Thursday, January 27, 2011

Too Much Pitching

Twins claim LHP Dusty off waivers from the Royals; designate RHP Rob Delaney for assignment.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal. Whether the Twins prefer one middle reliever over another is probably of little consequence, as neither is necessarily going to earn a spot in the Twins' new-look bullpen. Hughes has perhaps a little more to recommend him, in that he's actually pitched 70.1 IP in the Majors with pretty decent results. And he's left-handed, though his platoon splits so far don't show so much disparity that he should be thought of as a LOOGY.

Then again, Delaney showed improvement in some aspects of his game in his 2nd go-around at Rochester. His BB/9 went from 2.8 to 2.6, and he really turned on the strikeouts, going from 7.2 K/9 up to 10.4. His H/9 and HR/9 went the wrong way, though, and he had a particularly poor season with respect to stranding baserunners - his own and those he inherited. Of course, that may have been triggered by the tremendous workload he's shouldered over the last two seasons. He went from 69 IP in 2007 to 65 IP in 2008 (+13 IP in the AFL) to 83 IP in 2009 and 81 IP last year. 68-70 IP is more typical of relievers these days. Give the poor guy a little rest and see what he can do this year.

After all, there are 3 major skills I would look for in a middle relief fireman:
  1. Ability to miss bats. The surest way to keep those inherited RISP from coming home is to keep the batter from putting the ball in play
  2. Ability to throw strikes. You don't want a reliever coming into a men-on situation to make things worse by falling into a hitter's count or giving up free passes.
  3. Ability to induce ground balls. Nothing kills a rally faster than a GIDP.
Delaney isn't much a ground ball guy, but he has the first two qualities in spades. In fact, of all the relievers the Twins currently have on their 40-man roster, the only ones who have a better combination of K/9 and BB/9 than Delaney are working their way back from TJS. Though he wasn't a sure thing to make the opening day roster, I would think he had as good a chance as anyone else the Twins are bringing in. Which brings me to this:

"[Hughes] will just add to the competition for our bullpen spots," Twins General Manager Bill Smith said. "We lost a lot of guys that were with us at the end of the season, so we're adding to the depth."

Um, Bill, how does swapping one reliever for another add to the depth? Delaney has to clear waivers now. If somebody else claims him, the Twins won't have added anything. If the idea was to add bullpen depth, they should have dropped a non-reliever from the 40-man roster to clear space for Hughes.

The present state of the 40-man roster is pretty baffling. Never mind that it only has 2 catchers on it at the moment, and that one of them can't hit. The Twins have just 9 relievers on the roster, competing for spots in what we can assume will be a 7-man bullpen. Personally, I'd like to have at least 2 guys in camp for every question mark. The Twins have at least 4 question marks in the 'pen right now, and that's not including Joe Nathan.

What really puzzles me, though, is that there are presently 12 starters on the 40-man, and it's a case of quantity over quality. There are 6 starters for 5 rotation spots on the 25-man roster: Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing. There are 7 guys for the 5 rotation spots at Rochester: Jeff Manship, Anthony Swarzak, David Bromberg, Eric Hacker and non-roster invitees Kyle Gibson, Chuck James and Yorman Bazardo. The other 2 spots go to former top prospects: Deolis Guerra, who just had a nice little winter in Venezuela but is still likely headed for a repeat at AA, and Glen Perkins, who should have been non-tendered.

Of course, some of those guys, such as Duensing and Perkins, even Manship, could be considered as bullpen guys. Maybe that's the way the organization is looking at them already. That still wouldn't straighten things out in my mind, though. That's because the 40-man roster is for:
  1. Guys on the active roster.
  2. Guys who are ready to fill in when somebody gets hurt.
  3. Prospects you want to protect from the Rule 5 draft.
I think it's extremely likely that 6 of these starters from the 40-man won't make the active roster. Of those, 2 qualify as prospects: Guerra and Bromberg. The other 4 have all reached their ceiling as no better than 5th starters. What good could they be with respect to #2 above?

