Sunday, January 31, 2010

Welcome Aboard

Francisco Liriano got one more start in the deciding game of the Dominican Winter League championship series, and it was perhaps his best game:

5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 HR, 0 BB, 10 K

That brings his final combined DWL line to:

48.2 IP, 32 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 64 K, 0.74 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.3 BB/9, 11.8 K/9, 1.55 G/F

The championship game was broadcast on ESPN 360, so folks in the states got to see for themselves what he looked like. And, all of a sudden, all sorts of folks are jumping on the bandwagon. Rightfully so. Two months ago, nobody was sure what to expect from Liriano in 2010. Now, for me, if he isn't the best starter on the Twins' staff, I'm going to be disappointed. Hopefully, the DWL experience has given him the confidence to be the Ace he projected to be prior to his injury in 2006.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Back to Baseball

So freakin' busy doing sound design for a play. All the theatre people involved say it's one of the most tech-heavy shows they've ever seen. I believe it. Music, surgery, planes, boxing, WWII, flashbacks - all that and more has to sound right. It's fun, but it's kept me too busy even to watch the Vikings add another chapter to their storied history of falling just short. Two points for today:

1. Francisco Liriano had another winter league start in the Dominican:

5 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 7 K

Though he took the loss and saw his streak of not allowing an earned run snapped at 40 innings, there is nothing in this performance that discourages me in the least. Especially when you consider that 5 of the 7 H he allowed and 7 of the 8 non-K outs came on grounders. It actually improves his already phenomenal K, BB and G/F rates, and he still hasn't allowed a HR. His DWL totals are now:

43.2 IP, 31 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 54 K, 0.82 ERA, 0.87 WHIP

That guy is going to be one of the better starters in the AL this year.

2. The Twins signed Jim Thome to bolster their bench. Apparently, this move is intended to place Thome in the role Brian Buscher had last year. Thome should be able to match Buscher's splendid OBP while providing significantly more power. Clearly an upgrade. While many would love to see Thome DH vs. righties, sending Jason Kubel into the field and Delmon Young onto the bench, that doesn't appear to be part of the plan - at least not at first. The Twins' just don't seem to think like that. I'll bet a significant portion of the logic that entered into this decision was the same as that which brought Craig Monroe to the team two years ago: The guy always kills us when we play against him, so let's get him to play for us!

Gardy is pretty good at riding the hot hand and changing roles once June looms, so if Young isn't producing by then, I'd expect the platoon scenario to come into being. And if anything should happen to Justin Morneau, Kubel or Michael Cuddyer, the Twins won't miss a beat in the middle of the lineup - at least not against RHP. It's a good signing that improves the team, regardless of Thome's eventual role.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Liriano Update

Last night, Francisco Liriano pitched the first game of the best of nine Dominican Winter League Championship Series. It was perhaps his final start there before turning his attention to spring training, and was his worst performance in about a month:

5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Pathetic, huh? Most pitchers would take that outing every time, but it pales in comparison to this body of work:

12/05: 3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/10: 3.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 5 K
12/16: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/26: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 3 K
01/02: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 7 K
01/07: 6.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 8 K
01/13: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 6 K

Add it all up, and you get this:

38.2 IP, 24 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 7 BB, 47 K, 0.47 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.6 BB/9, 10.9 K/9, 1.33 G/F

Now, compare those rate stats with what he did against similar competition at the upper levels in 2005:

AA: 3.64 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 3.1 BB/9, 10.8 K/9,
AAA: 1.78 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 0.4 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 11.1 K/9

And his awesome, abbreviated 2006:

2.16 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 10.7 K/9, 2.37 G/F

And his not so good 2009:

5.80 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 1.4 HR/9, 4.0 BB/9, 8.0 K/9, 0.98 G/F

These are the elements of the game that are within the pitcher's control: HR, BB, K and whether they allow grounders or flies. Liriano, when he's good, keeps the ball in the yard, keeps the free passes to a minimum, strikes out more than a batter per IP and gets more grounders than flies. For whatever reason, he was out of whack last year and failed to live up to his potential on all those counts. He also allowed a higher than typical BABIP and stranded fewer runners than one would expect. Based on my observations of the games he pitched last season, I would summarize his performance like this: he struggled to command his fastball, particularly with men on base. That led him into too many hitter's counts, and he got drilled. The numbers back that up.

