Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Time Has Come

Hitting a baseball is about timing. Mastering that timing requires a batter to find a balance between patiently waiting for the right pitch and being aggressive enough to hit the right pitch when it comes. Effective management necessitates a similar skill set of knowing precisely how long to wait before pouncing. In Moneyball, Billy Beane extols the virtues of appropriate managerial patience within a baseball season. Teams who respond to quickly to especially strong or weak starts are usually punished in kind when the player returns to a previously established performance level. And while different stats take different amounts of time to stabilize, 40-50 games is a generally accepted rule of thumb for how long it takes before one can start making generalizations about a team. The Twins have subscribed to this theory pretty doctrinally over the last couple of seasons; it is no coincidence that Sidney Ponson received his walking papers 37 games into the season, Juan Castro lost his full-time starting job 47 games into the 2006 season, and Francisco Liriano got his first start in team game number 42.

Now that Minnesota has completed 47 games of the 2007 season, a few glaring weaknesses have started to show themselves. Offensively, the team has done a slightly better job of getting on base up and down the lineup than it had in many previous seasons, but besides Justin Morneau, there has been far too little power. The DH, LF, and 3B positions have not produced nearly enough offensively, and the team will struggle to support a less-than-dominant pitching staff if the status quo remains. In the rotation, Terry Ryan has already started to address the problems at the back end. Sir Sidney met his fate last week, and Ramon Ortiz has to be feeling the heat to pick up that 1-5 team record in his last 6 starts. Further complicating matters is the fact that the bullpen has collapsed onto itself, as a mysterious shoulder parasite has been gnawing at the sinews of Jesse Crain, Dennis Reyes, and Glen Perkins. With the impending free agency of Torii Hunter after the season, and contracts running out for Johan Santana and Joe Nathan after next year, the Twins have to straddle the balance between making moves to contend now and putting themselves in a position to remain competitive when moving into their new stadium in 2010.

Addressing these difficulties requires an honest assessment of the team’s stock in the majors and minors. Starting pitching is a position of strength, with an A+ ace at the top, an established, young member of the rotation in Bonser waiting on his first arbitration hearing, four big-time prospects who are either ready or close to ready to contribute (Baker, Perkins, Garza, Slowey), and a gaggle of prospects who would be far more distinguished in any other system that does not cast such a long shadow (Alexander Smit, Kyle Waldrop, Eduardo Morlan, Jay Rainville). On top of that group is a wildcard pitcher who outpitched Santana for long stretches last year, that being the absent Francisco Liriano.With pre-arb pitching prospects in vogue- as evidenced by the market value of recently-traded players like Brandon McCarthy and Jason Hirsch- that embarrassment of riches could help patch over lots of other organizational shortcomings if Terry Ryan chose to make a challenge trade or two. Additionally, the Twins have at least one position player who is ready to step into the lineup this minute in Alexi Casilla, who can do a pretty good Luis Castillo impersonation right now. Finally, one underrated resource is that the Twins grew a lot of their talent themselves, giving them additional leverage through arbitration or buying out those arbitration years in a long-term contract. In other words, the Twins will have several more years of players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, Mike Cuddyer, Boof Bonser, and Francisco Liriano at prices below market value.

At the moment, I see two moves that could dramatically improve the Twins for the next few years and would also decrease payroll. First, I still desperately want the Twins to address their third-base problem. Nick Punto has value as a utility player with some on-base skills and a very good glove. As an everyday corner infielder, his lack of power becomes extremely troublesome. Also, Jeff Cirillo is a fine option to spell lefties at DH or an infield corner, but the fact that his only listed position is “DH” hints at the trouble with playing him there everyday, not to mention the fact that he is extremely likely to break down if he continues playing so frequently.

