January 24, 2005

First Impressions

I was doing some research for a future project on draft picks when it struck me just how impressive the Twins' 2004 draftees were in their professional debuts. Though Minnesota had to wait until the 20th pick in the draft to make their initial selection, they had a total of five of the draft's first 39 picks thanks to losing free agents Eddie Guardado and Latroy Hawkins during the offseason. Their first pick was high school shortstop Trevor Plouffe (who hit .283/.340/.380 in 60 games in rookie ball), but then they loaded up on pitching. After Plouffe, the team's next six picks were spent on pitchers and they used a total of 14 of their first 17 selections on pitchers.

The team's run on pitching started with the #22 pick and University of Minnesota lefty Glen Perkins, who went 19-5 with a 2.88 ERA in two years with the Gophers. Perkins signed quickly for $1.425 million and reported to Elizabethton of the Appalachian (Rookie) League, where he had a 2.25 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 12 innings. The team then promoted him to Single-A Quad Cities, where Perkins had a 1.30 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 48 innings. Overall, he posted a 1.50 ERA and 71-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 pro innings, while climbing up two steps on the organizational ladder. That's about as good as a debut gets.

The 25th overall pick was spent on Kyle Waldrop, a high school righty from Tennessee. Waldrop signed for a million bucks and reported to the Gulf Coast (Rookie) League, which is one level below Elizabethton. He dominated there for seven starts, posting a 1.42 ERA in 38 innings, and then moved up to Elizabethton. Waldrop continued to impress there, with a 3.24 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25 innings. Any time a high school pitcher puts up a 2.14 ERA and 55-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first taste of pro ball, it's extremely impressive.

Minnesota's next pick (#35) was used on Matt Fox, a right-handed pitcher who went 14-2 with a 1.85 ERA in his final year at the University of Central Florida. Fox signed for $950,000 and reported to Elizabethton, where he pitched fairly well despite a 5.40 ERA. In 27 innings, he struck out 32 batters, walked eight, and held opponents to a .264 batting average. His biggest problem was allowing six homers in 102 at-bats.

The team's final first-rounder (#39) and fourth pitcher selected was Jay Rainville, a high school righty from Rhode Island who went a jaw-dropping 6-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 70-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42 innings during his senior year. Rainville signed for $875,000 and joined Waldrop in the GCL, where he had a 1.83 ERA and amazing 38-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 innings.

Minnesota's four "first-round" pitchers combined for 184 innings pitched and a 2.35 ERA in their pro debuts. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that they all had outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratios in their first taste of pro ball, combining for 196 strikeouts (9.6 K/9 IP) with just 34 walks, or 5.76 strikeouts per walk. To put that in some context, Curt Schilling led the American League with 5.80 strikeouts per walk last season and Brad Radke finished third in the league with 5.50 K/BB.

The strong pitching debuts from the 2004 draft class stretched beyond the first-rounders, too. Anthony Swarzak, the #61 overall pick out of a Florida high school, tossed 48 innings with a 2.62 ERA and 42-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the GCL. Eduardo Morlan, the #91 pick also out of a Florida high school, had a 2.84 ERA and 28-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 GCL innings. The #151 pick, Nevada high school lefty Jeff Schoenbachler, had a 3.92 ERA and 45-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 GCL innings.

The team's eighth-round pick out of the University of Arkansas, Jay Sawatski, had a debut similar to Perkins', throwing 34 innings with a 1.59 ERA and 38-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Elizabethton and Quad Cities. Even guys who had mediocre ERAs like John Williams (#211) and J.P. Martinez (#271) managed excellent strikeout rates and outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Here are the numbers of the 12 pitchers drafted and signed with the team's first 17 overall selections:

