Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Upgrades

As the full squad workouts begin this weekend, the Twins have question marks at very few positions. The coverage I've read so far boils it down to these:

1. Who will be the 5th starter?
2. Who will get most of the playing time at 3B?
3. Who will take the final bench spot? Will that person be able to back up Denard Span in CF?
4. What will happen to Glen Perkins?
5. What will happen to Alexi Casilla?

I'm already prepared to answer #1: It'll be Francisco Liriano, and he'll be closer to a #1 than #5 starter this year. That leaves long-relief as the only spot open to Perkins, and Brian Duensing is probably equally capable of filling that role. If one of them gets the last spot, that could send Casilla to the waiver wire, and it still wouldn't provide an experienced backup to Span on the 25-man roster.

The 3B situation is expected to be split between Brendan Harris and Nick Punto until Danny Valencia shows he's ready to take the next step up from AAA. Harris is presently projected by the main systems (PECOTA, Bill James, CHONE) to hit something like .265/.330/.400 while playing below average defense at the hot corner (-19.6 UZR/150 for his career, -10 FRAA in just 93 career G). Hopefully, he's just a temporary solution, but what if Valencia struggles in Rochester? We don't want to have to rely on Punto as a regular starter at 3B, since he'll probably be needed to give occasional rest to JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Span.

Why not trade Perkins to the Pirates for Andy LaRoche? He's being projected to hit something like .260/.340/.405 while playing above average defense at 3B (2.9 UZR/150, 11 FRAA in his first 235 G). He's standing in the way of Pedro Alvarez, the Priates' top prospect (recently rated the #8 prospect in all of baseball by BA). Alvarez could be ready for his MLB debut by early summer, meaning LaRoche's days as an everyday player for the Pirates are numbered. Pittsburgh is in need of pitching depth, though, so picking up Perkins makes some sense for them.

It's a fairly balanced trade: both Perkins and LaRoche are former top prospects who have been, on the whole, disappointing at the Major League level so far. LaRoche should be an upgrade over Harris, and still has enough upside at age 26 that he could become an impact player. This is a guy who absolutely torched AAA over parts of 2006-2008. Like Scott Baker, who yo-yoed between MLB struggles and AAA mastery for a couple of years, LaRoche is someone who just needs to make that last adjustment to the big-league game. At the very least, he's expected to have about .025 of IsoP on Harris and a much higher walk rate, all while playing markedly better defense.

With LaRoche in the lineup, Valencia can take his time. If he puts things together the way he has the previous couple of springs, the Twins can decide which player has the more promising long-term future, and trade the other. If LaRoche tanks, Valencia can step in. If they both tank, I guess Punto has to take over like he did in 2006.

Acquiring LaRoche would necessitate a trade of Harris - he plays the same positions as Punto/Tolbert, but without the strong glove work and PR possibilities. As spring training rolls along, it shouldn't be hard to find a team looking for a veteran utility IF to fill out their bench, especially if they prefer someone who has a fairly strong bat. Already this week, Khalil Greene's contract was voided with the Rangers - Harris could be a candidate to fill that hole on their roster. Perhaps they'd be willing to swap one of their bench OF candidates: David Murphy, Endy Chavez or Brandon Boggs.

I like this scenario because it answers questions #2-#4 in ways that add value to the team. As it stands, 3B is the only spot in the lineup not projected to have an average or better player (depending on Delmon Young's progress). LaRoche should be able to hit somewhere close to league average while providing plus defense. He's an upgrade over Harris, who can then be exchanged for someone who could back up Span in CF (in addition to the other OF positions). Perkins gets a fresh start in a new organization.

All that would still leave Casilla's future in doubt, but if he doesn't play well enough to win a bench spot with the Twins, I have a feeling he'll manage to find his way through waivers. The Twins can start the season with 11 pitchers and a bench of Punto, Thome, backup C, Casilla, backup OF while optioning Duensing and Pat Neshek to Rochester. Or they can go with 12 pitchers and stash their backup OF in Rochester, relying on Punto to spot in CF but having longer-term depth available at AAA should Span land on the DL.

