Friday, December 31, 2010

A True Ace

Things I'm Not Worried About, Part 2

The Twins' early exit from the 2010 postseason prompted a lot of fans to jump to conclusions about the reasons they failed to advance (or even win a game). One idea I heard a lot was that the Twins can't compete in the playoffs because they don't have a True Ace, somebody who always shuts down the opposition whenever he gets the ball. (You know, like Cliff Lee was for the Rangers in the World Series. Wait... whoops!)

I have some questions about that supposition. First, is that really a bigger reason the Twins lost than the 8 R they scored in 3 games or the bullpen's inability to put up zeroes? A lot of pitchers will fail to win when the rest of their team performs like that. Second, and more importantly, do the Twins really lack a True Ace? What exactly constitutes a True Ace, anyway?

An Ace is basically a #1 starter, the guy who gets the ball on opening day. Each of the 30 teams has one of those. Of course, some of those guys would be #2 or #3 guys on bigger payroll teams (or #5 on the Phillies). So we're not looking for the best guy on each of the 30 teams, but rather one of the best 30 pitchers in all of baseball.

How do we determine who those guys are? WAR(P) for pitchers is determined in incompatibly different (and flawed) ways depending on which site you reference. Rather than have someone else try to formulate pitcher value for me, I'm more inclined to look for a convergence of desirable qualities: dependability, stuff, command. An ace takes pressure off his teammates by taking his turn every 5th day, pitching deep into the game, limiting baserunners, getting strikeouts and keeping the score close. So I want to find guys who made the top 30 in IP, WHIP, BB/9, K/9 and HR/9.

Cole Hamels came in 30th in IP with 208.2. The 30th best WHIP in the Majors last year was Ian Kennedy's 1.20. Rodrigo Lopez checked in at #30 in BB/9 with 2.52. 30 guys were able to rack up at least 7.68 K/9, ending with Tommy Hanson. And there were 29 guys ahead of Mark Buerhle's 0.73 HR/9.

Anybody who was on all 5 of those lists must be a True Ace, right? Right, but it's an incredibly short list:

Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright

Any criteria by which Roy Halladay doesn't emerge as a True Ace must be a little flawed. So I'll loosen things up just a bit. How about guys who pitched at least 200 IP, with at least 7.5 K/9, WHIPs under 1.25, BB/9 below 3.0 and HR/9 under 0.9? That got me 4 more names:

Halladay, Roy Oswalt (yikes, that's a good Phillies rotation!), Justin Verlander and Hanson.

Several other very worthy guys just missed in one of the categories: CC Sabathia and Zach Greinke came up a little short with 7.4x K/9, Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jiminez had a few too many walks, Dan Haren and Hamels (seriously, Philadelphia!) had HR/9 over 1.0, Josh Johnson and Mat Latos didn't have enough IP. It's still exclusive enough - I'm satisfied that anyone who can meet 4 of the 5 criteria is an Ace, and anybody who can hit all 5 is a True Ace.

The Twins didn't have anyone meet 4 out of 5. Carl Pavano wasn't close in K/9, and just missed with 0.98 HR/9. And Francisco Liriano didn't have enough IP (191.2) and came up just short with a 1.26 WHIP.

About that, though. I followed Liriano particularly closely this season. I made him a high pick for my fantasy team, and I made a bold assertion that he would pitch about as well as Jon Lester in 2010 (Lester hit 4/5 lists). My big takeaway from observing his 2010 is that he gave up an absolutely mind-blowing number of crappy hits. Bloopers just over the IF, slow choppers over the mound, swinging bunts, actual bunts. The number of rallies against him that actually came from a series of well-hit balls was pretty tiny.

His BABIP numbers bear that out. The average BABIP of all Major League pitchers in 2010 was .297. Liriano's was .335. That was 3rd worst in all of baseball among qualified starters. That's some exceptionally bad luck. In spite of that, Liriano still managed to finish 31st in MLB in OPS against, 37th in ERA and 43rd in WHIP. He was elite in a couple of important categories: 5th in K/9 with 9.44 and 4th in HR/9 with 0.42 (he was 1st until his final GS of the season). Do you put any stock in DIPS? (I don't think they give a complete picture, but they're certainly useful.) Liriano was 3rd in FIP (2.66), 2nd in xFIP (3.06) and 3rd in SIERA (3.02).

Substituting the league average BABIP into his numbers, it quickly becomes apparent how awesome Liriano was in 2010. He allowed 522 BIP (730 AB - 201 K - 9 HR + 2 SF). A .297 BA for those 522 AB results in 155 H. That's 20 fewer than he actually allowed. Add those together with his 9 HR and 58 BB and his WHIP drops to 1.16, comfortably within the top 30 in that category. But it's actually even better than that, because those 20 fewer hits would have been converted into at least 20 more outs. Assuming no DP, that adds 6.2 IP to bring his season total to 198.1 IP - just 5 outs short of 200. That larger denominator drops his WHIP to 1.12 - good for 12th in baseball.

If you assume that all 20 of those subtracted H were singles (hardly a fair assumption, but let's be conservative), his TB allowed would be reduced to 239. That makes his new SLG% against .327 - 9th overall. His OBP allowed would drop to .290 (14th). His new opponents' OPS would be .617 (9th).

Those adjustments show that Liriano, given ordinary luck, would have been easily one of the the top 30 pitchers in baseball last year, a legitimate Ace. As for his IP total, the only other category in which he comes up just short of True Ace criteria, that can be rather easily accounted for by his position as the Twins' #5 starter at the beginning of the season. There was enough doubt about his ability after 2009 that some were even calling for him to move the bullpen in spring training, particularly after the season-ending injury to Joe Nathan. Had Liriano been given the #1 or #2 spot in the rotation that we now clearly see that he deserved, he would have certainly made at least one more start in 2010, and passed the 200 IP threshold with only 1.2 IP in that 32nd GS.

It would be fair to question at this point whether Liriano really deserves a discount based on his poor BABIP. I'd be the first to admit that DIPS are missing something crucial about pitcher ability. For example, Johan Santana nearly always outperforms his FIP and xFIP (I think this is because he's exceptionally good at getting himself out of jams - as evidenced by his higher than average strand rates). And, for me, Nick Blackburn's summer troubles had less to do with some inevitable regression of BABIP than they did with him simply pitching like ass. Was something like that dogging Liriano last year? Did he deserve to give up all those hits?

Permit me to slice and dice his season. His first 5 GS were stupendous, particularly after the 5 BB grind in his 1st appearance in Chicago. He combined to go 4-0 with 36 IP, 26 H, 6 ER, 0 HR, 13 BB and 36 K while winning the AL Pitcher of the Month award for April despite pitching in just 4 games. His BABIP over that stretch was an only slightly better than league average .289.

From there to the All Star Break, he made 12 starts, totaling 71.1 IP, 81 H, 40 ER, 2 HR, 17 BB and 81 K. Even if you add in his 6 HBP, that's still fewer free passes per 9 IP than in the earlier stretch, and the K/9 is better. Both HR came in the same lousy start in Boston on May 20th. Despite improved peripherals, Liriano's ERA over these 12 GS was more than 3 times worse than his 1st 5 starts, thanks to an absurdly high .391 BABIP, and he went 2-7.

