July 30, 2010

Twins get Matt Capps from Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa

Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason. Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst campaign that saw him post a 5.80 ERA and .324 opponents' batting average while serving up 10 homers in 54.1 innings, Capps became a free agent and signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals in large part because they were one of the only teams willing to promise him an opportunity to remain a closer.

And last night the Twins decided to overpay for that closing experience, acquiring Capps from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa. To be clear, Capps is a good, solid late-inning reliever. He bounced back nicely in Washington with a 2.74 ERA and 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA in 317 career innings. However, if not for his racking up 93 saves for bad teams I'm convinced the Twins never would have even considered this move.

Much like the Twins turning to Jon Rauch with Joe Nathan sidelined, Capps' reputation as an "experienced closer" comes largely from teams simply giving him a shot to accumulate saves. Rauch has done a perfectly fine job filling in for Nathan, converting 21-of-25 saves with a 3.05 ERA and 27-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings, and if given a longer opportunity may have turned himself into an "established closer" just like Capps did. Seriously.

Take a look at their respective career numbers as relievers:

           IP     ERA     FIP    SO/9    BB/9     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Capps     317    3.50    3.80     7.0     1.7    .263    .302    .415    .717
Rauch     402    3.54    3.90     7.5     2.7    .242    .297    .390    .687

Capps has had better control, Rauch has been tougher to hit, and their overall effectiveness is nearly identical across the board. If pressed I'd pick Capps over Rauch because he's younger and has fared better in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), but by far the biggest difference between them is that one has accumulated saves for four seasons while the other has accumulated saves for one season.

No one would ever suggest that trading Ramos for a reliever who's slightly better than Rauch is a sound idea, yet by focusing on the save statistic the Twins have done just that and many fans will instinctively be on board with the move for an "established closer." Now, don't get me wrong: Capps is a quality reliever and represents a clear upgrade to the Twins' bullpen. What he's not is an elite reliever or enough of an upgrade to part with Ramos.

Capps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player next season as well, which means the Twins essentially traded Ramos and Testa for 1.5 seasons of him. Unfortunately part of his inflated perceived value includes his likely price-tag in arbitration, which is sure to rise from this year's $3.5 million salary to over $5 million (and perhaps well over $5 million) thanks to those same shiny-looking save totals.

Capps makes the Twins better for the final two months of this season and all of next year, but the improvement isn't nearly as large as the "All-Star closer" label would have you believe and the cost involved is significant in terms of both players and money. Next season the Twins will pay a premium for a quality setup man they perceive as something more because of a reliance on a flawed statistic and they gave up a good catching prospect for the right do that.

In fairness, Ramos' value is inflated as well. His historic debut caused the Twins fans who don't know any better to assume that he was destined for stardom and his subsequent struggles at Triple-A have exposed him as a good but not great prospect. However, he still projects as a good defender behind the plate and a 22-year-old being overmatched in his first experience at Triple-A is far from disastrous.

I'm not convinced that Ramos will become a star, but the possibility certainly exists and at the very least he looks capable of developing into a starting-caliber catcher for many years. Joe Mauer's presence meant Ramos had little shot to be that starting-caliber catcher in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean the Twins needed to deal him immediately or when his value was at an all-time low or for an underwhelming return like Capps.

I have no problem with trading Ramos or trading for bullpen help, and in the Twins' minds they just traded him for an "All-Star closer." In reality they traded Ramos for a setup-caliber reliever who accumulated saves on bad teams and is thus overrated and soon overpaid. Among the 93 pitchers who've logged 150-plus relief innings in the past three calendar years, Capps ranks 38th in xFIP, 49th in FIP, 50th in ERA, 61st in strikeout rate, and 85th in opponents' average.

