Monday, November 30, 2009

Balance the System: Assets

For about 5 years I worked as an audio engineer for Marketplace Money. It's a personal finance show, and while I was recording, editing and mixing, I couldn't help learning a few things about economics and investing. I've been a bit surprised to find how well many of those principles translate to the baseball world (or should I call it a sector?). I made one of the most basic of those tenets - Buy Low, Sell High - one of the fundamental guidelines of my offseason blueprint for the Twins. The final step in my plans involves another: a prudent investor should periodically rebalance their portfolio.

Basically, you set out with an asset allocation that suits your comfort level, say, 20% bonds, 80% stocks, and, of those, maybe 85% domestic and 15% international companies, 35% big, 20% small, 25% energy, 20% tech, whatever. You buy your stocks, and you hold them. At the end of some pre-determined interval, at least once a year, you check how their values have changed. For example, the gains the stock market has experienced this year might mean that your stocks are now worth 86% of all your investments instead of 80%. So, you sell enough stock and buy enough bonds that your stocks get back to 80%. You not only maintain the diversity you're comfortable with, you also most likely sell investments for a higher price than when you bought them - you're making money.

This is a great thing for a baseball team to do each offseason with the talent in its system. I want an organization with as much total talent as possible, but that talent exists to provide wins to the major league team. The guys at the upper levels who may be called upon to fill in for injured players need to be replacement level or better. Each position should be represented by either a quality major leaguer under contract/team control for years to come, or by a high-ceiling prospect, or both (should the projected arrival time of the prospect coincide with the impending free agency of the starter). Where this is not the case, we should make an effort to trade from our surplus in order to alleviate our deficiencies. Then we can go into 2010 with an organization that can be an asset to the Twins' campaign.

The Upper Levels

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, the system did not have quality depth at AAA last season, at least not in time to make an impact. When Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Rule 5 pickup Jason Jones failed to distinguish themselves, the Twins were forced to rush Anthony Swarzak, Jeff Manship and Armando Gabino into the rotation before any of them had had adequate time to establish themselves in the International League. Journeymen Sean Henn and Bobby Keppel were having good springs for Rochester, but were too old to be considered decent prospects, and didn't help very much once they made the show. Alexi Casilla, Jason Pridie and Dustin Martin all disappointed.

The prognosis is much better for 2010, thanks to the graduation of a slew of Rock Cats. New Britain enjoyed strong performances at nearly every position and throughout the bullpen. Adding those folks to the nucleus at Rochester should provide for a pretty strong team, particularly if we can hang on to all of them through the Rule 5 Draft and free agency. Highly-rated prospects Wilson Ramos (C) and Danny Valencia (3B) will be good call-up candidates, and continued adjustments from strong finishers Trevor Plouffe, David Winfree and Brock Peterson could make them viable as well. The only major holes I see are the lack of an ace-caliber SP and an outstanding LHP in the 'pen. New Britain should begin the season with more or less the same group of Fort Myers players that paced the Florida State League last season. The Rock Cats should be pretty good throughout the roster, particularly if Deibinson Romero can have a bounce-back season.


Are there parts of the system in which we're going to have trouble finding enough innings or ABs for somebody? Do certain players at more or less the same level have such similar skill sets/projections that they are essentially interchangeable? Where the answer is "yes," we've got some moves to make. (Exception - I'm not sure you can ever have too many live arms in the bullpen.) Here are some possibilities:

The Prototypical Twins Pitcher

You know the traits: works fast, efficient, throws strikes, pitches to contact. That tends to result in very good BB/9 and rather unimpressive K/9 and HR/9. Pitchers like that project to be back-end starters. And we've got a slew of them: after the big-league #3-#5 of Kevin Slowey (1.5 HR/9, 1.4 BB/9, 6.9 K/9), Nick Blackburn (1.1 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 4.4 K/9) and Brian Duensing, (0.8 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 6.4 K/9), there's:

Glen Perkins (1.3, 2.4, 4.6)
Anthony Swarzak (0.9, 2.8, 6.2 - AA and up)
Jeff Manship (0.4, 2.4, 7.3)
Jason Jones (0.9, 2.1, 5.3)
Ryan Mullins (0.8, 2.7, 7.7)
Matt Fox (0.8, 2.9, 7.8)