I don't have any observations to bring to Liriano's DWL performance, but the numbers tell the story: He was in total command of his fastball, consistently putting himself in pitcher's counts, and the hitters were left to flail meekly at his arsenal of secondary pitches. The DWL isn't a sluggers league, but Liriano allowed only 2 2B in those 7 GS - no 3B, no HR. The 2 ER he allowed during the campaign came in his first inning. Were they the result of jitters? Rust? Whatever the cause, he immediately made the adjustment, finishing on a string of 37.2 consecutive IP without allowing an ER.

What does this mean for 2010? Certainly, the average MLB hitter is much better than the average DWL hitter, so we can expect Liriano's numbers to all come down from these other-worldly heights. The BABIP will probably go up to around his career average of .310 (it was .258 in the DWL). He'll probably allow more BB, some HR, and strike out fewer. But I'm satisfied that he's corrected his troubles from last season, so I'll make this prediction: Liriano will be a better starting pitcher next season than Scott Baker. And I expect Baker to pitch all season the way he did from June on last year. Which was pretty darn well.

So go get one more IF, Mr. Smith, and sign Joe Mauer to his extension, then kick back and enjoy the season. The rotation is in good shape.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Parallel Universe: The Present

Last month I detailed how things would have gone differently for the Twins in 2008 and 2009 if I had become the GM instead of Bill Smith. We're coming off back-to-back Central Division titles, with each team winning 92 or more regular season games. This was the roster we took into the playoffs:

1. Denard Span, LF
2. Orlando Hudson, 2B
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Michael Cuddyer, 1B
5. Jason Kubel, RF
6. Matt Kemp, CF
7. Jose Morales, DH
8. Andy LaRoche, 3B
9. Jason Bartlett, SS

Mike Redmond, C; Nick Punto, Brian Buscher, IF, Bobby Kielty, OF

1. Roy Halladay
2. Scott Baker
3. Nick Blackburn
4. Carl Pavano

Joe Nathan, CL; Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, RHP; Dennys Reyes, Craig Breslow, Jose Mijares, Brian Duensing, LHP

We're once again well-positioned heading into 2010, with only Redmond, Keilty, and Pavano eligible for free agency. Lots of guys can get arbitration, however, so we're expecting to see a hefty rise in payroll from the $71M we began with last season. However, the budget formula says we can afford something around $93M for this year, and the money we saved over the previous 2 seasons may enable us to extend beyond that if necessary. But I like to stay on budget, so I'm prepared to do some pruning.

The projected payroll, replacing the free agents with serfs, and guessing at the arbitration salaries, could run over $98M. The easiest way to pare that down is probably to trade Punto, whose versatility is very valuable (and who is due to have the see-saw swing back to another productive year offensively). But he's set to earn $4M; Tolbert can do just about the same thing for 1/10th the price. Alternatively, I could move a couple of the pricy middle relievers (Rauch, Guerrier or Crain) and save $5M-$6M. I'm comfortable with offering everyone contracts and seeing how things shake out in spring training - I'll plan to make a trade in late March.

I can do that because the return of Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser and Pat Neshek from the the 60-day DL should add tremendous depth to what is already a pretty solid pitching staff. Liriano didn't even make the post-season roster, but I'm still hopeful he can regain at least his 2008 form. We're returning our entire playoff lineup, and it's a good one. The only place I'd look to upgrade is on the bench, but we can see about that late in the spring. I'd also like to add a bit more OF depth at the upper levels, find a C that can hit for at least one of the full-season teams, and I'm always on the lookout for a starter with ace potential, especially since Halladay is going to walk after the season. Basically, I'd like to find a way to replenish what I gave up in that trade.

