be able to improve upon it soon. He also threw out 43% of base stealers.

First Base: Chris Parmelee
.239/.385/.496, 226 AB, 14 HR, 52 BB, 83 K at A- Beloit
Though his batting average remained at .239 and he continued to strike out at a vigorous rate, Parmelee drastically improved in his second year at Beloit. He nearly matched his 2007 HR total in about half the AB, and was able to exceed his walk total in just over half the games before his season was cut short by injury. If he sustains that kind of OBP and power, he'll be in Adam Dunn territory.

Second Base: Steve Tolleson
.300/.382/.466, 343 AB, 9 HR, 44 BB, 74 K for AA New Britain
Always a high OBP hitter, Tolleson put up full-season career highs in BA and SLG% this season, then backed it up with a terrific performance in the Arizona Fall League.

Shortstop: Trevor Plouffe
.269/.325/.410, 227 AB, 3 HR, 16 BB, 43 K for AA New Britain
.256/.292/.420, 250 AB, 6 HR, 14 BB, 47 K for AAA Rochester
Here's our first disappointment. Plouffe's almost league average performance was actually by far the best among regular SS in the system. He's only 22, so he can get comfortable in Rochester for awhile.

Third Base: Danny Valencia
.336/.402/.518, 220 AB, 5 HR, 27 BB, 43 K for A+ Fort Myers
.289/.334/.485, 266 AB, 10 HR, 18 BB, 70 K for AA New Britain
Valencia demolished A+ pitching for the first half of the season, then finished up strongly above average in the Eastern League. His poor showing in the AFL probably keeps him in New Britain to start the season, but he still looks to be on track for a 2010 arrival in the Majors. (He's the reason the Twins wouldn't go to 3 years for Casey Blake.)

Left Field: Edward Ovalle
.284/.351/.412, 447 AB, 7 HR, 34 BB, 112 K for A+ Fort Myers
Like Plouffe, Ovalle sort of gets this spot by default. He certainly improved his hitting line in his second season in Fort Myers, but his K/BB ratio showed no signs of progress. I'm sure he'll start 2009 in New Britain, but he may not get much further than that.

Center Field: Ben Revere
.379/.433/.497, 340 AB, 1 HR, 27 BB, 31 K for A- Beloit
This was the most spectacular performance of any of the position players on this list. Revere exceeded the Midwest League average OPS by well over .200 points and went 44/57 stealing bases in just 83 games. He only had a .943 fielding percentage, though. Something to work on in Fort Myers this year.

Right Field: David Winfree
.252/.319/.450, 453 AB, 19 HR, 41 BB, 87 K for AA New Britain
One of the 3B prospects who's had to move to the outfield, Winfree was asked to repeat AA after his 2007 performance was merely average. His OPS improvement wasn't huge (thanks to a big drop in BABIP), but he significantly improved his K/BB rate while showing much greater power. At 23, that keeps him on the prospect radar as he moves to Rochester for 2009.

Designated Hitter: Randy Ruiz
.320/.366/.526, 416 AB, 17 HR, 23 BB, 116 K for AAA Rochester
The journeyman minor-leaguer won the International League batting title and finished the season with the Twins. But those accomplishments weren't enough to overcome a dismal K/BB ratio and no defensive value, so the Twins let him go earlier this winter.


Outfield: Dustin Martin
.290/.355/.447, 510 AB, 10 HR, 49 BB, 125 K for AA New Britain
The Rock Cats' CF has been above average by a healthy margin at every stop throughout his progression, including a solid showing in the AFL last fall.

Outfield: Darnell McDonald
.268/.334/.447, 369 AB, 11 HR, 36 BB, 81 K for AAA Rochester
Not a prospect, but McDonald outperformed all the other full-season OF in the Twins' system. Now with the Reds, he should have a chance to earn a spot on their bench this spring.

Infield: Steven Singleton
.302/.348/.421, 235 AB, 6 HR, 13 BB, 29 K for A- Beloit
.295/.371/.452, 241 AB, 5 HR, 26 BB, 24 K for A+ Fort Myers
Tough call whether to start him or Tolleson. Despite having a similarly excellent season, Singleton is less of a running threat, and wasn't as sure a fielder as Tolleson this year. But he's certainly ready to take over 2B for the Rock Cats in 2009.