These are just the guys I project to be ready for AAA next spring. Kevin Mulvey was in this scrum until he was traded for Jon Rauch late in the season. As it is, the Red Wings are set up to field a rotation of mid-to-back-end starters and still have one left over. I get rid of Jones any way I can - at 27, he's no longer a prospect. Perkins is in a bit of hot water now, but if we dealt him, we'd be selling low. I'm more inclined to deal Duensing, whose stellar stretch run with the Twins has his stock as high as it will ever be (given enough innings, I don't think he'll be a lot better than Perkins). Swarzak has tailed off a lot since reaching AA, but as long as he keeps getting high rankings from Baseball America, he's got trade value. Manship does a great job of keeping it in the yard - let's stick with that. Mullins took a huge step forward in his second year at New Britain, dramatically increasing his K while slashing his HR and BB allowed. Fox has a high enough K rate to stay in the mix.

Summary: Put Manship, Mullins and Fox in the Rochester rotation. Look to trade Swarzak, Duensing and Jones. Keep Perkins around until he can sort himself out and raise his value.

Middle Men

In my plan, the Twins' starting MI are JJ Hardy and Nick Punto. Behind them are Alexi Casilla and Swiss-Army Knife Matt Tolbert, and then these gentlemen (Minor League Numbers) - assuming they all survive the Rule 5 Draft:

Brendan Harris (.294/.365/.458, 43/68 SB)
Trevor Plouffe (.256/.318/.385, 38/64 SB)
Steven Tolleson (.276/.368/.400, 67/102 SB)
Brian Dinkelman (.281/.365/.424, 37/50 SB)
Steve Singleton (.289/.334/.421, 22/42 SB)

2 things to understand about this list:

#1. Harris played all his AAA ball in the hitter-friendly PCL, while the others have played in the pitcher-friendly IL, and
#2. Plouffe has always been young for his leagues, while the rest of these guys have been on the older side.

#2, in addition to the strong 2nd half I mentioned above are enough to keep me high on Plouffe. Dinkelman, though a little old for a prospect at 26, had a fantastic year at AA and is the only credible base-stealer on this list - he's my Red Wings starter in April. Singleton has only had half a season at AA and has no patience whatsoever - he's staying in New Britain. Tolleson and Harris are pretty similar - they're both RH batters with a little gap power and so-so gloves and speed. But Tolleson has a much better eye, is three years younger, and works for the league minimum. I don't need Harris on the Twins' bench: the IF I've put together has pretty good power (except Punto) but really needs speed and OBP in a pinch. Casilla and Tolbert are my backups to start, and Tolleson is on my short list if somebody gets hurt.

Last season, the Twins' top 2 prospects, according to BA, were Aaron Hicks and Ben Revere, both CF. Revere did nothing to hurt his prospect status in the FSL, finishing 1st in H, 2nd in BA, 3rd in SB and 4th in OBP. He's a slappy LH batter/thrower with a disappointing SB% and defensive rating for his speed, and almost no power to go with his stupendous OBP. Here's the thing - the Twins already have one of those: Denard Span. He's just entering his peak years and will be under team control until 2014. Do we need both of them in the lineup when Revere is ready for the Show in 2012? Is Revere, at 5'9" and 166 lbs. ever going to develop the power that Span has at 6'1"/180? As good a prospect as he is, is Revere really that valuable to the Twins? Is he ever going to be worth a lot more than he is right now?

My answer to all those questions is: I doubt it. Revere is the premium prospect that we can offer in exchange for a similarly-rated talent at a position of need in the organization without hurting our long-term plans.

Despite an injury-shortened season at AA, Wilson Ramos is raising his stock thanks to good numbers when he was on the field (.317/.341/.454) and a ludicrous performance so far in winter ball (.374/.431/.642), all while rating as a plus defensive C. He's a RH batter, so the possibility of having him share duties with Joe Mauer beginning in 2011 is most appealing: Mauer could DH more without us sacrificing defense, thus saving wear and tear on our franchise player (who will no doubt be guaranteed a lot of money for a verrrrry long time). However, that scenario is a luxury - Jose Morales can be an above-average hitter on the few days Mauer needs a rest. So, assuming Mauer is locked up long-term, I would consider trade offers for Ramos - but I'd have to be blown away.

Summary: It's Dinkelman, Tolleson and Plouffe at Rochester, Singleton at New Britain. Revere is a premium trade piece, as is Ramos (if I feel like it). Harris is a throw-in.


