Friday, September 14, 2007

A Brief History of the Terry Ryan Era

There have been two times in my life when something has caught me so far off guard that I was unable to formulate a proper emotional response. The first time, I walked around in a daze for 48 hours after finding out that people found a way to collapse a skyscraper by flying jumbo jets into the sides of it. The second time occurred today when I was thoroughly shocked by the jarring news that Terry Ryan had stepped down as the Twins General Manager. I do not mean to equate the importance of Ryan’s departure with one of the deadliest American events of my generation, except that each occurrence was deeply stupefying and completely unexpected. Moreover, with so many lingering questions- Was he fired? Was he fed up with tightfisted ownership? Is he trying to avoid a forthcoming implosion? Will he leave for the next attractive job elsewhere? How active will he be as an advisor?- closure can only come in the form of a Bill Smith breakthrough. Now, for the first time in twelve years, the Twins face the task of developing a new identity and making difficult personnel decisions without the greatest sub-.500 executive in the history of the franchise.

The practice of deifying and demonizing general managers is as well established as the hero worship and vitriol thrown at the players themselves. Nonetheless, an even-handed evaluation of Ryan has to recognize that his track record for following his convictions to successful results has outweighed his weaknesses through his tenure in Minnesota. Despite the unevenness of his last two seasons, Ryan has earned the undying admiration of Twins fans who saw him right a sinking ship with an uncertain future. Looking back at his history gives us an idea of what we can expect from the Twins in the future.

When Ryan took the reins of the team for the 1996 season, the Twins were at something of a crossroads. The ’95 team featured several holdovers from the 1991 World Series Champions, including Kirby Puckett, Chuck Knoblauch, Kevin Tapani, and Scott Erickson. Nostalgia aside, this core was not getting the job done for the Twins, as they narrowly missed the playoffs in ’92, and experienced a steady decline into three straight losing campaigns thereafter. Ryan’s job was to rebuild the franchise from the ground up, refashioning the Twins into a legitimate contender instead of letting the sink to the status of long-term laughingstock. Using his scouting chops and a penchant for player development, Ryan set out to build a sustainable contender, not a flash in the pan surprise that overspent for post-peak free agents who would eventually cripple the team’s flexibility. To the credit of the ownership, Ryan was allowed to make some unpopular decisions that would hurt the team in the short run.

From the beginning, Ryan knew that two steps forward would require an immediate step back. As soon as he took over the team, Ryan initiated his practice of signing retread free agents to see if any of them could provide value on the field and, eventually, a healthy return on the trade market. Therefore, Dave Hollins, Greg Myers, and Roberto Kelly found regular playing time for the Twins in 1996. Ryan also started stocking his minor league cabinet from his first days in office. He made the most of the amateur draft, snagging future major leaguers Travis Lee, Jacque Jones, Mike Lamb, and Josh Bard. Unfortunately, the Twins managed to sign only Jones, although his contributions alone made that year’s draft a success. Ryan also made the most of other modes of player acquisition, pumping up the value of Dave Hollins before trading him to the Mariners for a minor league first baseman named David Ortiz. Before the season was finished, Ryan also snagged Venezuelan pitcher Juan Rincon as an amateur free agent. Although all of these players were far from contributing, Ryan had laid the foundation for a strong franchise within his first year.

Over the next five years, Ryan continued to use these same mechanisms to build up the farm system, creating a source of cheap talent for a cash-strapped major league team. He drafted relatively well, snagging Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and J.C. Romero, among others. He signed a handful of scrapheap free agents every year to see if any of them could make good enough to return value in a trade, occasionally digging up a bargain and improving the team’s future at the cost of its present. More often than not, the return on these retreads was someone like Steve Hacker or John Barnes. He did make out better a couple of times, though, acquiring Joe Mays for Roberto Kelly and Lew Ford for Hector Carrasco. Getting this sort of eventual Major League talent on the cheap makes it possible for mid-market teams to stay in races with teams who can spend more money, but give up draft picks and prospects while doing it. Finally, Ryan made two large trades as part of the rebuilding process where he surrendered well regarded players for packages of prospects. In one, he gave up Rick Aguilera for Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. The more well-known trade, of course, saw him send Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for Christian Guzman, Brian Buchanan, Eric Milton, Danny Mota, and cash. Trading players who still have much to offer is different than trading free agents that nobody wanted a few months before, but each situation requires the general manager to properly evaluate the opposition’s farm system, and Ryan has proven himself extremely adept at that skill.

Slowly but surely, Ryan had been turning over his roster, trading the retread free agents for prospects and letting the home grown talent take over at the Major League Level. By 1999, 37 year old Terry Steinbach was the only import in the everyday lineup, and the only regular over 27 years old. The pitching rotation was even younger, with 26 year old Brad Radke and Latroy Hawkins as its most veteran members. As the core of young talent including Radke, Milton, Guzman, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Corey Koskie developed together, the Twins started becoming slightly more hopeful. By 2001, that hope had turned into more solid results, as the team had its first winning season in 10, going 85-77 before fading from the playoff chase down the stretch.

By the time Ryan had positioned the Twins to become contenders, some things had changed and others had stayed the same. Ryan now had surplus talent at some positions, so he started trading some of his own players to build organizational depth rather than trading his beloved scrapheap free agents. In 2000, he traded Todd Walker for Todd Sears, a trade meant to give the Twins another power bat that the big league roster was lacking. In 2001, Matt Lawton and Mark Redman were jettisoned during the Twins’ pennant race for Rick Reed and Todd Jones, respectively. Ryan also continued dealing from depth to acquire prospects, giving up Brian Buchanan to the Padres for minor league shortstop Jason Bartlett. While Ryan’s resources had changed a bit, his tendencies stayed remarkably similar. He continued signing free agents that nobody else wanted, like the re-acquired Hector Carrasco, Quinton McCracken, Mike Jackson, and Mike Fetters. The difference was that he had built up enough organizational depth that he could use these players if they were effective, or throw them away immediately if they were not. For his last big move before the Twins made the playoffs, Ryan drafted Joe Mauer over Mark Prior, a watershed moment because of Mauer’s impact, but also because it was the last time Ryan ever drafted a position player who would become a regular during his tenure as GM.

Once the Twins finally scaled the mountain in 2002, conditions started to change for Ryan. Building a minor league system was becoming increasingly difficult, as the better records meant worse draft position, and the influx of homegrown talent translated into less opportunities to pump up the value of cheap imports before trading them for prospects. Instead, Ryan was forced to trade potentially useful young players like Javier Valentin and Matt Kinney to bolster weaknesses in the farm system. After a second division title, service time also became a pressing concern for Ryan. As his Minnesota-bred roster reached arbitration and free agency, it became much more costly to maintain, and he had to start making difficult choices about who to keep and who to let go. Remarkably, Ryan has almost always let the right players walk at the right time, getting the most out of them before they become expensive, then saying goodbye when their decline phase sets in. Still, giving up so much depth for nothing more than the occasional compensatory draft pick eventually starts to show up for a team, and it is not surprising that the Twins depth of the early 2000s is severely compromised today.

The cash-induced exodus started with Eddie Guardado and Latroy Hawkins at the end of the 2003 season. In reality, though, the attrition started a year before that, when Ryan was concerned enough about his middle infield situation that he made room on the 40-man roster for Rule 5 pick Jose Morban by releasing the injury-prone but established David Ortiz. It seemed as if the Twins were in dire straights after the 2003 season, as letting Guardado and Hawkins walk did not fully alleviate their financial situation. To further cut payroll, Ryan decided to go with young players in the starting rotation and at catcher. In doing so, he traded one year of Eric Milton for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, and one year of A.J. Pierzynski for Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, and Joe Nathan. As well as Ryan has scouted other teams’ farm systems throughout his career, the Pierzynski trade is the high water mark. Along with the nearly free acquisition of Johan Santana, it demonstrates Ryan’s strengths in the same way that releasing Ortiz displays his weaknesses. If those three moves define his tenure as GM, it remains clear that Ryan is a star who did tremendous good for Minnesota.