Even so, he delivered QS in 7 of the 12 games. Of the 5 he didn't, 2 (May 20th and July 9th) were bad days - even great pitchers will have a couple of games when they get lit up. The other 3 merit special attention:
  • First there was the May 8th game against Baltimore, in which Liriano gave up a season-high 10 H in 6 IP. All of the 5 ER he allowed came with 2 outs. Does he have trouble finishing off innings? Did he lose his focus? See for yourself. Flip through those O's highlights. You only get to see the RBI hits, but notice how their announcers keep saying things like, "Consistent with their other hits in the inning: a dying quail!" and, "...another hit that did not go out of the infield," and "This is a seeing-eye ball here!" Also notice who's playing SS for the Twins: Brendan Harris. This was the 3rd game after JJ Hardy's wrist injury put him on the shelf for several weeks.
  • Let's look at June 23rd in Milwaukee. Liriano lasted just 5 IP, but that was only because Gardy elected to lift him for a PH in the top of the 6th. Liriano was at just 77 pitches and surely would have come out for the 6th in an AL park. And, as for the 2 RBI hits he allowed, check them out. One is about a 4-hopper up the middle, and the other is a groundball double past Michael Cuddyer at 3rd, which was subsequently butchered in the LF corner by Delmon Young, allowing Rickie Weeks to score easily from 1B. Neither ball looked like it was particularly squared up by the hitter.
  • Liriano's next start was June 28th against the Tigers. The first 6 batters reached on about 15 pitches: a HBP and 5 straight hits (the first of which was a bunt single) led to 4 quick ER. He gave up 2 more hits in the 2nd, including a slow roller to SS that moved the lead runner to 3rd where he could score on the ensuing groundout. A lousy start, yet Liriano lasted into the 7th inning, where he was chased by 2 straight 1st-pitch bunts - one a single, the 2nd a Sac that didn't result in an out when Orlando Hudson dropped Justin Morneau's throw (there's at least one of the 5 outs Liriano needed to get to 200 IP). At the end of the day, Liriano had given up 6 ER on 9 H and 2 BB with 6 K in 6 IP. He wasn't sharp at the beginning of the game, he had a little bad luck, the Tigers were hot. But he still hung around, kept the team in the game (it was 5-4 Tigers when he was pulled) and saved the bullpen until the 7th.

From the 1st series after the All-Star Break to the 3-game sweep in Chicago that effectively sealed the division title for the Twins, Liriano went 8-0 in 11 GS. His combined line was 71 IP, 60 H, 19 ER, 2 HR, 25 BB, 72 K. His BABIP over that stretch was .304, again reasonably close to the league average. He failed to deliver a QS in just 3 of those 11 GS:
  • August 6th in Cleveland. I had a nice rant about this one at the time. Superficially resembled the Tigers game I just described in that he allowed 7 of the first 11 batters to reach, resulting in 4 ER. But it was really more like the Orioles game, because just about all the hits he gave up were on seeing-eye grounders.
  • His next start in Chicago featured another 1st inning jam. 4 straight Sox reached after 2 were out, culminating in this impressive RBI single from AJ Pierzynski. He had to battle in the 5th and 6th, and was pulled 1 out shy of a QS. 7 H, 2 BB, 2 HBP, but only 1 run allowed.
  • The next was also against Chicago on August 18th. Liriano wasn't very good in this one, allowing 5 ER on 6 H (including the first HR he'd allowed in 3 months, a 3-run jack on the heels of 2 BB) and 4 BB in just 5 IP. The only thing I could say in his defense is that the 5th run came home as a result of consecutive missed GIDP opportunities.
His final 3 GS make their own little section. He lasted just 13.1 IP combined over those 3 games, though the shortest of those was the result of an illness that came on after 3 IP. But what really makes these games stand out is the fact the Liriano allowed 5 HR in them, one more than he'd given up in his previous 28 GS, a span of 178.1 IP. The whole team lost focus after they vanquished the White Sox, and I think he was guilty of that, too. He also was probably worn out after a full season workload that exceeded anything he'd achieved previously, especially if you consider the 48.2 IP he added in winter ball in December and January. Whatever the reason, those last 3 games are so far out of character with the rest of his 2010, I don't think they're terribly indicative of what we can expect from him going forward.

If we add the two stretches in which Liriano was himself and enjoying basically league average BABIP, he went 12-0 over 16 GS (the Twins won 15 of those games). He amassed 107 IP (6.2 IP/GS) with a 2.10 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 0.2 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9 and 9.1 K/9. Definitely an Ace, and only 3 BB from being a True Ace.

If he can more or less repeat his 2010 peripherals next year, I expect Liriano to deliver those kinds of numbers over 33-34 GS. (That's especially since he won't have any winter ball to extend his workload this time around.) 200+ IP of awesome stuff and command, plus merely ordinary luck on balls in play, should easily land him in the discussion of who's the best pitcher in baseball. And if he should enjoy better than average luck, we could be in store for something very special.

Either way, I'd confidently hand him the ball on opening day, and for the 1st game of the postseason if the Twins should make it there again. Liriano pitched well enough last season to belong among the best in the game. Going into his age 27 season in 2011, what should be his prime, I don't see any reason to expect less from him.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Arizona Prospects

Two items of note from just before Thanksgiving: The Arizona Fall League concluded its schedule, and Baseball America posted its annual ranking of the Twins' top 10 prospects. There's plenty of overlap between the two, as 3 of the farmhands on the BA list played in the AFL.

The Twins have tended to send less advanced prospects to the AFL than some other teams, and that was the case again this year. Of the 7 players the organization sent to the Peoria Saguaros, only Kyle Waldrop has played more than half a season above AA. This group was mostly comprised of guys who spent the majority of the year in New Britain, where they accumulated a shockingly bad 44-98 record (.310 winning percentage). It was more of the same for them this fall, as the Saguaros finished 9-22 for an even more dreadful .290 W%.

Individually, they were a mixed bag. Bear in mind that the average AFL batter hit .283/.356/.431, while the average pitcher had a 5.10 ERA and 1.57 WHIP.

Named the Twins' 2010 Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .259/.343/.538 between Fort Myers and New Britain with an organization-leading 27 HR in 123 games. BA rated him as the organization's best athlete. In addition to his power, he has good OF range and speed, especially for a corner guy, and he has a very strong arm. The knock on him right now is his high strikeout rate - he fanned in 30.7% of his AB during the regular season.

The Saguaros didn't give him much of a chance to show off his tools. He appeared in just 17 of the team's 31 games and barely made it to 60 PA. At first glance, his .236/.300/.400 line looks like a huge disappointment. It included just 1 HR, his K-rate remained high at 29%, and he drew only 3 BB. However, there is at least a suggestion that he made an adjustment over the course of the season:

First 9 games: 26 PA, .160/.192/.280, 3 2B, 0 HR, 0 BB, 8 K
Last 8 games: 34 PA, .300/.382/.500, 3 2B, 1 HR, 3 BB, 8 K

Small sample sizes both, but I'll keep my hopes up based on his eventual production. The Twins need Benson to have a good year at Rochester in 2011. Even if his K-rate holds at around 30%, if he can put up another OPS > .850 he'll be someone the they can count on in 2012. He's been added to the 40-man roster, and will be a call-up option should one of the corner guys get hurt. And he's the guy I'm hoping will be ready to take over for Michael Cuddyer after his contract expires next year. Benson has the ability to make us forget about Cuddy pretty quickly.

The Twins' Minor League Player of the Year from 2008 & 2009, Revere was added to the 40-man roster in September and got a cup of coffee with the Twins down the stretch. He has hit .300 or better at every level so far, though this year's .305 was a career low, as was his .371 OBP and .363 SLG%. Those numbers were only incrementally lower than his 2009 numbers from Fort Myers, but they seem to suggest that he's reaching his ceiling as a Juan Pierre-style slapper. His 50-SB speed and weak arm also bring Pierre to mind.

Unlike Benson, Revere got off to a fast start in the AFL. He was hitting .370 with 2 doubles and a triple through his first 18 games. But over his last 10 he went just 6 for 39 without an XBH, dropping his final line to a much less impressive .295/.358/.330. He stole 13 bases without being caught.

Revere strikes me as a poor man's Denard Span. The extra value he gives you in speed and batting average is negated by his lower IsoP and even weaker throwing arm. Add the fact that they're both left-handed, and I just can't see them in the OF together at the same time. Revere should remain at AAA for most of the season in case Span gets injured. Maybe he'll have some utility on the postseason roster as a PR should the Twins get that far again. But they should be looking to move him by this time next year. Somebody needs Revere to be their everyday leadoff man - just not the Twins.

Since making his full-season debut in 2009, Gutierrez has split time as a starter and a reliever. The Twins seem to have plenty of capable young starters and a lot of questions in the bullpen right now, so the bullpen is likely where he'll end up. He's got a tremendous sinker and a more or less average strikeout rate. At the moment, control is his biggest problem, as he's walked over 3.7 batters per 9 innings in each of the last 2 seasons. That all adds up to some rather unimpressive WHIPs and ERAs at the upper levels.