Shortly after the World Series, I have to make a decision about Cuddyer's $10.5M option for 2010. He's certainly earned it based on his 2009 performance, yet I'm hesitant. Looking ahead to 2010, the people we have under team control will most likely be commanding over $83M in salaries, not including Cuddyer. The way free agent salaries have been going lately, $10.5M might be overpaying him, making him difficult to trade. And if he has another strong season in 2010, earning Type A or B free agent status, we'll definitely offer him arbitration. If he accepted and wanted to come back on a 1-year deal, it likely wouldn't be for much more than the original $10.5M . The downside to that scenario just isn't that low. I decline the option.

I'm anticipating that David Winfree and Brock Peterson could have some use next season as RH bats to provide depth at the corners. I add each of them to the 40-man roster, along with Alex Burnett, Loek van Mil, Brian Dinkelman, and the 3 DL guys. I don't leave any space - the Rule 5 draft looks to be pretty lame this year, and there's no position I really have to fill with a free agent. I head to the Winter Meetings feeling as though, at the Major League level at least, I'm pretty well set.

I'm shocked out of my comfort zone when Pavano decides to accept our arbitration offer (he was a Type B - I wasn't going to pass on the draft pick...). Now I have to devote a roster spot and somewhere around $7M to him. That puts the projected payroll at about $105M, substantially beyond the budget. It's starting to look as though I'm going to have to think about dealing Punto and a couple of relievers, or perhaps not tendering some contracts at the end of the week. Meanwhile, I've got to clear a roster spot for Pavano. I remove Boof Bonser, who is out of options and no sure bet to make the bullpen anyway. Boston agrees to trade RHP Chris Province, a AA sinker-ball specialist, for Bonser.

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. approaches me about dealing for Halladay. I tell him he'd have to be willing to give us 3/4 of what we gave up last summer: our #2-#5 prospects. In their case, that's SP Kyle Drabek, RF Michael Taylor, and C Travis D'Arnaud. That's an intriguing package: it basically solves all of my minor league depth problems. Drabek should be ready to join the rotation by some time in 2011. Taylor should be ready to contribute by mid-summer, and certainly looks like a fitting replacement for Cuddyer in 2011. D'Arnaud is a RH hitting catcher with good receiving skills and gap power - he could be ready to take over as Mauer's caddy by the time Morales hits arbitration. It's tempting - I ask Amaro for a few days to think it over.

When I get home from the meetings on Dec. 10th, I see a report that Liriano has delivered 3.2 scoreless IP, allowing 1 H, 0 BB and 5 K for his Dominican Winter League team. His fastball is reportedly up to 92-94 mph. Intrigued, I book a trip to the DR to see his next start on the 16th. He is every bit as good, allowing 0 ER on 3 H, 1 BB and 6 K in 5 IP. He won't be Roy Halladay, and there's no guarantee that he'll keep it up, but there's at least a reasonable chance that he'll deliver on his potential as a top of the rotation starter in 2010. That production, plus the money savings, plus the prospects - the deal fixes everything. I call up Amaro and pull the trigger. He insists on some cash considerations as well. He wants us to pay $6M of Halladay's salary; I talk him down to $5M.

With that speed bump out of the way, we are once again set roster-wise. The projected payroll looks to be just a bit under $95M. I'll probably find a way to trim that last $2M in the spring, but management can live with it if I don't. Nothing to do now but cheer on the Vikes and wait for spring training.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Buena Noticia

When Carl Pavano accepted the Twins' arbitration offer in December, he locked up a spot in the 2010 rotation and about $7 million of the money the team might have used to find a true #1 starter. We must assume that they will have to construct their rotation from players currently under team control. That will probably be Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Pavano and Nick Blackburn in the first 4 slots. I would rate them as a #2, 2 (nearly identical) #3s, and a #4. Not bad, but not something that matches up with Zach Greinke, Jake Peavy or Justin Verlander.