Due to Ryan’s ability to trade his expensive, established players for Major League-ready replacements, as well as a sudden influx of top-level star talent in the form of Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, and Justin Morneau, the Twins saw little decline after the attrition of 2003. All the while, homegrown talent continued leaving, and without the high draft picks to replace them, it was back to the scrapheap for Ryan. Dustan Mohr, Doug Mientkiewicz, Christian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, and J.C. Romero all left Minnesota between 2003-2005, each requiring a replacement that the Twins could not afford. Instead, Ryan turned to players like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, Jason Tyner, and Eric Munson in the free talent pool, moves which nearly uniformly failed, and have been the focal point for Ryan detractors. Ryan never stopped signing unwanted free agents to build depth, but as his homegrown depth left for more money elsewhere, these players were pressed into regular service. In the past, their failures could be masked by replacing them with the prospects acquired by trading the last round of retreads. Since no playing time existed for those retreads from 2002-2004, the prospects were never acquired, and the best replacement for Tony Batista was Nick Punto.

Despite the difficulties associated with mid-market attrition, the Twins were able to make a stunning run to the division title in 2006 on the backs of their top-end stars. The players that carried them were all in Minnesota because of Ryan’s deft management- it was Ryan who made the close call in taking Mauer over Prior, Ryan was the GM who drafted Morneau in the third round and brought him patiently (maybe too patiently) through the system, Ryan stole Johan Santana, and Ryan made the memorable trade that brought Liriano and Nathan to Minnesota. At the same time, the scrubs part of the Twins new stars-and-scrubs arrangement were quite disappointing. It was clear that Ryan had to find a better DH solution than Rondell White and a better third baseman than Nick Punto if the Twins were going to compete in 2007. But bad luck intervened, as injuries forced Brad Radke into early retirement and Francisco Liriano into Tommy John surgery. Instead of entrusting the rotation to Johan Santana and some combination of young players- Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Glenn Perkins, Kevin Slowey-, Ryan chose to spend his limited free agent budget on Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, both of whom flamed out terrifically. Simultaneously, Ryan resisted dealing from this tremendous starting pitching depth to fill either of his two major offensive holes. That under-aggressiveness was a major factor in the team’s inability to restock its farm system, as well as its inability to fill holes at the Major League level. Obviously, it would not have been as simple as wishing an above-average third baseman onto the roster for $3 million, but Ryan definitely made a mistake by standing pat in the face of his two biggest weaknesses.

Immediately before his departure, Ryan was struggling with juggling the extensions of his five biggest stars not under long term contracts- Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Mike Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan. It is unreasonable to think that the Twins could retain more than three of the five, and there is nobody I would trust more with the decision of who to keep than Terry Ryan. With any luck, his advisory role will help him guide the Twins through the period of transition between now and the opening of the new park in 2010. All indications point to the franchise’s reorganization being about free agency and contract negotiation, which means that the successful player development track and scouting department will stay intact. These successes should be Ryan’s legacy rather than a couple of free agent mistakes in the face of a tight budget and a flawed roster. Losing Terry Ryan as the Twins’ GM is indeed a sad day, but it need not be a disastrous day. If the Twins respect his successes and try to replicate them, they can remain a competitive team outside of a major market. If they make the right decisions for the next two years, they may even build on his legacy to something greater.

Monday, September 3, 2007

TWIT: No smoke, no mirrors

Weekly Roundup

What happens when the luck that brings about consecutive winning weeks despite sub-par performances abruptly runs out? How does an ugly sweep in Cleveland and a series split with Kansas City at home sound? The sadly funny part of the miserable week is that the Twins actually managed to score a few runs- not a lot, but about 4 per game instead of their customary 2- and still dropped five out of seven. If you want to put some perspective on how bad the week really was, consider the optimism that ran rampant coming into the week as the Twins looked to be closing in on the Indians and threatening to make the division competitive, regardless of how poorly the Tigers chose to play. Instead, the Twins have sunk back to 9.5 games out of the divisional lead, and having no real chance of playing another meaningful game this season.

The secret about “the secret”, for those of you who entertain yourselves with clich├ęd contemporary metaphysical quackery, is that positive thinking can operate as a zero sum game. For instance, if you really believe you’re going to get a parking space close to the front door of your office, then you also believe that everyone else is going to be walking. In this week’s Cleveland series, it didn’t matter how much Twins fans believed the team was starting to come around, because Cleveland has had even better vibes emanating from the city all year. Instead of God or luck, these games were to be decided by skill, an ungrateful fate for the Twins. The Indians proceeded to demonstrate three different ways to win games: chipping away at Carlos Silva steadily on game one, putting a close game out of reach against an inferior reliever (Carmen “the great” Cali) in game two, and building up an early lead against Johan Santana in game three before holding off a late charge by the Twins. It would be nice if the Twins were able to duplicate some of those game types, but they all require timely hitting, sometimes including extra base hits, and that’s just not what this team does.

On the other hand, the week did feature one luminous bright spot, Scott Baker’s very good game. No, he wasn’t perfect, and Baker’s nerves were clearly frayed by the time he issued a five pitch walk to start the ninth. Nonetheless, Baker’s game is the type of event that generates interest and enthusiasm for a team that has faded from the pennant race. In his autobiography, fan pleasing former owner Bill Veeck writes about the importance of giving the fans something to root for, no matter what the team’s position in the standings. Sometimes that means promoting a rivalry, sometimes it means playing the spoiler, and sometimes it means publicizing milestones and personal achievements. With the best pitcher alive on the roster, the Twins could certainly try to get their PR machine behind Johan Santana’s final month push for the Cy Young, although the Twins bats would also have to get behind him, and that’s a far more precarious proposition.

Biggest Success

Some notes on Baker’s 24 up, 24 down start:

-With five ground balls and 13 fly balls, Baker actually set himself up well for a low-hit game. Even though grounders are typically preferable to fly balls because of their non-proclivity to turning into homeruns, there is a much higher likelihood of groundballs turning into hits (almost always singles). By keeping the ball in the air, Baker is walking a tightrope of low-BABIP, but a larger risk of giving up round-trippers. It’s not the worst tightrope to walk, as Johan Santana has walked the same one two a pair of Cy Youngs. With the organizational focus on throwing changeups, don’t be surprised to see more fly ball pitchers coming through the Twins system in the future.

-Remember how Johan Santana’s terrific game score of 93 came up just short of Eric Bedard’s stellar 15 stirkeout start earlier in the year? Scott Baker took a different route to the total score of 93, but arrived at the same destination. By completing the extra inning and finishing the game, he made up for his deficit in strikeouts to Santana, and the two base runners issued by each pitcher equaled out to a game score than can only be considered second-best.

-Even though the Royals have improved their offense over some of the more anemic lineups of recent years, they were still a prime candidate to get snubbed. The 5-0 loss dealt to them by Baker was the 8th game of the month of August in which the Royals totaled 1 or 0 runs. Binary- useful for programming, but pretty hopeless for run production.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m none too happy about the fact that Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have melted down over the last several weeks, but I’m even more annoyed that the offense is so hopeless that every bad start is an automatic loss no matter who they are playing.

To my mind, the real underbelly of the Twins lineup is the fact that they have pressed a bunch of guys who are no better than 25th men into semi regular service, at least in a platoon role. Nick Punto could be useful as a secondary utility guy who seldom sees the plate. Alexi Casilla could be a very good major leaguer in a couple of years but has convinced me that he is not yet ready. Garrett Jones, Rondell White, and Lew Ford are all getting playing time because Terry Ryan seemingly forgot that the team has to play three outfielders and a DH. Why else would he enter the season with Hunter, Cuddyer, an unreliable Jason Kubel and nothing else?

Since the All-Star Break, this quintet has accumulated 394 plate appearances, about 2/3 of a season’s worth, meaning that in a single month of the season, they have amounted to approximately two full-time players. In those at-bats, they have combined for 67 hits, 49 of them for singles, and only 24 walks. That batting line works out to .188/.230/.264. The starting pitcher with the best OPS-against in all of baseball is Chris Young at 535. Since these five guys have been managing only a 494, it’s equivalent to having two league average players in the lineup everyday who have to bat against 1999 Pedro Martinez every time they come to the plate. Terry Ryan has fielded two everyday players who are as bad as Pedro Martinez is good.

