November 21, 2006

Countdown to Complain

The American League MVP gets handed out this afternoon. I expect Derek Jeter to win with relative ease, Justin Morneau to finish significantly higher than he should, and Joe Mauer and Johan Santana to get about one-tenth of the votes they deserve. In fact, I'm guessing the best pitcher in baseball and the only catcher in baseball history to lead both leagues in batting average will finish no higher than sixth in the balloting, if that. I hope I'm wrong, of course, but I doubt it.

After all, a bunch of writers determined that Carlos Beltran was the fourth-most valuable player in the National League, which might be intriguing if it weren't so predictably silly. As discussed here last week, Mauer and Santana each have strong cases for being the league's best player. In Mauer's case, his season was nearly identical to Jeter's offensively and they each play an up-the-middle defensive position, yet somehow Mauer is ignored while Jeter will be at or near the top of every ballot.

Hell, my NBCSports.com colleague, Mike Chiappetta, examined the AL MVP candidates and named Jeter as his preferred choice, all without so much as even mentioning Mauer's name. Chiappetta is a smart guy with a relatively open mind who's actually discussed the MVP candidates with me on several occasions, so if he can't see the lack of logic in completely ignoring Mauer while handing the award to Jeter, I have zero hope for a bunch of newspaper beat reporters being able to.

While we wait to see just how little respect Mauer and Santana receive from the voters today, check out my latest work over at NBCSports.com (they should be posting another of my columns later today, at which point I'll add a link to it here):

  • Taking Stock of Bonds: After losing Thomas, A's looking at signing Bonds
  • UPDATE: A source tells me Morneau won the award, narrowly beating Jeter. Should be official relatively shortly.

    UPDATE #2: Confirmed. Not that I'm necessarily complaining, obviously, but I think the AL MVP was just given to the third-best player on his own team. As expected, the two most valuable players on the Twins finished a distant sixth and seventh in the voting, receiving one measly first-place vote between them.


    November 20, 2006

    Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007: 40, 39, 38, 37, 36

    40. Matt Fox | Starter | DOB: 12/82 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2004-1

    YEAR LV G GS ERA IP H HR SO BB
    2004 RK 8 5 5.40 26.2 27 6 32 8
    2006 RK 20 1 3.79 40.1 32 1 46 13

    After losing Eddie Guardado to free agency, the Twins received the 35th overall pick in the 2004 draft as compensation and used it to select Matt Fox, who went 14-2 with a 1.85 ERA in his final season at the University of Central Florida. Fox signed quickly for $950,000 and made his pro debut at Elizabethton of the rookie-level Appalachian League, where he struck out 32 batters in 26.2 innings but served up six homers on the way to a 5.40 ERA.

    Expected to move up to Single-A, Fox instead missed all of the 2005 season after undergoing labrum and rotator-cuff surgery. Those injuries can be death to a young pitcher's career, far more so than even Tommy John surgery, but Fox bounced back by returning to Elizabethton in the second half of last season. Pitching almost exclusively as a reliever, Fox posted a 3.79 ERA and 46-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40.1 innings while holding opponents to a .216 batting average and coughing up a lone homer.

    Fox turns 24 years old next month despite never having thrown an inning above rookie-ball and health issues will always be there, but his showing last season is enough to put him back on the prospect map. It's unclear whether the Twins plan to keep him in the bullpen or were simply letting him work his way back slowly with some relief work. He profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter thanks to what are considered solid off-speed pitches, but may also fit as a late-inning setup man if needed.

    39. Loek Van Mil | Starter | DOB: 9/85 | Throws: Right | Sign: Netherlands

    YEAR LV G GS ERA IP H HR SO BB
    2006 RK 10 8 3.30 43.2 51 3 24 17

    Loek Van Mil has appeared in just 10 professional games while throwing a total of 43.2 unspectacular innings, but he's one of the better known Twins prospects thanks to being profiled by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse back in March. A 7-foot-1 right-hander named "Ludovicus" who was signed out of the Netherlands, Van Mil sounds like a character from a bad baseball movie. However, his spot in these rankings is not based on a cool-sounding name or an intriguing story: He can pitch.