The bullpen is so deep that the Twins may need to make a trade there, too, but that will depend on how everyone looks in games next month. Needless to say, Perkins is also going to have to show something before he'll have any trade value. Anyway, I'd be very surprised if the Twins break camp without making another move or two. When they do, I hope it has a positive impact on the Major League roster.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Breaks: Young

For much of the 2009 season, the Twins' lineup was scoring a fair number of runs despite having only 5 or 6 credible hitters in the lineup at any given time. C (Joe Mauer), CF (Denard Span), 1B (Justin Morneau), DH (Jason Kubel) and RF (Michael Cuddyer) had such tremendous offensive seasons that they were able to balance out the dearth of production the Twins were receiving from 2B (Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Nick Punto), SS (Punto, Tolbert and Brendan Harris), LF (Delmon Young) and, often, 3B (Joe Crede, Harris, etc.) Bringing in Orlando Cabrera to play SS helped a bit, but didn't really pay off until the last 3 weeks of the season, when he and everyone else in the lineup got hot at the same time.

Trading for JJ Hardy should be a clear upgrade at SS, especially if he can show that his dreadful 2009 was a fluke. Adding Jim Thome represents a huge upgrade over Brian Buscher on the bench. And when they signed Orlando Hudson to upgrade 2B, the Twins appeared to assure themselves a lineup with at least 7 regulars who should be able to exceed the average offensive output for their positions.

But how much better could they be if they were above average in 8 spots? What if this is the year that Young finally puts it together?

We are well justified to view that possibility with a lot of skepticism. Though his .300/.322/.502 line after the All-Star break seems to indicate that Young was a different hitter from the one who went .266/.292/.344 in the first half, he also improved in the 2nd half of '08, only to fall flat last spring. His K% and BB% were both headed in the right direction from 2007-2008, but then went drastically backward last year. Is he really making progress, or did he just get lucky last summer?

To answer that, I first want to compare Young's splits in his first 2 seasons with the Twins. In 2008, the improvement from 1st half to 2nd half was fairly incremental: .286/.330/.386 to .297/.345/.432. The improvement in OBP came largely from a better BA and more than his share of HBP. The increase in IsoP from .100 to .135 came from a surge in HR (7 in 236 2nd half AB vs. just 3 in 339 1st half AB). That's basically the source of the perceived improvement over the course of 2008. He continued to hit 2B at about the same rate, but didn't have any 3B after the Break. And his K% and BB% remained essentially unchanged at about 18% and 6% respectively in each half. So there was no change in his approach - he just had a few more fly balls carry over the fence.

The 2 halves of 2009 are much more distinct. Young's lousy .636 1st half OPS included just 9 XBH and 6 BB in about 200 PA. His career-worst 23.3% K rate was even more prevalent in the early-going: He struck out 59 times before the All-Star Break, about 30% of his PA. In the 2nd half, though he was no more likely to take a walk, he cut his K rate nearly in half, while more than doubling his XBH.

To what should we attribute this change in results? The 1st half was well beneath anything Young had ever done before. He got off to a slow start in April, hitting .241/.276/.315 over his first 16 games. But a strong first week of May quickly brought his season line up to .303/.349/.355 - still just 2 XBH and a 20/4 K/BB ratio, but far from disastrous from someone in the bottom 3rd of the order. But around that time, Young's mother took gravely ill, eventually passing away. He left the team for more than a week to be with his family. In the 2 games before and 10 games after his bereavement leave, he went 5 for 44 with 0 BB or XBH (.114/.114/.114) and 23 K. In 44 AB.

