Friday, June 25, 2010

Make the First Move

For the first time in nearly 2 months, before the Twins swept the Tigers at Target Field in the first week of May, things are getting crowded at the top of the AL Central standings. Since the end of that series, the Twins have been stagnant, going 21-23 over the past 44 games. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn have been inconsistent, Francisco Liriano had a run of terrible luck in May, and Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy have spent a lot of time on the DL. That's probably the biggest reason for the Twins' holding pattern. Those guys were the big offseason acquisitions, along with Jim Thome, who has spent most of the last 7 weeks on the bench. Without those guys in the lineup, this is basically the same Twins team as last season, the one that didn't get itself over .500 to stay until the last half of September.

Meanwhile, the Tigers and White Sox have been fattening up on a cupcake interleague schedule. The Sox are on a 14-2 run thanks to recent series against the Indians, Tigers, Cubs, Pirates, Nats and Braves. The Tigers had an 8-1 home stand against the Pirates, Nats and Diamondbacks. Atlanta wasn't able to slow down the Sox, but the Mets set the Tigers back a bit. Still, both teams sit within 2.5 games of the Twins, suddenly feeling like they can win the division.

As these teams are currently constituted, the Twins are still the class of the division. Even with recent hot streaks from the competition, they have an enormous edge in run differential: +46 for the Twins, +2 for the Tigers, -9 for the White Sox. At the midpoint of the season next weekend, we're still likely to find that the Twins are on pace to win 90-92 games, while the Tigers and White Sox are on pace for 84-86 wins.

What will the Tigers do to make up the 6 wins they'll need to catch the Twins in the 2nd half? They are doing as well as they are thanks to 2 rookies playing way over their heads - expect less production from Austin Jackson and Brendan Boesch in the 2nd half. Their rotation is in tatters, putting extra pressure on their bullpen. They play terrible defense and have a couple of huge holes in their lineup, even with the rookies playing well and aging players like Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Johnny Damon producing. Their payroll is already sky-high thanks to a string of bad contracts, and they're not drawing well in the recession-stricken Detroit market. Plus, they expended much of their minor league capital acquiring Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera a couple years ago, and Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff last year. They need another starter and an IF who has value with both the bat and the glove, but can they afford to do what it takes to land those players?

As for the White Sox, their pitching staff is in terrific shape, but their low-OBP offense means that they're going to have to pitch brilliantly all the time in order to win. They'll need a couple of impact bats, somewhere in the IF or maybe at C or DH, to take them over the top. But they also blew out their farm system picking up Jake Peavy last year, and have a top 12 payroll to go with bottom 12 attendance.

It's already going to be expensive for Dave Dombrowski and Kenny Williams to upgrade their rosters mid-season, but I don't doubt that either has the will to do it if things stay as they are for the next few weeks. However, if the Twins were to significantly upgrade their roster before the Tigers and White Sox had a chance to act, it might change the calculus enough to force the competition to concede. If the Twins were able to add 4-6 wins of value to the team themselves, the other contenders would then have to add about 10 wins in order to catch them, and I doubt either team can really afford that this year.

The most straightforward way to add that kind of value would be to acquire Cliff Lee from the Mariners. The Twins' present rotation has been uneven beyond Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano. I believe Scott Baker will ultimately prove to be an asset, but the lower he drops in the rotation, the better it looks. Right now, it's a rotation that can probably win the division, but not one that can be expected to out-pitch the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays in October. Lee would change that, giving the Twins 2 aces and 2 above-average pitchers to send to the mound in the playoffs. He has been worth 3.7 WAR in just 11 GS so far. If he keeps up that rate of production for the rest of the season, we could give the Twins 5-6 wins above Nick Blackburn, single-handedly pushing their win total into the mid to upper 90s. Plus, he's a Twins type of pitcher, relentlessly throwing strikes at an even better rate than Pavano and Baker.

What would it take to acquire him? He costs about $5M for the remainder of the season, and will almost certainly garner 2 first-round draft picks in 2011 when he signs his mega-deal in the offseason. Seattle got him for 3 prospects last December - 1 was a 4-star and the others were in the 3-star range. One would think that with nearly half a season gone he could be had for less than that, but there's going to be a bidding war for him as the summer goes on, and Jack Z. isn't going to forgo that unless the deal is sweet indeed. Fangraphs recently estimated Lee's value as including a top hitting prospect and some other goodies. I would think they'd want a former first-rounder and supplemental first-rounder to compensate for their lost draft picks, plus somebody pretty promising to make up for Lee's remaining value this season.

For me, the blow-them-away, you've got to take it now deal for Cliff Lee begins with Ben Revere and Wilson Ramos. Both are top-60 prospects at least, and neither has a place in the Twins' future everyday lineup. Now that Denard Span has become an efficient base stealer, there's really nothing in Revere's game that should be able to supplant him. Plus, Span is under contract until the middle of the decade. The corner OF positions are better filled by more powerful bats like that of Joe Benson, who is at the same level as Revere and could be ready to take over RF from Jason Kubel/Michael Cuddyer in 2012. Revere is a valuable prospect, but not to the Twins.

Ramos is a plus defender with a good bat (though he hasn't shown it much at AAA Rochester this year). Still, he's young for the level, and projects to be at least a solid regular for years to come. With superstar Joe Mauer getting the bulk of the work behind the plate, Ramos is never going to see that kind of time with the Twins. It's a luxury to have such a talented backup, but solid, RH-hitting backups can be found every offseason, and Jose Morales still looks to me like a serviceable backup for the future.

That takes care of the 1st-rounder and the value for Lee. As for the final piece, I'd try to send over a recent late-round pick like Carlos Gutierrez or Kyle Waldrop. If the Mariners like Trevor Plouffe and the Twins want to keep JJ Hardy for 2011, I could throw him in instead. There seems to be some buzz in the Mariners blogosphere around Kevin Slowey, whose fly-ball tendencies would play pretty well at Safeco Field with Seattle's go-get-it OF defense. I like Slowey, and would love to see him around here for a few more years. However, the Twins have used their 1st-round pick in the last 2 drafts on pitchers who project to arrive in the big league rotation rather quickly, and with Blackburn perhaps rashly under contract for the next few seasons, Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers would likely be putting the most pressure on Slowey. I definitely prefer him to Blackburn, but I don't see either one of them pitching in October, and Lee is clearly better than both.

Three talented players with 1st or 2nd-round pedigree, all of whom could be on the field for the Mariners in 2011 and under team control until at least 2013. That might be enough to entice them to move Cliff Lee early. The Twins, for their trouble, would get him for 17-18 starts instead of 12, and then get 2 high draft picks next season to replace what they'd lost this year. And they wouldn't be losing anything they need to be counting on for the long term anyway. The Twins' players and fans would be energized by such an aggressive acquisition, and recognize that the front office is fully committed to winning it all this season. The Tigers and White Sox would recognize it as well, and would have to take a hard look at themselves in late July to decide whether it is worth the cost in terms of dollars and organizational depth to try to keep up.

The Twins team we're watching now might be in for a fight to win the division, and doesn't appear to have what it takes to go deep into October. Bill Smith shouldn't be afraid to spend some of the Twins' considerable capital in order to change that equation.

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