You'd think the Twins would have learned something about the created-not-born nature of the closer role and often spurious value of saves from Rauch's relatively successful stint filling in for Nathan, but instead they just paid a premium for a guy whose perceived value and ability are much higher than his actual value and ability solely because of his role and save total. Capps is a good reliever, but the Twins paid for a great reliever and did so for all the wrong reasons.

July 29, 2010

Breaking News: Twins trade Wilson Ramos to Nationals for Matt Capps

There's no official announcement yet, but I've confirmed with multiple sources that the Twins have agreed to trade Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps.

I'm not a fan of the move, to say the least. I'll have a full write-up shortly.

UPDATE: Twins just announced the deal as official. Joe Testa is also headed to Washington.

Twins Notes: Valencia, Mauer, Young, Harris, and Rumors

• Beating up on the cellar-dwelling Orioles and Royals tends to make teams look good, but the Twins have won 10 of 14 to go from 4.5 games behind the White Sox to just one game back despite playing that entire stretch minus Justin Morneau. Even without the AL's second-best hitter for the past 18 games the Twins now lead the league in batting average, rank second in on-base percentage, and are two runs from trailing only the Yankees and Red Sox in scoring.

Danny Valencia went 0-for-3 with a walk yesterday to snap an amazing hot streak that saw him go 14-for-19 (.737) during a four-game stretch. Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com looked it up and since 1993 the only players to rack up more than 14 hits in four games are Johnny Damon (2000), Mike Benjamin (1995), and Brett Butler (1995). Valencia is now hitting .387/.441/.495 in 30 games overall after batting just .292/.347/.387 in 49 games at Triple-A before his call-up.

Obviously he'll be coming back down to earth soon enough and if you look beyond the flukishly high batting average he hasn't shown much pop with one homer and a .108 Isolated Power in 93 at-bats, but his 12-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a positive sign after Valencia struck out 71 times versus 22 walks at Triple-A and his defense has been far better than I expected based on the not-so-positive reviews the Twins put out there last season and this spring.

• As noted previously in this space, I've heard rumblings for much of the season regarding Joe Mauer being more hurt (and with a wider variety of injuries) than he's let on publicly, so it was interesting to read one of my favorite writers, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, tackle the topic in a column yesterday. Passan predictably wasn't able to get Mauer or anyone else to definitively comment on specific injuries, but it's pretty clear that he's very banged up physically.

Despite that Mauer went 9-for-13 (.692) with a home run and four doubles in the three-game sweep of the Royals, including 5-for-5 with seven RBIs in Monday's slaughtering. He passed up a chance for a sixth hit in the eighth inning, amusingly telling Ron Gardenhire "no, I'm good." It was the fourth five-hit game of his career, which ties Victor Martinez for the second-most of all time by a catcher. Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi holds the record with six five-hit games.

Mauer is now 21-for-52 (.404) with two homers, nine doubles, and 17 RBIs in a dozen games to begin the second half. He's nowhere near last year's MVP-winning numbers, but duplicating that historic performance was never likely anyway and his current .310/.377/.465 line is more or less identical to his pre-2009 career mark of .317/.399/.457. In fact, it may be slightly better if you factor in the move to pitcher-friendly Target Field and scoring being down across MLB.

• Delmon Young is crushing the ball and Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter Monday night against the Tigers, so the 2007 trade that sent Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay for Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie is suddenly a very popular topic again. Twins fans who're rightfully excited about Young's breakout won't want to hear it, but the Rays are still clearly in the lead based on Wins Above Replacement since the November 28, 2007 deal:

TWINS                WAR          RAYS                 WAR
Delmon Young        +0.6          Matt Garza          +7.6
Brendan Harris      +0.2          Jason Bartlett      +7.0
Jason Pridie        -0.3          Eduardo Morlan       0.0
TOTAL               +0.5          TOTAL              +14.6

To put those numbers into some context, Mauer as been worth 5.8 WAR per 150 games. So in terms of production and value received from the trade, the Rays have an edge of basically 2.5 seasons from Mauer. At the moment the trade looks far less horrible for the Twins than it did in 2008 and 2009, but Young playing well for four months doesn't wipe away his playing terribly for the previous two years or Garza and Bartlett both being huge contributors for the Rays.