    Van Mil's pro debut was a mixed bag, as he posted a 3.30 ERA in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and served up just three homers in 43.2 innings, but allowed opponents to hit .290 against him and struck out just 24 batters. While those numbers would be decent from most 21-year-old pitchers in their first minor-league season, they're downright encouraging given Van Mil's unique circumstances and significant potential for improvement.

    Van Mil remains a major project who has a long way to go before he can become the tallest pitcher in big-league history, but he throws in the low 90s, has reasonable control even at an extremely early stage in his development, and finished last season with 13 straight scoreless innings. This time last year he was far more curiosity than prospect, but after a season holding his own in the GCL he's legitimately someone to watch in 2007.

    38. Steven Tolleson | Second Base | DOB: 11/83 | Bats: Right | Draft: 2005-5

    YEAR LV AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO
    2005 RK 56 .321 .457 .571 2 9 11 4
    A- 102 .176 .311 .284 3 5 17 23
    2006 A- 171 .287 .390 .392 2 12 27 34
    A+ 157 .268 .353 .408 4 13 22 24

    The son of former major leaguer Wayne Tolleson, Steven Tolleson played three seasons at the University of South Carolina and was taken by the Twins in the fifth round of the 2005 draft. He signed quickly and batted .321/.457/.571 at rookie-ball, but then hit just .176 after moving up to low Single-A to end his debut season. Tolleson went back to Beloit to begin 2006, batted .287/.390/.392 in 42 games there, and was given a mid-year promotion to high Single-A.

    He continued to hold his own at Fort Myers, batting .268/.353/.408 to give him a combined hitting line of .277/.369/.396 in his first full season in the minors. Tolleson doesn't have much power, homering just 11 times in 494 pro at-bats, but combines good strike-zone judgment and decent contact skills with excellent plate discipline. In 145 career minor-league games, Tolleson has an 85-to-77 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .368 on-base percentage.

    A middle infielder in college, Tolleson has moved around the diamond as a pro, seeing significant action at second base, shortstop, and third base last season. His defensively versatility and modest offensive capabilities mean he profiles more as a utility man than an everyday player at this point, although that's a somewhat meaningless label in a minor-league system that has rarely been deep in talented young infielders.

    37. J.D. Durbin | Starter | DOB: 2/82 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2000-2

    YEAR LV G GS ERA IP H HR SO BB
    2004 AA 13 13 2.52 64.1 62 4 53 22
    AAA 7 7 4.54 35.2 49 4 38 16
    2005 AAA 22 19 4.33 104.0 97 8 90 51
    2006 AAA 16 16 2.33 89.0 67 3 81 50

    Taken in the second round of the 2000 draft, J.D. Durbin emerged as one of the Twins' top prospects after going 13-4 with a 3.19 ERA at low Single-A in 2002 and following it up by going 15-5 with a 3.12 ERA between high Single-A and Double-A in 2003. Unfortunately, injuries and mediocre pitching have sent Durbin tumbling down the prospect rankings ever since. Despite not yet turning 25 years old, the man who famously refers to himself as the "Real Deal" is now facing a major crossroad in his career.

    Durbin missed the second half of last season with a nerve problem in his right biceps and is out of minor-league options, meaning he'll have to either make the Twins out of spring training or clear waivers before being sent back to the minors in order to remain in the organization. When combined with back-to-back shaky seasons at Triple-A, Durbin was certainly far from a no-brainer to include in these rankings. After all, there's a decent chance he may not even be Twins property in a few months.

    With that said, he's still young and still has the type of stuff that suggests he can succeed in the big leagues. Durbin's control let him down at Triple-A, with 117 walks in 228 career innings at Rochester, but he also managed 209 strikeouts and a 3.58 ERA while serving up just 15 homers over that same span. Given a chance to pitch one inning at a time, Durbin could still emerge as a late-inning reliever, following the same rotation-to-bullpen path Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, and Matt Guerrier once took.