He made 12 appearances in the AFL, all out of the 'pen. The good news: in 11 IP, he struck out 10, and induced 21 groundouts and only 1 fly out. The bad news: he walked 9, leading to an unseemly 2.00 WHIP and 6.55 ERA. He'll have to throw more strikes before the Twins can count on him.

He didn't make BA's list, but Bromberg is in the bottom half of some other top 10 prospects lists. From 2007-2009 he was his league's strikeout leader. That string was broken this year, as he didn't quite make it to 6 K/9 at AA, but he rebounded well with 8.1 K/9 in 9 GS for the Red Wings. As he's moved up the organizational ladder, he's increasingly become a flyball pitcher, but that doesn't seem to be of any concern. He's kept his HR/9 down and would play half his schedule with the Twins at Target Field.

In the AFL, he made 6 starts, maxing out at 4.2 IP. He bookended his season with 2 excellent efforts (combined 8 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 11 K). Sandwiched in between them were 4 rough ones (combined 14.2 IP, 25 H, 15 ER, HR, 6 BB, 14 K). In Bromberg's defense, the H/9 numbers were so lousy for the entire Saguaros staff that one has to conclude that the regular defense was terrible. Overall, his peripherals were quite promising: 0.4 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, 9.9 K/9. He'll begin next season back at Rochester, and will make a much more intriguing spot start option than Jeff Manship now that he's on the 40-man roster.

The Twins' 1st-round pick from 2006 has been making a slow climb through the system. He repeated A- in 2008 and was briefly demoted to A+ in the middle of 2010. His game has been improving in some facets, however, as he's raised his BA and lowered his K rate over the last few seasons. What may be of some concern is the sudden drop in power - Parmelee hit half as many HR last season as we would have expected from his career averages.

He was repeating the AFL this year, too. He hit .339/.405/.477 with a 17/12 K/BB ratio, but with no HR, continuing the trends from the regular season. Those numbers are solidly above average for the league, though, so the Twins have to be pleased. Between Fort Myers, New Britain and Peoria, he combined to hit .295/.365/.415 with 38 2B, 5 3B, and 8 HR.

The Saguaros used him at first base, but he's logged a lot of time in the OF corners for the Twins' affiliates. His defense has improved, but it doesn't look as though he's going to be an asset in the field. My guess is that the Twins will start him in Rochester next spring and hope that he'll be able to maintain the high average and OBP while seeing just a few more balls fly over the fence. If Parmelee can pull that off, he'll make a nice minimum-wage replacement for Jason Kubel in 2012.

Everyone was understandably excited about Robertson after 2007. At the age of 19, he picked apart the Midwest League, with a 2.29 ERA, .226 opponents' BA, 1.17 WHIP, 2.9 BB/9, 10.8 K/9 and only 3 HR allowed in 102.1 IP. As a 6'5" lefty, there was a lot to dream on. But his velocity hasn't improved as he's filled out, and his numbers in all of the categories I listed above have been steadily eroding, even while he repeated A+ in 2009. I wasn't surprised to see him fall apart in the Eastern League, with a 5.41 ERA, .307 opponents' BA, 1.64 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, 5.8 K/9 and 17 HR allowed in 149.2 IP. Of the 4 pitchers the Twins' sent to the AFL, I expected the least from Robertson.

At first glance, his 4.50 ERA gives the impression that he was effective. But he allowed 14 R in his 14 IP, it's just that half of them were unearned. He still had a .327 opponents' BA, 1.71 WHIP, 3.9 BB/9, 5.8 K/9 and 2 HR allowed. Certainly no better than he faired over the summer. If there's anything positive to find in this performance, it's that, used entirely in relief by the Saguaros, Robertson faced a disproportionate number of lefties, and handled them to the tune of a .217 BAA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.4 K/9. So he may have a future as a LOOGY. If he can't figure out a way to contain right-handed hitters, that's the only MLB job he can hope for.

The Twins' 3rd 1st-round selection from 2004 (after Trevor Plouffe and Glen Perkins), Waldrop had his progression delayed by a 2008 shoulder surgery. Since his return, he's been used exclusively in the bullpen, and to good effect. In 178.1 IP as a reliever across 3 levels, he's got a 2.32 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and just 7 HR allowed thanks to a G/F rate over 2.3. His 2nd half at Rochester wasn't as impressive as his spring, but a lot of us were expecting him to have a crack at the Matt Guerrier role in 2011.

His AFL experience was a total disaster. His groundball rate remained excellent, so again, I have to cast some aspersions on what must have been a dreadful Saguaros IF. But still, he allowed 24 H in 12.1 IP, including 4 HR, and he walked 6 while striking out just 5. That resulted in a (gulp!) 16.05 ERA. Was he tired after throwing nearly 90 innings out of the 'pen during the regular season? Let's say he was tired. Anyway, his performance was so uninspiring that the Twins chose not to add him to the 40-man roster and nobody selected him in the Rule 5 draft. So he'll come to spring training with as much chance to earn a back-end bullpen spot as several other folks.

Also of Note:

It was at about this time last year that Francisco Liriano's Dominican Winter League numbers first caught my attention. This year's version (in a more subdued way) might be Deolis Guerra. Supposedly one of the premium pieces of the Johan Santana trade after posting a 2.53 ERA in 19 FSL starts in 2007, Guerra has been a mess since joining the Twins' organization. He's been very hittable, with spotty command, and was torched for 19 HR in 127.1 IP in 2010.

However, in his first 7 appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League, he's allowed just 11 ER on 31 H and only 1 HR in 29.2 IP with a stellar 25/3 K/BB ratio. That's a 3.34 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 0.9 BB/9 and 7.6 K/9. All of those are a huge step up from what he was able to do over the last year and a half at the upper levels, against what I would guess is fairly similar competition. It also comes with a vastly improved GB rate of 2.16/FB.

Guerra is still only 21 - almost 6 months younger than 2010 1st round pick Alex Wimmers - and he's already logged 165 IP at AA and 25 at AAA. I'll keep an eye on him. If he's able to maintain those numbers throughout the VWL, he'll come to spring training with a chance to make Rochester's rotation and reassert his relevance on the prospect lists.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Twins send SS JJ Hardy, IF Brendan Harris and $0.5M to Orioles for RHPs James Hoey and Brett Jacobsen

So much for holding their cards.

I was prepared to have Alexi Casilla get his shot at 2B as a savings over what re-signing Orlando Hudson might have cost. Winning the negotiating rights for Tsuyoshi Nishioka briefly gave the Twins the depth to make Casilla the backup MI, while relegating Matt Tolbert to the edges of the 25-man roster (where he probably belongs). But it didn't likely save any money over Hudson. Then all this talk of pushing to re-sign Carl Pavano. Was the payroll going to get a lot bigger than we expected? Perhaps, but there are clearly limits.

Everyone talks about Hardy as someone who's going to make over $6M this year. It didn't have to be that way - I think the Twins could have used Jhonny Peralta's deal with Detroit as a fair comparison and signed Hardy for a 2-year deal at a nominal raise over last season's $5.1M. A player signed for 2 seasons is worth more in a trade than an impending free agent. There was value there, but I think at that moment the Twins were still on the fence about whether to even tender him a contract. And once Juan Uribe got a 3-year, $21M deal from the Dodgers, all hope of signing Hardy for under $6M went out the window.

It's obvious that Gardy was adamant that the Twins and Hardy part company. There's been a lot of talk since the start of the offseason about improving the team by getting faster up the middle. They stole by far the fewest bases in 2010 of any year since Gardy took over. And they probably looked at the way Texas ran all over the Yankees (and perhaps remembered how the Rays ran all over them) and felt like that was their best chance of slaying that particular dragon. And, with Victor Martinez returning to the division and AJ Pierzynski re-upping for 2 more years in Chicago, it's not a bad idea to have a few more base stealers in the lineup.

Hardy wasn't going to do that - he's successfully stolen just 3 bases in the last 3 years. But he's a rock-solid defender at SS, and even surpassed the league average for the position offensively despite another relatively disappointing year at the plate. Target Field wasn't kind to him, though (.252/.313/.340), and there's no reason to think it would get any easier for him in the future. He also had a negative platoon split (.210/.291/.324 vs. LHP) for the 2nd straight year. He didn't hit that great at home, and he doesn't make the lineup tougher on lefties. I can see the Twins feeling ambivalent about his offensive upside. There were probably some personality things there, too, like there were with Kyle Lohse or Matt Garza. If Gardy doesn't want a guy around, the front office usually finds a way to move him along.