Since the trade Garza has 516 innings with a 3.89 ERA, which is better than any Twins starter in that time, and Bartlett has a .761 OPS that's close to the .780 OPS from Young even without factoring in the huge defense/position gap. I'm thrilled that Young has figured things out and the deal is starting to lean in the Twins' favor, but let's not get crazy with the hyperbole. Can't we recognize his emergence without re-writing history and going completely over the top?

• Speaking of Harris, he's hit just .238/.273/.386 with a hideous 23-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 games at Rochester since being dropped off the 40-man roster, passed through waivers unclaimed, and demoted to Triple-A. He's making $1.45 million this year and is still owed $1.75 million for 2011, so a return to Minnesota remains very possible at some point, but he's looking more and more like a washed-up sunk cost. I'll never understand why he got a multi-year deal.

• Earlier this week I wrote about the negative impact outfield defense has had on the Twins' pitching staff and Adam Peterson of Twinkie Town did some serious numbers-crunching to find that my analysis "appears to be correct." He goes into a whole lot more depth than that, so if you're into learning about the pitching-defense relationship his work is worth checking out. Of course, if Jason Repko continues to start regularly in right field that changes things quite a bit.

• There is sure to be all kinds of Twins-related trade speculation between now and Saturday's deadline. I've never really filled AG.com with rumor-collecting and don't plan to start now, but I will be tracking the pre-deadline rumors for the Twins and every other team at Hardball Talk, where I've been writing an average of 15 posts per day. And, of course, if the Twins actually make a move before Saturday afternoon I'll have a full write-up here.

July 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Delmon, Defense, Hudson, Haren, and Real Men

• I wrote about "the new and improved Delmon Young" a month ago, examining changes he'd made to finally start living up to his potential ... and since then he's hit .350 with five homers, 11 doubles, and a .564 slugging percentage in 30 games. The new-found patience he showed early this season has vanished, with Young drawing a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 123 plate appearances during that stretch, but hitting .350 makes that seem kind of trivial.

Hitting coach Joe Vavra had some interesting quotes about swing changes Young has made:

He doesn't have the head-shoulder drop any more. His head is not moving, he's [keeping] a firm front side. So he's kind of putting it all together, which is a good thing to see. He came into spring training on a mission. He had that weight drop, and he was on a mission to clean up some things that he needed to do, and he did.

We go out in that cage every day, and we try to solve issues and problems that come up. He listens real well, he tries different things, but he's his own guy. He gets out there and does what he thinks is going to help himself to be successful, and he takes what we do in the cage and it's all on him then.

Young is up to .322/.354/.528 with 13 homers and 28 doubles in 92 games overall this season, which is good for an .882 OPS that ranks as the highest from any Twins outfielder who played enough to qualify for the batting title since Kirby Puckett in 1995.

• Fans and media members love to talk about the importance of defense, but I'm realizing now that's mostly just lip service. Few people seemed to recognize the role defense played in Nick Blackburn's success in 2008 and 2009, just as few people seem to realize the negative impact defense--or more accurately, outfield defense--has had on the rotation this year. For instance, Francisco Liriano's batting average on balls in play is the highest in all of baseball at .357.

Liriano has a 133-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two homers allowed in 122 frames, but because such a high percentage of balls in play have gone for hits his ERA is a half-run higher than it probably should be, his record is just 8-7, and he's not getting credit for an ace-caliber year. Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey are also each among the league's 10 highest in-play batting averages, which isn't a coincidence and has played a big part in their struggles.

Denard Span in center field flanked by some combination of Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer in the corners simply isn't a good defensive outfield, which is reflected in the pitching and in the Twins' outfield ranking 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Baker and Slowey have often been lumped in with Blackburn, but as extreme fly-ball pitchers with xFIPs of 3.77 and 4.45 it's pretty easy to see they've been hurt by fly balls turning into extra-base hits instead of outs.