Imagine that the Twins don't trade any of their top starters, sending Duensing back to the bullpen to start the year. If somebody in the rotation needs to go on the DL for any more than 2-3 starts, Duensing gets stretched out and takes the vacated spot, and needs to be replaced by a reliever. If it's a case where the Twins only need a spot start or two, they could certainly go to Manship, who filled that role ably once or twice last season. Hacker could do the job, too, if they prefer. One of those guys might be needed, but probably not both. And that's only true of the first 2-3 months of the season. After that, Gibson and Bromberg will each have made 15+ career starts at Rochester and, as more talented, higher-upside players, would presumably give the Twins more value in a spot start or two than replacement level filler like the other guys.

I can envision no scenario in which Swarzak contributes in 2011. He made no appearances with the Twins in 2010, mainly because he was routinely getting spanked at AAA. He carried that poor performance into Venezuela this winter. Even if the entire rotation fell apart, I bet the Twins would rush the rookies into service before they used Swarzak. He's just taking up space right now. So why wasn't he the one dropped to make room for Hughes? I doubt anyone would have claimed him. And if someone had, well, shrug.

It will be interesting to see how much the 40-man roster changes by the end of spring training. I wouldn't be surprised to see more than 3 of the NRIs find themselves in the fold, with surplus deadweight like Swarzak and Perkins dismissed to clear room. That day can't come soon enough for me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Contract Week

A quiet offseason has suddenly become busy with Twins news. Part of that was prompted by Tuesday's arbitration deadline, without which they might well have continued to progress through the winter at their own leisurely pace. Finally spurred into action, they handed out a flurry of contracts. I was struck by the disparity in efficiency between some of those recent transactions. Here's what I mean:


Twins reached 1-year agreements with Alexi Casilla ($865K), Glen Perkins ($700K) and Matt Capps ($7.15M), avoiding arbitration. Jason Repko ($600K) and Pat Neshek ($625K) agreed to 1-year deals in December.

Casilla will presumably be the everyday SS and #9 hitter. I'll go into it more in a later post, but I think it's reasonable to expect him to provide league average production at that position. That's pretty good return for a salary that's only about double the minimum wage. Repko is useful only as a late-inning sub for someone who's already gotten on base; his salary is appropriate for his limited skills. Neshek was one of the top setup men in baseball before his injury. If he can regain his command and a little velocity, as Francisco Liriano was able to do, he could be a huge asset for the bullpen. If he can't, the Twins haven't wagered too much.

Those three guys aren't sure things to be productive, but Repko serves an important function on the bench, and the other two have pretty decent upside potential. For just over $2M, the Twins could get some nice value out of that trio.

But just about every year, they offer arbitration to someone I would have non-tendered. This year, it's Perkins. There is nothing I've seen in his last two seasons to suggest that he has any chance of contributing to this year's team. He's more hittable than Nick Blackburn, and doesn't even pitch as deeply into games as Kevin Slowey, so he's not going to beat anybody out for a rotation spot. He doesn't miss bats, he doesn't get ground balls, and he's no good at getting lefties out, so what good could he do in the bullpen? On top of that, he's injury-prone, there are questions about his make-up, and Gardy doesn't seem to like him very much. So why even offer him a contract? $700K isn't a ton of money to spend on a player, but it's a lot to spend on toilet paper.

As for Capps, I accepted a long time ago that he was going to get a contract and make about $7M through arbitration. Those facts have been incorporated into my expectations of the Twins' offseason all along. But after seeing reliever after reliever agree to 2 and 3-year deals with average annual values of $3.5-$5.5M, it was still a bit of a shock to look at the actual number today. My first thought was, "Wow, that's really steep." Then I went back to the projected payroll spreadsheet and reminded myself that it wasn't shocking - it's what everyone assumed would happen all along.