Realizing that he would have some trade value, the Twins did tender Hardy a contract. Their biggest need would be low-cost bullpen help. They may have found a 2011 piece in Hoey, who had plus-plus strikeout numbers last year, but walked waaaaaay too many hitters. He had pretty good control before his 2008 shoulder surgery, though. If Rick Anderson can get him headed back in that direction, the Twins might have a minimum-wage replacement for Jesse Crain. If.

I would have preferred to see the Twins land somebody who was more of a sure thing for next season, even if it meant getting only one guy back instead of two. I bet that if they'd held onto Hardy for awhile, even as late as spring training, they would have found a taker desperate enough to upgrade their IF that they'd have given the Twins a better return. But I think Bill Smith looks at it like they just picked up a couple of hard-throwing relievers for nothing, since Hardy might just as easily have been cut loose. Add in the fact that they were able to rid themselves of Harris, and I can't feel too bad about it. I wouldn't have done it, but it's not a disaster.

That's especially true if Nishioka's spectacular 2010 season represents the breakout of a young player, finally healthy, entering his prime. And if the skills that are sufficient to steal bases and win batting titles and gold gloves in Japan translate to the Majors. If.

As for Casilla, a lot of people have been tossing around his career numbers and poor defense at 2B as an indication of what kind of talent he has (i.e. not much). He was dreadful in 2007 and 2009, but one of those years was his first taste of the big leagues as a 22-year-old. I'll give him a mulligan on 2007. Over the last 3 seasons he's at .256/.316/.344 in 863 PA, with 29 doubles, 7 triples, 8 homers and 24/27 stolen bases. The slash line isn't too far from the average bottom of the order hitter, and the SB numbers are great. In 2008 and 2010, his numbers were pretty comparable to Hardy's last year. As for defense at SS, he hasn't played enough innings there to give a good picture by the defensive metrics, but so far they rate as right around average. By swapping Casilla for Hardy, the Twins probably stand to lose some defensively, gain a lot of speed, and match what they were getting offensively. If Casilla can deliver another season like '08 and '10. If.

I guess that's my biggest problem with these maneuvers. The Twins have a huge pile of question marks heading into 2011, and some of them won't work out. With Hardy in the fold, the Twins had 3 potential starters for 2 positions, giving them a fallback if one of them gets hurt or doesn't work out. Now, the fallback is Tolbert, or perhaps Trevor Plouffe. That doesn't mean that they're doomed next year, or that the team is necessarily weaker than it was. It just means that Smith is more of a gambling man than I thought. He's betting the farm on Casilla and Nishioka. He'd better be right.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tender Moment

With the arbitration and contract tender deadlines behind us and the winter meetings just ahead, let's check in on the Twins' offseason so far...


The Twins exercised their $5.25M option on Jason Kubel, but declined Nick Punto's $5M option with a $0.5M buyout.

Kubel is a good value for that price, especially if he is deployed in such a way that he avoids playing the field and facing LHP. The injury to Justin Morneau made that difficult to accommodate, which may help to account for Kubel's disappointing 2nd half numbers. But even with a down year in 2010, over the last 3 years his .881 OPS vs. RHP is impressive - about 90% of what Adam Dunn has, er, done. And the White Sox will be paying him $14M.

As for Punto, he didn't stack up well next to the other internal options last year:

Punto: 288 PA, .238/.313/.302
Casilla: 170 PA, .276/.331/.395
Tolbert: 100 PA, .230/.293/.379

No sense paying Nick 8-10 times more money to do worse than Casilla and Tolbert. Add in the fact that he's 4 years older than Tolbert and 6 years older than Casilla, and it's a pretty easy decision to let him walk.


The Twins offered arbitration to Type A free agent Carl Pavano, but not to Matt Guerrier. They offered arbitration to Type B free agents Orlando Hudson and Jesse Crain, but not to Brian Fuentes or Jon Rauch. Pavano, Hudson and Crain all declined.

I was hoping the Twins would be bold with the relievers, particularly after Joaquin Benoit signed early with Detroit for 3 years, $16.5M. Certainly Crain feels he's in that league, but why wouldn't Fuentes, too? Arbitration might get him a bigger 2011 salary, but not as much guaranteed money as the 2-3 year deal he and Rauch are surely looking for.

In any event, the front office played it safe, and will likely net 4 extra top 50 picks, which is plenty. I guess.


The Twins won the rights to negotiate with Japanese Pacific League batting champ Tsuyoshi Nishioka with a $5.3M bid.

I've got to hand it to Bill Smith for this. That's thinking about 10,000 miles outside the box on how to replace Orlando Hudson. Nishioka is a switch-hitting MI, with terrific contact skills and a pretty decent OBP. He also likes to steal bases and plays gold-glove caliber defense up the middle - for the JPL, at least. He's the ideal fit for the #2 spot in the order. And he's only 26, so his best years may be just ahead. Just have to sign him now...


The Twins offered 2011 contracts to all unsigned, team controlled players on the 40-man roster.

There were only a couple of question marks here. There was a lot of speculation that JJ Hardy might be non-tendered, especially once the Nishioka news came out. But even if the Twins intend to use Casilla at SS in 2011, the dearth of viable MI free agents makes Hardy a valuable commodity. The Twins should be able to get something pretty nice back if they elect to trade him. But I count myself among those who still hope that they'll hold onto him for awhile. At least until Nishioka signs on the dotted line, and hopefully into spring training. Casilla's doing OK in Winter Ball, but I'm not sold yet...

I would have probably cut Glen Perkins loose at this point. But I don't suppose there's a huge downside in giving him one more chance to show that he can be worth something. There are lots of holes in the bullpen, but I suspect he'll find his way onto the waiver wire at some point next year.

Pretty quiet so far, which is fine with me. However, there are some indications that everyone may have underestimated how much the Twins have to spend this season. If that's the case, we might be in for a few (hopefully welcome) surprises this offseason.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Denard Span

Things I'm Not Worried About Part 1

Over the course of what I hope will be a rather uneventful offseason, I want to try to dispel some of the hysteria around the way the Twins finished the 2010 season. At the start of their final road trip, the Twins were 92-60, tied for the best record in the Majors. Even their lackluster finish couldn't prevent them from claiming the 4th-best record over the full season. A very good team, with very good players. I'm going to argue that several of those players are even better than the average fan seems to realize. Leading off: Denard Span.

I've been a Span booster ever since I first saw him play in the spring of 2008. Nothing about his game was flashy, but he showed solid fundamentals and an approach at the plate that was appropriate for his skill set. But his performance the previous two seasons was underwhelming, as he hit .285/.340/.349 and .267/.323/.355 with a high K rate at the upper levels. So he was sent back to AAA at the start of the season in favor of the much less polished Carlos Gomez. Span blew up to .340/.434/.481 in 40 games with the Red Wings, and eventually took over the Twins' leadoff spot by hitting .294/.387/.432 for the remainder of 2008 and .311/.392/.415 in 2009. Finally having reached his potential, the Twins rewarded him with a 5-year, $16.5M contract.

Then, in 2010, he hit just .264/.331/.348, essentially the same as his 2006-2007 performance in the minors. We've been had! 2008 & 2009 were a fluke - the real Denard Span is the same nobody we saw in the minors all those years!

The hell he is.

Though the slash numbers line up pretty well with his minor league track record, a deeper look shows that Span's offensive game was much closer to what it was in 2009 than 2007. In his younger days he had a poor understanding of the strike zone, with K/BB ratios of about 2/1. Last year, it was about 5/4, essentially the same as his excellent 2009. His distribution of liners, flies and grounders was only slightly different from last year. He hit a few more grounders, but for a guy with his wheels, that's not a bad thing. He cut his rate of IF flies - essentially automatic outs - and reduced his strikeout rate for the 3rd straight season. Those components combine to suggest that he should have been on his way to even better numbers in 2010.