PITCHER             IP      ERA     SO     BB     SO/9     K/BB

Glen Perkins 60 1.49 71 16 10.6 4.4
Kyle Waldrop 63 2.14 55 7 7.9 7.9
Matt Fox 27 5.40 32 8 10.8 4.0
Jay Rainville 34 1.83 38 3 10.0 12.7
Anthony Swarzak 48 2.62 42 6 7.9 7.0
Eduardo Morlan 25 2.84 28 10 10.0 2.8
Jeff Schoenbachler 39 3.92 45 16 10.4 2.8
Patrick Bryant 32 4.26 21 13 6.0 1.6
John Williams 38 5.40 50 14 11.7 3.6
Jay Sawatski 34 1.59 38 12 10.1 3.2
J.P. Martinez 43 3.80 49 19 10.3 2.6
Kyle Aselton 38 4.54 38 19 9.0 2.0

The Twins made a conscious effort to stockpile pitching in the 2004 draft, taking an interesting mix of raw high school arms and polished college pitchers. So far at least, it has worked out phenomenally well, as the team signed each of the first 12 pitchers they selected in time for them to make their pro debuts, and then watched as they collectively had an excellent first season (with a combined 3.55 K/BB). If things go similarly well this season, Minnesota will have a steady flow of young pitching coming up through the system, led by Perkins, who could be ready for a big-league gig as soon as 2006.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Top 50 Prospects: Year in Review (41-50) (by Aaron Gleeman)

- Paying for the Best (by Studes)


January 21, 2005

Trouble Up the Middle (Again)

From the moment the Twins signed Juan Castro earlier this offseason, I've been scratching my head wondering why they had to pay a utility infielder who is a career .226/.269/.331 hitter so much money for so long. Guys like Royce Clayton, Ramon Martinez, Jose Vizcaino, Neifi Perez, Pokey Reese, and Desi Relaford were all had for one-year deals worth around a million bucks, so I didn't see the need to secure Castro's modest services by committing to a two-year deal worth $2.05 million, plus incentives.

Then, adding insult to injury, the Twins tendered a contract to the arbitration-eligible Luis Rivas, signing their long-time second baseman (and long-time AG.com whipping boy) up for $1.625 million in 2005. Together, Rivas and Castro will make at least $2,875,000 in 2005 and, if they both get a chance to be starters as is expected, will form one of the least productive middle infields in all of baseball while eating up over 5% of the team's payroll.

All of which is why I felt nauseous when I saw the Cleveland Indians sign a utility infielder of their own last week, inking Alex Cora to a two-year deal worth $2.7 million. For just $700,000 more than they gave Castro, spread over two seasons, the Twins could have had a player who can potentially be an asset both offensively and defensively. Imagine that. Now, it's worth noting that Cora's deal with Cleveland has incentives based on playing time that could drive his price up, but Castro's deal with the Twins has similar provisions too.

Of course, some might argue that $700,000 over two seasons, while not a lot of money for most teams, is quite a bit for the cash-strapped Twins. I might even be inclined to agree, if not for the fact that the team just paid what appears to be a premium for Juan Castro earlier this offseason, and then gave Rivas $1.625 million after a season in which he hit .256/.283/.432. Setting aside the monetary issues, there is little doubt that Cora is a superior offensive player to Castro.

2002-2004        PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA

Cora 1290 .264 .335 .375 .710 .245
Castro 715 .245 .283 .377 .660 .222

Clearly neither of these guys are going to be confused with Barry Bonds, but Cora has shown the ability to avoid making outs at a decent rate -- a major skill for punchless hitters and something Castro has never been able to do. Fifty points of on-base percentage is not to be ignored, but with that said, obviously Castro's hitting (or lack of) wasn't behind the Twins signing him. Castro is considered a very good defensive infielder, and though he has played primarily second base and third base over the past few seasons, he has plenty of experience at shortstop as well. That -- and perhaps that alone -- is why the team signed him.

Cora, on the other hand, has been the Dodgers' regular second baseman for the past two years, logging just 55.1 innings at shortstop during that time. However, he was Los Angeles' everyday shortstop back in both 2000 and 2001, and logged 453 innings at shortstop as recently as 2002. In fact, Cora actually has more innings at shortstop over the past three seasons (508.1) than Castro does (450). Though it's possible Cora's defensive skills at shortstop have deteriorated over the past two years, he was considered a good defender there before Cesar Izturis came along and bumped him to second base.