Infield: Luke Hughes
.319/.385/.551, 285 AB, 15 HR, 28 BB, 70 K for AA New Britain
.283/.325/.453, 106 AB, 3 HR, 7 BB, 30 K for AAA Rochester
Hughes enjoyed a breakout season in 2008, clobbering Eastern League pitching and more than holding his own at AAA. Yet another reason why the Twins didn't need to splurge on Casey Blake or Ty Wigginton, Hughes should be available to them sometime this summer.

Catcher: Jose Morales
.315/.348/.426, 197 AB, 4 HR, 8 BB, 28 K for AAA Rochester
Morales didn't get to play very long before he re-injured his ankle. But in the time he had, he showed that he's clearly the best-hitting catcher in the system after Ramos. As a high-contact switch-hitter, I'd like to see him get some consideration for a bench spot with the Twins out of spring training - assuming the ankle is OK.

Starting Pitchers

Mike McCardell
2.86 ERA, 135.1 IP, 110 H, 25 BB, 139 K for A- Beloit
A WHIP of about 1.00 and about a strikeout per inning - that's what we want to see!

Francisco Liriano
3.28 ERA, 118 IP, 102 H, 31 BB, 113 K for AAA Rochester
Other than a couple of early-season starts around his woeful April stint with the Twins, Liriano was consistently dominant at AAA. And that was without regaining his pre-Tommy John velocity. If only he'd replaced Livan sooner...

Cole Devries
2.93 ERA, 135.1 IP, 138 H, 38 BB, 105 K for A+ Fort Myers
His 2008 numbers were very similar to those of 2007, with one striking difference: he cut his HR rate by about half.

Jeff Manship
2.86 ERA, 78.2 IP, 68 H, 20 BB, 63 K for A+ Fort Myers
4.46 ERA, 76.2 IP, 90 H, 24 BB, 62 K for AA New Britain
After allowing 0 HR in the first half, Manship gave up 8 once he moved to New Britain. The K/BB rate remained the same between the two levels. His AFL experience was actually encouraging, despite a 5.01 ERA, because he was able to strike out almost a batter per inning and allowed only 1 HR in 32.1 IP in an explosive offensive environment.

Santos Arias
3.27 ERA, 110 IP, 106 H, 29 BB, 91 K for A- Beloit
Arias is another pitcher who maintained his K/BB rate from 2007 while cutting his HR rate by about half. He was moved to the bullpen towards the end of the season, so we'll see whether or not his future is in that role.


Anthony Slama
1.01 ERA, 71 IP, 43 H, 24 BB, 110 K for A+ Fort Myers
The first of the Twins' ludicrously good relievers from 2008, Slama's excellent WHIP and K/BB ratio go with an astounding 0 HR allowed in 71 IP. In fact, he has yet to allow a HR in 102.2 professional innings. Could we put him on the fast track, please? I can think of an MLB team that might need some bullpen help this year...

Rob Delaney
1.42 ERA, 31.2 IP, 24 H, 4 BB, 34 K for A+ Fort Myers
1.05 ERA, 34.1 IP, 20 H, 7 BB, 38 K for AA New Britain
Next is Delaney, who also had a good WHIP and had an amazing K/BB ratio, but allowed 3 HR over the course of the season. He should start 2009 no lower than Rochester, where the Twins can reach him easily if needed.

Jose Mijares
2.45 ERA, 11 IP, 10 H, 1 BB, 16 K for Rookie GCL Twins
2.61 ERA, 10.1 IP, 7 H, 3 BB, 8 K for A+ Fort Myers
2.93 ERA, 15.1 IP, 16 H, 7 BB, 17 K for AA New Britain
Recovering from a winter car accident that left him with a broken elbow, Mijares didn't get back on the field until the summer. He was solid at every level, earning a September call up with the Twins in which he (too late!) became an effective setup man for Joe Nathan. He added some innings with more of the same in the Venezuelan winter league. Though he has hardly any experience above AA, he'll have every opportunity to break camp with the Twins.

Matthew Williams
2.09 ERA, 38.2 IP, 29 H, 12 BB, 42 K for A- Beloit
3.35 ERA, 45.2 IP, 44 H, 16 BB, 37 K for A+ Fort Myers
Awesome at Beloit, Williams advanced to Fort Myers in June, where he was shelled in his first few appearances. He got it together quickly, though, and finished the season with a 1.01 ERA, 21/6 K/BB ratio and 0 HR allowed over his final 10 appearances (26.2 IP).