So why didn't it happen? Check out the play made by Toronto SS Alex Gonzalez at the end ofthis highlight package from May 17th. This AB is a pretty good encapsulation of Span's season. He took the 1st pitch for a strike. He fouled off the second. Down 0-2, he made contact with a pitcher's pitch dipping down out of the strike zone. Span was exceptionally good at making contact this year - 11 out of every 12 swings got at least a piece of the ball. In this case, he put the ball in play - with the lowest BB and K rates of his MLB career, he put more balls in play than ever before (in fact, he was 5th in all of MLB in total balls in play). This one resulted in an out, thanks to a highlight-reel catch. At the time, I had this to say about it:

Lately it seems like something like that happens to Span at least once a series. When are those going to start falling in?

Answer: never.

Look at the liner that ended Span's dreadful 2 for 30 west coast trip from the 1st week of June (about 2:00 into the game summary). How about this play by Gabe Kapler from July 3rd?Span hit a ball on August 3rd that was ruled a FC because it forced Jose Morales at 2nd even though it hit the turf in RF. Span's 0 for 4 on August 24th included a lineout to the pitcher and a sliding catch of another liner to CF.

Those are just the ones I mentioned specifically in the blog. My impression from observing the Twins this year was that Span's season was a litany of bad luck at the dish. And the numbers bear that out. Here are the components of his BA (ground balls, fly balls, line drives and bunts) from each of his big league seasons and compared to the league as a whole (2008/2009/2010/2010 MLB totals):

GB: .257/.287/.223/.235
FB: .343/.257.205/.219
LD: .655/.763/.677/.724
BU: .300/.667/.214/.388

In 2008 he was really unlucky on liners but made up for it with good luck on flies. In 2009 he was lucky across the board. 2010 was just the opposite. The liners were unfortunate, but not the real problem. After all, everybody whacks a few bullets right at defenders over the course of the year. Had Span enjoyed league average luck on his line drives, it would have been worth just 5 more base hits. The regression to slightly below average on fly balls isn't a big deal either - he was due for that.

What really jumps out is the poor performance on grounders and bunts. Speedy guys like Span should always have a higher BA on grounders than the league as a whole. That's because the play that gets Jason Kubel by half a step is going to be too late to get Span. So to see a BA on grounders below the league average shows that not only did fewer than expected balls off Span's bat trickle into the OF, he beat out fewer IF hits than we would expect someone with his wheels would.

All those below average pieces led to a BABIP collapse in 2010. In his first 2 big league seasons, he hit .339 and .353 on balls in play - not outlandish for someone with his speed, but probably a little on the high side, especially in 2009. But even in his underwhelming minor league seasons, his BABIPs were .330 and .322. In 2010, his BABIP dropped to .294, by far a career low.

What would have happened if Span had enjoyed the BABIPs he'd put up in the minors? Let's split the difference between 2006 & 2007 and give him a .326 BABIP. He put 564 balls in play in 2010 (PA - K - BB - HBP - HR). A .326 BABIP would have given him 184 H, 18 more than he had. For the season, 22% of his H went for extra bases. That gives him 4 more XBH - let's call them 3 doubles and a triple. The higher BABIP then gives him 23 extra total bases for the season. Leaving his BB and HBP numbers the same, his line with his minor league luck would be:

.293/.357/.385, 27 2B, 11 3B, 3 HR

That's down a bit from his first 2 seasons, but would anybody really be complaining about it? Particularly in a year in which the average MLB leadoff man hit .264/.329/.382? We'd love to see more walks, but .357 still would have been the 3rd-highest OBP among qualified CF in the Majors. Just for having a more or less ordinary year with BABIP. If he'd had the good fortune he'd had in 2009, the line would have been something like this:

.316/.378/.415, 29 2B, 12 3B, 3 HR

Not quite as many BB or HR, but more H and XBH. Overall, it's basically the same season he had in 2009. That would have easily led all qualified CF in OBP, and placed around 6th in OPS right next to Chris Young, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rios. (His actual 2010 OPS placed him 3rd from the bottom among regular CFs.) 2009 was lucky. 2010 was unlucky. But Span was mostly the same hitter in each campaign.

Why the drop in HR? Need I say more than... Target Field? Span hit 3 HR on the road this year, the same number he hit on the road in 2009. But where the Metrodome had been good to him, yielding 7 HR in 437 AB, Target Field was stingy. Other than the unofficial exhibition blast that christened the new stadium at the end of spring training, Span wasn't able to get a ball out of his home park in 304 AB. He'll probably get a couple at home each year going forward, but we may never see his total HRs approaching double digits as we did in his 1st 2 years.

That's OK, because Span isn't paid to hit the ball out of the park. His job is to get on base. I think that's the biggest reason a lot of smart people are on his case right now. Span's BB rate has declined in each of the past 2 seasons, down to 8.5% of his PA in 2010. That's about half of what Jim Thome did. Patience is slump-proof, and a double-digit BB rate would have kept Span's OBP in the upper .340s at minimum. Where did the BB go?

So far, Span has reached in 100% of his career PA that ended with a 3-0 count. He always takes there. In 2008, a little under 2% of his PA resulted in 4-pitch BB. In 2009, it was a little over 2.1%. For all Major League hitters last season it was 2.1%, but only 9 of Span's 705 PA resulted in 4 straight out of the zone - not quite 1.3%. That has nothing to do with him - it's all about the opposing pitchers. Had they thrown ball 4 there at the normal rate, the rate he'd basically seen in his first 2 seasons, he would have had 15 BB in those situations. I'll assume that he eventually would have walked in about half of those PA anyway, so the net would have been 3 extra BB.

That leaves him about 8-10 BB short relative to 2009. Span is partially to blame for the decline, of course. Compare his full count PA between 2009 and 2010:

2009: 94 PA, 34 BB, 19 K, .225 BABIP (10 for 41)
2010: 92 PA, 26 BB, 14 K, .115 BABIP (6 for 52)

Clearly, there's some more horrendous luck there - the guy had BABIPs over .300 in every other 2-strike count. But there's a huge shift in general outcomes as well: upwards of 56% of his 2009 PAs in this situation resulted in a BB or K; in 2010 that dropped to 43.5%. As with his overall game, he made a lot more contact with the count full than he had previously. That could be the pitchers throwing him more strikes. But I think it's more likely a reflection of a change in approach. Instead of taking that two-seamer under the hands for ball 4 or strike 3 (depending on the umpire), Span put that pitch in play, and almost always made an out.

Is it better to put the ball in play in that situation? Depends. If there's no one on base, I think he might as well take the close pitches and try to work the walk. If there's a RISP with 2 outs and Matt Tolbert on deck, I'd rather have him take a hack and see what happens. Generally, he probably should only put a ball in play about half the time there, far less than he did in 2010.

During the season, there was a report that Span had become more aggressive because opposing pitchers were giving him more 1st-pitch strikes than before. That seems to be true, as his 1st strike percentage went up by about 1 point. But I wouldn't say it was necessarily because he was seeing more early strikes than usual. The proportion of 1-0 counts to 0-1 counts remained basically identical between 2009 and 2010. However, when you swing at the first pitch, it's always a strike, whatever the umpire might have called it. Excluding sacrifices, Span put the first pitch in play just 8.3% of the time in 2009, but that jumped to 11.2% last year. That alone can account for the increase in first-pitch strikes Span saw in 2010. He also saw about a 14% increase in ABs that ended on the 1st or 2nd pitch compared to 2009.

According to FanGraphs, Span actually saw 2% fewer pitches within the strike zone this past season overall. But the counts he found himself in were about the same as the year before, because he swung at more pitches outside the zone. And he made more contact outside the zone. And things tended not to go well when he made contact this year. For all the extra contact, he hit a significantly lower percentage of foul balls, about 9% below his first 2 seasons and the league average. That got me thinking: how many of those 2009 choppers to Jerry White in the coaches' box turned into choppers to Paul Konerko at the bag in 2010? Enough to ruin his ground ball BABIP? The difference in position of the ball in the hitting zone at the point of contact is minute, but the impact on the BA is huge.

So why did Span really get so much more aggressive? I go back to the Gonzalez play I cited above. If I noticed how often he was being robbed, it must have been on Span's mind, too. Maybe he thought those almost-hits would be going off the bat just enough harder if he weren't trying to protect with 2 strikes. Can't let them get to 2 strikes, gotta swing earlier.