Most relievers have been overpriced this winter, especially when you factor in the additional years. Capps will cost the Twins less in guaranteed money than every departed member of their bullpen, with the exception of Jon Rauch, who had to settle for a 1-year deal. In that respect, the Twins came out ahead. And they have their 2nd closer, a guy who can step in if Joe Nathan struggles in his comeback from TJS.

But it's disheartening to see that, for about the same amount of money they're paying Capps and Perkins, they could have brought back Brian Fuentes - who also would have served as Nathan insurance - plus somebody else who has a better shot of producing than Perkins. Like Takashi Saito, or maybe Chad Qualls. It seems like a waste to see only one spot in an uncertain bullpen filled with the money that might have covered two.

Exchanged figures (Team/Player) with Kevin Slowey ($2.3M/$3.1M), Francisco Liriano ($3.6M/$5M) and Delmon Young ($4.65/$6.25).

With Slowey, the Twins should just go ahead and split the difference at $2.7M. After a couple of shaky seasons in a row, including a very frustrating 2010, I don't know why Slowey wouldn't accept that.

Liriano and Young should get multi-year deals with the Twins' submitted numbers as the 2011 salaries. For Liriano, Zach Greinke and Josh Johnson are the appropriate comps, each of whom signed 4-year deals following the first good season they produced after their respective troubles. Liriano's crappy luck last year is good luck for the Twins, since his 2010 doesn't look quite as nice statistically as Johnson's 2009 or Greinke's 2008. They might be able to get him for a little less than the $38-$39M those guys got, maybe more like $36-$37M. They each made $3.75M in the first year. Maybe Liriano's contract goes:

2011: $3.6M
2012: $7.4M
2013: $13M
2014: $13M

That would be the $37M version.

As for Young, I think Michael Cuddyer is a good comp. In the winter of 2008, Cuddyer filed at $6.2M and the Twins at $4.7M - just about exactly the split between Young and the Twins now. Cuddy wound up with a 3-year, $24M contract with an option for 2011. I don't know if I'd mess with the $2.75M signing bonus in Young's case, instead dividing it over the later years of the deal:

2011: $4.75M
2012: $7.75M
2013: $10.5M
2014: $12.5M or $1M buyout

Just make sure that, in Young's case, they don't have to exercise the option a year early.

Of course, the Twins could just wait and see whether Lirano's and Young's breakout 2010s were just flukes. But my guess is that the next few years with them won't come at as low a price in the future. I'll bet at least one of them has a new contract announced before Twinsfest.

Free Agents

Twins agreed to terms with Jim Thome on a 1-year, $3M contract and Carl Pavano on a 2-year, $16.5M contract.

While I have my reservations about bringing Jim Thome back, I have to give the Twins credit for getting him for so little guaranteed money, especially after the monster season he just had. If he totally flames out this year, the Twins won't have lost much.

The Pavano contract is amazing. As soon as Ted Lilly re-upped with the Dodgers for 3-years, $33M, I thought Pavano was gone for sure. Why shouldn't he get the same deal? Well, it was probably partly the recent, notorious injury history. That, coupled with Type A status that would have cost the signing team a draft pick, seems to have deflated Pavano's market. So the Twins were not only able to bring him back, but at a price tag just a little bit over what they paid him last season. That's the same thing Jake Westbrook is getting paid. What a bargain!

This move might free up one of the other starters for a possible trade. Other than Duensing, though, I feel like their stock is pretty low right now. It would be best to wait until at least the end of spring training, when Slowey and Blackburn can establish that they're healthy and able to get people out.

Or if they hold onto everybody, signing Pavano likely means that Duensing would get kicked back to the bullpen, where he's been very effective over the last two seasons. That would reduce the number of question marks in the 'pen by one. There are probably enough guys coming to spring training to adequately fill the remaining relief spots internally.