    36. Garrett Guzman | Left Field | DOB: 2/83 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2001-10

    YEAR LV AB AVG OBP SLG HR XBH BB SO
    2004 A+ 275 .269 .321 .385 4 19 22 42
    2006 A+ 259 .274 .310 .409 8 18 15 31
    AA 222 .275 .333 .446 7 23 18 27

    Taken in the 10th round of the 2001 draft out of a Nevada high school, Garrett Guzman hit well in rookie-ball before batting .282/.343/.399 at low Single-A in 2003 and .269/.321/.385 at high Single-A in 2004. Poised to get his first crack at Double-A in 2005, Guzman instead broke his neck in a spring car accident and missed the entire season. Facing a year of lost development as a result of a potentially career-ending injury, Guzman bounced back with a solid season between high Single-A and Double-A.

    Guzman's raw numbers weren't overly impressive in 2006, but they get a lot better once you adjust for both the Florida State League and Eastern League being extremely pitcher-friendly. Placed in a neutral hitting environment--defined for these purposes as matching the overall level of offense in the major leagues--Guzman's numbers work out to .297/.332/.477 at high Single-A and .300/.349/.513 at Double-A. While not what future superstars are made of, those are solid hitting lines for a 23-year-old.

    He has lots of room to improve when it comes to plate discipline, walking just 33 times in 129 games last season, but also makes excellent contact at the plate. He's struck out in 12 percent of his career at-bats, including just 58 whiffs in 481 at-bats last year, which is a style that matches up well with his line-drive stroke. He'll be limited to left field, first base or designated hitter defensively, which means his bat will have to carry him, but I like Guzman's chances of developing into a productive big leaguer.


    November 16, 2006

    Link-O-Rama

  • The lack of attention given to Johan Santana picking up his second AL Cy Young Award yesterday says a lot about his greatness. At this point he's become so consistently extraordinary--whether on a start-to-start or year-to-year basis--that his excellence is almost taken for granted. Even on the single most Santana-obsessed website in the history of mankind, there's only so much you can say about exactly how great someone is without repeating yourself and stating the obvious.

    Once upon a time I devoted every other entry to Santana, yet I saw fit to spend just two paragraphs discussing him when handing out my season-ending awards, and most of that focused on the fact that he should have been going for a third straight award. Very few pitchers in baseball history have ever been as good as Santana since moving into the Twins' rotation, and as the driver of the bandwagon from Day 1, it's been spectacularly rewarding and fun to watch him become the world's best pitcher.

  • As if getting me to begrudgingly name him my choice for AL MVP wasn't enough excitement for one week, Derek Jeter is now reportedly dating AG.com Fantasy Girl Hall of Famer and native Minnesotan Jessica Biel. I have no words.
  • Continuing with that same theme, the New York Post reports that former Timberwolves point guard and alien look-a-like Sam Cassell is dating former MTV host Ananda Lewis. While perhaps upsetting on some level--though not nearly as much as the Jeter-Biel thing--this does give hope to all of us. Regardless of what you look like, you too can date a beautiful, quasi-celebrity woman if you merely start for one of two professional basketball teams in Los Angeles and make $7 million per year.
  • Joe Mauer spent an hour fielding questions in an ESPN.com chat session yesterday afternoon and, in true Mauer fashion, somehow managed to say almost nothing.
  • These pictures of San Diego ace Jake Peavy slamming Jagermeister straight from the bottle aren't exactly shocking or even noteworthy, but for some reason I found them amusing. I expect photos of Mauer sipping milk to surface any day now.
  • The Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, LaVelle E. Neal III, mentioned this rumor about Colorado pitcher Jason Jennings in yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune, but here's the original version of the report from the Rocky Mountain News:
    They have discussed the possibility of building a trade around right-hander Jason Jennings with several teams, the most interested of which appear to be Houston and Minnesota. ... With Minnesota, a package would include right-hander Jesse Crain, who grew up in Boulder, and a younger starting pitcher. Texas officials indicated they remain interested in Jennings but most likely will have to wait until the Rockies exhaust talks with the Astros and Twins.

