Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lovin' the scrubs?

As Mr. Mosvick pointed out over at Nick and Nick's earlier today, the Twins as an organization really seems to be at odds over what they'll do with their final two rosters spots. His piece does a great job of analyzing the battle and prognosticating the outcome, and for the most part I couldn't agree more. The one thing that got me thinking was his very last line where he laments the knowledge that the Twins will probably break camp with a pitcher who is clearly inferior to the one they'll be sending down to AAA.

Clearly the race for who would break camp with the team and comprise its starting rotation was/is the biggest storyline of this spring for the Twins. With the organization having dumped almost 9.5 million on the trio of Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson it was expected that there would be a legitimate fight for the 2-5 spots with the Twins minor league arms. But, despite strong showings by Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, and Matt Garza, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has made no secret of his preference for starting the season with the veteran's, 11.00 ERA's be damned.

For the fan, it appears in surfing the message boards that we break down into two groups. One who believes that the Twins can win this season (the 'win now' camp), and ought to be putting the best talent (the kids) on the field from day one, and another that could best be described as the 'win later.' The members of this camp cite various reasons for keeping the Twins promising young arms in the minors, among them experience, confidence, and probably most importantly from an organizational standpoint, arbitration eligibility.

I began the season firmly entrenched in the 'win later' camp, and having been involved in many spirited debates with some real great baseball minds, I don't feel my opinion has been swayed. My opinion is certainly encouraged by the fact that I'm a typical sports guy in that I believe the grass is always greener on the other side. Coming into spring training I was of the opinion that the Twins should probably start the regular season with the veteran guys who they had signed and have Boof Bonser, who despite having to get sent down a couple times mid-season last year, showed consistent progress as they year went on and finished with very respectable numbers and a nice start in the divisional series against the Oakland Athletics. So far, it appears that the Twins braintrust agrees with me, though I can definitely see why a number of Twins fans have some steam billowing from their frostbitten heads after watching Carlos Silva pitch his way to an 11.00+ ERA this spring.

The reasons I tend to believe the Twins should keep the young kids in the minors are;

1) For the most part they have very limited experience above AA.

-Slowey, for one has never pitched above AA and had only 59.3 innings there last year with a good but not outstanding 3.19 ERA.

-Perkins has more experience having logged 196.3 innings at AA but has only 10 combined innings between AAA and the majors. And in his AA experience has an ERA of 4.31, that doesn't exactly scream 'major league ready.'

-Garza, clearly the biggest prospect and the one everyone really wants to see start the year immediately has 84 innings beyond AA and while he dominated AAA he did get hit pretty well in his time with the big club, struggling to a 5.76 ERA. Many people attribute this to his being fatigued, however when he got the call to the big club he had pitched only 135 innings. Certainly not an overwhelming number. Others say he simply wasn't experienced enough. I for one am not certain whats changed between last September and now to show he's either developed more stamina or is more experienced (were they playing major league games while I wasn't looking?).

-Scott Baker on the other hand clearly has the most experience having joined the Twins on a number of occasions. First in 2005 where he impressed with a 3.35 ERA in 10 games (9 starts), and again in 2006 when he did not impress with a 6.37 ERA in 16 starts. However its clear by his minor league numbers that he SHOULD be ready having pitched 273.3 innings at AAA Rochester while logging a 3.29 ERA and a respectable 6.95 K/9.

2) The Twins are still a small market ballclub and with teams having made the decision this offseason to start signing starting pitchers using monopoly money (7 yeas and $126 million for Barry Zito who at this point in his career is more of a number 2/3 than a number 1? Man if mediocrity paid that well in real life, I'd be a billionaire). By keeping the young guys in the minors until mid-May, these pitchers have to wait an extra year before they can become arbitration eligible. Assuming that the Twins would need to offer them each at least $3 million per year for their first year (probably more like $5 million by the time they become eligible) , the team is in effect saving itself $9-12 million dollars.

3) Disclaimer: I'm going to be explaining some aspects of the baseball shuttling system most knowledgeable baseball guys will know, if you don't feel like being condescended to, you can skip most of this.

As established veterans, players such as Silva, Ortiz, and Ponson have cannot be 'optioned' to the minors, the process teams use to shuffle prospects back and forth between the minor and major leagues, rather the Twins would have to 'designate them for assignment.' As veterans, they have the right to refuse being designated, however in doing so, they are opting out of their contacts and become free agents. For someone like Silva in this case, opting out of a $4.35 million dollar deal would probably be foolish because no one would sign him for more at this point. Except maybe the Cubs, because they apparently have decided money grows on trees.

In keeping these players in the major league system, we not only give guys like Perkins, Baker, and Garza a few more innings in AAA, we also give the Vets a chance to prove whether or not they can play, and ideally hope that they pitch well enough to establish some trade value, that way when May comes around, we can bring the kids up having saved the year of eligibility, and get some mid-level propects from teams starved for pitching like the Rockies, Orioles, or Devil rays. Worst case scenario, May comes around and we designate poorly performing pitchers for assignment and they opt-out, which would be too perfect.

Of course all of my rationale is going to be irrelevant to someone who believes that its imperative that the Twins focus all their efforts on winning immediately, because the truth is the Twins will (in almost all likelihood) be 5-10 games worse with the staff we have now vs. the staff we could have. And, since most people are once again prognosticating that the AL Central will be baseball's toughest division, it would be unlikely that the Twins could overcome a large deficit the way they did last year. Not impossible to be certain, but definitely difficult.

All of that being said, I will always be the guy who believes the team should do absolutely everything in its power to work for the future. That means managing all of the details perfectly and making sure that even when you make bad signings (Silva) you do everything in your power to extract maximum value from you investment. Sometimes that means keeping a guy in the majors even when there is a clearly superior candidate waiting for his shot.

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