The Big Picture

There has been some talk lately that the Twins might be interested in acquiring some position players in the off-season (hello!), and Colorado’s Garrett Atkins has crept onto the list by virtue of top prospect Ian Stewart’s gently nudging him out of the mountains. But what effect would leaving this mountains have on Atkins? That’s the relevant question to ask of any departing former Rockie, considering the collapses of once elite players like Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla.

The normal home-away caveat about Rockies players does apply to Atkins, as his 2005 road averages were only .238/.301/.347, a 253 point OPS nosedive. In 2006, his career year, his OPS only lost 66 points, and he managed to slug .531 away from Coors Field. This year, he’s back down to .247/.319/.427 and a 146 point OPS deficit. Interestingly, his 2005 and 2007 numbers are submarined by losing at least 50 points of BABIP away from home, indicating that his approach stays the same through thick and thin air, but the results are different on the road. I take this to be a positive sign, that he can find some sort of middle ground, without the highest highs of Coors, but also eliminating that atrocious road performance. His .281/.348/.466 line this year looks sustainable to me, and having Cal Ripken and Tony Perez as two of the top three PECOTA comparables hints at good things to come. He may not be an All-Star caliber player, but he would fill a gaping hole for the Twins at third base and in the right-handed power department. If he could be had for Boof Bonser, I would make that trade in a heartbeat.

On the Horizon

I’m sure many fans and analysts circled this week on the calendar at the start of the season, as Cleveland comes to town followed by a road trip to the Cell to visit the suddenly cellar-dwelling White Sox. Santana will get two starts this week, which means two opportunities to pump up that wins column for a Cy Young surge. We might as well get used to cheering for non-pennant related activities, because this year is starting to look suspiciously like 2005. Still, for the true baseball fans, Sabathia and Santana facing off in an oddly timed Monday day game will be a great game. I suggest that everyone watches and tries to attribute the lack of scoring to Sabathia’s brilliance.

Monday, August 27, 2007

TWIT: This indecision’s buggin’ me

Weekly Roundup

A week after one of the least inspiring 4-2 sets in recent memory, the Twins managed an equally mixed-bag 5-2 campaign, dropping two of three at home to the Mariners before rolling the pointless Orioles in a four game set. The week got off in an inauspicious start as Matt Garza and Scott Baker got shelled to the tune of 23 hits and 10 earned runs in two starts. The result was a pair of uneven losses, 9-4 and 7-2 against sub-par opposition on the mound. If there was a silver lining to the start of the season, it may have been the reawakening of Justin Morneau’s dormant bat, which offered six total bases in the two losses, including a two double game on Monday. Any remaining hope for the Twins depends, at very least, on Morneau coming back to life offensively after a disastrous month. Things got better on Wednesday afternoon, as Mike Cuddyer’s first inning grand slam hinted at his own resurgence while simultaneously giving Carlos Silva a seven-run lead to lead off the game. Silva cruised to another quality start, keeping the brooms in Seattle’s closet.

Coming off an uneven six games in the last six days, the Twins left for the east coast with a woeful 8.5 game deficit in the division that made the postseason seem less likely than ever. After convincingly taking advantage of Baltimore’s miserable bullpen, though, the Twins are on a five-game winning streak, all of the sudden, with a three game series against the Indians providing some faint vestiges of hope for the postseason diehards who have yet to give up hope. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Twins recent warm streak has been the five consecutive games with at least five runs scored. After hitting like rookie league shortstops for the better part of two months, the lineup’s recent run of support must make the pitching staff feel like rats in the dumpster of Old Country Buffet.

Biggest Success

As I mentioned in the introduction, Justin Morneau flipped the switch back into the “on” position over the last week to the tune of .346/.419/.615, going from miserable by any standards to very good by his own standards overnight. Torii Hunter continued to affirm the classification as the Twins most consistent offensive player of 2007, hitting two more home runs, scoring eight times, and hitting .367.

Neither of these two stalwarts jumps off the page like Jason Bartlett, though, who has asserted himself royally in the last six weeks after a miserable start to the season. Since the All-Star Break, Bartlett has hit .321 with an uncharacteristic .496 slugging average (buoyed by an unbelievable 6 triples in only 34 games after only 3 in his first 259 games). This week, Bartlett bopped nine hits in 18 at-bats, including three triples and a double. His contributions netted four runs scored and five runs batted in across only five games. After the recent up tick in his output, Bartlett’s .277/.340/.380 line is beginning to approach last season’s pleasantly surprising .309/.367/.393. With plus defense, that batting line is perfectly acceptable relative to the league average of .271/.323/.394 for shortstops, making Bartlett an asset rather than a liability moving forward. For a team that can’t find a left-fielder or a DH who can hit at replacement level, I shudder to think of what they could dredge up to throw at shortstop if one was not on hand.

Biggest Disappointment

Through a wider lens, Matt Garza’s two start lull over the course of a very solid season does not seem terribly disturbing, even though he gave up 18 base runners, 4 homers, and 8 earned runs in only 7.1 innings over two starts. Since Garza’s getting the free pass this week, that means another one of my long-term favorites, Alexi Casilla, falls under the harsh light of scrutiny. With Luis Castillo succumbing to his typical lower-appendage fragility in Queens, Casilla was going to be on the hot seat either way. As things have worked out, he has been severely disappointing as a starter for the last month, leaving quite a gap where the Twins were once getting acceptable offensive output. In the last week, Casilla came to the plate 26 times, managing only four hits and a single walk. His numbers before and after his recall have been almost exactly identical, and none of his rate stats even crack .300 over that timeframe. He’s a slap hitter with a little bit of patience, but that profile does not carry much weight when the player is continuing to hit in the .225 neighborhood. Casilla needs to leverage his speed and bat control into a batting average above .275 at very least in order to be a contributor. He has a better bat in his future, but at the moment, he is helping Nick Punto slaughter the offense.

The Big Picture

The Twins are underdogs going forward, to be certain. The BPro playoff odds report pegs them for about a 5% chance at winning the division, and a barely non-zero chance of catching up to the Wild Card. Of course, Twins fans know that a non-zero possibility is eminently reachable if the former half of the stars-and-scrubs equation gets hot at the right time. In terms of run differential, the Twins get a little bit of good news, as both the Tigers and Indians are 2-3 games ahead of their Pythagorean projections, meaning the teams may cool even more down the stretch.

Another big-picture development that certainly interests Twins fans is the annual Johan Santana Cy Young campaign. Typically, this is the time of year when Twins fans have to start moaning about how win totals are not as important as peripheral stats, and how Santana has actually been better than pitcher X by a wider margin than conventional stats indicate. This year, Santana is actually a sliver behind some of his competition, such as Eric Bedard and Dan Haren, who have both been excellent all year. Santana has been consistent, but his lack of run support has given him 9 losses, and double digits in the L column will definitely cost him votes with the traditional set. If Santana can go nuts for a month, the award may be his to take, but he has not been at that level so far this year.

On the Horizon

When I say that the Twins need their stars to turn it on at the right time, I mean that they need to turn it on right now. With three straight weeks of divisional games, the Twins will get 9 cracks at Cleveland and Detroit combined, leaving at least a sliver of their destiny in their own hands. As I told a friend of mine last week, sweeping Baltimore and Cleveland successively would legitimately reenter them in the playoff discussion. Even winning two of three in Cleveland can only put them within 4.5 games of first with a month to play. To be a real competitor, they need to be firing on all cylinders. The Indians line up their experienced crew, throwing Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook, and C.C. Sabathia against Carlos Silva, Boof (recently off the schneid) Bonser, and Johan Santana, so there will be no surprises here. Byrd has had a great deal of success against the Twins, so Silva will have to extend his respectability for one more start. After the Indians, the Twins get a chance to pile up some wins against the (playin’ for fourth!) Royals, including a double header on Friday. A series split there would doom the Twins even worse than losing the Cleveland series, so the pressure is high all around. Either way, it is better to win the games now, as the Twins dishearteningly must wrap up the season with a seven game roadie in Detroit and Boston. Look forward to that!

Monday, August 20, 2007

TWIT: Same format, but now with more Johan Santana!