A month ago this area was a bit more crowded, but the moves we've made so far this offseason have clarified matters a bit. The Gomez/Hardy trade likely puts Jason Pridie on the Twins' bench, moving Dustin Martin to CF at AAA. Rene Tosoni can play all three OF spots, David Winfree (assuming he returns) will be in RF, and I would guess that Luke Hughes will play a lot in LF. Hughes has been passed on the depth chart by Valencia, but after Romero's struggles in Fort Myers, I'm not quite ready to deal Hughes away, no matter how poor his 3B defense. With Justin Huber departing for Japan, there shouldn't be any trouble splitting 1B/DH time at Rochester between Brock Peterson and Erik Lis, with Hughes getting some PA there as well. At AA, those positions will be filled by Whitney Robbins and Chris Parmelee.

So the list of upper-level guys I'd consider moving includes Swarzak, Duensing, Jones, Harris, Revere and maaaybe Ramos. I want to wait to see how some outside analysts rank the Twins' system before I propose any specific players I'd want to get for them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Most Valuable Player

Today, Joe Mauer won the AL MVP award, having led the league in BA, OBP and SLG%. He was the first player to do that since George Brett in 1980. The vote was nearly unanimous.

Up to this point, talks between Mauer and the Twins about a contract extension beyond the 2010 season have been quiet. This is probably because, if the Twins have been bothering to call, Ron Shapiro has most likely been letting it go to voice mail. Why even start negotiating before your client earns the most prestigious individual award in the game? Now they have all the leverage: Mauer has added power to his league-leading hitting, he's earned a 2nd consecutive Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, he'll be in his peak if he hits the Free Agent market at age 28 in 2011, and the large market teams should all be in the market for a catcher at that time. Plus, with a publicly funded new stadium set to open in the spring, the fans won't stand for seeing their native superstar dealt or lost because of payroll concerns. So, sure, Mauer will sign with the Twins, but it will be on his terms, for the years and dollars that make him comfortable.

That Bill Smith and the Twins could have let it get to this point is a staggering failure of planning and risk management, not to mention a disturbing inability to learn from the recent past. It was only 2 years ago, after all, that the Twins were forced to unload the game's best pitcher, Johan Santana, to the lowest bidder - a situation brought about by Santana's unwillingness to settle for a home-town discount when somebody from the East was sure to give him more dollars and years than the Twins could comfortably guarantee. They locked up former MVP Justin Morneau that spring, ensuring that he'd be a Twin throughout his peak years.

Was there any question that they'd want Mauer around for those years as well? With him coming off of 2 batting titles in 3 years, there shouldn't have been. Was there some reason to think that he'd sign for less money at some point in the future? Letting him play another season only made it more likely that he'd pile up great numbers and increase his value. It wasn't as though the Twins were pushing the limits of their payroll going into 2009, what were they saving the money for? They just signed Morneau for 6 years, why not extend Mauer for 4 and essentially match that deal? As of a year ago, there were still a lot of people who valued Morneau more highly (as evidenced by his #2 MVP finish to Mauer's #4). Offering Mauer a deal equivalent to that of his good buddy would have looked pretty equitable.

Had Mauer had a normal offseason, he might have tried to hold out for more. But when he was slow to recover from his back trouble, and spring training started to slip away with no timetable for his return, he would have been in no position to turn down a contract guaranteeing him an 8-figure salary through 2014. 2009 was going to be the 3rd time in 6 seasons that he'd miss considerable playing time to injury, and he plays the most physically demanding position on the field. Had he been offered a 4-year, $56M extension with a $4M signing bonus last February, I can't imagine him passing on it.

That deal, had it been offered, would have been ideal for the Twins. Catchers have been known to see a drop-off in productivity shortly after they turn 30. Signing Mauer through 2014 gets him through his age 31 season - re-evaluate his condition from there and see if he's really going to be able to stick behind the dish. Now, they'll probably have to sign him through at least 2017, when he'll be 34. Chances are much better that he won't be worth the price tag by then. At $14M/year, Mauer is a bargain, allowing significant money to be allocated to other parts of the team and organization. Now, he's probably going to cost $20M/year or more, and for more years. That extra $6M could be the difference between a good player and a replacement player, or a good player and a great player. It could go toward signing top-flight prospects like Max Kepler and Miguel Angel Sano. Now, it's gonna go to Joe Mauer, and that's all.

