Tuesday, January 24, 2012

...And Slams Closed

In the baseball transaction equivalent of Jerry Maguire's proposal to Dorothy Boyd (somewhere Rod Tidwell is nodding in amazement and saying, "Well, this definitely was another way to go"), the Tigers found a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Well, technically not permanent, but 9 years is a long time in baseball. Prince Fielder will be filling the hole in the lineup opened by Victor Martinez' knee injury.

Several smart people have correctly explained how this will probably be a long-term liability for Detroit. But for 2012, they have done what seemed impossible a few days ago: upgraded over Martinez. While everything I said last week about regression and their unathletic defense and baserunning is still true (perhaps even more so), Fielder is easily going to be worth 4+ wins over whoever else they might have run out there. They are now a better team than they were last October, 90 wins is suddenly easily within their grasp, and the remainder of the AL Central is far back in the rearview mirror.

In this light, the Twins' conservative offseason strategy is vindicated. They would still do well to add one more high-upside veteran RHP on a 1-year deal, though. It should be done with the idea that he could be dealt in July or August for someone who can add longer-term value to the organization. Even a riskier guy health-wise, like Brad Lidge or Michael Wuertz, makes a lot of sense under the circumstances.

Though they aren't likely be much better than .500 as presently constituted, the Twins are well-positioned to improve themselves over the next two seasons. They are fielding a starting lineup of competent veterans. They finally have some impact players at AAA who could push their way onto the big league roster by September. Should they find themselves in contention, they will be in position to deal for help, thanks to some payroll headroom and a good crop of highly regarded prospects at the lower levels. Whatever they lose in-season could largely be replaced by the 5 top-75 selections they'll make in next June's draft. And, outside of the M&M boys, they have relatively modest payroll commitments for 2013, giving them flexibility to do even more smart shopping next winter.

The Tigers are in the driver's seat for 2012. The Twins have avoided committing too many resources to what will likely be a 2nd-place campaign. 2013 is when things will really get interesting in the division.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Door Opens

The Tigers won the AL Central handily last year. Their 95-67 record was 15 games better than the 2nd-place Indians. No other team in the division finished over .500. Though they have largely stood pat this offseason, the remainder of the division is so far behind the talent Detroit is returning that there has been little controversy in picking them as the favorites to repeat in 2012.

I wouldn't pick them to win 90+ games again, though. Their .318 team BABIP was the best in the Majors by a good margin, exceeding the league average by .024. Players from Miguel Cabrera to Alex Avila to Jhonny Peralta were well over their career norms in this regard. That factor alone makes a healthy regression in their offensive output likely. Throw in the fact that their Closer, Jose Valverde, didn't blow a save in 49 tries (5 blown saves would have been a very good percentage) - a feat he will almost certainly fail to repeat this year - and it's easy to see their win total dropping into the upper 80s.

But with the White Sox (mostly) rebuilding, the Indians short on resources, the Royals still probably a year away and the Twins facing a slew of injury concerns, the Tigers appeared to be the only member of the AL Central for whom 86+ wins was within reach.

Until Tuesday, when we learned that Victor Martinez will likely be out for the season with a torn ACL suffered during offseason workouts. V-Mart was a middle-of-the-order force for the Tigers last year, batting .330/.380/.470 with 103 RBIs. A switch-hitter, he had an .830+ OPS from both sides of the plate. At this point in the offseason, he will be difficult to replace.

There are FA DHs still available, but most of them are in the decline phase of their careers. None of Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero or Manny Ramirez could be expected to match what Martinez gave the Tigers last year. If I were them, I'd go for Pena, who crushes righties and is at least a good defender at 1B. He could push Cabrera to DH vs. RHP, and they would come out ahead in those match-ups. But they would be much more vulnerable vs. LHP.

Depending on who they get to fill their DH slot, the loss of Martinez probably will cost the Tigers another couple of wins. While their pitching should remain good, they now figure to be a below-average team at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Suddenly, 84-86 wins is looking like the best-case scenario for them. (That was the pace they were on at the trading deadline last summer, by the way, before finishing a ridiculous 39-16 over the last two months.)

Given the precarious health of several of their core players, the Twins have understandably been cautious about overcommitting themselves to the 2012 campaign. They've spent about $21M to bring in 6 FA, mostly on modest, short-term deals. They've replaced their own FA losses more or less equally, and added depth in a couple of areas. Plus, they were unlucky last year, in everything from health to outcomes of batted balls. They should score a lot more runs and allow a lot fewer this year. The improvements may even be enough to bring their RS and RA into balance, which would result in about a .500 team. Respectable, but not a contender. But with $100M already spent to get the team to that level, and the market value of a marginal win nearly $5M, the Twins obviously can't afford to add the extra talent needed to get them to the 86-88 win level.