Any week where the Twins win two series by going 4-2 has to be considered a pretty good week, although this week made me consider what it would take to create an exception to that rule. For instance, the Twins took two out of three from Seattle, a solid team and a playoff contender, on the road for what should have been an impressive series win. On the other hand, the one loss was an eminently winnable game in which Johan Santana gave a quality start. The steady Matt Guerrier lost it on a walkoff blast by the once-but-no-longer functional Richie Sexson, a game-winner that came two innings after Joe Mauer made the third out of the inning trying to stretch a double into a triple while the team’s one hot hitter- Torii Hunter- waited in the on-deck circle. To give credit where it is due, the team rebounded very nice over the next two games, getting more production out of Torii Hunter, finally giving Matt Garza (he of the 2.02 ERA) his second win of the season, and managing a win despite Scott Baker’s 6.2 IP, 1 R no decision.

So all must be well and good, right? Three consecutive quality starts by the team’s three best pitchers, combined with an offense that managed 20 runs in a series, a feat that looked completely beyond their means in the recent past- that was the formula for this team to contend. Heading home, Texas looked ripe for a sweep. The team is openly auditioning for 2008 jobs, starting two catchers every day to see which one will be the better offensive weapon on the next contending Rangers squad- if that ever comes to pass. Plus, with a starting rotation as weak as the one in Texas (no pitcher on the staff has been consistently better than replacement level all year, and big ticket items Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla have been noticeably worse), even part of the offensive firepower exhibited in cavernous Safeco Field would be enough. Of course, once they played the three game set, the Twins managed exactly three runs, one of the unearned variety. Joe Mauer was oh for the series, Justin Morneau did not manage an extra base hit, and the team’s only salvation was a vintage start by Carlos Silva and one of the best starts in franchise history by Johan Santana. So 4-2 is a good thing, the Twins are still out of shouting range of the playoffs, and the Twins reminded me of just how ugly “winning ugly” can be.

Biggest Success

While preparing some of the topics for TWIT last night, I kept coming back to the fact that Johan Santana probably belongs in every category by himself, save for the biggest disappointment section. I don’t need to report the fact that he set a team and personal best by striking out 17 Rangers on Sunday, nor that he was throwing his best heat and his best changeup all the way through his 113 pitch outing. Everyone already knew that. Here are a few notes on the game as I saw it:

-With the team out of contention, the Twins owed it to their fans to leave Santana in the game for the ninth inning. Pitch counts are useful, especially in protecting young pitchers, but the Twins have always used Santana conservatively, and his mechanics remained perfect all the way through his classic outing. If he was reaching back for something extra, it would be time to take him out. But as long as he was within reach of the single game strikeout record, he deserves a chance to etch his name into the history books. Make no mistake, Santana was the draw at the gate in this game, and there was no good reason to take him out when he said he felt great, his mechanics showed no hints of over-exertion, and his results in the game were so good as to give him a shot at the all time record.

-As good as Santana’s start was, it does not have the highest single game score for a starting pitcher this year. That distinction belongs to Eric Bedard, who through a complete game two-hitter while striking out fifteen on only 109 pitches on July 7th. Santana’s game score of 95 falls three points behind Bedard and ties Justin Verlander’s June 12th no hitter against the Brewers. It is also one point better than Mark Buehrle’s no hitter on April 18th. Phil Hughes had a memorable start where he left a no hitter on the table in the seventh, leaving a truly dominant start with a sore arm. Santana’s strikeout-fest, Bedard’s dominant start, Buehrle’s no-no, and Hughes’s coming out party all share one common thread: the inept Texas Rangers.

-An interesting stat: Sammy Sosa, who recorded the only two hits off of Santana on Sunday, is 3-4 against Johan this year with a homerun, two walks, and one strikeout, a line of .750/.866/1.050. The rest of the Rangers are 3-47, no homers, no walks, and 29 strikeouts. Let’s hope Terry Ryan does not interpret this disparity to mean that Sosa has something left in the tank for the 2008 Twins.

-Sunday’s start slashed Santana’s WHIP to 1.01, only .03 points away from league-leader Chris Young and only .02 away from Santana’s fourth straight sub-1.00 WHIP season. That’s the type of dominance that makes him the best pitcher in baseball today, atop a list the has to include Brandon Webb, Roy Halladay, and Jake Peavy very near the top, and possibly the newly Mazzone’d Eric Bedard. Nonetheless, Santana’s recent stretch of a 2.79 ERA and .98 WHIP over a five year period as a starter pales in comparison to the primes of Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez in an even tougher pitching era. Maddux from ’92-’98 posted a 2.15 ERA and .97 WHIP, while Pedro dominated to the tune of 2.20 ERA, .94 WHIP from ’97-’03. (The Maddux and Martinez data appeared at Baseball Think Factory earlier this week as posted by Larry Mahnken)

Also, before jumping off of the positive thoughts train, notice that Tommy Watkins went 6-12 this week with three walks. Sure, all the hits were singles, but Nick Punto didn’t even get those. Good on ya, Tommy.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m going to point out that Rondell White is hitting .145 in 62 at-bats this year. Maybe after one more season like this, Terry Ryan (and especially Sid Hartman) will stop thinking of August 2006 as his true ability and see it for the fluke that it was.

What’s more troubling is the recent swoon of Joe Mauer. Whenever it seems like he is fining a groove and lining balls into the gaps, he has an 0-12 slump, or forgets how to hit for any power at all. Remember when he was supposed to start developing power? Remember when it looked like he was actually starting to do that last year? If Mauer is ever going to move off of catcher, he is going to have to either continue hitting .320, or learn to hit 20-25 homers a year to stay at the all-star level we expect out of him. Right now, he is really dragging. He managed five total bases all of last week in regular action. For the last month, his .372 slugging average would fit Nick Punto better than him. He has lost .086 points off of his slugging average for last year, and it is not all due to the drop in batting average. Last year, he got an extra base hit in 10.1% of his at-bats. This year, that number has shrunk to 8.7%. Perhaps he has fallen in love with the opposite field a little too much. In 2006, he hit 8 extra base hits to right or right-center field in the Metrodome, and he only has three all of this year.

The Big Picture

The biggest news impacting the Twins this week from the outside was the below-market extension for Carlos Zambrano. Big Z got about $18 million per year from the Cubbies to stay on the north side for another five years. As if on cue, Johan Santana responded by demonstrating that he is worth a good deal more than Zambrano. Even though the Twins have a pretty good track record of keeping their top talent, that is no reason to get complacent about Santana. He is going to require more than $20 million per year to stay in Minnesota, albeit some of it may get deferred into the future. Trading Santana is unrealistic and no return would be equitable; the Twins best chance to win in 2008 is with a below-market Santana at the front of the rotation, and Terry Ryan knows this. If Hunter and Nathan are allowed to walk over the next two off-seasons, the Twins could theoretically have Santana (~$22m), Morneau (~$15m), Mauer ($10m), and Cuddyer ($8m) combing for $55m of their payroll heading into the new stadium in 2010. The rest of the team is going to cost at least $25-30m, so the only way Santana is going to get paid is if Carl decides that the new stadium is going to bump revenue enough to make his heart grow three sizes. Don’t forget that a rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, and two of Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Carlos Silva, and Boof Bonser could be a pretty good combination. I’m not trying to tempt fate, just calming myself down.

On the Horizon

Lightning round: Seattle comes to town for three before the Twins make their annual pilgrimage to the beautiful Camden Yards. The M’s will send Horacio Ramirez, Jarrod Washburn, and Miguel Batista, while the O’s will counter with Steve Traschel, Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera, and Eric Bedard. My most anticipated matchups are Wednesday’s getaway day featuring Batista and Silva, a game that could be over before 3 p.m. considering how fast those guys work and how little patience both lineups exhibit. Sunday’s game will likely match Bedard against Scott Baker in a game between two very hot pitchers, albeit one with considerably more talent and the league lead in strikeouts.