I can only imagine what it must feel like for a 23-year-old to lose his mother. I'm 34, and my mother is still going strong. What a profound loss it will be when she passes some day. For Young, it was clearly psychologically shattering. Being away from the game for more than a week surely wreaked havoc with his timing, but he obviously wasn't all there mentally during that stretch of games.

He bottomed out at .231/.272/.265 on June 3rd. From that point on, he hit .284/.307/.471. Throw out the 44 AB around the bereavement, and his season line would have been .305/.331/.464, with an 18.5% K rate, good for a 102 OPS+. That's basically a league-average hitter. His 1st half split would have been .311/.342/.412, not terribly far from where he was in the 2nd half of 2008.

The bereavement leave can help explain why his 1st half was so bad last year. But why was his 2nd half so good? He did what young players trying to establish themselves as major leaguers have to do - he made some adjustments. This tremendous analysis from Parker at Over the Baggy shows that Young's improved success in the 2nd half was the result of adjustments he made to his swing mechanics. He shortened his stride, improved his balance at the plate, cut wasteful hitches out of his swing and synched his hips with his hands. The result was harder contact and more fly balls, and his IsoP more than doubled from .078 to .202.

So what should we expect from Young in 2010? As Parker said, there's no guarantee that the improvements he's made to his swing will stick, so I'll be watching him closely as he hits this spring. If he's still got the same mechanics he had at the end of last season, we should probably look for another .200 IsoP. He's reportedly lost about 30 lbs, which could signify that he's going to return to being a net positive base stealer, as he was for his career before 2009, and put last season's 2/7 effort far behind him. A lighter frame and improved speed while avoiding the teflon skies of the Metrodome might lead to some improvement in his defense, too.

PECOTA projects Young to hit .296/.335/.439 in 549 PA with 4 net SB and average defense in LF, totaling about 1.2 WARP. By itself, that's a pretty generous improvement upon his first 3 full MLB seasons. But PECOTA doesn't know that Young's mother died last May, nor does it know that he made important adjustments to his swing over the course of the season. And consider this: Young's BABIP has been a remarkably consistent .338 in each the last 3 seasons, but it was only .317 after the All-Star Break last year.

Over 549 PA, given his post-All-Star IsoP, a .338 BABIP, and his typical SF and HBP numbers (6 and 5, respectively), even if he reverts to his rookie-year K% (19.7%) and makes no progress in his BB rate from 2009 (2.9%), we can expect Young to hit something like .314/.337/.516 with 23 HR. That OPS wouldn't be too far short of what Michael Cuddyer did in 2006, a season worth 3.1 WARP. Give Young his 2nd half K rate of 15.5% and his 2008 BB rate of 5.6% and we're looking at .339/.379/.541. That's basically what Jason Bay did last year, a season worth 4.7 WARP. Anything within that range from Young would give the Twins 8 above average hitters in their lineup - a lineup that can match up with just about any other team.

As far as I'm concerned, Young has everything he needs to make 2010 a breakout season. But it's going to take a concerted effort on his part to put it all together. He should be working very hard in Fort Myers with Joe Vavra on sustaining his swing, with Paul Molitor on improving his baserunning, with Jerry White on his OF defense, and with Joe Mauer, Denard Span and Jim Thome about being more selective at the plate. As a 24-year-old, former #1 overall pick beginning his 4th full MLB season, he needs to take a big step toward meeting the lofty expectations that have followed him. The tools have always been there. It's time for him to build something with them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nick Punto: Valuable Player

Which of these players is more valuable right now: Jim Thome or Nick Punto?

It's easy to say Thome. He's a 5-time All-Star, 4 times finished in the top 10 for MVP, and is a likely Hall of Famer thanks to his 564 (and counting) career HR. The .847 OPS he put up last season was his worst since he was a 21-year-old breaking in with the Indians back in 1992.