We won't know until the deal is completed how much Mauer's extension will cost the Twins. But as far as I'm concerned, that amount minus $60M is the price they'll pay for failing to offer the extension a year ago. Maybe this time the lesson will sink in.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Offseason Blueprint (cont.)

Last time I was imagining what moves I'd make were I in Bill Smith's shoes. I started with a list of organizational principles:

1. Develop from within
2. Do the little things right
3. Buy low, sell high
4. Accumulate depth at all positions at the upper levels

then gave the first 5 steps of my offseason plan:

1. Sign Joe Mauer to an extension at 6 years/$120 million
2. Decline Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option
3. Renew Joe Crede's contract
4. Let the other free agents walk
5. Offer contracts to all arbitration-eligible players

Picking up where I left off...

6. Settle the 40-man roster

There's already been a lot of action on this front in the real world. Carlos Gomez is off, JJ Hardy is on. The free agents are off. Boof Bonser, Pat Neshek and Kevin Slowey came off the 60-day DL and are back on the 40-man. Brian Buscher, Justin Huber and Armando Gabino were removed, and Gabino was claimed off waivers by the Orioles. Juan Morillo has been added, but David Winfree has not, enabling him to become a minor league free agent.

I love Gomez for Hardy straight up, so I'm cool with that move. The FA/60-day DL stuff was automatic. As for the other moves so far, I would have also removed Huber while adding Winfree, since I see Winfree as the most capable corner OF replacement should something happen to Cuddyer or Delmon Young. Because Smith picked up Cuddyer's option, I can understand leaving Winfree off the roster - he's blocked at both positions - but he's still a more polished call-up option than some of the other guys who will be at Rochester this spring. I was inclined to hang on to Gabino and Buscher; Gabino looks like a decent swing man and Buscher's discerning eye at the plate makes him a pretty useful PH, even when he's got a low average and shows zero power like he did in 2009. If I only had a 4-man bench, he probably doesn't make the cut, but if we go with 11 pitchers (always my preference), he'd be in the running for that last spot.

The other guys I'd clear off would be Deibinson Romero, Drew Butera, and Bobby Keppel. Romero had an unimpressive season at Fort Myers, so I doubt there's much interest from other clubs in snatching him. 2 catchers would have to get hurt before we'd need Butera - I'll worry about adding a 4th C to the 40-man only if that comes to pass. With Bonser and Neshek back from their injuries, I don't see a spot for Keppel except as AAA filler. That's because I want to make room for higher-upside additions, like Alex Burnett and Rob Delaney. I give Huber's slot to Brock Peterson, a better fit to back up Morneau because he's a RH hitter. I expect Danny Valencia to make his MLB debut when Crede gets hurt or when the rosters expand in September, whichever comes first - he gets Romero's spot (and Crede is back on). The final spot goes to Brian Dinkelman, a more advanced prospect than Steve Singleton, for this year at least.

My 40-man has 3 C, 6 OF, 5 CI, 5 MI, 3 utility IF, 8 SP and 10 RP (and at least one of the LHP I've listed as a starter - Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins or Brian Duensing - will end up in the bullpen). It'd be nice to have one more OF, but otherwise I think it's a good balance.

7. Acquire JJ Hardy to be the starting SS

This has happened, and for less than I thought it would take. I was going to start the process by offering Duensing, who for his career hasn't been any more impressive than Glen Perkins, but whose stock will probably never be higher after the way he finished the season in the Twins' rotation. And the Brewers need pitching. Instead, they opted for Gomez' defensive ability and tools. So we get an everyday SS who rates as one of the better defenders at the position in the majors, and who has shown as recently as 2008 the ability to hit 25 HR and 30 2B in a season. Hardy is entering his peak years, and he's still under team control through 2011. And all we had to give up was a bench OF. Nice.

8. Acquire an ace

Since Santana was traded, the Twins haven't really had a bona fide ace - someone who consistently wipes out opposing hitters while sparing the bullpen and giving the team a strong chance of winning every five days. Baker is close, but I think he matches up better with other #2 starters. Kevin Slowey, when healthy, is a rock-solid #3, and Nick Blackburn has been a solid #4 or very good #5. I'm going to give Liriano a spot in the rotation next spring - he had a bit of bad luck on balls in play, and mostly needs to make a mechanical adjustment when he pitches from the stretch. If those two things get back to normal, I think he's a decent back-end starter. If he adds command of his fastball to the equation, he's back to the front-end. But those are big "ifs."