    Jennings is a solid pitcher who seemingly could thrive if he buys into the Twins' focus on throwing strikes, but he's also a pending free agent who's set to make $5.5 million in 2007. Given that the Twins figure to have a tough time keeping him beyond next season due to his likely price tag, I question whether it's smart to give up Crain, along with a pitching prospect, for what would essentially be 30 starts from a well-paid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

    While Crain is somewhat expendable given the Twins' excellent bullpen depth, he's still a 25-year-old reliever with a mid-90s fastball and a 2.95 ERA in 183.1 big-league innings. Plus, he's not eligible for free agency until 2011. If the Twins are going to part with him--and it now seems likely that Crain or Juan Rincon will be leaving town via trade this offseason--I'd much rather see them target a young hitter or a starting pitcher who'll be around for a few years.

  • On a similar note, here's a far less detailed Twins rumor from the Philadelphia Inquirer:
    Arn Tellem, the agent for Randy Wolf, spent yesterday visiting with clubs at the meetings. He said that the Phils have shown serious interest in re-signing Wolf and that the lefthander is open to returning but first wants to gauge the market. A number of teams, including the Yankees, Twins and Blue Jays, have interest in Wolf.

    Randy Wolf hasn't been healthy since 2003 and is one year removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, yet seems to be a very popular mid-level pitching target for a number of teams looking for rotation depth on the free-agent market. Of course, the high level of interest from various teams means he's no longer really a "mid-level" option at all and will probably be well out of the Twins' price range. Given the contract he's reportedly looking for, it's probably for the best.

  • I can't really explain why, but this is by far the funniest thing I've seen this month. Also, the next time I'm featured in Sports Illustrated wearing a jersey, you can bet it'll be NED 3.
  • One of the many problems with penning columns filled with lame one-liners and schticky attempts at humor 99 percent of the time is that when you climb atop your soap box for a rare serious attempt at analysis, it just ends up looking silly. It's difficult to take Shecky Souhan seriously when he throws around words like coward, bully, sycophant, liar, enabler, and criminal to describe someone, when a few days earlier he devoted about 650 words of a 655-word column to Pee-Wee Herman references.

    There's a reason Carrot Top doesn't mix up his act by performing Shakespeare once a month.

  • The offseason is barely underway, but you can already cross one of the Twins' low-priced (or so I thought) designated-hitter options off the list: Wes Helms signed a two-year deal with the Phillies worth about $6 million. Apparently all the campaigning for Helms that took place in the comments section here over the past month bumped his price up.
  • Michael Cuddyer got married last weekend, with Matthew LeCroy serving as groomsman.
  • If Ken Harrelson gets into the Hall of Fame while Bert Blyleven continues to be snubbed, I may just start blogging about hockey or something.
  • Random Music Recommendation of the Week: James Morrison.
  • I can't quite decide whether this note about Francisco Liriano from the Elias Sports Bureau qualifies more as "interesting" or "depressing," but it's definitely something:
    Since the end of World War II, only one pitcher won 12 or more games as a rookie and did not pitch in the majors in the following year: Kerry Wood, who was 13-6 in 1998 but missed the 1999 season after undergoing elbow surgery.

    Liriano, of course, went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie and will miss the entire 2007 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this month.

  • If you haven't already, please make sure to check out my column about Daisuke Matsuzaka over at NBCSports.com.
  • It's that time again: The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007 is available for pre-order. This year's annual contains the usual contributions from THT's staff of writers, along with guest pieces from ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, Deadspin's Will Leitch, SI.com's Jon Weisman, Baseball Analysts' Rich Lederer, and Braves Journal's Mac Thomason. It also features David Gassko's excellent article on the impact of Tommy John surgery, which I've referenced here several times already in relation to Liriano.

    I'm biased, having co-created THT several years ago with Matthew Namee, but I think it's safe to say that this year's edition will be among the best baseball books of 2007. I'm incredibly proud of the finished product, which gets better each year thanks in large part to the work of the book's editor, Dave Studemund. Because of my contract with NBCSports.com, The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007 will be my final act as co-owner and editor-in-chief of THT, and I couldn't be leaving on a higher note.