That approach worked, at first. At the end of that Toronto series, Span was batting only .259, but he had a .359 OBP thanks to 24 BB in his first 39 games. Beginning with the Boston series the next day, he finished the month by hitting safely in 11 of the last 12 games, going 22 for 49 (.449), but with just 2 BB. His luck ran out on the west coast trip, as he began June with just 1 H in his first 6 games. And, since he was hacking at everything, he drew just one BB to go with it.

So Span has some things he can work on over the winter and spring. He should cut his 1st-pitch swings back down under 20%, and try to sustain the patience he has leading off the game in more of his subsequent PAs. He should be encouraged to keep taking the borderline pitches, especially with nobody in scoring position. If his overriding mentality is always to take 2 strikes, I don't think he can go wrong. He's great at making contact - he shouldn't be afraid to be behind in the count.

On the bases, Span set a career high with 26 SB in 2010 even though his attempts/SB opportunities was the lowest of any of his 3 MLB seasons. He had never been an efficient base-stealer in his earlier seasons, a frustrating deficiency for someone with such impressive speed. He hadn't had a full-season SB% above 69% since rookie ball, generally resulting in net SB in the low teens. 2010 was a breakout in this regard, as he officially succeeded in 86.7% of his attempts, resulting in 22 net SB.

That improved efficiency was tarnished by a high number pickoffs. Span was picked off in about 3% of his SB opportunities. The league average is 0.8%. Since only 2 of the 9 PO resulted in CS (meaning that Span was CS by catchers only twice all season), we have to assume that 7 of them came in situations in which he wasn't actually planning on stealing. Laziness? Lack of focus? I don't have an answer. It seemed like a lot of the pickoffs came in a cluster in the middle of the summer. It could have been a slump, just like pitchers and hitters go through. Whatever the reason, this is an area he will have to clean up next season.

In the field, it's easy to remember the far too frequent balls that dropped harmlessly between Span and one of the corner OF. That's a combination of passiveness and poor communication that he should be able to correct for 2011. He also failed to hold onto an exasperating number of balls at the fringes of his range, balls that he reached with long runs, slides, stretches and dives, but that fell to the outfield grass despite touching leather. Some of that was luck again, but if I were him, I'd ask to get some extra reps on those types of plays in spring training.

In spite of those shortcomings, many of the new defensive metrics ranked Span as an above-average CF. Baseball Prospectus' new system has him as one of the very best defensive CF in 2010. He'll never have a great arm, but his quickness and accuracy with his throws minimizes that weakness. With some continued work with the coaches, he could elevate himself to a universally recognized asset in the OF.

As his luck normalizes, and his excellent approach from 2008-2009 is reinforced, and he makes incremental improvements in his focus on the basepaths and assertiveness in the OF, Span will see excellent results in all facets of his game. He has the determination to work out the things he can control. The wheel of fortune will take care of the rest. I expect Span's 2011 to place solidly within the upper tier of CF/leadoff men in the majors. He's certainly nothing to worry about.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It Ain't Broke

2010-2011 Offseason Blueprint

Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants on the occasion of their first World Series title in 50+ seasons on the left coast. They join the 2006 Cardinals and 1987 Twins on the short list of weakest rosters to lift the trophy. Their pitching was elite, but their lineup basically consisted of an outstanding rookie and a bunch of past-their-prime castoffs who all managed to have one last good half season at the same time. Of the 8 teams that made it to the postseason, I would have ranked them 7th or 8th, yet they come away with the rings. They are proof that anything can happen in October. The hard part is getting there.

Nobody had an easier time getting to October than the Twins, who clinched their division with 11 games still left on the schedule. However disappointing their ALDS showing against the Yankees, they were by far the class of the AL Central. Whatever moves the front office makes between now and opening day have to be in support of maintaining the dominance over the division this team has already shown.

The Twins are facing some major payroll constraints, thanks mostly to a pair of poor decisions Bill Smith made on either end of the 2009 season. The first was when he chose not to offer Joe Mauer an extension in the spring. Coming off a batting title and gold glove in 2008, Mauer had established himself as the face of the franchise. But he was hobbled by a back injury which wound up costing him all of spring training, his 3rd major DL stint in 6 MLB seasons. Mauer's leverage was never going to be lower. Smith should have offered him a 4-year, $60M-ish extension (including $16M option for 2015) at that time. That's more than Jorge Posada got, and similar to what Justin Morneau got. In the midst of his sacroiliac drama, there's no way Mauer turns that down. But Smith decided to let Mauer come within a year of free agency, and now he's paying him $23M for 2011 instead of $14-15M.

The other misstep came in early November, when Smith exercised Michael Cuddyer's 2011 option based on his 2009 season. I never saw the sense of that. Even if Cuddyer had managed to repeat his career year in 2010, and the Twins wanted him back in RF in 2011, he wouldn't have cost a lot more than $10.5M. A duplicate of 2009 would have likely made Cuddyer a Type A free agent. Offer him arbitration, and if he declines, you've got another high pick in what's projecting to be an especially high quality draft. If you can't resign him, Jason Kubel is your RF and you just need to sign a platoon partner for him for a pittance. Instead, Cuddyer had a pedestrian 2010, but is locked in for something around double what he'd command on the open market.

Those significant constraints notwithstanding, the Twins aren't in bad shape heading into 2011. Here's a potential opening day roster one could assemble from the guys who are currently on the 40-man roster and under team control for next season (click to enlarge):

Bad news: the Twins could replace every departing free agent with a pre-arbitration farmhand and still have a payroll about 10% above what they started with last season.

Good news: This team would still be solidly average or better, almost across the board. The only weak spot in the lineup is Casilla, who has put up league average 2B numbers in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Of the pitchers, only Nick Blackburn is below par, though he, too, has put up above average numbers in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Even with a bevy of rookies on the bench and in the bullpen, this team can contend in the AL Central.

However, there are a tremendous number of what ifs associated with this roster. Can Nathan and Morneau (and Neshek, Hardy, Baker and Slowey) shake off their injuries to deliver performances in line with their career numbers? Can Span, Kubel, Cuddyer and Blackburn bounce back from down years? Can Young, Valencia, and Duensing sustain their breakouts? Can aging prospects like Hughes, Slama, Morales, Tolbert and Delaney finally stick on a big league bench? Can young prospects like Revere and Burnett overcome a lack of experience at AAA to have an impact with the Twins?

The answer to many of those questions will probably be no. But, in many cases, it could be yes. If we knew which areas wouldn't work out, we could focus our offseason personnel decisions around strengthening those positions. But we don't know, and likely couldn't make any definitive determination until the first part of June.

That being the case, my recommendation for this offseason would be to upgrade this roster around the margins while retaining as much talent and payroll flexibility as possible for the trades we'll need to make at the beginning of the summer. Specifically:

1. Let the FA go, but be courageous about offering arbitration.

Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, Brian Fuentes, Randy Flores, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Ron Mahay and Nick Punto are all free to pursue deals elsewhere. Only Flores, Mahay and Punto are in poor position to expect a multi-year deal from their new team. As it stands now, the Twins can expect to get only 1 of the top 60 or so picks in next year's talented draft class. If they're bold with their arbitration offers, though, they could get as many as 8 picks in that range.

Fuentes, Crain and Rauch are Type B free agents, and all have closer aspirations. They should each be a relative bargain for other clubs looking for "proven" closers. Those clubs don't lose any picks for signing them, though the Twins would gain supplemental first round picks should they offer them arbitration. Any of them would be worthwhile additions to the bullpen should they accept. In fact, if the payroll weren't already so high, I'd actively try to bring back Fuentes and/or Crain. But I'm guessing all of them will test the market, and thereby earn the Twins 3 supplemental picks.

Pavano should be looking for something like what Randy Wolf got from the Brewers last year (at least $30M over 3 years). At the least, he'll be expecting what Joel Pineiro got from the Angels (2 years, $16M). Either way, he's declining arbitration this time around. I have a feeling he'll wind up with one of the bottom half finishers such as the Mets, meaning the Twins would only get a high 2nd round pick and a supplemental pick for him. But that's still a nice tradeoff for a low-risk arbitration offer.

