April 22, 2010

Bullets Dodged and F-Bombs Dropped

Back in early December the Twins offered free agent Carl Pavano arbitration, which is basically a one-year contract for a salary to be determined later. Pavano eventually accepted the offer and later the two sides avoided a hearing by agreeing to a one-year, $7 million contract, but had he declined arbitration I'm told by a very reliable source that the Twins were preparing to make a serious run at free agent Rich Harden.

Harden ended up signing with the Rangers about 48 hours after Pavano accepted arbitration, getting a one-year, $6.5 million deal that includes another $3.5 million in potential incentives and an $11 million mutual option or $1 million buyout for 2011. Even considering his lengthy injury history I was surprised that Harden could manage only $7.5 million in guaranteed money and that proved to be a mere $500,000 more than Pavano officially signed for a month later.

I liked the Twins' decision to offer Pavano arbitration and thought $7 million was a worthwhile investment for a veteran pitcher who, despite a massive injury history of his own, was durable in 2009 and projected to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter if healthy in 2010. However, there was little doubt that Harden possessed far more upside than Pavano, at least in terms of what each pitcher was capable of if fully healthy and working with their peak stuff.

Among all pitchers with at least 25 starts Harden had baseball's highest strikeout rate in each of the past two seasons, joining back-to-back NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum as the only starters with more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in both years. During that two-season span he had a 3.05 ERA with 352 strikeouts in 289 innings while holding opponents to a .208 batting average. When healthy enough to take the mound few pitchers were as dominant.

Pavano has never been that type of pitcher and certainly wasn't going to approach that type of dominance at age 34, and while he logged 199 innings without missing a start last season he actually threw fewer innings than Harden in 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005. In other words, if Pavano was more of a sure thing than Harden for 2010 it probably wasn't by much and Harden possessed significantly higher upside. Or so it seemed, at least.

Pavano began this season with back-to-back Quality Starts before turning in a clunker Sunday versus the Royals, making him 2-1 with a 4.96 ERA through three turns in the rotation. Harden actually has a 4.73 ERA through his first three starts, but that's misleading. He has one Quality Start and in fact has made it out of the fourth inning just once, lasting 3.2 innings against both the Blue Jays and Yankees with a solid outing versus the Indians sandwiched in between.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that three April starts mean much of anything in terms of whether the Twins would be better off with Pavano or Harden. However, what does mean something is that Harden has looked terrible--or at least like nothing resembling his old self--in all three outings. He has 14 walks in 13 innings--for comparison, Pavano has a total of 17 walks in 90 innings since joining the Twins--and his velocity is way down from years past.

Harden's average fastball has dropped from 94.4 miles per hour in 2004/2005 and 93.6 mph in 2006/2007 to 92.1 mph in 2008/2009 and barely above 90 mph this season, so all the injuries may have finally caught up to him. In terms of the rotation I'm told Harden was the Twins' first or second offseason target alongside Pavano, so while Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, and J.J. Hardy stand out as strong additions a move they didn't make may work out just as well.

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Francisco Liriano was fantastic again last night, following up seven shutout innings last week against Boston with eight scoreless frames against Cleveland. In those 15 innings he got 14 strikeouts versus four walks while inducing 23 ground-ball outs, which along with significantly increased velocity is creeping ever closer to 2006 territory. Best of all the back-to-back gems aren't the extent of his reemergence, as Liriano also dominated winter ball and spring training.

Liriano looks like a top-of-the-rotation stud again, the offense leads the AL in walks and ranks second in runs per game while grinding out tough at-bat after tough at-bat, and for the first time in franchise history the Twins have won five straight series to begin a season. There are some injuries to worry about and playing time issues to sort through, but the Twins are firing on nearly all cylinders right now and the division doesn't look capable of keeping pace for long.

16 Comments »

  1. Given that Liriano’s one iffy start this season was with Butera catching, I’m just hoping he can pair up with Mauer for most of the rest of his starts.

    Comment by Zack — April 22, 2010 @ 12:44 am

  2. I could find a reason to be pessimistic too–if i was looking for one.

    Comment by eric — April 22, 2010 @ 2:04 am

  3. A start with _Butera does not mean too much, but Mauer is the better catcher and signal-caller.

    There is a long season, but so far Twins look very good and very solid, and they even now can go on a losing streak and still look good!

    Comment by Christian — April 22, 2010 @ 3:39 am

  4. I don’t know if anyone else caught this, but Delmon Young had an 11 pitch AB last night!! I know he’s not hitting up to where everyone would like him yet, but I think the Twins philosophy of grinding out AB’s is finally sinking in. Of course, his next time up, he did swing at the first pitch and hit a grounder, but at least it’s a start.