Monday, August 13, 2007

TWIT: Dead Again

Weekly Roundup

You’ve made your bed, Terry Ryan, now sleep in it. The Twins GM knew at the trade deadline that his moribund offense was going to struggle to keep up with the rest of the division, even as Cleveland and Detroit started sliding slowly backwards. He knew that ripping off a hot stretch on the field could get the team back in the race, at least enough to make the latter part of August and most of September more marketable to fans. He knew that none of these benefits were accessible without more support for a lineup that has nearly stopped scoring runs altogether- as evidenced by the inquiries about Mike Piazza and Jermaine Dye. Instead, the Twins swapped out a weak hitting 2B for another one down on the farm, saving some money and picking up a third string catcher of the future for their troubles. Then, they dumped the half-million dollars remaining on Jeff Cirillo’s contract on the eager Diamondbacks, creating opportunities for people named Watkins and Buschner. But hey, Rondell White was about to come back, and it seemed Jason Tyner was flourishing at the top of the lineup, maybe there would be enough offense to go around.

For one day, there was. Wednesday, August 8, 2007- remember that date, because it may be the last time the Twins score more than five runs in the season. An 11 run outburst, fueled by Cuddyer and Hunter homeruns, is the only time since July 20 that the Twins have scored more than five runs. In fact, since the trade deadline passed bye without adding any offensive help, it is the only time the team has scored more than three runs in a game. While going 1-6 over the past week, the Twins averaged 7 runs in their 6 losses, a paltry 1.167 runs per game. Two of those losses this week were of the one-run variety, including a 1-0 flop against the less-than-stellar Kyle Davies, a game in which Matt Garza struck out 6 in 6.2 innings, allowing only five total bases against him. On Saturday, the Twins built a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth, about as much as one could expect from this lineup right now, only to see the worn down Pat Neshek let four out of five batters faced reach base, all eventually scoring. Looking at the games individually, one could say that the breaks simply didn’t go Minnesota’s way. Looking at them collectively, though, shows the total offensive impotence, and just how difficult it is to win without support for a solid pitching staff.

Biggest Success

Doing his best Scott Baker impersonation, Big Chief Carlos Silva allowed only 9 base-runners in 14 IP over his two starts for the week. An 8:1 K:BB ratio bolstered an already strong set of peripherals (including only 1 HR allowed), giving him an outstanding 1.29 ERA. The way the offense has been playing lately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Silva only got one win out of those two excellent starts. It would be surprising, however, if Silva didn’t win a game for the week, which is the case. Only recording one loss is hardly a consolation for a pitcher going through his best stretch of the season, especially in a contract year.

Speaking of Silva’s contract, I may differ from some in my belief that the Twins would be wise to extend Silva for a couple of more years, especially considering that he is willing to take a discount to stay with the team that has been so patient with him. First, let’s acknowledge what he is not: a top of the rotation starter who can be expected to post an ERA in the 3.00s. He is a solid back end guy who can eat up a lot of innings, occasionally work very deep into games, and typically keep his ERA around or below 5.00. That type of pitcher can command $7-8 million on the open market (Jason Marquis, anyone?), and while the Twins can develop cheaper talent than that, they can also keep Silva for less money. I have heard the figure of 2 years at $5 million per season- only a $1 million/year raise from his 2007 figure-, and I would even try to go for 3 years at somewhere between $4.5-5 million per year. He will almost certainly provide more than market value over the life of such a deal now that he has learned to pitch in line with his abilities (no more silly sinkers that turn into gopher balls), and if the deal implodes, it will be easy to find some team to take his contract on the hope that they can fix him. After all, he is an average starting pitcher, and those are worth quite a bit these days. The resulting pitching depth could also facilitate a trade down the road if Terry Ryan decides he is into that sort of thing.

Biggest Disappointment

I gave Justin Morneau a pass last week as a sort of reward for a season well done, but after another miserable week, going .179/.179/.321, it is time to acknowledge that Morneau has found his way into a pretty bleak slump. He has stopped driving in runs this month, letting the league leaders pull way out in front of him. Even more troubling is the fact that he is hitting only .140 for the month of August, and has failed to draw even a single walk. The power is still there, sort of, with five doubles out of his six total hits, but for a player who was supposed to have become a sure thing, a full month with a .278 OBP is the kind of discouraging sign that any fan wants to see reversed as soon as possible.

On the Horizon

Sad as it may sound, it may be time for the Twins to play spoiler. Their west coast swing concludes with three games in Seattle to start the week, highlighted by a Johan Santana-Felix Hernandez matchup in the late game on Monday. Matt Garza will try to get his second win of the season (incongruently paired with a 1.70 ERA) against Horacio Ramirez on Tuesday, but with his recent track record of run support against god-awful opposing starters, I would not get my hopes up. The business person’s special on getaway day features Scott Baker against Jarrod Washburn. A series with Santana-Garza-Baker is starting to look pretty tough if the offense can get any support at all. But beware the resourceful Mariners, who have outperformed their run differential all season, recently ripping off 10 of 14 wins while still getting very little out of supposed offensive stalwarts Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Raul Ibanez.

Over the weekend, the Rangers travel to the dome, playing out the string with less star power than ever before. Go check out a game if you are particularly intrigued by Jared Saltalamacchia, because the pitching matchups are not going to bowl you over. If Kason Gabbard’s stiff forearm allows him to make his Friday start, he will kick off the series, followed by Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla, who have been two of the worst regular starters in the American League.

The Big Picture

If you have yet to notice, the Twins indeed slipped below .500 with their butchering of the weekend series against the Angels. It may not make a difference for the postseason this year, but if the team is trying to calm the nerves of its stars who do not feel that the team is serious about winning, the first losing season since 2000 is not the best elixir. The difference between an 82-80 season and an 80-82 one could be bigger for this team than it would be for any other team, excepting a team like Pittsburgh who has endured 14 straight losing seasons. To get back over the hump, the Twins will have to take advantage of a soft portion in the schedule, running into Texas, Baltimore, and Kansas City before the month is over. To win those games, at least two of Mauer, Morneau, and Cuddyer have to start hitting again, and Gardy has to keep the back end of his bullpen rested enough to get another month and a half out of the beaten-down corps. Although making the playoffs may be a lost cause, this team is perfectly capable of rebounding for a winning season, and that improvement can start right away.

Monday, August 6, 2007

TWIT: Inoffensive

Weekly Roundup

Taking all things into consideration, the Twins had an extremely eventful week. On the field, they went 4-2 without a single game being decided by more than two runs. They picked up enough ground on the division by taking a series from Cleveland that they superficially look like playoff contenders once again, but still face extremely long odds. Off of the field, they traded their starting second baseman for nothing, and may have ended up with a good deal in not having to pay his salary. They also gave away half of a DH/3B platoon to save a half million dollars, which will likely also turn out to have virtually no effect on the standings.

And then there is that matter of the bridge, the 35W bridge just outside of downtown inexplicably collapsing, causing a scene that could be described as anything from terrifying to disastrous. Anyone who has been to Minneapolis has probably driven across the Mississippi river on 35W; it is not some arterial road without traffic. The fact that roadwork had diverted some of the cars may have been a contributing factor to compromising its integrity. If not, it turned out to be a fortunate circumstance that kept more people out of harm’s way. There are so many interesting angles from which to approach this story- the economic impact, the physical causes of the collapse, the stories of the survivors in the school bus, the government’s intervention, the long process of reconstruction-, but this is a baseball site, and there is definitely an impact on the baseball team. The Twins did the right thing in postponing the Thursday game after the bridge collapse, both to let people capture the gravity of the situation and to decongest the insane city traffic. A friend who lives near the site of the bridge told me that he has given up on driving altogether for the time being, a circumstance which the Twins and Metrodome officials have to understand. Attendance could very possibly be down, not because people are mourning the crash, but because they simply cannot get to that part of town. Marketing the new light rail may help some, as well as encouraging other forms of public transportation. Anything to reduce traffic in downtown Minneapolis for the time being will help the city as well as the team.