Now the injury to Martinez changes this calculus. The Tigers are nearly within reach, and one or two more judicious moves could elevate the Twins to the level of true contenders in the division. Look at it this way: if the Twins were 4 games back in the standings at the end of July, we'd expect them to make a move or two to take on payroll and go for the title. Surely, they are much more likely to make up that difference over 162 games than 55. They should spend the money now.

Roy Oswalt is there for the taking, for less than $10M. RH setup men like Dan Wheeler or Todd Coffey could be scooped up for less than $2M. The Twins could pick up Oswalt plus another reliever, kick Nick Blackburn into the bullpen as a long man/6th starter, and proceed into the season with a good pitching staff, all while spending a few million dollars less than they did on players at the start of last season. If things don't work out, they'd have a bunch of quality veterans they could deal in July and August while saving a bit of cash. If things do work out, it would be worth the extra expense, wouldn't it?

Alternately, the Twins could deal from their surplus of A-ball prospects to upgrade the rotation. At least half of those players won't amount to anything, and whoever is dealt can be more or less replaced with one of the Twins' 5 early picks in this June's draft. The Astros may be willing to eat some salary on Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers. Either one would be a huge upgrade over Blackburn.

In 2011, everything broke right for the Tigers and wrong for the Twins. A month before spring training, it's already clear that fortunes will be different in 2012. A little flexibility from the Twins now could position them to take advantage of some better luck in the coming season.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stopping Short

It was a busy month of December for Terry Ryan. He re-signed Matt Capps, signed Josh Willingham and Jason Marquis, parted ways with Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jose Mijares and Kevin Slowey, and brought in a crap-ton of NRIs for spring training. I think Brandon Warne of Fangraphs sums up the moves pretty well.

I'm optimistic that Capps will be better in 2012, but not to the point that I would prefer him to, say, Octavio Dotel, $1.25M and a supplemental draft pick. And I think Marquis has a good chance of being a solid back-end starter. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out, you're not going to do much better for $3M. Now, with about $100M committed, 39 guys on the roster and another 25 coming to Fort Myers next month, it appears that the Twins are done acquiring players. That's a shame, because though they've added some good pieces, this team doesn't look like it's going to be good enough to compete. And the $13M cut between the 2011 opening day payroll and the 2012 projection really seems to be holding them back.

The difference between Marquis' and Roy Oswalt's salaries looks like it will be around $5M. Both pitchers have durability questions they need to answer this year. But Marquis' upside is no better than #4 starter, whereas a healthy Oswalt is an ace. The 2010 versions of Oswalt, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Carl Pavano would make for a pretty strong rotation. With Marquis filling it out instead, league average seems like the best we can hope for. For $5M extra, the Twins could have had a good rotation instead of a mediocre one.

The lineup (if healthy) looks solid 1-7. Denard Span, Jamey Carroll, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit should get on base a lot and make opposing pitchers work. Danny Valencia should bounce back a bit after an usually poor BABIP showing in 2011. But the bottom 2 slots are going to be filled by Ben Revere and Alexi Casilla or Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Added to Span and Carroll, that's one more piranha than I'd want in the lineup. They'll score more runs than last year, but maybe not enough. For $1-2M, they could have picked up a Reed Johnson or Andruw Jones, a veteran with some pop who could have held the position down and given Revere some more PAs in Rochester.

The bullpen will have Capps, Glen Perkins, Brian Duensing, and a bunch of guys who weren't good enough to pitch in the Majors all season last year. There are still quite a few veterans who will be taking cheap, 1-year deals in the coming weeks. It would be great if the Twins could snag one or two of them - it would only cost them a couple million. That would be the difference between a reliable unit and one that could turn into another horror show.

It appears that the bench will consist of Drew Butera, Trevor Plouffe, Nishioka and Luke Hughes. Plouffe and Nishioka might still have some upside, but Hughes didn't show anything last year, and Butera is hopeless. By the start of spring training, there will be at least a dozen catchers accepting backup roles for less than $2M. Virtually anybody who hits the waiver wire would be better than Butera.

Ryan did a pretty good job with the limited payroll space he was given. The Twins will be far less exposed depth-wise in 2012, and that should ensure that they finish the year with a respectable record. Perhaps they're maintaining some flexibility to add payroll by trading for name players during the season. Maybe they need to reserve some money for signing the 5 high draft picks they'll be making. Or maybe they just don't want to invest too much in a hopeless cause - if Mauer, Morneau and Span don't return to health, and if Liriano can't figure out how to throw strike one, no amount of FA signings is going to save the season. But quality veterans signed to 1-year deals are assets valuable to contending teams, and an Oswalt or Jones might have earned a system-bolstering prospect at the trade deadline.

The moves the Twins have made give them a chance to be respectable, but not much of a chance to contend. A payroll more like last year's could have greatly improved their chances. I'm not sure there would have been much harm in trying.