If you're going to pay over $1 million per season for a slick-fielding infielder who is completely worthless offensively, why not pay $1.35 million per season for a slick-fielding infielder who has some actual value at the plate? And if you don't like that idea -- it would increase the team's payroll slightly, after all -- then what about signing Cora to play second base? Cora will actually make several hundred-thousand dollars less than Rivas in 2005, and for just a million bucks more than the Twins have committed to Rivas for one season, they could have locked Cora up for a second year.

Just for fun, let's run that same offensive comparison, this time with Cora and Rivas:

2002-2004        PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA

Cora 1290 .264 .335 .375 .710 .245
Rivas 1225 .257 .300 .399 .699 .235

Once again, Cora has been better than the guy the Twins have, and that's not even adjusting for the fact that Cora has been playing half his games at Dodger Stadium, consistently one of the toughest places for a hitter in baseball. Meanwhile, Rivas is a ground ball hitter who has benefited from playing half his games on turf.

I don't want to sound like the world's biggest Alex Cora fan, because I'm really not. However, Castro and Rivas are neither cheap or good, and the fact that someone like Cora just signed with a division rival for similar money is very disconcerting. Cora would be an upgrade at either middle-infield spot for the Twins, but instead he'll be simply a role player on what is looking like a very strong Cleveland bench (another discouraging fact for Twins fans).

All of this almost has me longing for the days of Cristian Guzman already. Almost.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Phat Albert (by Aaron Gleeman)

- Ranking the Relievers (by Studes)

- What's In a Name? (by Brian Borawski)

- It's a Funny Funny Game (by John Brattain)


January 20, 2005

Ugh

Sorry, nothing new today. It's going to take me a little while to get used to my Monday/Wednesday class schedule, which has me in classes until around six at night. Yesterday was my first crack at it and I failed miserably, stupidly not eating anything for breakfast or lunch. So there I was, sitting in History of Journalism at 5:30, ready to pass out. Then I waited around after class to meet with someone to discuss a writing project, which kept me food-less until about 8:15.

I got home, popped in a microwave dinner, scarfed it down, searched unsuccessfully for some Advil to help my throbbing headache, and then immediately fell asleep. I missed the entire Timberwolves-Lakers game (thankfully ... I didn't need to see another loss). And, of course, when I got up this morning, my internet connection was down for the second time since I moved back in here on Monday. In fact, it's still down as I type this little message. (For those bloggers out there who are still using dial-up connections ... I feel your pain.)

Assuming I remember to eat (which, for anyone who has seen me, seems like an unlikely problem for me to have) and can find a place with some high-speed internet, I'll be back with an extra-large dose of blogging tomorrow.

January 19, 2005

Munsoned


I'd sooner get Munsoned out here in the middle of nowhere than lose face in front of my friends and family.


--- Ishmael Boorg, Kingpin

Munsoned (verb)

1) To be up a creek without a paddle.

2) To have the whole world in the palm of your hands and blow it.

3) Being on a gravy train with biscuit wheels, and falling off.

The Minnesota Twins signed Eric Munson to a minor-league contract earlier this week. When I first heard about the signing, I was happy about it and thought Munson had a chance to be a cheap, low-risk, decent-reward addition to the team. Then I took a look at what he's actually done in his career (rather than what I thought he had done) and became far less optimistic.

After a standout career at USC, the Detroit Tigers drafted Munson with the third overall pick in the 1999 draft. While moving back and forth between multiple positions during his time in the minors, Munson never quite hit like Detroit expected him to. He always flashed plenty of power, but the highest batting average he had at any level was a paltry .266, put up during his very first pro stop, at Single-A back in 1997.