    Comment by Tony — April 22, 2010 @ 6:17 am

  5. If there is one thing that has really impressed me about the Twins’ offense in this early-going, it has been the quality of their ABs. It is like watching the Yankees or Red Sox.

    Comment by Mike M. — April 22, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  6. Let’s hope that Twins games don’t become as interminable as Sox of Yankees games- Tuesday night the Twins began an hour after the Sox- both games were in the ninth at the same time, and Sox game that went into bonus panels lasted a LOT longer. And I need to know- is there a Twins-O Gram at Target Field, and to who do I register my outrage if there is not one?

    Comment by ganderson — April 22, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  7. AG-The work u put into the site paid off. Can’t put my finger on it but it’s more crisp- nice little update.

    Comment by sirsargentballs — April 22, 2010 @ 9:34 am

  8. Wasn’t it just yesterday that everyone was jumping down AG’s throat for his negativity? Jeeez AG, way to give in to the pressure.

    Comment by Ted — April 22, 2010 @ 9:44 am

  9. I wouldn’t by any means say the offense is firing on all cylindars yet. The clutch hitting has been pretty lousy and they haven’t shown the power yet that they will. Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel don’t look like they are seeing the ball well yet. These are three of the top 10 hitters in the AL, I believe. Once they start clicking, and the clutch hitting and homers start coming, this team is going to be scary good.

    On the other hand, 1 error in 15 games is absolutely remarkable and is not getting nearly enough mention.

    I’ve been saying since before the season started that this team is a 100 win team. Their play so far has done nothing be strengthen that opinion for me.

    Comment by Chris — April 22, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  10. The only downside to this hot start is that expectations are super high. Let’s hope we all remember this during the inevitable down period. Hopefully there’s only one down stretch this year, and hopefully it’s short!

    Win, Twins!

    Comment by bjhess — April 22, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  11. It’s kind of scary (in a good way) to think of the kind of run production this offense might put up if they actually got a reasonable number of hits with bases loaded.

    And ganderson, yes… there is a “Twins O Gram” in a small green corner of the huge scoreboard (or at least there was at the Cardinal exhibition game I attended), so you can save your outrage! :)

    Comment by JimCrikket — April 22, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  12. I agree that the offense hasn’t really looked like it’s clicked so far, but what’s more impressive for me is the run prevention. Right now the Twins are tied with the Yankees for the lowest in the Majors at 48 runs allowed and have the league’s best run differential at +32. Team ERA is 3.20 and team K/BB leads the league at 2.94. Liriano appears to be locked in, Slowey dominated the other night, and Baker has settled down after his first start, and I think only better things are in store for him.

    Comment by Matt — April 22, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  13. The Cleveland series has been weird. During Tuesday’s game, the Twins loaded the bases and then scored 4 runs: 1 on a booted double play ball, 2 on a wild pitch, 1 on a sac fly. Yesterday’s game the Twins had 2 singles and 3 runs during the first half of the game. Sure, the scoring is there, but the hitting is not.

    Comment by Dave T — April 22, 2010 @ 10:48 am

  14. I’m not worried about the lack of clutch hitting so far this year; it’s something that’s going to even out over the course of a long season with quality hitters, and we clearly have a good collection here. not a lot of easy out in the lineup any longer!

    What I really like is Denard Span’s approach at the plate right now. He’s seeing a lot of pitches, working walks, getting on base, but still swinging the bat well. I’ll be interested to see what he defensive stats look like by mid-season and we have a somewhat reasonable sample to work from. My eye says he’s at least average in CF, if not better, but I’d like to see some numbers.

    The starters are looking like what we hoped we had last season. Slowey is looking like he’s all the way back from injury and showing great control and missing bats. Baker will be a good pitcher all year if he can keep it in the park. Liriano is starting to dominate again. Pavano was bad last outing, but has been solid overall. Blackburn looks like the iffy one, but as a 5th starter he’s actually better than most.

    It’s looking like a fun year. Hopefully Gardy won’t manage us into too many bad spots by “trusting his gut” (which is expanding) over actual performance.

    Comment by Josh — April 22, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  15. did i just hear someone say clutch hitting on a sabr friendly blog?

    im gonna go take a nap

    Comment by Gendo — April 22, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  16. Wait – this is a sabr friendly blog?

    Comment by Karl — April 22, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

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