Biggest Success

Even in a week where the team won four games, taking both of their series from divisional opponents, it would be almost impossible to find an offensive player to reward for anything. Joe Mauer broke out of his mini-slump, putting up the sort of .333/.417/.429 line we have come to expect from him. Jason Kubel also went 4-11, appearing in only four games. Alexi Casilla showed some promise in his first week back after a rough patch in his first big league stint, this time scrapping together five hits in 16 plate appearances, but with only one extra base hit, no steals, and no walks. His youth gives him an excuse, and the experience will only help him.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so for the team to win four games with an average of less than three runs per contest, something must have been going extremely well on the pitching ledger. Indeed, five quality starts in six games fits the bill, even if Johan Santana’s non-vintage second half continued with a 6 IP, 5 R, 3 ER losing effort. The shining star in this arbitrary time period was Scott Baker, and it is not close. Baker allowed six hits and two walks, an impressive stat if he made only one start, but Baker made two starts and went 8 innings in each of them. That works out to a 0.50 WHIP if you are scoring at home. He also struck out 11 and gave up no homeruns, using superb location and much improved pitch selection to keep hitters altogether off balance. Baker has grown into a very appealing style of pitching, but even if he worked like Steve Traschel, I would not complain about a pitcher who goes 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA for the week, nor one who has a 2.55 ERA for the last month.

Biggest Disappointment

I titled the column inoffensive because it fits the most literal sense of the word, as well as the one obvious to the Twins condition. Even though the offense cannot seem to cobble together enough runs to support a pitching staff that has become very solid, they do just enough to stay on the fringe of the pennant race, to maintain the interest of casual fans, and to convince everyone they are serious about winning (everyone, except Johan Santana). Maybe they are not exciting right now, but at least they are inoffensive, and Minnesotans can ask for nothing more. If a team in a more aggressive city, like Philadelphia or Boston, were to compete at the level the Twins have competed in recent years (division titles, playoff appearances, but no serious runs at the World Series), the city would be calling for the GM’s head on a pole. How do I know this? Because it happens in Philadelphia. Many people hate the Eagles because they are judicious with their cap space and try to balance between winning now and remaining competitive in the future. Sound familiar? The Eagles have been the best team in the NFC over the course of the decade, but many fans hate Andy Reid for not taking more chances, making a splash like he did the year they landed Terrell Owens, and really going for broke for one season. Minnesotans do not have that mentality. Garrison Keillor was unavailable for a fold psychology consultation, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Lutheranism, Scandanavia, or cold weather.

What I’m getting at here is that Terry Ryan deserves a great deal of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles. A simple mistake in player acquisition or playing time allotments can happen, but when the same mistakes occur year after year, they become habits or negative traits. We know that Ryan and Gardenhire, for all of their virtues, privilege good gloves and experience a bit too heavily. This quality manifests itself in Nick Punto going 0-8 yet again, bringing his season average to .208. This man is a backup. Replacements were available. For instance, the San Diego Padres (with more wins and a lower waiver priority) got Morgan Ensberg for beans. Over the course of a season, Ensberg, at his worst, is 3-4 wins better than Punto. That’s not worth trying? Ryan’s conservatism has kept the future intact, but when it becomes a paralyzing habit, it becomes a major disappointment for the team.

On the Horizon

Which brings us to the most pressing issue of the near future: Johan Santana. Although Johan has been missing his lights-out second half by a thin margin in every start, it is clear that he is still the best pitcher in baseball. When he comes out and says that he thinks the team does not care enough about winning and envisions himself leaving, you should probably start listening. The Luis Castillo trade was nothing; Casilla can step in right away at a similar level, the two prospects might be backups in the major leagues 2-3 years from now, and they are off the hook for the last $2 mil+ on Castillo’s deal, giving up only the possibility of a sandwich compensatory pick for their troubles. However, if the ramifications include angering Johan Santana, the trade becomes the mirror image of the Pierzynski trade, one that could utterly cripple the franchise. Now I am not terrified of a rotation that includes Liriano, Baker, Garza, Bonser, Silva with Slowey or Perkins possibly mixed in. On the other hand, keeping Santana and leveraging some of the back end talent for more offense is the sort of power play that championship teams make, but the Twins never do. Trading Silva for Michael Bourn now would have helped both teams in the near term, and the Twins would have been able to seamlessly plug the Torii Hunter hole with an above average player while retaining seven starting pitchers, with more behind them in the minors. Once again, these are the moves that champions make, but the Twins never do. Signing Santana because he is outstanding and helps the team win instead of signing him because there is a gaping hole at SP would be an assertive move that puts the team in a position to win, even if it is expensive and requires them to defer some of the payments into the 2020s.

As for the schedule itself, the Twins finish up their four-gamer with the Tribe today, then hit up Kansas City for Bryant’s famous BBQ and a three game set with the second-division Royals, and wind up the week with a trip to the OC to try to do the Mariners a favor in making bringing the Angels back to the pack. A four win week would be nice with that soft patch in the middle. A five win week with some offensive fireworks might make me soften my stance on their playoff chances, as well.

The Big Picture

My diatribe about the front office tells the story here, so I will be brief. The Twins playoff odds are up to 11% today after a second solid week in a row. The reason they are not higher, even though they are within 4 games of the wild card and 4.5 of the division, is that they have multiple teams to pass at every angle. To win the division, they have to get past both Detroit and Cleveland, which is vaguely conceivable looking at the way both teams have played and the fact that their combined deadline swag amounted to a geriatric Kenny Lofton. Still, passing two teams that have outplayed them all year seems unlikely. The Wild Card is even more of an uphill battle. They still get half of that division difficulty, but they also have to get around the Mariners and the newly invincible Yankees. I said a few weeks ago that the Yankees were the real threat in the WC race, even though they were several games back. Now they are within ½ game, and they look like serious contenders, possibly for the AL East. To overcome those odds would take more bats than the Twins have.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Justin Morneau and the Twins Offense

Over the last two seasons Justin Morneau has been one of the best run roducers in the American League with 62 HR and 219 RBI. What makes this fact more impressive is that on the surface he has been producing all those runs on a team who does not possess one of the elite AL offenses. It would seem intuitive to conclude that Morneau has to be more efficient in the opportunities that he gets, since the more potent offenses are going to yield more opportunities for hitters in their lineups. While there may be some truth to that way of thinking, it's actually Morneau's ability to go deep that is keeping him on the RBI leaderboard this season, not his performance with runners on base.

A simple way to approximate the chances a hitter gets to drive in baserunners is baserunners per PA, which is shown in the table below for the top 5 AL hitters in Runners Driven In (RDI = RBI-HR).

Player RDI BR BR/PA
M. Ordonez 72
346
0.77
A. Rodriguez 68
356
0.76
V. Guerrero 67
324
0.74
J. Morneau 61
333
0.77
V. Martinez 61
296
0.70

Morneau is in the middle of the pack here, so at first glance it doesn't seem he's suffering from a lack of opportunities. But one of the hallmarks of the Twins offense is its lack of power, so is it reasonable to expect a larger percentage of those runners to be on first base? It turns out that is not the case either. In fact, Morneau has had the most chances with a runner on third (the easiest RDI opportunity) and isn't getting less chances with RISP than any of the top 5. If you've noticed that the number of chances (the numbers in parentheses) don't add up to the number of baserunners in the previous table, I discounted plate appearances in which the hitter was intentionally walked because that doesn't represent an opportunity to drive in any runners. Back to the numbers with RISP, a caveat to that observation is that a larger percentage of those RISP chances come with two outs for Morneau. This is most likely the result of "productive" outs moving runners into scoring position (or "non-productive" outs keeping them there until Morneau comes to bat). What struck me is the fact that Morneau doesn't stand out in driving runners in from third base (more two out situations mean less RBI groundouts or sac flies) and he is merely average bringing runners in from second and first. In general the Twins offense has had difficulties scoring runners from first, as detailed previously here.

Player from 1st from 2nd from 3rd RISP % of PARISP
w/ 2 out
M. Ordonez 0.09 (171)
0.22 (119)
0.60 (50)
0.33
0.43
A. Rodriguez 0.13 (181)
0.15 (115)
0.50 (54)
0.26
0.41
V. Guerrero 0.12 (150)
0.22 (88)
0.51 (58)
0.34
0.33
J. Morneau 0.08 (151)
0.20 (98)
0.41 (70)
0.29
0.47
V. Martinez 0.07 (159)
0.22 (86)
0.65 (48)
0.37
0.38

While Morneau has performed well in his role, driving in plenty of runs, his place on the RBI leaderboard has come abgout differently than the other hitters. Morneau has been able to remain on this short list mostly due ot his ability to hit HR. Only A-Rod has more home runs in the AL and the highest percentage of RBI from HR. Looking at the runs per HR for these hitters, it could be used as an argument that not enough Twins are getting on base in front of Morneau. If you've been paying attention, you know that Morneau is second in the AL in solo HR (Morneau-16, Carlos Pena-17) not because of a lack of opportunities. He's been able to hit a lot of solo HR to make up for a performance with runners on which isn't quite in line with the other top AL hitters this season.