Bobby Korecky
2.91 ERA, 74.1 IP, 66 H, 22 BB, 71 K for AAA Rochester
Appearing for his second full season as closer for the Red Wings, Korecky was excellent, striking out nearly a batter per inning while allowing just 3 HR in his 74.1 IP. He should get a serious look from the Twins in spring training.

Charles Nolte
2.05 ERA, 70.1 IP, 63 H, 35 BB, 75 K for A- Beloit
Ricky Barrett's numbers were pretty similar for the Red Wings, but Nolte had a slight edge in K/BB ratio and gets a ton of extra credit for allowing only 1 HR in 44 appearances.

This exercise illustrated a lot about the upper levels of the Twins' system. Very few pitchers in the system performed well in 2008, and only a handful were true standouts. There is precious little depth at catcher, shortstop, first base and the corner outfield positions. Luckily, all of those positions are filled at the Major League level with young players who should be around for a few years. That will give the organization some time to add/develop more depth in these areas. The beginnings of that could be seen in the 2008 draft class - but they won't appear on this list until next year.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Kubel's Contract

See? I told you Bill Smith was just waiting for me to cave. Within hours of my first entry in weeks, the Twins finally felt they could release the details of Jason Kubel's new contract. You're welcome.

The news was worth the wait. Kubel signed a 2-year, $7.2 million contract with a $5.25 million option for 2011. He'll make $2.75 million in 2009 and $4.1 million in 2010. The Twins get his prime years for an average of $4 million/season. That is a pittance for someone who will likely hit 20+ HR each season and bat 6th. Smith hasn't been very good at making trades, and he hasn't always picked the right guys to sign, but the contracts he's gotten have been pretty reasonable (except for Craig Monroe, in which case he got the lowest possible salary given the rules of that situation).

I am among the Twins bloggers who believes that we've yet to see the best of Kubel. His isolated power has been steadily improving over the past 3 seasons so that this year it matched that of Justin Morneau. He managed to drastically improve his HR rate while maintaining his K and BB rates. His BA has tended to underperform his line drive rates the past couple of years, which means it isn't far-fetched to think he could hit pretty close to .300 in the near future. In 2008, for example, if he'd had one more hit drop in every 2 weeks, he'd have finished the season at .300/.360/.499 - within spitting distance of Morneau (who hit .300/.374/.499). And that's just if they were singles. Maintaining his XBH rate would add 3 more doubles and 2 HR for a SLG% of .525. Add it up and he's just 1 hit every 2 weeks from being one of the better DHs in the league - not a steep hill to climb.

So I'm delighted that he'll not only be a part of the team for the next few seasons, but that he came so cheaply. This will leave plenty of room for complementary moves around him as other players reach arbitration. One thing fewer to worry about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


For the past three weeks, Bill Smith and I have been involved in a bit of a staring contest. He bet me that I would write a blog entry before he made his next move. I can be stubborn, and I had my Facebook Word Twist addiction to occupy me, so the silence went on. When the news of Jason Kubel's contract extension broke last week, I figured I had him. But it was conditional on the results of a physical, a mere formality, yet no terms have been released for almost a week now.

So, like the Red Sox last winter, I give up. I cannot endure another day of waiting for you to do something, Bill! Enjoy your Mets package/Livan Hernandez February dregs.

Luckily, my favorite bloggers have kept busy ranking prospects and analyzing the rest of the division. And the Twins Geek provocatively suggested that signing Joe Mauer to an extension might be more trouble than it's worth. I have to comment on that piece.

It's very well written, with propulsive logic that leads to a 7-year, $119 million extension complete with no-trade and opt-out clauses. This because Mauer wouldn't settle for a 2-year, $28 million extension through 2012 (which would give him the highest ever salary for a catcher). To steal a bit of a phrase from our melodiously articulate new president, I reject as false the choice between 2 years and 7 years. I think the Twins should offer him 4 years.

A 4-year extension, combined with the 2 years remaining on his current contract, would total a 6-year package, the same duration as the more durable Justin Morneau received this time last year. While Mauer rates better than Morneau in many of the newer, more sophisticated metrics like VORP and WARP, Morneau's edge in the traditional stats like HR and RBI keeps him ahead of Mauer in the MVP voting. So, while Mauer's side could make a legitimate argument that he's a more valuable player than Morneau and therefore should get a bigger, longer contract, the Twins could counter-argue that Morneau is the more valuable and that Mauer's deal should be lesser. But let's not fight. Why don't we split the difference and give Mauer essentially the same deal?

