Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Alternate Reality: I'm the GM

Every year at this time Twins fans discuss the moves they'd make to improve the team were they the GM. Then the actual GM makes a move in real life, and we adjust. Bill Smith has made a few prominent mistakes in the first 2 years of his tenure, moves that many (most?) of us would not have made. Where would the team be today had someone else taken over for Terry Ryan? Someone

2007 Offseason

I wanted to keep Torii Hunter. I felt like he had a few more good offensive seasons in him, and would still be an asset in the field when he was eventually moved to a corner spot. I was going to offer him a 6-year, $72M contract that paid the bulk of the money up front ($18M for '08, $15M for '09, $12M for '10, then $10M, $9M and $8M over the final 3 seasons, when he was, presumably, in decline and moved to RF). My pitch to him would have been several club records and a retired #48 if he remained a Twin for his entire career. Anyways, the Angels' offer clearly blew mine away, and off to Anaheim he went.

I might have picked up Craig Monroe to be a platoon partner for Jason Kubel. His friendship with Hunter would have been another enticement. Hopefully, I would have waited for him to be non-tendered so that I wouldn't have to pay him $3.82M, but maybe not. He should have been an adequate LF/DH option vs. LHP, but, as it turned out, he was awful. We'll let his situation play out just as it did in reality.

With Hunter gone, Monroe not an everyday player, and Denard Span's potential uncertain, there would have been a need to trade for a young, RH-hitting OF. The starting rotation was pretty deep, so a highly-rated prospect like Matt Garza who was having his conflicts with the manager and pitching coach was a good chip to move. I would have used Garza as the centerpiece of a trade for my favorite young OF: Matt Kemp. Compare his numbers through 2007 with those of Delmon Young and Kemp's teammate, Andre Ethier:

Kemp looks like the best man to me, though not so much better than Ethier that the Dodgers wouldn't part with him, particularly when they'd committed 8-figure salaries to OF veterans Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre, and had a lineup that featured RH hitters Jones, Russell Martin, Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra. Looking to Win Now with an aging roster, the Dodgers probably would have been keen on turning a bench/platoon guy into a SP of Garza's caliber - he was certainly an upgrade over the remains of Esteban Loaiza.

But that's not all: I also want the Dodgers' long-suffering 3B prospect, Andy LaRoche. He'd been highly rated for years, but was always blocked by Garciaparra or some other veteran. He was also about to be caught on the depth chart by Blake DeWitt, another top prospect. At that point, Baseball America had him rated as the Dodgers' #2 prospect. I'd offer them our #2 prospect, Joe Benson, as well as Juan Rincon, an original piece of the Delmon Young trade. Benson was coming off a season in which he'd held his own (.255/.347/.368) in the Midwest League (.255/.324/.372 average) as a 19 year old. With their OF ostensibly set for the next 2 seasons, the Dodgers could afford to wait until 2010 or so when Benson would (presumably) be reaching the upper levels. As for Rincon, he was coming off a poor 2007 campaign, but it was the first bad season of his career. Though his peripherals were showing warning signs of decline (K/9 steadily decreasing, BB and HR way up), he was only 29, and could be believed to have something more left. I wouldn't want anything to do with him for 2008, however.

So my winter blockbuster is Matt Garza, Joe Benson and Juan Rincon for Matt Kemp and Andy LaRoche. The trade depends on Kemp and LaRoche being a bit undervalued by the Dodgers, which they were (signing Jones showed they didn't believe in Kemp, and LaRoche was dealt later that summer) and on Rincon being overvalued. However, considering they gave Jones a 2-year, $36.2M deal, overvaluing declining players was something the Dodgers were in the mood to do that winter. In my world, the deal gets done.

Now I've got years worth of team control of a couple of talented young RH hitters that I can sandwich around Mauer/Morneau and Kubel. Most importantly, I still have my SS, Jason Bartlett. I do not need Mike Lamb. I do not need Adam Everett. Delmon Young is still Tampa's problem.