There is no true ace on the roster, nor is there one anywhere in sight in the system. We've got to go get somebody to fill this void. Preferably someone we can get under contract for at least the next 3 seasons. Unfortunately, none of the guys with Ace stuff in this year's FA pool have reliably made 33-34 starts over the past few seasons. The best option is John Lackey, who is expected to receive a contract similar to AJ Burnett's (5 years/$82 M). With escalating salaries from other core Twins players over the next few seasons, I'm not sure I want to go that far, even if I thought we could outbid the big markets for Lackey. And we want to always buy low, anyway.

So, from the available FA, my first choice would be Rich Harden. He has scintillating stuff, with a 9.4 K/9 for his career. Unfortunately, he's been very injury-prone, exceeding 30 GS and 150 IP just once in his career, though he was able to make 25+ starts in each of the last two years. The other trouble with him is that he's inefficient: he's averaged better than 6 IP/GS only twice in his career, and not since 2005. However, he's only about to turn 28, so he should still have some good years ahead of him if he can stay healthy. As far as bang for the buck goes, he looks like the best option, particularly since the bullpen figures to be pretty deep in 2010 and should be better able to absorb some short starts.

I'd offer Harden a contract for 2010 similar to what Pavano got in 2009, though, since Harden has made 25 starts in each of the past 2 years, and his stuff is so fantastic, the base is going to have to be a lot higher than Pavano's. I'd propose a $6 M guaranteed base salary. Because I want to encourage better efficiency from Harden, the escalators are based on IP rather than GS: I'd raise him $0.5 M for every 10 IP beginning with 140, so that the overall value of the contract would be $9.5 M if he reaches 200 IP. Furthermore, it would have a guaranteed $12 M option for 2011 that would vest once he reached 200 IP. Similarly, he'd get vesting options for $13.5 M for 2012 and $15 M for 2013 at the 200 IP mark. Plus, it would have bonuses for All-Star appearances, post-season success, and top-5 Cy Young finishes.

Under those terms, if Harden can lower his pitches/IP and keep himself healthy, he can effectively make this into a 4 year, $50 M contract - far more than anyone is likely to guarantee him based on his career so far. My 2nd choice for this sort of deal would be Erik Bedard. My 3rd choice would be Ben Sheets.

Trading is an option, too, but aces cost a lot. Getting a Josh Johnson would likely have to be something similar to the Dan Haren deal 2 years ago. The D-Backs had to give up their #1, #3, #7 and #8 BA-rated prospects, plus Greg Smith and Dana Eveland in order to acquire Haren and minor-league pitcher Connor Robertson. That would mean the Twins would have to give up something like Aaron Hicks, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Swarzak, Carlos Gutierrez, Glen Perkins and Mike McCardell for Johnson and a Philip Humber-type pitcher (good pedigree, but starting to run out of time as a prospect).

The other possibility would be for a shorter-term but even more impactful ace, like Roy Halladay. He's got just one year left on his contract at $15.75M. The Blue Jays are keen to dump that salary, but it will take an offer somewhere between the C.C. Sabathia deal with the Brewers (#1 prospect + 3 others) and the Cliff Lee (#2, #3, #4, #10)/Jake Peavy (#2, #3 + 2 others) deals. Maybe Ben Revere, Ramos, Swarzak and Duensing. It's not a horrible prospect, and we'd get 2 high draft picks back in 2011, but then we're still looking for an ace again this time next year. That may be the situation should Harden or whoever succumb to injuries once again. But I'd rather take the high-reward play and save my surplus prospects for other purposes.

9. Clarify the OF situation

Before the Hardy trade, I was going to prefer that the Twins stick with Gomez, hoping that he'd develop enough offense to be respectable, then give the Twins' pitchers 2 CF in their OF. That would mean trading Young somewhere, for whatever we could get. But with Gomez heading for the land of cheese, the OF situation I've been advocating for awhile can come to be. That is, had the Twins opted to give Gomez some regular AB at AAA, Jason Pridie could have been recalled to fill precisely the role that Gomez had at the end of the season: late-inning defensive upgrade for Kubel or Young in games the Twins are leading, PR in situations where the Twins need a run to tie or take the lead. Pridie isn't as exceptional as Gomez in those regards, but he has plus speed and OF defense and is a high-percentage base stealer. And like Gomez, he's a bit of a hacker with a lousy OBP. However, his left-handedness will have some extra utility on the days Cuddyer and Young get a rest - make sure the opposing starter is a RHP, and Pridie shouldn't be totally useless hitting out of the #8 or #9 spots.