With Pavano coming back to the Twins, they lost their opportunity to get some draft pick compensation for him. (It's a stipulation of his new contract that the Twins won't offer him arbitration after 2012.) They'll end up with something like 3 of the top 50-60 picks this June. Which is nice, but it could have been so much more.

The Rays were in basically the same boat as the Twins, with the bulk of their bullpen heading into free agency. But they boldly offered arbitration to everybody, even though having several of those players accept it would have been much more difficult for them to absorb financially. All of their FAs turned it down, and the Rays have been rewarded with 11 picks out of the first 80 or so. If the Twins had done the same, they might have picked up 4 extra picks for losing Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes. I'm not sure Guerrier, as a Type A, would have turned down arbitration. But then again, Type A Grant Balfour did, and he landed on his feet. Rauch and Fuentes almost certainly would have tested the market. The Twins didn't really lose anything by being cautious, but they might have gained something had they had the same resolution the Rays did.

A few bargains, a few missed opportunities, and a few head-scratchers. It doesn't seem like many avid fans are too excited with the offseason so far. But I have no doubt that the Twins are following the plan they set for themselves at their organizational meetings. We may not be completely satisfied with the deals they've made, but I have a feeling they are.

Friday, January 14, 2011

An Unbalanced Bench

Jim Thome will return to the Twins in 2011 on a 1-year, $3M (+ incentives) deal. He was a godsend for the Twins last season, hitting .283/.412/.627 with 25 HR, most coming after Justin Morneau was forced out of the lineup. His $1.5M base salary made Thome the free agent steal of 2010. Though he doesn't come quite so cheaply in 2011, this contract is still a bargain, especially if he can produce anything close to what he did last year.

Still, I'm lukewarm about this signing, for the following reasons:

Reason #1: Brett Favre

A sure-fire Hall of Famer, his numbers steadily declining over his late-30's, signs a 1-year deal with his former rivals and rattles off one of the most impressive statistical seasons of his career, helping his new team to an easy division title. Bring him back for one more year! Oops. The old man battled injuries all season, and when he made it onto the field, the results were usually pretty dreadful. The Vikes would have been better off with just about anybody else behind center.

But football is very different than baseball, and QB is a much more important position than part-time DH/bench bat. For a baseball comparison, look at Frank Thomas. He was limping through his late 30's, so the White Sox dropped him after 2005 (replacing him with Thome). Thomas signed a 1-year deal with Oakland and unleashed one last great season at age 38, hitting .270/.381/.545 with 39 bombs for the last A's team to make the playoffs. Toronto signed him up for 2 years that offseason. He wasn't nearly as potent in 2007 (.277/.377/.480 with 26 HR in 25 more PA), then was released halfway through the 2008 season after he could muster only a .723 OPS through 71 games.

Very few professional athletes can compete at a high level into their late thirties, let alone their forties. Even the very greatest are humbled by the relentless effects of aging. They may have one more great year in them as Favre, Thomas and Thome did. But they are almost never better at 40 than they were at 37-38. I doubt Thome will be any different. At age 37 his OPS was .865. At age 38 it was .847. The Twins would do well to expect his OPS to drop somewhere around .200 points from last season's lofty 1.039. If he's mostly able to avoid facing lefties, he might do a lot better than that, and I'd certainly take Thomas' 2007 line if Thome can match it. But I still wouldn't be shocked to see 2011 turn out to be Thome's least productive year since he was a rookie.