The total value of Morneau's deal was 6-years, $80 million including a $6 million signing bonus. I would propose to pay Mauer the same salary as Morneau over the final three years of Morneau's deal: $14 million/year. Again, that makes Mauer the highest-paid catcher in history. After Morneau's gone, we don't need to worry about balancing things, so Mauer can get a raise to $16 million for 2014. That's $58 million added to the $23 million he still has left on his current deal, totaling $81 million for the 6 years. Throw in the same signing bonus and performance bonuses (for All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves and top-6 MVP finishes - all of which should be pretty routine if he's healthy) and the average annual value of that deal should exceed $14.5 million. Mauer's people can take pride in the fact that he will be the highest-paid Twin ever, while not making Morneau look like the Twins value him less.

There should probably be a no-trade clause, and the Twins shouldn't be shy about including it. The reason to offer this extension in the first place is because you want to ensure that Mauer is the face of the franchise for the next six years. He's Cal Ripken, or Tony Gwynn, or Kirbie Puckett. If the rest of the team falls apart around him, he's the cornerstone on which it is rebuilt.

But for that reason, there should not be an opt-out clause. The GMs who have agreed to those have been pretty foolish, and have found themselves suddenly without players who had been in their long-term plans. While it is conceivable that Russell Martin or Giovanni Soto might get a contract paying over $14 million/year at some point during the life of the deal, it's hard to imagine that they could exceed it by much, especially given the uncertainty in the economy and the difficulty all but the very top free agents have faced this offseason. Mauer shouldn't accept this offer just because he wants to be the Majors' highest-paid catcher. He should accept it because he wants security.

Look at how quickly earning power fell apart for some recently elite players who had the misfortune of suffering injuries. Eric Gagne was the best closer in the game a few years ago, but he'll make a fraction of what the K-Rods and Fuentes' and Woods' are getting when he finally signs. Rafael Furcal's back injury probably took at least a year and $30 million off the offers he got. Mauer has spent significant time on the DL in 2 of his 5 MLB seasons. He plays the most physically demanding position in the game. He must know that the chances of his missing a lot of playing time at some point in the future are pretty good. What if he breaks his wrist in a collision midway through 2010? Will he be able to pick up his hitting and throwing right where he left off? Will teams risk lots of guaranteed years and dollars on a guy who needs to rehab, who may never regain his form? For the Twins to set his mind at ease about those scenarios for the remainder of his prime years while paying him better than anyone else at his position should be worth some commitment on his part.

And Twins Geek's assertion that the Twins tend to rebuild every few years isn't really accurate. The turnover that occurred last season was the result of valued players getting better offers elsewhere. It wasn't that the Twins weren't making an effort to be competitive. And, thanks to strong player development and a relatively soft division, they managed to compete all the way to the last day of the season, even in a supposed rebuilding year. The inactivity this offseason says as much about management's confidence in the team it has as it does about their unwillingness to bring in risky/marginal/overpriced pieces. 1999 was rebuilding - the Twins haven't done anything close to that for 10 years now. With the new ballpark about to open, and the dynamics of the division unlikely to change a whole lot, they should have the ability to compete throughout the life of the contract. Mauer can be confident that he's part of a team that has a chance to win.

So yes, Twins Geek, I'm sure I want to sign Mauer to an extension. Not an outlandish, New York extension, but a sensible, Minnesota extension. Mauer should appreciate that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Brand New Year

Happy New Year!

I haven't been able to bring myself to create any entries based on the general lack of news the last week or so, but now enough little things have piled up that I can comment briefly on a few of them:

Same Old Vikings

No, the team that took the field last Sunday was not an improvement over the one we saw all season long. All the weaknesses that had hampered them throughout the year were on display:

Poor punt coverage
Sporadic offense
Insensible game management
Great defense - except for that one big play

I have never been as hard on Tavaris Jackson as most people. He didn't play well on Sunday, but neither did Adrian Peterson, Visanthe Shiancoe, Matt Birk, or Chris Kluwe, to name a few others. What is clear is that, at this point, Jackson isn't good enough to lead the team back from behind against one of the league's better defenses. The Vikes will probably never go deep into the playoffs until they get a guy like that - whether Jackson can still develop into such a QB I don't know.