Punto, even at his best in 2006 and 2008, could only manage a .726 OPS. His execrable hitting in 2007 (.210/.291/.271 in 536 PA - the worst production in the Majors that year by nearly .050 points of OPS) is seared into Twins fans' memories, as is his costly baserunning gaffe in the playoffs last season.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear to both fans and front office people that there are more ways to help a team win than just by hitting. Preventing runs in the field and moving around the bases are also important. The complete player possesses 5 tools: hitting ability (used to be just for average, though I think OBP is a better measure of this now), power, speed, sure-handedness with the glove, and strength and accuracy of the throwing arm.

Thome, at this stage of his career, is a 2-tool player: he can get on base, and he can hit the ball a long way. He is only capable of playing 1B, but has played just 28 innings in the field since returning to the AL in 2006. Could he score from 2B on a single? The ball would have to be hit awfully softly to an OF with a terrible arm. His effectiveness is severely limited against LHP, with a career OPS of about .750. Basically, all Thome is good for these days is mashing RHP as a DH or PH. Despite hitting 58 combined HR, Thome has been worth 3.5 WAR over the past 2 seasons according to Fangraphs.

Punto is a 3-tool player: he plays average or better defense at 2B, 3B and SS, his arm is good enough to play the left side of the IF, and he's a 75% base stealer for his career. When would he not score from 2B on a single? The ball would have to be hit awfully hard to an OF with a terrific arm. Though he struggles to hit for average and has no power, his career platoon splits are essentially equal, making him no worse an option in the lineup vs. LHP or RHP. His career BB rate of 9.9% indicates that he is at least a fairly patient hitter, helping to wear down opposing pitchers when he's in the starting lineup. Despite his offensive shortcomings, Fangraphs rates Punto as worth 3.8 WAR over the past 2 seasons.

Punto's versatility is a huge asset. In this era of 12-man pitching staffs, managers need to be able to get maximum flexibility out of their bench players. Punto can give rest to Orlando Hudson at 2B, JJ Hardy at SS, or Brendan Harris at 3B. He is now the most likely backup in CF when Denard Span needs a day off. On the days he doesn't start, he can PR for everybody on the roster except for Span and Alexi Casilla and be an upgrade on the bases. He can give a decent AB as a PH against any type of pitcher. And he can fill in at any of 6 defensive positions depending upon who else has been substituted from the game.

It's a nice luxury to have a guy like Thome on the roster. But a guy like Punto is a necessity.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Breaks: Liriano

Perhaps no other Twins player has caused the fans' expectations to yo-yo around more than Francisco Liriano. During his dominant rookie season in 2006, he looked like he would be the best starter in the league for years to come. Then his TJS cost him all of 2007, a few mph of velocity and a lot of control, all of which showed up in a disastrous trio of starts in April of 2008. Our expectations suitably lowered, he appeared to find himself again, dominating AAA for 3 months before returning to the Twins for a strong final 2 months of that season. Now expecting a continuation of that success, we were disappointed to see Liriano struggle with his command throughout 2009, posting career worsts in WHIP, HR/9 and BB/9. That performance, along with Brian Duensing's surprising effectiveness down the stretch, left many speculating that Liriano would most likely land in the bullpen in 2010.

Then came his staggeringly dominant stint in the Dominican Winter League. By his 3rd GS in mid-December, things were already starting to look good, as his biggest problems from the regular season, a 4.3 BB/9 and 1.4 HR/9, utterly evaporated. With each start, he reinforced that his command had returned, culminating in a 5 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 10 K performance in the deciding game of the DWL championship series. Anyone with ESPN360 could watch the telecast and see for themselves the devastating bite of his slider, the radar gun lighting up to 96 mph on his fastball. Not only does his command appear to be back, his stuff looks like it's back, too.