And don't forget, he doesn't play defense, he's much weaker against LHP, and he can't run. He's on the roster to hit against RHP, and that's it. 40-year old Jim Thome will be just as much of a luxury for the Twins as the 39-year old version. Which brings me to:

Reason #2: The Bench

Without Thome, the Twins still figured to have 4 left-handed batters in their everyday lineup: Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel. Not surprisingly, the Tigers and White Sox are loading their bullpens with 2-3 LHP in order to match up with those hitters in the late innings. Here's how our guys have done against LHP over the last 3 seasons:

Span: .298/.380/.419 (+.060 OPS compared to RHP)
Mauer: .324/.388/.461 (-.116)
Morneau: .290/.343/.496 (-.119)
Kubel: .233/.312/.351 (-.218)
2010 AL vs. LHP: 256/.325/.393

Span would prefer to see a lefty on the mound. Southpaws reduce the M&M boys from godly to merely great. Still, all three are healthily above the league average against portsiders. No need to pinch-hit for any of them. But Kubel... ugh. LHPs transform him from a beast into a bee-yatch. It's crucial that the Twins have some way to protect Kubel from facing lefties, especially in late, game-changing situations. I would even say that it's the most important strategic position on their bench.

As of right now, it appears that the Twins' bench next season will consist of Thome, backup catcher Drew Butera, Jason Repko for the outfield, and Matt Tolbert as the utility infielder. As Christina Karl of Baseball Prospectus said (before Thome was signed), that group has the potential to be an "infamously bad" bench. They can all hit right-handed against LHP, but none of them do it well:

Repko: .211/.274/.281
Butera: .183/.203/.250
Tolbert: .271/.316/.393

The best the Twins can do for Kubel is to send up Tolbert, who is only slightly below league average and outslugs Kubel by a mere .042. It isn't really worth it to PH him and have Tolbert as the DH for the remainder of the game. If I were Gardy, I'd just take my chances with Kubel. Which plays right into Ozzie & Leyland's hands.

For his career, Thome has hit .238/.339/.424 vs. LHP. A fair amount better than average, better than Tolbert, way better than Kubel. But would Gardy pull Kubel back against a LHP and send Thome up instead? It looks to me like the Twins are still going to be vulnerable in that situation. Now, if the Twins want to protect themselves against late-inning lefties, it would require Gardy to do a couple of things for which there is no recent precedent under his tenure:

1. Make Cuddyer a Platoon Player

Consider Cuddyer's recent work vs. LHP in light of the list I gave above:


That's a mile better than Kubel. Obviously, you want Cuddy out there against lefties with Kubel on the bench. Against righties, it should be nearly as clear. Between 1B, LF, RF and DH, the Twins have 5 players for 4 positions. Thanks to Delmon Young's emergence in 2010, I expect him to be in LF just about every day. That leaves Morneau, Thome, Kubel and Cuddyer to fit into the last 3 slots. Here are their 3-year splits vs. RHP:

Morneau: .306/.407/.551
Thome: .266/.396/.543
Kubel: .289/.354/.527
Cuddyer: .261/.319/.423

Now, which one of those guys should be riding the pine against righties? It's not even close. And, with Cuddyer on the bench, not only is the heart of the order a RHP killing machine, but Cuddy is available to PH late in the game to protect Kubel from facing a tough lefty.

The advantages of a Cuddyer/Kubel platoon are obvious, but I don't expect it will happen. Cuddyer has played at least 144 games in each of the last 5 seasons in which he didn't have broken bones. Also, a Cuddy/Kubel platoon would cost $15.75M, of which 2/3 would be paid to the guy getting 1/3 of the PA. Such a sunk cost shouldn't have any bearing on how the lineup is constructed, but that doesn't mean it won't. Cuddyer is going to get a lot of PAs against RHP, at the expense of a righty masher. Unless...

2. Make Cuddyer the Super-Utility Guy

Last year, Cuddyer made starts at RF, CF, 1B, 2B and 3B. He's a defensive liability at all of them. But even against RHP, he's a much better hitter than Tolbert or Repko. The Twins could plan on having Cuddyer start in RF against all left-handed starters (about 1/3 of the season), then spell all four IF and the other OF a couple of times a month. When Young sits, Kubel would probably start in LF. When Casilla gets a day off, Nishioka could play SS. When Span is out, Nishioka leads off. The thought of Cuddyer in CF is harrowing, but so is the thought of Repko hitting - he can come in as a defensive replacement late in the games.