Player HR RBI% from HR R/HR
M. Ordonez 16
0.28
1.56
A. Rodriguez 35
0.66
1.94
V. Guerrero 14
0.36
2.07
J. Morneau 28
0.49
1.57
V. Martinez 17
0.37
1.71

With all of this considered, Morneau is having another monster year in which he is currently on pace for 43 HR and 137 RBI. Those numbers are impressive enough that the footnote that he's doing it all within a subpar offense needn't be applied. Especially since the surrounding offense is actually giving him a reasonable amount of opportunities to add to those numbers.

Monday, July 30, 2007

TWIT: The Distant Future

Weekly Roundup

Haven’t we been here before? Last week, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep, followed by a pretty solid series where they took two out of three from a better team. This week, well, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, and followed it up by taking two out of three from a better Cleveland team. According to the BP playoff odds report, the Twins’ odds of getting into the post-season sweepstakes are down to just 7%, only seventh best in the American league, and well behind the other six contenders ahead of them.

Once again, the road to a subpar week was paved by an inability to score runs during the workweek. Last week, the Twins managed a total of five runs in their three losses to the Tigers. This week, they scored- guess what- five runs in their three losses to the Jays. In some ways, this series was even more pathetic, as the Jays don’t sport one of the hottest starting rotations in the majors, and they fell victim to the indignity of being completely shut down by Dustin McGowan. The Twins pitching was not outstanding, either. Santana got lit up like a Christmas tree his first time out, giving up gopher ball after gopher ball. Carlos Silva struggled in giving up six runs over 5.1 innings, and the situation got worse when Dennys Reyes and Juan Rincon tried to relieve him, but combined to face six batters and let every one of them score without recording an out. Altogether, there were almost no positives in the Toronto series. Minnesota’s weaknesses showed up all at once, crowding out their relative strengths.

The Cleveland series was quite a bit better. It started slowly with a Boof Bonser shellacking, a game which contributed to Ramon Ortiz piling up 5.1 innings for the week- something that doesn’t happen when things are going well. As the weekend went on, though, the Twins starting hitting a little, catching some breaks, and pitching extremely well. Santana looked like vintage second-half Johan on Saturday, teasing at a no-hitter, but settling for 12 strikeouts and five baserunners through seven innings. Matt Garza looked even better on Sunday, where he went nose to nose with potential Cy Young favorite C.C. Sabathia. Sure, the Twins are out of the race, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still cheer, and a weekend series like this one is a good way to feel good about a team that needs an unrealistic hot streak to contend again this year.

Biggest Success

Justin Morneau had another strong week, blasting two homers, driving in seven runs, hitting .409, and somehow not drawing a single walk, even without much support behind him in the lineup (Hunter hit .143 for the week). Jason Tyner mashed his first major league homerun even though I remember drafting him way back in the first fantasy baseball draft of my life.

My pick for biggest success of the week is going to Matt Garza this week. He has been absolutely revelatory for the Twins in the last few starts after looking a little rough around the edges the first couple of starts after his recall. Is it possible that he resented staying in AAA so much that he was dogging it all year? The 3.62 ERA and 95 K’s in 92 IP hint otherwise, but he was much better last year, and insisted he was uncomfortable pitching the way the team wanted him to pitch in the minors. What is more likely is that his experience throwing his curveball more often in AAA is starting to catch on, giving him the lights out pitch that baffled Cleveland on Sunday. He did a great job getting ahead of hitters, and was able to throw a nasty breaking ball that torpedoed out of the strike zone to record 11 strikeouts in six innings. With Boof Bonser, Garza makes two Twins starters who get by on an excellent curve, but they use the pitch differently. Bonser throws his for a strike, but it sometimes flattens out and gets hit hard. Garza has yet to learn how to throw his yacker for a strike consistently, meaning it works as a strikeout pitch, but hitters can sit on the fastball early in the count. If I had to choose, I would take Garza’s setup- it has worked well enough for K-Rod’s slider over the years- and his command should improve as he continues throwing it. If his peak is what we’ve seen his last three or four starts, I’ll take that, too.

Biggest Disappointment

Did anyone else notice that Matt Lecroy is hitting .193/.277/.260 at AAA? That’s pretty disappointing to me. I’m just piling it on now; there’s not much reason to look for more disappointments after a week like this one. The real culprits were the major league hitters who couldn’t get over the Mendoza line for the week. Lew Ford (.111), Jeff Cirillo (.125), Jason Bartlett (.125), Torii Hunter (.143), Jason Kubel (.158), and Nick Punto (.200) all played at least three games and flat out didn’t hit. While the offense’s problem for most of the year has been an inability to hit anything other than singles, even a few singles would have been appreciated this week. With that sort of production, averaging 2.7 runs per game is ugly, but it is not wholly unexpected. If you want to blame someone for the Twins hovering around .500 with the collection of frontline talent that they have, blame Terry Ryan for settling on Jeff Cirillo, Nick Punto, Jason Tyner, and Rondell White as long term solutions in the lineup.

On the Horizon

The Twins have just completed the first three of 20 games in 20 days, a long stretch like they had leading up to the All-Star break that taxes the pitching and requires more than simple push-button managing. I have said repeatedly that this area is one where I fully trust Ron Gardenhire to handle the team correctly; his bullpen management optimizes individual talent without overburdening one or two pitchers. The only concern I have over this stretch is that he will be pressed toward trying to win the division, even though the goal is probably unrealistic, and may continue to use Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier on back to back days when the risk is unnecessary. It is not a huge concern, but it is something to watch over the next two weeks.

The schedule itself brings the Twins an eight game home stand against the Royals and the Indians. With the way the Twins played against Cleveland this weekend, there’s real hope that next week’s column will have a more upbeat tone than this one. The Royals have played fairly well since the All-Star break, most recently sweeping Texas, but they’re still the Royals, and after Gil Meche on Monday, they the exceedingly mortal Jorge De La Rosa, Brian Bannister, and Odalis Perez to the mound. I’m going to pretend that De La Rosa didn’t already dominate the Twins once this year, and I’m also going to pretend that Kansas City’s trade deadline sell-off will distract the team enough to cripple their focus and confidence.

In the Cleveland series, the most interesting match-up will be in the first game, where Sabathia will get a rematch with Matt Garza, this time on Garza’s (literal) turf.

The Big Picture

Once Tuesday passes and the trade rumors dissipate, it will be time to stop worrying about the big picture for a while and to start enjoying the game of baseball itself. It’s late summer, the team is healthy, and they’re playing every day for the next two and a half weeks. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the majesty of ball and bat.

I’m sorry, I don’t usually engage in that sort of silly baseball mysticism, but I feel like I need to construct a fallback for a team without great hopes of a playoff run. Truthfully, there are lots of reasons to continue enjoying the Twins this year. Santana may be starting a run of excellent starts, Garza and Baker have looked very solid recently, and Justin Morneau could make a run at 40 homeruns. Plus, if you’re into gambling, you can bet on which infielder will catch Rondell White’s popup each time he bats.