Overall, exchanging Orlando Cabrera and Gomez for Hardy and Pridie should be a big net gain for the Twins.

10. Make trades to balance the system

This is something that will be ongoing from now to Opening Day next April. I'll get into it another day...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Offseason Blueprint

(I'm just going to post this before something else happens. I'll fill in the blanks at the bottom in the coming days...)

Organizational Principles

1. Develop from within

The Twins have been savvy when it comes to acquiring prospects and training them to be contributors at the Major League level. Players that come up through the system have an investment in the Twins, and the fans become invested in them. Wherever feasible, positions on the 25-man roster should be filled by players who have been brought up as Twins.

2. Do the little things right

Catch the balls you're supposed to catch. Know when to take the extra base (and when not to!). Keep pressure on struggling pitchers by taking a few pitches. Make sure that, when you make an out, you've at least had a productive AB, either advancing a runner or making the opposing pitcher work. Attack the strike zone, especially against weaker hitters. Be cautious with your location, especially when facing an elite hitter with RISP late in the game.

These are the sort of things the Twins have gained a reputation for doing. If that reputation is to be deserved, any players filling the roster must be inclined to execute all the little things that make such a big difference over the course of the season.

3. Buy low, sell high

Despite promising revenue trends in recent years, the Twins are still a small-market club, and must be wise about how they spend their resources. They cannot afford to overpay for free agents (as Toronto did in recent years). Nor can they afford to throw away players whose value is temporarily low (Craig Breslow). They must instead be brutally honest about what sort of production every considered player is capable of, and then target the ones who may be undervalued at the moment for whatever reason.

4. Accumulate depth at all positions at the upper levels

Rochester was pretty thin last season in terms of MLB-ready pitching, 3B and MI prospects, and that lack of depth held the Twins back for most of the summer. The offseasons that really caught my attention last year were those of the Red Sox and Dodgers, who each made sure to pick up multiple veterans (like Takashi Saito, John Smoltz and Brad Penny) even though they had promising youngsters available to fill those roles (like Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz). Some of those moves paid off more than others, but when something went wrong, those teams had plenty of options to fill in. And they still traded for more depth at the deadline. I think depth was a big reason those teams won 90+ games last year. The Twins can't spend as much as those guys, but they'd be wise to try to accumulate as much depth at each position as they can afford.

With these principles and the organizational review from last month in mind, here is what I would do were I in Bill Smith's shoes:

1. Sign Joe Mauer to an extension at 6 years/$120 million

This represents a bit of a conflict between Principle #1 and #3. Had the Twins been proactive about extending Mauer last offseason, I think he might have settled for something similar to Morneau's deal. Not anymore. Mauer has earned his 3rd batting title and will likely pick up his second gold glove and first MVP award. And he's only just entering his peak years. While I'd try to keep him to as few years as possible, since he plays a brutal position and has already spent significant time on the DL, I think it's realistically going to take at least 6 guaranteed years at nearly $20 million/year to get this deal done. So I propose to pay Mauer $19 million a year from 2011-2015, $20 million in 2016, and have a $20 million option for 2017 with a $5 million buyout. Perhaps it will be possible to defer some money as the Cardinals were able to do on Albert Pujols' current contract.

It's a ton of money, but Mauer may well be worth even more than that to the Twins, particularly if he's able to repeat his 2009 numbers in any of the upcoming seasons. And the loss in revenue and goodwill among the fan base if Mauer were allowed to walk or traded probably wouldn't be worth the savings. We've got to suck it up and get it done.

2. Decline Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option

This kinda sucks, because Cuddyer's been a good player for a long time and is coming off not only one of his best seasons, but one in which he helped carry the team into the postseason. It's unfortunate that his contract is structured in such a way that this decision has to be made within 5 days of the end of the 2009 World Series. If we knew how much Mauer was going to cost in 2011, I might feel differently. But without any cost certainty there, the sensible thing is to decline Cuddyer's $10.5M option.

