February 28, 2007

Sir Sidney, Overkill, and the Rotation

Joe Christensen took a break from blogging long enough to pen a nice feature-length article about Sidney Ponson for Sunday's Minneapolis Star Tribune. The piece includes plenty of quotes and details about Ponson's difficult upbringing, checkered past, and star status in Aruba, plus some reason for optimism regarding his chances of turning a once-promising career around. Christensen covered Ponson when they were both in Baltimore years ago, and their familiarity helps shape the article:
Since 2003, when Ponson won 17 games in a season split between Baltimore and San Francisco, he's been released by three teams. He's been through alcohol rehab and anger management. He's had his transgressions, such as punching a judge on an Aruban beach, played out all over the media.

[...]

Ponson's personality could best be described as friendly and unabashed. He is part-David Wells, part-Charles Barkley. Back in Aruba, people still tell him they wish he were a better role model.

In talking about the Twins' offseason I've tended to lump Ponson in with Ramon Ortiz as veteran free-agent signings coming off horrible seasons, but that's not entirely fair or accurate. I actually liked the decision to give Ponson a minor-league contract, because there's almost zero risk involved and he has the potential to be a passable back-of-the-rotation starter for about a million dollars. Ortiz has similar potential--at least to some extent--but he's guaranteed $3.1 million and a spot on the roster.

Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire clearly want to avoid turning over three-fifths of the starting rotation to rookies and second-year players, which is certainly understandable. Taking a low-cost flier on Ponson is a smart way to avoid doing that, but taking a low-cost flier on Ponson and giving Ortiz $3.1 million guaranteed just makes it look like the organization once again simply doesn't trust the outstanding young talent it has on hand.

I would have loved to see Ponson signed to a minor-league deal and thrown into a competition with Matt Garza, Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey for the final two spots in the rotation behind Johan Santana, Boof Bonser, and Carlos Silva. Instead, Ortiz has already claimed one of those two spots and Ponson is competing with a handful of young pitchers for just one job, with the early reports suggesting that he already has a definite leg up on the rest of the field:

Even though the Twins signed Sidney Ponson to a minor league contract, they expect him to win a job in the starting rotation, manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday.

"I view [Ponson] being one of our starters," Gardenhire said. "I expect him to step up and take one of those jobs. Whether it happens or not is totally up to him."

True to his self-destructive form, Ponson is putting that to the test with visa problems, which apparently will keep him from pitching in an official exhibition game until mid-March. Both Ryan and Gardenhire have expressed disappointment and frustration over Ponson's inability to get his situation straightened away, which could certainly impact his chances of securing a job. However, he's still able to throw on the side and work out with the team, so barring further problems it shouldn't be a huge issue.

If Ponson ends up making the team, the Twins will have spent about $9 million and 13 percent of their payroll on three pitchers (Silva, Ortiz, Ponson) who failed to post a single sub-5.00 ERA between them last season and combined to go 26-36 with a 5.84 ERA in 456 innings. Meanwhile, it's possible that the rotation at Triple-A Rochester will include Garza, Baker, Perkins, and Slowey, which has a good chance of being a better foursome that the non-Santana starters the Twins leave spring training with.

I recognize that almost all major-league teams, and particularly the ultra-conservative Twins, are much less willing to simply hand jobs to young players than I would be. Because of that, I understand the motivation behind re-signing Silva for $4.3 million despite his coming off a brutal season or scooping Ponson up off the scrap heap on a low-risk move. What I don't understand--and what I ultimately have a problem with--is the decision to do both of those things, and hand Ortiz $3.1 million.

It's one thing to give the team some extra options and take a little pressure off some young players. It's an entirely different story to seemingly go out of your way to push those young players aside by collecting--and devoting a big chunk of the payroll to--mediocre veterans who, at best, might be able to avoid being complete disasters long enough to keep those young arms at Triple-A until they're too ripe to avoid picking any longer.

Last year the Twins began the season with the predictably execrable combination of Tony Batista and Juan Castro manning the left side of the infield, got off to an ugly 25-33 start as they combined to hit .234/.283/.350 with bad defense, and then ditched the veteran mediocrity in favor of younger talent on the way to a playoff run. Despite that experience, they seem content to do the same thing this year, with Ortiz and Ponson playing the roles of Batista and Castro.

The bottom three-fifths of the rotation may not be quite as disastrous as the left side of the infield was and perhaps the Twins can once again win despite the self-imposed handicap, but for once I'd like to see Ryan and Gardenhire simply put the best team on the field. Don't worry about how old everyone is. Don't get caught up in thinking that being a veteran who doesn't play particularly well means you provide leadership. And don't base decisions on how loudly Jason Bartlett calls for a pop up.

Trust the talent you have regardless of when it was born, spend what little money you have available to fill legitimate holes on the roster instead of buying expensive, mediocre insurance for spots you don't need it at, and go to war with the best possible group in place. If the AL Central is as tough as I expect it to be this year--with perhaps four of the 10 best teams in baseball--the Twins will need every win they can get from Opening Day to Game 162 in order to make it back to the playoffs.

Opening the season with Silva, Ortiz, and Ponson in Minnesota and Garza, Baker, Perkins, and Slowey in Rochester might be a lot of things--and might not prove to be a season-killing mistake--but putting the best team on the field isn't one of them.


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