Since we weren't sure what to expect from Span, we sign Kenny Lofton to be a mentor in spring training, then be the leadoff OF to start the season. Though 40 years old, Lofton had managed to post OBPs north of .360 in 3 straight seasons while playing about average OF defense and continuing to steal bases at a high percentage. Given the way the market for his services developed that offseason, Lofton would have signed for a very reasonable 1-year deal - let's say $3.5M.

There's still the little matter of Johan Santana. It was never clear how serious the Red Sox were about their superior offer: Coco Crisp, Jon Lester, Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie. We'll assume they weren't. By late winter, it was evident that the only team in the running was the Mets, and that their offer was low-balled because of it. Santana is under contract for 2008 at $13.75M, though his marginal value is probably somewhere around $20M. I can have the best pitcher in baseball at a bargain price for 1 year + 2 high draft picks in 2009, or I can trade him for a quartet of highly ranked prospects who all have serious question marks.

And it comes down to this: I think we can win in 2008. There were a lot of down years and injuries in 2007, but I expect those numbers to bounce back. Despite 17 ill-advised starts from Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz, the Twins managed to keep their run prevention in the neighborhood of their 2002-2004 division title run. Having had their Major League baptism, I believe that Scott Baker, Boof Bonser and Kevin Slowey are ready to provide the same level of production we got from Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva (collectively) in 2006. The outstanding bullpen from that year is basically intact (minus Rincon). It's the offense that needs to improve the most over '07, and we're poised to do that with the personnel we have. Kemp should be able to closely match Hunter's typical numbers, Lofton should be able to set the table as well as Luis Castillo, LaRoche should be a huge upgrade over Nick Punto/Jeff Cirillo at 3B, and most of the rest of the lineup should have better numbers in 2008.

So I play it the way the Indians do with CC Sabathia - I'm going to keep my free agent-to-be ace pitcher to lead what I believe will be a competitive team into the 2008 season. None of this Livan Hernandez nonsense. But since we know we'll lose him after the season, and we want to show the fans that we're committed to keeping our star players around when we can, we sign Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer to the same long term deals they got in the real world.

2008 Spring Training

The Grapefruit League brought us a couple of most welcome surprises. The greatest of these was the evidence that Denard Span was indeed ready to take over as the everyday leadoff hitter/CF. This enabled us to leave Lofton on the bench, a role much better suited to a player of his age. Nick Blackburn earned a spot at the back of the rotation. Brian Bass took the long relief spot in the bullpen. And Randy Ruiz showed that he could be a RH bench bat.

Andy LaRoche avoided the wrist injury that he suffered in the Dodgers' camp. But Scott Baker's slow start forced a late shuffle to the rotation. I'm not a fan of 12-man pitching staffs, so I hold the line there. The opening day 25-man roster looks like this:

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jason Bartlett, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Jason Kubel, DH
7. Matt Kemp, LF
8. Andy LaRoche, 3B
9. Nick Punto, 2B

Mike Redmond, C; Kenny Lofton & Craig Monroe, OF; Matt Tolbert, IF; Randy Ruiz, 1B/DH

1. Johan Santana
2. Boof Bonser
3. Nick Blackburn
4. Kevin Slowey
5. Scott Baker

Joe Nathan, CL; Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Bass, RHP; Dennys Reyes, LHP

Our opening day payroll is just a smidge over $72M, right about where it was in 2007. I'm including the signing bonuses for Morneau and Cuddyer in that figure - I can afford to pay them up front, and by not pro-rating them, I'll have that much more payroll to play with in future seasons.

2008 Season

Injuries strike quickly as Kevin Slowey and Michael Cuddyer are injured in the 4th and 5th games of the season. Francisco Liriano comes up to take Slowey's spot in the rotation. Lofton and Monroe split Cuddyer's PA with Kemp moving to RF when Kenny is in the lineup and staying in LF when it's Monroe. We recall Brian Buscher to balance what had been a rather OF heavy bench to start the season, and he gets a few starts vs. RHP, spelling LaRoche. Liriano doesn't have it, and is demoted after 3 GS. Buscher goes back down when Cuddyer returns at the end of April.