Hopefully, he has another great season and, if things look favorable, we can offer him a contract for 2011 anyway. Certainly, we'll offer arbitration at the end of next year, making ourselves eligible for compensation draft picks should he sign elsewhere. And realistically, with his peak years behind him by then, we can probably expect about as much production from David Winfree or Rene Tosoni or some other prospect instead.

3. Renew Joe Crede's contract

This is for #2 and #4. Crede provided a few big hits for the Twins while playing exceptional defense at 3B. He only managed to play in about 60% of the games, but the Twins knew going into the season that he was injury-prone, so they signed him to a contract with a low base salary and incentives for more playing time. I think he provided reasonable value for what he was paid in 2009.

Someone is needed at 3B to start the season because Danny Valencia, one of the top prospects in the Twins' system, isn't quite ready for The Show. He demolished AA to the tune of .284/.373/.482, but gave back nearly .100 points of OPS in his 3 months at Rochester. But that's been his pattern as he's split levels over the past 3 seasons. As he moves up, he initially has trouble with strike zone control, but makes the adjustment by the following spring. In his first go at Fort Myers, he had a 3/1 K/BB ratio - that tightened to 3/2 when he came back in 2008. Then he went to New Britain and posted a 4/1 K/BB ratio, which he improved to 4/3 in 2009. He had about a 4/1 K/BB ratio in his first months at Rochester - we'll expect that to turn around this spring. When it does, he'll be ready for his MLB debut.

So I re-sign Crede to the same contract he had last year. If he does no more than in 2009, he'll buy Valencia a little more development time and make a solid contribution to the lineup for a portion of the season at a reasonable price. If he gets hurt, Valencia gets called up. But if he stays healthy, he's capable of performing at a level that will earn every bit of the extra money we'll owe him.

4. Let the other free agents walk

With the emergence of Jose Morales and Wilson Ramos set to start 2010 at AAA, we now have 3 above-average catching options at the upper levels. Which is to say, there are now 3 guys who could outperform a 39-year-old Mike Redmond. His offensive numbers have been in steep decline since 2006, and his catch-and-throw skills have deteriorated as well. He's been a marvelous asset to this team over the past 5 seasons, and I'd welcome him into the coaching ranks if he has any interest, but I don't think his body will allow him to have a positive impact on the field any more.

Ron Mahay gave the Twins a great month of September. He was available because the Royals released him after he had a terrible month of August. He see-sawed between lousy and great all season long. That meant his overall numbers were only OK, and his splits vs. lefties were only OK. He's just a couple of months younger than Redmond, so I wouldn't anticipate anything better from him next year, and it's more likely that things will get worse.

Carl Pavano gave the Twins 12 pretty good starts: he averaged 6 IP, 4.64 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.2 K/9 and just under 2.0 BB/9. Kevin Slowey, who should be 100% recovered from his wrist injury, averaged 5.2 IP, 4.86 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9. And it was a bit of an off year for him. Pavano is in position to get some pretty good guaranteed money and perhaps a multi-year deal, though 2009 was the first year since 2004 that he'd thrown more than 100 IP. About to turn 34, a big injury risk, duplicates Slowey (i.e. #3 starter) and we'd be buying high, which is a no-no.

Orlando Cabrera was as hot as anyone down the stretch, but he'll be 35 next year and is showing signs of physical decline. His OPS dropped for the second straight year, and he made a ton of mistakes at SS. His career OBP is just .322, which is not what you want in the #2 spot in the lineup. If I thought his defense were solid, I might try to get him for just one year. But it's not, and he'll probably be looking for more than we'd offer, so we wish him well...

5. Offer contracts to all arbitration-eligible players

This list includes Boof Bonser, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Francisco Liriano, Pat Neshek, Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and now JJ Hardy. As you'll see later, I'm inclined to try to trade some of these guys. But none of them will be so expensive that they couldn't perform up to the value of their contracts. I'm particularly keen to keep a roster full of quality bullpen arms, so Bonser, Crain, Guerrier and Neshek all come back with a chance to make the team next spring. Liriano had poor control last year, but had a ton of bad luck as well - he'll get every opportunity to make the rotation. Just 24 years old, Young still has time to improve. I'd only consider non-tendering Harris, but it's better to hold onto him for at least the first part of the offseason as I see how other pieces fall into place.