The tricky case is that of Guerrier. Non-closer relievers tend to be a tough sell as Type A's. Guerrier wouldn't be worth giving up a top 30 pick for. But 50th or later? Sure. And there are plenty of scenarios in which that could be the case. Guerrier is the sort of veteran Dayton Moore can't resist signing; KC's 2nd round pick should be around 50th overall. How about a return to his native Cleveland? Or Pittsburgh? Or what about some of the bigger spending teams who could be signing multiple Type A's? After the Yankees grab Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, would they have any qualms about dropping their 3rd round pick on Guerrier? Better still, what if the team that lands Adam Dunn decides to give up their 2nd-rounder for Guerrier? The Twins would get the 1st-round pick, because Guerrier is actually ranked higher by Elias. The upside could be outstanding. The downside if he accepts arbitration is minimal. I would want to bring back one of the bullpen veterans for 2011. If it has to be Guerrier at $3.5-4M, that's hardly a disaster.

With some cajones and a few good breaks, the Twins could be turning their 2010 veteran sell-off into a pool of talent that will be the core of their team for the 2nd half of the decade. Let's go for it.

2. Use multi-year deals to keep the arbitrator away.

In addition to 10 FA, the Twins have 10 players who are eligible for arbitration. I would non-tender Glen Perkins and Clay Condrey. Casilla, Repko and Neshek get 1-year deals for $1M or less. By offering multi-year deals to 4 of the others, we can trim a few million dollars off the estimated payroll, leaving some headroom with which we can add bigger salaries later in the season.

Quick note: I'm taking my baseline salary estimates from the Twins Centric guys, so there won't be any controversy about the numbers. However, they're way off base with their $2.75M estimate for Slowey. There's no way he gets a lot more than Liriano did in his 1st year of arbitration. He'll get $1.75M at the most.

Hardy's situation is the easiest. The Tigers and Jhonny Peralta just set the market for late 20's, RH SS with some power but no SB: 2 years, $11.25M, with a $6M option for 2013. Compare their 3-year averages:

Peralta: .260/.319/.414, 49 HR, 4/7 SB in about 1900 PA
Hardy: .262/.324/.419, 41 HR, 3/6 SB in about 1450 PA

Hardy is the better fielder, but Peralta has been more durable. They're the same age. Basically, there is no justification for Hardy to expect anything different than what Peralta got, which pays $5.5M in 2011.

Liriano's best comps are Zach Greinke and Josh Johnson, budding aces who missed a considerable chunk of early 20's development time to various ailments. Greinke got 4 years, $38M following his 1st arbitration year in which he was paid $1.4M. Johnson got 4 years, $39M the next year, also after earning $1.4M in his 1st arb year. Liriano just made $1.6M. The other 2 had better numbers in the season before the contract, though, so the Twins could hopefully get away with a bit less, say 4 years, $36M. The others made $3.75 in the 1st year of the deal; I'll structure it so Liriano gets $3.5M next year.

Young should get at least what Matt Kemp got: 2 years, $11M. It might make sense to take it out to 4 years, similar to Mauer's 1st big contract, which paid him $23M over the final 2 years of the deal. Either way, Young makes $4.5M in 2011.

Capps is the backup closer, so we don't want to pay him like the 1st-string guy if he's only setting up. I'd offer him a 3-year deal with a $5M base salary and some pretty massive incentives for Games Finished. Something like an extra $0.5M for every 5 he racks up after 20. That way, if he's out there for 50 save situations, he earns $8M - real closer money, but not so rich that he wouldn't be tradeable to just about anybody. If he stays in the setup role, he's a bit overpaid, but not as much as he would have been on a 1-year deal.

If Guerrier accepts arbitration, he would fall into this category, too. I'd try to get him for 2 years, $8M but pay him just $3.5M of that this season.

All of that shaves around $6M off the payroll, leaving perhaps around $12M to play with over the course of the season.

3. Don't sign anybody until late January.

4. At that time, fill out the roster with some bargain veterans.

Repko will be the bench OF, giving Revere at least a couple hundred PA to continue his development as an everyday player in Rochester.

If Guerrier didn't accept arbitration, here's when we go after Crain (if he's still available) or somebody comparable to give Gardy a little more security at the back end of the 'pen. Between Nathan, Capps, Mijares and Crain, he should be feeling pretty good about the close ones. Burnett will head back to AAA for more seasoning.

I'd like to pick up another LHP, a true LOOGY if no one more versatile is available. Could be Randy Choate, could be our old friend Dennys Reyes. Neither should cost much more than $1M, especially at this stage of the offseason. This gives the Twins the luxury of filling out the 'pen with just 2 of Neshek, Slama and Delaney, leaving the odd man at Rochester as call-up depth.

This was around the time the Twins signed Jim Thome for 2010, the most astute FA signing of the offseason. They have to pull that off again, this time with a RH batter. My choice would be Troy Glaus. Last season proved that he can't hack it as an everyday fielder anymore, but also showed that he has plenty of power left when healthy. As a DH/PH and occasional (say, twice a month) fill-in at 1B, I bet he'd hold up over the season at least as well as Thome did, and for about the same price. He's better against LHP, but not useless against RHP, so he could suitably fill the broader role of "Power off the Bench" whenever we need that 3-run HR but Casilla is coming up.

All that adds up to a little under $107M. Plenty of potential from that roster, but room enough to add some premium talent during the season should there be a need. And it's accomplished without trading any top prospects from the system, leaving those players as potential minor league depth or as pieces of midseason transactions. Good enough for now.

Monday, November 1, 2010


The 2010 Twins were measurably better than the 2009 version, virtually across the board. They had a stronger rotation, a more even lineup, and a deeper bullpen. Those improvements showed up in 8 more regular season wins, and home field advantage in the ALDS against their nemesis, the Yankees.

It all meant nothing. If anything, the 2010 Twins gave a worse effort against a weaker opponent than the 2009 World Series champs were. They managed to play even for the first 6 innings of Games 1 & 2, but showed little life once they fell behind in the 7th. They hardly showed up for Game 3. New faces, new places, but still the same result. The Twins were swept again, running their postseason series losing streak to 6, home losing streak to 10, and overall losing streak to 12.

They should have been able to do what the Rangers did. After dropping Game 1 of the ALCS in similar fashion, Texas came back to win the next 3. Perhaps the Twins' pitchers couldn't have been expected to shut down the Yankee hitters as effectively as the Rangers' starters did. But the offense should have been able to do just as much damage to the lesser members of the NY rotation. Instead, they were utterly shut down by Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes. Michael Cuddyer fired all his bullets in Game 1. Jim Thome and Jason Kubel did essentially nothing.

So what's the lesson here? Did the Twins lose because their pitchers don't miss enough bats? Should they be trying to trade for Zach Greinke or Jonathan Sanchez or some other strikeout machine? I don't think so. Anybody could have lost with the offense producing like that. That series was about the Twins failing to hit with RISP. Bad luck? Mental block? Just one of those slumps you can get into over any given 3-game stretch?

Whatever it was, it's nothing to panic about. A 94-win team that won its division conclusively does not need to be retooled. Especially when it was competitive against the 5 other playoff teams it encountered during the regular season:

vs. Yankees: 2-4
vs. Rays: 3-5
vs. Rangers: 7-3
vs. Braves: 1-2
vs. Phillies: 2-1
Total: 15-15

Had the Twins drawn the Rays in the 1st round, it might have been a different story. Who knows? I'm not one to give more weight to 3 games against one particular team in October than I do to 162 games against a diverse schedule over 6 months. I'm proud of the 2010 Twins. They accomplished a lot, and with 2 of their elite, All-Star players unavailable for all but half a season.

Many players won't be coming back for 2011, but the core will. I would be very deliberate about breaking that group up with any trades. The payroll will be a challenge, but it's surmountable with patience and creativity. I hope to have more time to post my specific ideas about how to do that in the coming days. In the meantime, my advice to the front office is simply this:

Hold your cards.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Will Fear No Evil

ALDS Preview

Obviously, since Ron Gardenhire took over as Twins manager in 2002, things haven't gone well against the Yankees. That's history. Nothing can change it. Let it go. This time can be different. Why?

These aren't the Twins of years past.