To the Twins potential benefit, Edwin Encarnacion is a third baseman with some power who has fallen out of favor with the Wayne Krivsky’s Reds, a former Twins employee who has shown an affinity for collecting his former charges (Joe Mays, Juan Castro, Kyle Lohse, Eddie Guardado). Since the Reds were bearish enough on Encarnacion to sent him to AAA earlier this month, it does not seem unreasonable to think that he could be had for the right price. With Cincinnati’s organizational pitching deficiency, I believe the Twins could find a pretty solid match. Offering Krivsky’s choice of the second-tier pitching prospects in the system might be enough to fetch Encarnacion. If not the Twins should at least consider sending Slowey for a player PECOTA saw hitting .277/.350/.482 this year with room for even more growth. Altogether, PECOTA sees Encarnacion as an even bet to reach “star” or “superstar” levels every year from 2008-2010, all of which would come before he reaches his first free agent contract. A right-handed hitter with decent patience and a powerful bat would fit extremely well lower in the Twins lineup, and would look especially potent compared to the man he would replace- the chances of Punto slugging .482 are slim and none, and slim just left town. And even though Encarnacion has had a very difficult 100 plate appearances to start the season, his strong 2006 and previous minor league accomplishments show that he is a quality batsman. The average in the .220s just means the Twins have a chance to buy low from a team that is in a position to blow it all up.

Playing off of their primary non-pitching resource, I believe it would be intelligent for the Twins to aggressively market Luis Castillo for another young bat. Casilla might not replace Castillo’s current hot-hitting, but he’s a better bet to be a productive member of the team after this season, and the difference between them for two or three months (Castillo is a free agent at season’s end) is not nearly great enough to make the difference between contending and falling out. With championship aspirations and a glaring hole at the keystone, the Mets would make a perfect trading partner for the Twins on the Castillo front. Even better, the Mets have a glut of young talent in the outfield, and not enough playing time to go around. With Omar Minaya’s affinity for Latino players, former top prospect Lastings Milledge has seemingly fallen out of organizational favor, sliding out of the outfield rotation. Even with Shawn Green breaking a bone in his foot, the team said it planned on giving the extra at bats to Carlos Gomez, leaving Milledge in New Orleans with his .333 batting average. Milledge’s glove excels at an outfield corner, and can play in center as well, giving the Twins the option of playing him in left this year and immediately solving the Hunter conundrum at season’s end without having to taste the inevitable Denard Span disaster. PECOTA sees Milledge as a .285/.356/.461 batter this year, part of an upward trend continuing for the next 5+ years for the 22 year old. Milledge is far from a finished product- for instance, I have heard some concerns about his makeup. What better way to help a player mature than by putting him next to Torii Hunter, a team leader and an ambassador for the game who happens to play the same position? It doesn’t hurt that the Hunter is one of the most fully established African-American players in the game. Milledge would also have to improve his plate discipline and develop his power potential. Both of these goals are better achieved through playing every day in the majors rather than continue to mash a level of pitching he has already mastered. While the Encarnacion deal seems like a good idea, the Milledge one seems like an absolute slam dunk for both teams to the point where I would be severely disappointed if it didn’t get done.

If the Twins made these trades, it would give them the ability to start a lineup looking something like this:

  1. Casilla- 2B
  2. Mauer- C
  3. Hunter- CF
  4. Morneau- 1B
  5. Cuddyer- RF
  6. Milledge- LF
  7. Kubel/Cirillo- DH
  8. Encarnacion- 3B
  9. Bartlett- SS

Factoring in Hunter’s possible departure (a fate of which I am not yet nearly convinced), putting Milledge in center makes it much easier to find a LF option within the system (Ford, Tyner, Kubel) or on the cheaper side of the free agent market- far easier than paying top dollar for someone with enough of a glove for center. The reason these trades appeal to me is that I think it strikes a balance between their interests for this year and the ability to compete going forward. Both players are cheap today and will remain cheap into the future. The players surrendered in the trades come from spots of organizational depth, lessening the impact of their departures. Addressing these issues now puts the team in a position to compete, just like last year when the Twins proactively addressed their weaknesses. While it is still early enough to make up a steep deficit within the division, enough time has already passed to see some problems clearly. Dealing with them now strikes the delicate balance patience and activity.

1 comment:

Corey Ettinger said...

Brilliant. Very well done. Though I don't think the Mets are going to move Milledge for Castillo alone, perhaps with Castillo and a second level pitcher it could get done.

Also, you forgot to mention MY favorite Twins minor league pitcher (aren't there enough for everyone in the state to have their own person favorite?) Jeff Manship.