6. Settle the 40-man roster

7. Acquire JJ Hardy to be the starting SS

Check that one off the list.

8. Acquire an ace

9. Clarify the OF situation

Check on that one, too.

10. Make trades to balance the system

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Opting for Cuddyer

Yes, it was a good thing I got my position out in the open when I did, because by the next morning, Bill Smith had pulled the trigger on Michael Cuddyer's $10.5 million option for 2011. Here is the passage in my increasingly obsolete Offseason Blueprint post explaining why I thought the Twins should decline:

This kinda sucks, because Cuddyer's been a good player for a long time and is coming off not only one of his best seasons, but one in which he helped carry the team into the postseason. It's unfortunate that his contract is structured in such a way that this decision has to be made within 5 days of the end of the 2009 World Series. If we knew how much Mauer was going to cost in 2011, I might feel differently. But without any cost certainty there, the sensible thing is to decline Cuddyer's $10.5M option.

Hopefully, he has another great season and, if things look favorable, we can offer him a contract for 2011 anyway. Certainly, we'll offer arbitration at the end of next year, making ourselves eligible for compensation draft picks should he sign elsewhere. And realistically, with his peak years behind him by then, we can probably expect about as much production from David Winfree or Rene Tosoni or some other prospect instead.

Those arguments didn't dissuade Mr. Smith. I want to be clear that Cuddyer absolutely earned this - he's been a terrific presence off the field for years, even when he's struggled on it. Now that we've seen what he can do when he's healthy, I don't think it's unreasonable to elevate the expectations for what he'll produce in the near future somewhat. A lot of teams pay a lot more than $10.5 M for a lot less than what Cuddyer did last year.

Still, they'd better have saved plenty of money for Mauer...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Go-Go Gone

The general state of business I've found myself in over the last few weeks has made it difficult to complete my ambitious Offseason Blueprint entry, wherein I spell out every move I'd make as Twins GM from here to Spring Training. Bill Smith is quickly making such a gesture obsolete. He outrighted Brian Buscher earlier this week, and yesterday sent CF Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for SS JJ Hardy, straight up.

Had I managed to post my Blueprint entry by now, you'd have seen that I wanted the Twins to trade for Hardy. He is a highly-rated defender at SS, first of all, and defense is something I think the Twins should be emphasizing as they build their team for 2010. He is also one of the better power threats from that position, averaging 30 2B and 25 HR between 2007-2008. He had a terrible season last year, batting just .229/.302/.357 with 11 HR in 115 games before being sent down to AAA in order to clear space for defensive whiz-kid Alcides Escobar. (Even that isn't terribly worse than the .263/.309/.374 with 10 HR that all Twins SS produced in 2009.) That move delayed Hardy's eligibility for free agency until after 2011, so the Twins will control him for the next 2 seasons, and he's just entering his peak. Even though his average and slugging plummeted, Hardy's walk rate improved for the 3rd straight year. If his hitting rebounds, and his defense remains consistent, the Twins will have one of the best SS in the AL.

In exchange, they part with Gomez. I always preferred Denard Span, but Gomez was without peer as a defender in CF and saved the Twins a ton of runs with his spectacular range. However, his skills at the plate are severely lacking, and he probably should have spent at least one of the last 2 years at Rochester. Maybe it would have made sense to send him there this season - his talent certainly is worth developing. In any case, his role with the Twins turned into nothing more than legs for Jason Kubel or a defensive upgrade over Delmon Young. Jason Pridie is perfectly capable of providing that for the Twins. Turning a bench OF into an everday SS is a pretty good trade for the Twins, just as turning a bench SS into an everyday CF is good for the Brewers.

One obvious implication of this move is that Delmon Young is going to be in the lineup everyday, at least to start the season. That means he has to get a lot better, in just about every facet of his game. He showed a nice uptick in power, particularly after the All-Star break, but his BB rate went backward, he suddenly wasn't an effective base stealer, and his defense in LF remained very poor. But he's just 24, so there's still time.

I was going to suggest that the Twins trade Brian Duensing and a role-player for Hardy. I like this deal - well done, Bill Smith. And, in case I don't get it posted in the next couple of days, let me go on record as saying the Twins should decline Michael Cuddyer's option. Details to come...