The team achieved the minimum I had established for a successful season: go 10-6 and make the playoffs. They didn't need to do a lot more to have a better record, and had a pretty tough schedule outside of the division. Next year, the bar will be higher yet - with 4 games against the NFC West instead of the mighty NFC South, there's an opportunity to pick up a couple of wins. If they only do a better job of containing big plays next year, that should get them to 12-4 by itself.

I want to applaud the defense for their heroic effort this weekend. Not only did they keep Philadelphia out of the end zone (except for that one big play), they often did it with a short field behind them. They bailed their coaches out for their asinine decision to throw in the final minute of the 1st half, giving the Eagles one more possession before halftime. And they did it while playing most of the game without 4 of their starters (Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, EJ Henderson and Darrin Sharper). That group is still the core to build around next year.

However, they're starting to get a little long in the tooth. Williams, Sharper and Antoine Winfield are all on the unhappy side of 30. As key as they are to the success of the defense, it might be a good idea to start investing some premium draft picks in the guys who will be taking over for them in a couple of years. As great as it is having Chester Taylor as a backup, I think the Vikes could do just fine with a Mo Williams caliber RB in that role. I'd much rather see someone as good as Taylor at the TE and possession receiver position. If they could trade Taylor (a good RB) and Shiancoe (a decent TE) for a good TE and decent RB, that would probably be more valuable to the offense.

Carl Pohlad Passes

Twins owner Carl Pohlad passed away yesterday after a very long and fruitful life. When he bought the team 25 years ago, the Twins were adrift as an organization, averaging 79 wins over the 10 seasons following their playoff appearance in 1970, but never finishing higher than 3rd place. They fell off a competitive cliff in the early '80s, playing .395 ball from 1981-1983. The Pohlad owned Twins finished 1st or 2nd in 11 of 25 seasons, including 6 playoff appearances and 2 World Series championships. Though he was perennially criticized for his tight-fisted spending, he did enable the Twins to retain All-Stars Kent Hrbek, Brad Radke and Kirby Puckett for their entire careers, and allowed Bill Smith to make reasonable offers to Torii Hunter and Johan Santana last year.

For all the good he did for the franchise, he tried to kill it after the 2001 season. Thank goodness a judge was able to block contraction, or we would have missed out on 7 wonderful years of Twins baseball, plus the bright future in a new ballpark. Since the threat of contraction, the value of the Twins franchise has increased at a double-digit annual rate, thanks to a consistently competitive team and some superstars developed from within the system. Not only was contraction a short-sighted business decision, it was also utterly heartless. I understand that most baseball owners come from the business world, and I don't expect them to throw away their acumen once they enter the owners box. However, a baseball team isn't a bank - it is enmeshed with the self-image of the people who share its home. Don't buy a baseball team because you want to make money. Buy a baseball team because you're rich, you take pride in your home town and you want your team to represent that pride to the rest of the country.

The present business model that the Twins have in place looks to be sustainable, and the team plays in a weak enough division that they should be able to remain competitive despite a relatively constrained payroll. The type of baseball that the Twins have chosen to endorse - pitchers who throw strikes, strong defense and fundamentals - is a recipe for low-cost success. That's a credit to the ownership.

Ultimately, there's more to be grateful for from the Carl Pohlad era than to complain about. Whether his family assumes the reins or sells, the new owners have a terrific asset to enjoy for the foreseeable future. As a blogger, I have to mention that the silver lining of this loss is that I will no longer have to read comments from people bitching about how Pohlad never spends any money. Guess they'll have to find a new boogeyman.

The Tepid Stove

Setting aside the Yankees' 3-player, $400+ million spending spree, this year's free agents aren't getting nearly as much as they expected. Rafael Furcal signaled this with his 3-year, $30 million contract, which was somewhere around half the total value he was looking for. K-Rod smashed the season saves record and was rewarded with fewer years and dollars than Joe Nathan got last spring; the Angels replaced him with Brian Fuentes for 2 years, $17.5 million. Now, the Rays just signed Pat Burrell for 2 years, $16 million to be their DH.

Clearly, there are ample bargains out there, and the Twins are one of the few teams with some cap space to work with. So it's a bit disappointing that they haven't made more of this opportunity than re-signing Nick Punto. However, there are still several weeks left before spring training, and plenty of guys (particularly relief pitchers) who might be worth taking a very cheap chance on for next season.

The lack of activity suggests that Bill Smith has confidence that he can win with the same guys he had last year. I think last year's team is a contender, but it probably needs a little something extra to become a champion. The players who can make that little difference may never be so cheap again.