No sooner does Kevin Slowey recover than Scott Baker goes on the DL. Glen Perkins comes up to take his spot. Pat Neshek goes down a few days later - Bobby Korecky fills in for a couple of weeks until we can claim Craig Breslow off waivers. We lose Punto and Tolbert in quick succession, replacing them with Buscher and Alexi Casilla, who proves to be a revelation at 2B. When Punto comes off the DL, he resumes his super-utility role. Bonser pitches himself out of the rotation when Baker comes off the DL at the beginning of June.

That month, the team hits its stride, and shows that it can be a contender for the division title. It's apparent, however, that Monroe is washed up, and that Bass is over his head. LaRoche is struggling (not as badly as he actually did coming back from the wrist injury and getting inconsistent playing time, but still not great), so he splits 3B about 50/50 with Buscher. Punto comes off the DL as Cuddyer goes back on it. At about this time I promote both Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama to New Britain.

As July wears on, we dump Bass in favor of Francisco Liriano. Lofton has basically become the full time LF since Cuddyer went down again - Monroe is eventually replaced as the 5th OF by Darnell McDonald. Glen Perkins is shifted to long relief when he begins to struggle in early September, clearing a rotation spot for the still fresh Liriano. Jose Mijares eventually emerges as the 8th-inning guy to spell the collapsing Guerrier. However, we have the luxury of resting some people in the closing days of September. That's because the 2008 Twins team I built is way better than one that Bill Smith made.

All of Delmon Young's AB go to Kemp; we pick up 3.7 WARP there. All of Everett's and Brendan Harris' AB go to Jason Bartlett; that adds about 1.0 WARP. By avoiding an injury in spring training and getting consistent playing time early, I find it unlikely that LaRoche would have performed as poorly as he did in '08. At the least he plays plus defense. Still, I'll call it a wash. Span gets all of Gomez' PA, adding 50% to his WARP of 3.3 and ultimately creating about 3 wins over Gomez. Lofton gets Span's PA, turning in something close to 1.0 WARP, about 1/3 of a win below what Gomez provided. The net gain is still pretty good there.

But the biggest difference comes from retaining Santana. In 2008, the difference between the AL and NL in terms of ERA and BAA was negligible - so Santana's stats with the Mets come back to the Junior Circuit intact: 34 GS, 234.1 IP, 7.9 K/9, 1.15 WHIP, 2.54 ERA. Just 4 of those 34 GS weren't QS. He finished the season on a string of 14 straight QS. Given the run support afforded to Livan and Liriano in that slot in the rotation, Santana likely would have finished with a record of around 22-7, and would have been a sure top-3 finisher in Cy Young voting.

Instead of topping out at 88 wins, this team wins at least 93, and clinches the division no later than the final Wednesday of the regular season.

2008 Postseason

We head into October having afforded significant rest to our sputtering pitching staff and first baseman. Cuddyer starts every game during the last week of the season and gets his timing back. Refreshed for the playoffs, here's the team we take into the divisional round:

1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jason Bartlett, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Matt Kemp, LF
6. Jason Kubel, DH
7. Michael Cuddyer, RF
8. Andy LaRoche, 3B
9. Alexi Casilla, 2B

Mike Redmond, C; Kenny Lofton, OF; Nick Punto, Brian Buscher, IF; Randy Ruiz, PH

1. Johan Santana
2. Scott Baker
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Nick Blackburn

Joe Nathan, CL; Jose Mijares, Dennys Reyes, Craig Breslow, LHP; Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Boof Bonser, RHP

Slowey sits out the divisional round recovering from the liner he took in his final start vs. the White Sox.

How far could they have gone? Who knows? But it would have been interesting.

Next time: I divorce myself even further from reality in 2009.

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