  • Thursday on NBC ...

    NBCSports.com officially launched its baseball section this morning, completing one of the final stages of a "gradual rollout." The baseball content is pretty sparse so far, since it's literally Day 1, but it will increase rapidly throughout the offseason and really ramp up heading into spring training. Here's the first headlining article in the history of NBCSports.com's baseball section:

    Worth a Fortune: If history holds, Daisuke Matsuzaka may surprise the doubters

    You may be familiar with the writer.

    In Twins news ... Johan Santana will win his second Cy Young Award in three seasons today (and what should be his third straight), while the Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, LaVelle E. Neal III, reports that Terry Ryan is kicking the tires on 28-year-old right-hander Jason Jennings in preparation for a possible trade with the Rockies.


    November 15, 2006

    My Ballot: Everything Else

    Earlier this week I revealed what my ballot for American League MVP would look like, so today I'll cast my non-existent vote for the various other season-ending awards ...
       NL MVP                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     RBI     RUN
    1 Carlos Beltran 617 .275 .388 .594 116 127
    2 Albert Pujols 634 .331 .431 .671 137 119
    3 Ryan Howard 704 .313 .425 .659 149 104
    4 Jose Reyes 703 .300 .354 .487 81 122
    5 Chase Utley 739 .309 .379 .527 102 131
    6 Miguel Cabrera 676 .339 .430 .568 114 112
    7 Brian McCann 492 .333 .388 .572 93 61
    8 Lance Berkman 646 .315 .420 .621 136 95
    9 Andruw Jones 669 .262 .363 .531 129 107
    10 David Wright 661 .311 .381 .531 116 96

    When the actual voting is announced later this month, the National League MVP will no doubt go to either Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard. That's fine, of course, because both players had excellent seasons and are certainly legitimate MVP candidates. However, much like filling the top of my AL MVP ballot with an assortment of up-the-middle defenders, my preference for NL MVP is a guy who put up amazing offensive numbers and played a premium defensive position.

    In terms of raw offensive production, Carlos Beltran isn't on the same level as Pujols or Howard:

                 AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     HR     RBI      RC
    Pujols .331 .431 .671 1.102 49 137 154
    Howard .313 .425 .659 1.084 58 149 161
    Beltran .275 .388 .594 .982 41 116 118

    Regardless of which stat you choose to focus on, Beltran comes in third. He batted .275; they both hit well above .300. His OPS was .982; they each cleared 1.000 with ease. He hit 41 homers and drove in 116 runs; Howard managed 58 and 149, Pujols had 49 and 137. The all-encompassing Runs Created shows Beltran as having been worth 118 runs; Howard created 161 and Pujols was responsible for 154. If this were merely a hitting contest, it wouldn't be particularly close.

    However, as I discussed while making my AL MVP picks, baseball is about more than what you do at the plate. Beltran may check in about 40 or 50 runs behind Pujols and Howard when it comes to overall offense, but he makes up ground on them in nearly every other facet of the game. A quick glance at Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which puts offensive contributions in the context of which position a player mans defensively, cuts the gap immediately:

                VORP
    Pujols 85.4
    Howard 81.5
    Beltran 68.5

    Compared to other first basemen, the ridiculous numbers Pujols and Howard put up were worth about 85 and 82 runs above replacement level, respectively. Compared to other center fielders, the slightly less ridiculous numbers Beltran put up were worth about 69 runs above replacement level. The distinction between overall offense and offense in context of position is an important one and when that's accounted for the gap is suddenly closer to 15 runs than 50.

    That's still a lot of runs, but it's not difficult to imagine Beltran's excellent defensive in center field being worth 15 runs more than the work Pujols and Howard put in at first base. In fact, depending on how much weight you give to defense, what you think of the specific players involved, and how much trust you put in advanced defensive metrics, it might be difficult to imagine Beltran's advantage defensively being as small as 15 runs.