In the meantime, the trade deadline still packs some punch. I recently wrote about why I think the Twins should not trade Torii Hunter, since there is just not enough time to work out the right deal. I also know that the team has more or less taken Luis Castillo off of the market, but I would at least shop him around to see if there’s any team that will give up more value that is closer to the major leagues (perhaps an outfielder?) than the two draft picks he will bring back by leaving as a free agent. With the current market for pitching, Juan Rincon and Carlos Silva should also be on the block, just to see if they can set themselves up better for next year by dealing them for prospects who are close to the majors. Plus, it’s possible that the team would be better off with Cameron Cali and Kevin Slowey playing at this point anyway. So even though the Twins are in a holding pattern of non-contention, there are plenty of intriguing story lines to follow, and lots of baseball left to enjoy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Torii Hunter Dilemma

The common thread running through the Twins solid decade has been Torii Hunter more than anyone else. Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have obviously been instrumental in putting together a competitive team despite a roster with a high rate of turnover. Until this year, Brad Radke was the elder statesman, playing through pain and leading by example on the pitching staff. Nonetheless, Hunter’s charisma, ability, and outspoken nature made him the most visible Twin for most of his contract. Even today, with a two time Cy Young winner (Santana), an all-American batting champ (Mauer), one of the best closers in baseball (Nathan), and the reigning AL MVP (Morneau), Hunter remains arguably the most widely recognizable player on the team. As such, it is no surprise that Hunter’s impending free agency looms like a giant fork in the road above the front office as the 2007 pennant race slides out of their grasp. It is difficult to make a judgment on what to do with Hunter in terms of statistics, chemistry, and public relations. In this space, I will examine a few of the advantages and drawbacks of different courses of action.

Keep Hunter for the year, try to re-sign him

Keeping Hunter makes for a good public relations move in two different respects. First, it helps signal that the team seeks to remain competitive throughout 2007, which certainly packs more fans into the stadium than an implicit concession. Additionally, a good faith effort at retaining Hunter would probably reflect well on an owner whose major problem is frugality, at least in the court of public opinion. Even though Carl Pohlad has always found the money to re-up his top level free agents- including Puckett, Knoblauch, Radke, Hunter, Santana, and Mauer- he will undoubtedly face some degree of public backlash for letting Hunter walk.

But that does not answer the real question. Would the Twins be wise to retain Hunter? Even though his physical prime has come and gone, I believe that Hunter is exactly the type of player who will age well. His elite athleticism will help him keep some value afield, and he can survive at the plate without too many walks or an extremely high batting average. His worst offensive season as a full time regular came in 2003 when he managed to hit only .250, but still produced an OPS+ of 97 due to his good power. Combined with strong defense at a premium position, Hunter forecasts to be a solid player even as he ages. Using PECOTA projections, Baseball Prospectus pegs Hunter for a solid big league regular through at least 2010, maintaining a weighted mean EQA above .270 through 2011. If he can keep his defense above average, that sort of player definitely has some value, nearly $10 million per year, according to PECOTA. With the Twins’ dearth of minor league position players, one could make a case that the opportunity cost of losing Hunter is so great next year, and would carry over so much into 2010 (the ETA of the new ballpark), that he is worth the extra money he would require to retain him. Without power or on-base skills, Denard Span has fizzled, and Ben Revere looks like Span-lite. Hunter may mean more to the Twins than to any other team.

Keep Hunter for the year, let him walk

Of course, the first two possibilities are largely indistinguishable, especially if Hunter’s market price goes through the roof. Just how much will Hunter make in the open market? That’s an excellent question, and will likely have a lot to do with what the Twins resolve to do. On one hand, Ichiro’s new $90 mil+ extension makes Hunter look completely unsignable. But the Mariners made the Ichiro deal to keep the Japanese market, an advantage Hunter does not bring, and because his unique skill set seems to position him well for the aging process. If nothing else, Hunter’s contract is unlikely to be as long as Ichiro’s, even if a bidding war mushrooms his salary about $15 mil per year.

Another issue to consider is the recent collapse of Johnny Damon, another elite CF who had a career year at age 31 before becoming a free agent. Inevitably, detractors will invoke Damon’s fate when trying to depress Hunter’s salary, pointing out that his all-out defensive style wore him down to the point that too many singles turned into outs and Damon turned into a pumpkin. One important difference between the two is that Hunter has been more consistent for most of his career. He has slugged between .450 and .550 every year since age 25, a skill Damon was not able to fall back upon. Also, Hunter’s aforementioned 97 OPS+ season in 2003 was the only time he dipped below 100. Damon’s reliance on his batting average instead of power made him more subject to fluctuations, giving him some seasons better than what Hunter has ever done with the bat, but also four seasons below 100 OPS+, one as low as 85. In other words, considering both offense and defense, Damon had had distinctly average seasons before becoming a free agent. Hunter has never done that. Damon needs to hit at least .280 to be above average, while Hunter’s power has allowed him to have four seasons below .280 with an OPS+ above 100. With Damon’s higher peak, Hunter may not have more perceived value, but he is likely to remain a better player longer than Damon, unless one of his homerun saving grabs rips his shoulder out of socket.

Damon entered the free agent market with Carlos Beltran, giving teams options and decreasing the likelihood of an all out bidding war. Hunter enters the market alongside the slumping Andruw Jones, and the slightly less desirable lot of Eric Byrnes, Kenny Lofton, and Mike Cameron. Without much talk of a longer deal, Damon signed for four years and $52 million. Adjusting for inflation and the current market, I suspect Hunter will get something in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million. A team truly desperate for a right handed power hitter who can play a strong centerfield may try to increase the yearly value at the expense of the length, perhaps offer $64 million over 4 years. Either way, I think Hunter will come up short of earning that money by about $10-15 million worth of market value, not a hideous sum, but one that the Twins cannot afford given the necessity to extend whoever they can out of the group of Santana, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Nathan.

Letting Hunter walk, of course, comes with the side benefit of two draft picks so long as the team offers him arbitration. If he signs with a team in the top half of the league in wins, it will be a first rounder. Otherwise, it will be a second rounder, and a sandwich pick between rounds one and two will be part of the deal either way. In that light, Hunter signing with a bad team like the Rangers would cost the Twins about 15 spots in the draft order versus losing him to the Yankees or Red Sox. With the Twins recent history of drafting position players, those picks may be frustrating failures, but they have value nonetheless, and have to be taken into account when deciding his fate.

Try to trade Hunter now

Going into this weekend’s Cleveland series, the Twins picked a terrible time to slump their way out of playoff contention. If they remained within five games of the playoffs, it would be worthwhile for Terry Ryan to pursue offensive upgrades at third base and DH. If they were clearly out of the race two weeks ago- as they are now- they could have put Hunter on the trading block, along with Luis Castillo, Carlos Silva, and Juan Rincon. Without giving other teams time to bid against each other, there is not enough of a market on Hunter to get a proper return, nor is their enough time to work out the details of a deal on a player who may require a window of time to negotiate an extension before the trade could be made.

One possible suitor could have been Damon’s Yankees, who need a right handed bat and could use Hunter’s outfield defense to go with the eroding range on their corners. While Hunter would not be enough to nab elite pitching prospects like Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, but paired with a bullpen arm like Rincon, he could probably return one of the secondary pitching prospects like Alan Horne along with an outfield prospect like Jose Tabata or Brent Gardner. Neither would fill the centerfield void, which is why I have also advocated for the Twins to pursue other trades for centerfield prospects all year. A player like Michael Bourn would help the Twins a little this year by filling in LF while Kubel plays more at DH, and would be able to slide into CF next year, solving a big quagmire on the cheap. An offer of Carlos Silva and a minor league reliever might be enough to get that done.

In any case, I do not believe that trading Hunter would net the Twins more value than the two draft picks they would get for losing him as a free agent. If Ryan had built up a market for Hunter the way Jon Daniels has done with Mark Teixeira, the scales might have tipped slightly. As the timing has worked out, Ryan was too close to contention to start offering Hunter at the appropriate time, so he cannot be faulted for his course of action. Thus, letting Hunter walk has more value to the Twins than trying to trade him in a rushed package.

Conclusion

If Hunter is going to cost $15 million per year, the Twins quite simply cannot afford to keep him. I do not mean that the Twins could never dedicate that much money to one player, but with extensions for so many players on the docket, Hunter’s value does not fit into the equation. Keeping Santana for $18-20 million per year with some money deferred would make lots of sense for the team. Giving Morneau $12-15 million per year might not even break the bank if they are willing to let Nathan walk at the end of 2008, leaving Pat Neshek at the back of the bullpen. As the oldest member of that group, Hunter has the greatest potential for regression, and is the least likely to help the team in 2010. Even though it will once again make Carl Pohlad look like a malevolent cheapskate, it is time to thank Hunter for the good times he’s had, and to let the face of the franchise walk away.