Now, the crucial question: How much of this spectacular DWL line:

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

will Liriano be able to bring to his MLB opponents in 2010? I think it's probably safe to say that the average DWL hitter is about a replacement level MLB hitter - for every Nelson Cruz down there, there's a has-been and a never-will-be. So any competent MLB pitcher should be able to carve up that league. That in itself should be a comfort to Twins fans (hey, Liriano is a competent pitcher!) after last year. But Liriano didn't just carve them up, he annihilated them. Never mind the WHIP for a second - he allowed 0 HR and only a couple of XBH in nearly 50 IP. A K/BB ratio of better than 9/1! That tells me that Liriano is a lot more than merely competent.

Certainly big league lineups will be able to do more damage against him. More guys will lay off sliders in the dirt, raising his BB rate and dropping his K rate. A few guys will square him up and take him yard, raising his WHIP and HR rate. But his numbers in those metrics - factors that are considered to be largely within the pitcher's control - were higher in his outstanding rookie season, too:

2.4 BB/9, 10.7 K/9, 0.7 HR/9, 1.00 WHIP

So he can have a lot more trouble than he had in the DWL and still have an amazing season. But I'm not ready to predict that he'll be quite that good, so how about this: Let's say Liriano is able to return to something like allowing <3.0 BB/9, <1.0 HR/9, >8.0 K/9 and a WHIP < 1.25. That's basically a 25% step down from his otherworldly 2006. Or, put another way, it's predicting that Liriano in 2010 will be at least 80% as good as he was in 2006. And that's still a pretty good place to be. Among pitchers with 100+ IP in 2009, there are 9 guys who met those criteria:

Tim Lincecum
Justin Verlander
Jon Lester
Javier Vazquez
Zach Greinke
Wandy Rodriguez
Josh Johnson
Adam Wainwright
Felix Hernandez

All of those guys are either #1 or #2 starters. 2 of them won the Cy Young award, and 4 others received votes. Anybody still think Duensing should be the frontrunner for the final slot in the rotation?

PECOTA currently predicts Liriano will pitch 156 IP with 3.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 7.4 K/9 and a WHIP of 1.39, resulting in 2.1 WARP. My prediction for Liriano probably most closely matches Lester's 2009, since he is also a LHP for an AL contender entering his age-26 season. Lester likely had it tougher than Liriano will, playing in the AL East in a home park that greatly favors RH hitters. His numbers, brought to the AL Central and Target Field (we don't know how it will play, but it doesn't look like it'll be too easy on righties), could result in even fewer runs and more wins. In any event, Lester earned 6.1 WARP last year (adjusted for park and season).

If Liriano meets my expectations and proves himself to be even 4/5 the pitcher he was as a rookie, the Twins are suddenly a 90-91 win club, with a front-end starter who matches up with just about anyone else's. Whatever other breaks the Twins get during this season, Liriano's potential return to dominance could be the most important.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Breaks: Introduction

The Twins appear to have their roster set for 2010 after a shrewd offseason in which they upgraded their MI, bench and bullpen. I keep eagerly checking the preseason projections to see how well the Twins are now expected to do. And it's a little disappointing, actually. With the addition of Orlando Hudson, the Twins are the clear favorites to win the AL Central, but still with only 86-87 wins. They won that many the last two years - aren't they better now?

Yes, but it's important to remember a couple of things. First, these same prognosticators had the Twins winning 79 or so games the last 2 seasons, so as far as they're concerned, the Twins' improved roster is reflected in their projections. We fans tend to expect that breakout seasons are the new standard and disappointing seasons are the exception (Jason Kubel finally reached his potential in 2009! Michael Cuddyer's 2007-08 seasons were weak because he wasn't 100%). The prognosticators have to be more objective than that, rating a player's average potential based on his total body of work, good and bad. And looking at PECOTA's weighted mean projections for the Twins' lineup, I have to admit, everything there looks pretty reasonable.

Second, the Twins were able to exceed their 2008-09 projections because a few things went better than could have been expected prior to the season. In '08 they hit unsustainably well with RISP, resulting in far more runs than their component hitting stats would have implied, while their young rotation performed exceedingly well for most of the season. Last year, they got unprecedented power output from several lineup regulars, and extraordinary contributions from from newly acquired players over the final 2 months of the season. And, to be fair to the prognosticators, the Twins were essentially a .500 team for all but the final couple weeks.