When the Yankees swept the Twins in the ALDS last year, the bottom of the Twins' lineup in each game featured some combination of Brendan Harris, Carlos Gomez, Jose Morales, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto. The 2004 team that lost 3 straight to the Yankees fielded lineups that featured Lew Ford and Henry Blanco. These are bench players. This year's team will finish the lineup with Jason Kubel, Danny Valencia and JJ Hardy. Every hitter has some combination of ROTY votes*, MVP votes or All-Star appearances on their resume. Bona fide starters 1-9.

*Valencia looks like a good bet to finish in the top 3 this year.

These are the Yankees of years past.

They've been here before. Many, many times. Because they're old. Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman are all north of 34. All but Rivera showed it this year, either by missing significant time due to injuries, or by showing declines in production, or both. In previous postseason match-ups the Yankees' core players were in their prime. Now they're well past it.

The earlier series were closer than you think.

The Twins are 2-9 against the Yankees in the postseason. But 3 of those losses came in extra innings. In 3 of the other losses the Twins held the Yankees to 4 or fewer runs. If Cory Koskie's double off Rivera late in game 2 of 2004 had stayed in play rather than bouncing into the stands, the Twins would have come home leading the series 2-0. If Gomez and Punto had been under control on the basepaths last fall, the Twins would have been dead even with the Yanks going into the 9th inning of game 3: series tied at 1, score tied at 2. Even while being badly overmatched from a personnel standpoint, which isn't the case this year.

The Twins are due.

Whether good or bad, streaks don't last forever. The Twins have lost 9 straight postseason games, and 5 straight series. Those streaks have been sustained by teams that came soaring into the 2006 and 2009 postseason on tremendous rolls. They were due to have letdowns. No such trouble this year, as the Twins enter the postseason in a 2-8 malaise. Each of the starters in the postseason rotation, most of the position players and a couple of the key bullpen pitchers have had at least one crappy game in the last 2 weeks. That's good. Everybody has a bad game now and then. Better to get it out of the way in meaningless games against the Tigers and Royals than on the big stage against the Yanks.

It can be done. Here are my keys to making it happen:

1. First Inning, Game 1

The Twins and their fans are carrying a lot of baggage into this series. The players will be more relaxed and the crowd livelier if things get off to a good start. Francisco Liriano has had some early-inning troubles this season. He did not end the regular season on a good note. He needs to have a scoreless 1st inning on Wednesday night. If it's a dominant inning, 1-2-3 with a K on 10 pitches, for example, that's even better.

Since the A lineup was first assembled in Fort Myers, they've been ambushing opposing pitchers in the 1st inning. Some real good ones, including John Danks, Zach Greinke and Felix Hernandez. No reason they can't jump on CC Sabathia, too. An early crooked number would go a long way toward making everyone believe that the Twins can prevail.

2. Michael Must Mash

The Yankees intend to use Sabathia in games 1 & 4 and Pettitte in games 2 & 5. That means that the Twins will be seeing LHP in about 2/3 of 4/5 of the games. This will largely neutralize Joe Mauer (.711 OPS) Jim Thome (.769) and Jason Kubel (.655). That means the righties in the lineup will have to pick up the slack. Delmon Young and Valencia have been doing it for most of the summer. The guy who's been missing lately is Michael Cuddyer. His OPS barely cleared .700 over the final 2 months of the season. However, vs. LHP, he raked at .896 in 2010. He's got to do that vs. Sabathia and Pettitte. If not more.

3. Don't Give Them Anything

The Yankees are very good at scoring runs, but they're actually only a little better than average at hitting. They are exceptionally good at taking walks. The Twins are exceptionally good at not giving up walks. Something's got to give there, and that matchup needs to fall the Twins' way. But it goes for more than walks. No HBP. No extra outs coming from errors. And don't give away any outs on the basepaths, either. This series is going to be tough enough if the Twins play flawlessly.

No more hype. Time to play the games.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

10th Split: 7-10

Overall Record: 94-68
AL Central Champions by 6 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 7-10, 7-9, 13-3, 10-6, 13-3

The Twins maintained their searing 2nd half pace through the first 7 games of this split, going 5-2. Over that week, the White Sox lost another 6 straight games, and the division was clinched with rather shocking quickness at the end of September 21st, about 4 days earlier than I expected. It seems that after the Twins' emphatic sweep of the Sox in their home park (9-3, 9-3, 8-5), Ozzie's boys decided to get busy dying.

As the 1st team in the Majors to clinch, and with 2 full weeks before the start of the playoffs, the Twins had the luxury of resting their ailing regulars. Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and JJ Hardy missed virtually all of the season's final road trip. As for the bench guys and September call-ups who filled in for them, well... there's a reason those guys aren't big league starters. The offense sputtered over the final 10 games, scoring 3 or fewer runs 6 times.

Less understandably, the pitching staff mailed it in as well. Francisco Liriano lost his last 3 starts, surrendering more HR (5) in those games than he had in the previous 5 1/2 months (4). Each of the other members of the rotation delivered at least one clunker. That led to lots of opportunities for Glen Perkins, Jeff Manship and Alex Burnett in middle relief. Again, each of them showed why they spent much of the season in the minors, and why their numbers at Rochester weren't that great. The pitching staff coughed up 5 or more R in 7 of the last 10 games.

The defense continued its 2nd half trend of being ordinary at best. The Twins committed 15 errors, remarkably resulting in just 3 unearned runs. The unearned run season total of 33 was the best in the AL (50 seems to be about average). The final fielding percentage numbers were 2nd only to the Yankees.

Speaking of whom, the Twins are going to get a chance to avenge last year's postseason sweep. I hope to have time to address the series in depth before Wednesday night. Suffice it to say, the circumstances are a lot different this time around: the Twins are 8 wins better than 2009 (through 162 games), the Yankees are 8 wins worse. The Twins are rested. They have their rotation set. They have excellent depth in the bullpen. The batting order will end with Danny Valencia and Hardy instead of Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto. And the first 2 games will be at home.

Time to shine, fellas.

Bold prediction: Twins in 4.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

9th Split: 13-3

Overall Record: 87-58
1st in AL Central by 8 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6, 7-9, 9-7, 7-10, 7-9, 13-3, 10-6

Wow. To go +10 over a 16 game stretch once in a season is pretty good. To do it twice is really special. That's what the Twins have done in this improbably awesome 2nd-half run. Even in the 3 losses, they were in the game all the way, losing 2-1 to Seattle, 10-9 to Detroit and 2-0 to Cleveland. Other than that, whatever the circumstances, home or away, they found a way to win. They were able to hold their ground during Chicago's blazing hot streak, then pull away once the Sox cooled off.

As I predicted, the offense bounced back to 5+ R/G, thanks to 24 RS over the last 3 games. Jim Thome was the big hitting hero, making huge noise in his limited appearances by blasting 5 majestic HR, including the crucial game-winner in the 12th inning of Saturday's 1-0 affair. He was in the middle of just about every rally, batting .407/.555/1.000. Surprisingly, the only other guys who had a really awesome split were JJ Hardy and Matt Tolbert (only 5 GS, but 3 triples and 8 RBI with 4 BB).

The pitching was just as awesome as the hitting was back in the 7th split. The staff sported an ERA well under 3.00, and allowed just 48 RA over the 16 games. They were led by the rotation, all of the healthy members of which went 3 for 3 in QS. In fact, the only game in which the starter failed to earn a QS for non-injury reasons was Matt Fox' excellent emergency MLB debut vs. the Rangers, and he missed it by one out. The bullpen was fantastic, with the exception of the AAA guys and the execrable Randy Flores, who can't get anybody out, especially lefties.

I wish I could say the defense had shared in the return to excellence. The Twins made 9 more E resulting in 7 unearned runs, raising their season totals to 63 and 30. That puts them behind the Yankees in fielding percentage for the first time this season. Most of the errors have come from the IF, where Michael Cuddyer's best efforts are often insufficient to scoop low throws out of the dirt. But there were plenty of misplays in the OF as well, notably from Delmon Young. If the defense had been playing up to the level of the other phases of the game, the Twins might have gone 15-1 in this split.

But that's overkill, isn't it? The division is soundly in hand, and the Twins have even recovered to within 1.5 games of the best record in the Major Leagues. That potential for home field advantage over the Yankees and Rays should keep them focused all the way to the end, even as they rest many of their key players for a run into October.

Bold prediction: The Twins will clinch the division next weekend in Detroit.