The last rotation spot figures to go to either Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins or Anthony Swarzak. Liriano was unhittable prior to his 2006 TJS, then struggled with his control early in his return in 2008 before locking in and being very good for most of the summer. But he had a lousy 2009, posting the worst numbers of his career in terms of control (4.3 BB/9) and keeping the ball in the yard (1.4 HR/9). He failed to make the necessary adjustments all season, putting up ERAs over 5.00 in every month but June, and was shut down for several weeks in mid August. He was usually very effective in his first inning of work, however, holding opposing hitters to a .625 OPS over the first 15 pitches of an outing. This has many people calling for him to be moved to the bullpen, where he could certainly be an asset.

But which of the other rotation candidates can match his upside? Even with his decreased post-surgery velocity, Liriano put up a 2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 in 11 GS in late 2008. That's a better performance than Baker gave over the same period - and he was largely carrying the team down the stretch. Duensing almost matched that performance in his 9 GS for the Twins last year - he only came up short on the K/9 (5.6). But the numbers from those 9 starts so far exceed what he was able to do in 56 GS at AAA, I don't think we can expect that level of success to continue. He's reached his ceiling, and it's a 5th starter. Perkins isn't any better, thanks to his inconsistency, and he may not be durable enough to make 33 starts in a year, and he pissed off the coaching staff by concealing his injuries - he looks like the last resort. Swarzak projected as a #3 starter a couple of years ago, but his K numbers have tailed off significantly at the upper levels. He has a big adjustment to make before he can be successful at the Major League level - and even then he's mid-rotation at best.

The only guy with a shot at making the rotation this April who has the talent to be an ace is Liriano. Baker has been described as a weak #1 or a strong #2. If Liriano can pull it together, and pitch a little better than Baker, then the Twins will at least have an average #1, strong #2, solid #3 (whether it's Slowey or Pavano), strong #4, and strong #5. They'll have a rotation that will match up with the best in the division. Liriano regaining his 2008 form is, for me, one of the biggest keys to the 2010 season.

So my excitement has been steadily growing as I've followed his exploits in the Dominican Winter League over the past month:

12/05: 3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/10: 3.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 5 K
12/16: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 6 K
12/26: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 3 K
01/02: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 7 K
01/07: 6.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 1 BB, 8 K
01/13: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 HR, 0 BB, 6 K
Total: 33.2 IP, 19 H, 2 ER, 0 HR, 5 BB, 41 K, 0.53 ERA, 0.71 WHIP

No HR allowed, and over 30 IP without allowing an ER. That K/BB ratio is the best we've seen from him since 2006. Has something clicked? Or is he just facing shoddy winter ball competition?

The DWL is a pitcher's league: for the 50 game regular season, the average hitter batted .265/.333/.364, and there were just 0.45 HR per game. The very low power numbers (0.99 IsoP) suggest that the typical hitter is a slappy contact hitter who occasionally finds a gap, kinda like Alexi Casilla, who is playing for one of Liriano's rivals. These rosters tend to be filled with journeymen, prospects and bench players, guys trying to prove that they can be better than they showed last season. I don't know exactly what the level of play equates to, but I'm guessing it's somewhere between AA and AAA. Nothing a quality MLB pitcher should have trouble with.

Still, the average pitcher had a 3.72 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 0.5 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9 and 6.3 K/9, so you can see just how drastically better Liriano is pitching than everyone else. And those numbers are in line with what he was doing when he was pitching at the upper levels in 2005, when everyone was beginning to get excited about him as a prospect. That was his age 21 season; he'll be 26 in 2010. Too old to expect much more growth, but just the right age to expect peak performance.

I would love to know what the scouts are seeing from him down there. Has he made an adjustment in his mechanics? Has he recovered some of his pre-surgery velocity? If he has, and he can sustain those improvements into the 2010 season, the Twins' rotation troubles from 2009 could be over.