    In the end it comes down to which player you'd take on your team if the 2006 season was being replayed. I recognize that much of the baseball-watching public, including many of those with an actual say in who wins awards, would choose one of the slugging first basemen. I would choose the Gold Glove-caliber center fielder who hit .275/.388/.594 with 41 homers, 38 doubles, 95 walks, 116 RBIs, and 127 runs while stealing 18 bases at an 86-percent clip, and there would be little hesitation.

       AL CYA                IP      ERA      SO     BB     HR     OAVG     OOPS
    1 Johan Santana 234 2.77 245 47 24 .216 .616
    2 Roy Halladay 220 3.19 132 34 19 .251 .656
    3 C.C. Sabathia 193 3.22 172 44 17 .247 .654

    This is as big a no-brainer as an award can be, although Roy Halladay had a really good year. Johan Santana led the league in ERA, wins, WHIP, strikeouts, innings, starts, Quality Starts, strikeout rate, opponent's batting average, opponent's on-base percentage, opponent's slugging percentage, and just about every other stat you could possibly think of. In doing so he became just the eighth pitcher in baseball history to win the pitching Triple Crown by leading all of MLB in wins, ERA, and strikeouts.

    As the world's biggest Santana backer from before it was cool to be a longtime Santana backer, his blowing away the competition makes it even more of shame that the voters couldn't see how deserving he was of the same award in 2005. Santana deserved to beat out Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera for the AL Cy Young then, except the voters weren't able to look past his modest 16 wins to see it. Three straight Cy Young wins would've put Santana in rarified company, although he's basically there anyway.

       NL CYA                IP      ERA      SO     BB     HR     OAVG     OOPS
    1 Brandon Webb 235 3.10 178 50 15 .246 .650
    2 Roy Oswalt 221 2.98 166 38 18 .263 .702
    3 Chris Carpenter 222 3.09 184 43 21 .235 .643

    The NL Cy Young candidates are bunched so closely together that I'd have no problem with any of the top three guys winning the award. Even beyond the three pitchers listed on my ballot, Bronson Arroyo, Carlos Zambrano, John Smoltz, and Aaron Harang are close enough to have decent arguments. In the end I went with Brandon Webb because his pitched more innings and gave up fewer homers than Roy Oswalt and Chris Carpenter, and did so in an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark.

       AL ROY                IP      ERA      SO     BB     HR     OAVG     OOPS
    1 Francisco Liriano 121 2.16 144 32 9 .205 .564
    2 Justin Verlander 186 3.63 124 60 21 .266 .741
    3 Jonathan Papelbon 68 0.92 75 13 3 .167 .464

    Justin Verlander had an outstanding rookie season and would be deserving of the award in a lot of years, but Francisco Liriano was about as dominant as a starting pitcher can possibly be and that beats 186 innings of a 3.63 ERA in my book. Jonathan Papelbon narrowly gets the nod over Jered Weaver and Joel Zumaya in the third spot, which shows what an extraordinary crop of rookie pitchers the AL had in 2006.

       NL ROY                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     RBI     RUN
    1 Hanley Ramirez 700 .292 .353 .480 59 119
    2 Ryan Zimmerman 682 .287 .351 .471 110 84
    3 Dan Uggla 683 .282 .339 .480 90 105

    The AL boasted five stud pitchers, but the NL had one of the deepest rookie classes of all time. No fewer than a dozen NL rookies would have been legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders many years, but the sheer number of great rookies left guys like Prince Fielder, Scott Olsen, Josh Willingham, Conor Jackson, Cole Hamels, Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton, Adam Wainwright, Chris Duncan, Cla Meredith, Luke Scott, Josh Barfield, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez as afterthoughts.

    I narrowed it down to Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla, Russell Martin, and Takashi Saito before eventually going with Ramirez over Zimmerman, but much like the NL Cy Young race I could have gone either way. So, there you have it. My MVPs are Derek Jeter and Carlos Beltran. My Cy Young selections are Johan Santana and Brandon Webb. And my Rookie of the Year picks are Francisco Liriano and Hanley Ramirez.


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