A good team has to be put together well, so that an average performance from everyone on the roster should result in a winning season. Right now, on paper, the 2010 Twins are a good team, and that's reflected in the projections. In order to be a great team, once again outperforming the projections by 8-10 games and taking their place among the League's elite, they're going to need some people to exceed their projections. Or, more realistically, they'll need to have more of those than guys who have disappointing seasons. They're going to have to get some good breaks.

Who has the best chance of outperforming the projections, and by how much? Which of those contributions will add the most extra wins to the club? I'll be exploring those questions in the coming days...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me!

It was not an ideal birthday - I spent it confined to my house waiting for the phone repairman (really, AT&T, you can't narrow down your window any better than "some time between 8AM and 6PM? He came at 5:15...). This was even less tolerable after my internet went down at 9:30. But the day was salvaged when I finally got back online and found not only 40 messages in my inbox (mostly birthday wishes from Facebook friends), but news that the Twins were imminently close to signing Orlando Hudson to be their 2B/#2 hitter.

Yes! I followed Hudson's 2009 exploits very closely. I picked him out before last season as a good value for my fantasy team - coming off wrist surgery in 2008, he was someone I could get in the 12th round or so who would give me strong all-around production at the position. And he did not disappoint. Other than a slump in June, he consistently turned in good OBPs with sure-handed defense (.988 fielding %) and 8/9 SB. Though his raw offensive numbers appeared to take a step backwards in 2009, that was largely due to park factors (his 2006-2008 seasons were in the offense-friendly environs of the Bob in AZ). Neutralizing those factors, Baseball Prospectus rated Hudson's 2009 as his best season so far in terms of EQA (.286) and WARP3 (6.2).

Despite that showing, he was benched down the stretch in favor of the scorching hot Ronnie Belliard. Though Belliard's weight is apparently a concern going into the spring, the Dodgers preferred to stick with him rather than offer Hudson a contract, or even arbitration. For the second offseason in a row, Hudson waited into February as the number of available 2B jobs dwindled. At this point, the only teams interested in him were the Nationals, Indians and Twins. Hmmmmm, grind it out for a rebuilding club, or bat ahead of two MVP winners on a contender? The money wasn't what he was hoping for ($5M for one year, apparently), but I think he made the right call.

The Twins entered this offseason in a similar position to last year: they could expect to contend in a rather weak division with the players they had under control, but would be no match for the bigger market teams should they make the playoffs. They are a perfect example of the type of team that can benefit the most from prudent player acquisitions. Every upgrade they make increases the chances of them playing meaningful games in September, and more than just a game or two in October. That's where teams really see a return on their free agent dollars. Since the World Series ended, the Twins have:

Turned Carlos Gomez, a PR/defensive replacement (or an exceptionally poor hitter, if he starts) into JJ Hardy, an everyday SS who was an All-Star in 2007 and is just entering his peak years;

Retained mid-season pickup Carl Pavano to stabilize what had been a volatile young rotation in 2009;

Signed Clay Condrey to add depth to the bullpen after he was non-tendered by Philadelphia;

Signed Jim Thome to provide LH thump off the bench and insurance against injuries to other middle-of-the-order starters;

Signed Hudson to be the everyday 2B and #2 hitter.

They now have better than average hitters at at least 7 of the 9 lineup spots. They have a strong starting rotation, with decent depth at AAA. They have more quality bullpen arms than spots available. Their bench will contain an above-average hitting catcher, a high-OBP slugger, and a couple of plus speed/glove guys. A lot of things still have to break right for the Twins to be as good as the elite teams in the AL, but I have to say that, on paper, they've put together just about the strongest roster $95-ish million could buy.