That would give Cuddyer about 55 GS as a RF vs. LHP, a dozen each as a RF, CF, 1B and 3B and 2 dozen as a 2B vs. RHP. That adds up to 127 starts - nearly 4/5 games. That, plus frequent PH opportunities, would hopefully make him and Gardy feel like they were getting everything they could out of him. And it would mean that the Twins could do without Tolbert altogether, opening up the last bench spot for someone who can DH against lefties.

But it's hard enough to imagine Gardy making due without Nick Punto, let alone Tolbert. And I admit it would be useful to have a good IF glove available to sub for Cuddyer late in his starts at 2B and 3B. So, assuming Tolbert still makes the team, the only way I can see that the Twins can avoid the LOOGY trap with Kubel is...

3. Have a 5-Man Bench

That used to be a pretty ordinary thing. The Twins could still sign one of the remaining RH hit-only FA left on the market. Here are a few who could top the league average (and Tolbert), based on their work over the last 3 seasons:

Troy Glaus: .225/.352/.407
Manny Ramirez: .288/.396/.489
Vladimir Guerrero: .297/.351/.481
Marcus Thames: .265/.333/.500

Of those, I'm guessing Glaus and Thames would be the cheapest. My preference would be for Glaus, since he has a little more credibility as a corner IF than Cuddyer. He's broken down in the NL the last couple of seasons, but if he only took the field a couple of times a month, I bet he would hold up pretty well. His 3-year splits vs. LHP don't look so hot, but for his career they're much better (.273/.396/.542). Also, if the opponents counter with a RHP, Glaus is far from hopeless there, too (.248/.344/.471). But any of those guys would do the job of giving opposing managers something to think about when they try to match up with Kubel.

However, a 5-man bench means a 6-man bullpen, and that, for some reason, almost never happens anymore. It shouldn't be a hardship if the Twins can get more out of their rotation this season (which should be their objective in any event, given the uncertainty surrounding most of the projected members of the 'pen). The 2010 'pen threw 457 IP, 31.5% of the Twins' total. Split 6 ways, that comes out to a little over 76 IP per guy, which is a much higher workload than the typical reliever accumulates these days. 70 IP would be a bit more reasonable, though still a number that would stretch most of the Twins' bullpen arms to their limits:
  • Matt Capps has thrown over 54.1 IP just once in the last 3 seasons;
  • Jose Mijares' career high as a major leaguer is 61.2 IP;
  • Joe Nathan, as a Twin, has averaged right around 70 IP, but he's coming off TJS;
  • Pat Neshek reached 70 IP in 2007, but he's also trying to come back from TJS
It isn't clear that the Twins have 6 relievers who could handle 420 IP. And that amount would still leave 37 extra IP for the starters to pick up in 2011.

Could they handle that? Carl Pavano, should he return, shouldn't be expected to do any more than the 221 IP he gave the Twins last year. Francisco Liriano ought to be able to improve substantially on last season's 191.2 IP - a full 33 GS and better luck on balls in play should get him easily to 210 IP. If those two could pull that off, then the other 3 starters still have to average 200 IP. Nick Blackburn managed that between 2008-2009, but was so dreadful at times last year that his combined workload between the Twins and Rochester in 2010 was just 182.2 IP. Scott Baker has reached 200 IP just once in his career. Kevin Slowey and Brian Duensing have never done it.

Much as I'd like to see the starters pushed harder in 2011, I doubt that the Twins will feel they have the luxury of carrying only 6 relievers for any part of the season.

Thome is still a productive hitter, and a great guy, and his chase of the 600 HR plateau will undoubtedly be great for business this summer. But unless the Twins surprise me by enacting one of the scenarios I enumerated above, his signing means that they'll be susceptible to LHP late in games. And that could cost them more games against their AL Central rivals than whatever is left of Thome's bat can replace.