For his entire minor-league career -- a span of 303 games -- Munson batted just .260 with a .482 slugging percentage. Decent numbers certainly, but nowhere near the sort of production expected from a defensively-challenged former #1 draft pick. Since coming to the majors, it has been more of the same for Munson -- low batting averages, plenty of power, and overall production that is severely lacking.

Here are his career numbers:

YEAR       G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS

2000 3 5 .000 .000 .000 .000
2001 17 69 .152 .188 .273 .461
2002 18 67 .186 .269 .288 .557
2003 99 357 .240 .312 .441 .753
2004 109 357 .212 .289 .445 .735
--------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL 246 855 .215 .287 .414 .701

Even ignoring the fact that Munson hit a pathetic .162/.260/.269 with 33 strikeouts in 130 at-bats during his first three major-league stints, his numbers over the last two years (when he's been a semi-regular for the Tigers) still aren't particularly impressive. Munson will be 27 years old in 2005 and, considering his minor-league track record and what he's done in 246 games in the majors, he has pretty much established what type of hitter he is.

He'll bat in the low .200s, draw a respectable number of walks, and hit a home run every 20 at-bats or so. The end result is offense that just isn't very good, particularly when it comes along with sub par defense at third base or decent defense at first base (a position where the lack of offense is more of an issue). With all that said, is Munson still a useful spare part for a team like the Twins? Maybe.

He is a left-handed hitter, and if the team uses him similarly to how they used Jose Offerman last year (spotting him almost solely against right-handed pitching), he could be relatively productive. Combined over the last three years, Munson has hit .224/.301/.439 against right-handed pitching, compared to just .215/.287/.399 against southpaws. So yes, spotting him against righties would help. But no, even if you do that he'll still struggle to keep his on-base percentage above .300, which just isn't acceptable from a corner infielder or designated hitter.

Munson has enough plate discipline and power that he'd be a very useful player if he could just manage to hit .260 or so. Unfortunately, he has pretty much proven that he is incapable of doing so. Munson is a perfect guy to sign to a minor-league deal in the middle of January and there are worse bats a major-league team could have on its bench, but defensively-challenged players who strike out 25% of the time, struggle to keep their batting average above the Mendoza Line, and post miserable OBPs each year are generally to be avoided.

My fear -- and this has more to do with Ron Gardenhire than Munson -- is that Munson will have 50 good at-bats during spring training, impress Gardenhire, and end up booting balls and sucking up outs all season. Because if Gardenhire gets it into his head early on that Munson is worth having, Munson will cement that opinion with the occasional long home run, leaving the Twins playing an out-machine/butcher on a regular basis. Of course, right now he's just a spring-training invitee with a minor-league deal, so I guess we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.

Good signing. Decent bench player. Bad starter.

January 18, 2005

Smooth Move-In

I moved back into my dorm room yesterday afternoon. Those of you who are long-time readers of this blog know my move-ins and move-outs tend to go horribly, but this one went remarkably well, with no real problems or incidents. Well, aside from the fact that my internet connection still isn't working. I'm told it is a "network-wide problem," but all I know is that I have yet to move in here, whether at the start of the year or after a vacation, and have both the cable and internet hookups working simultaneously.

Hopefully everything will be up and running again at some point today and I can get back to my blogging and writing routine. In the meantime, I present to you the single most sarcastic e-mail I have ever received (which is really saying something) ...

From a reader named Dan, in response to my January 13 entry about going to the Canterbury Park Card Club for the second time:

Just want to say thanks for today's exciting update on your poker site, aarongleeman.com! The minutiae of a small-time poker maven can be very interesting indeed, and I think I speak for many when I say that you operate the best two-bit poker blog on the internet. I know you can't take everyone's request, but I thought it might be worth a try to ask you to provide us, your loyal readers, with more updates on Jimmy Kimmel. Also, please let us know how many Sprites you have tomorrow, as well as the next day, and how these may have effected your significant bladder. Take care!

Gotta love those e-mails!

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The THT Interview: George Brunet's Left Arm (by Steve Treder)


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