Orlando Hudson straining his oblique muscle Saturday is tough break for the Twins, because that injury tends to linger and he was hitting well recently after initially struggling in his return from wrist problems last month. Hudson has hit .285/.356/.387 in 80 games overall this year, including .293/.360/.393 in his last 25 games, which along with solid defense at second base makes him one of the most valuable players on the team.

Alexi Casilla will apparently be the primary fill-in at second base after returning from an elbow injury of his own last week. Casilla has played well in limited action this season, but is a career .246/.306/.315 hitter and not as good as Hudson defensively. Plus, because Ron Gardenhire equates defensive position to place in the batting order that means Casilla and his .306 career on-base percentage will likely be hitting second in the lineup for however long Hudson is out.

Justin Morneau felt good enough to work out over the weekend, but various reports make it clear that he's not close to coming off the disabled list. He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7 and Cuddyer has started all 15 games at first base in his absence, with Kubel in right field and Jim Thome as the regular designated hitter. Along with last year's back injury, Morneau has missed 42 of the past 123 games.

• You can cross Dan Haren's name off the Twins' trade deadline wishlist, as the Diamondbacks traded him to the Angels yesterday for Joe Saunders and three prospects. I'm underwhelmed by the package Arizona received, because Saunders is more or less a left-handed Slowey and none of the prospects are considered elite, but regardless of that Haren in Minnesota may not have been possible. He's a California native and reportedly had the Twins on his no-trade list.

Carl Pavano has four complete games in his last seven starts and now ranks third in the AL with 143.2 innings, which is just two fewer innings than he threw combined during four years with the Yankees. Pavano has basically spent one full season in the Twins' rotation since being acquired from the Indians last August for mid-level pitching prospect Yohan Pino, starting 32 games with a 17-10 record, 3.73 ERA, and 140-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 217.1 innings.

Since the trade Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and CC Sabathia are the only pitchers with more innings than Pavano, which is amazing given his history. Seth Stohs wrote recently that "the front office and advanced scouts who told the Twins' brass Pavano should be targeted deserve a ton of credit" and I agree, but numbers told the same story. At the time of the trade he had a 3.94 xFIP. Since the trade, he has a 3.95 xFIP and 3.73 ERA.

• Forgotten man Clay Condrey will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury after not throwing a pitch for the Twins, which means they wasted $900,000 on a 34-year-old middle reliever they never really needed in the first place. For now he's hoping to avoid surgery while instead undergoing platelet rich plasma injections and the Twins opened up a 40-man roster spot for Anthony Slama by transferring Condrey to the 60-day disabled list.

• Speaking of season-ending elbow injuries, Joe Nathan played catch last Monday for the first time since going under the knife in March. Starting to throw again from flat ground is merely the first big step on the long road back from Tommy John surgery and Nathan is still not a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day next season, but so far so good. Mel Antonen of USA Today wrote a lengthy article about Nathan rehabbing away from the team in Tennessee.

• One of my pet peeves with the method stats are recorded is that pickoffs are not counted in stolen base totals. For instance, Span is officially 18-of-19 stealing bases this season, which is great, but he's been picked off an MLB-high five times. He was also picked off an MLB-high 10 times last season while officially going 23-of-33 on steals. He should stay tethered to the base at this point, but beyond that it's more evidence of the value of steals being vastly overrated.

• When the Twins struggled mightily with the bases loaded early on this season many people misguidedly tried to attach all sorts of "explanations" for the lack of production, when in reality extreme outcomes simply come with the territory when the sample size is merely a few dozen at-bats. Sure enough, FOX9 sports producer Seth Kaplan pointed out that since starting the season 7-for-47 (.149) with the bases loaded the Twins are 24-for-60 (.400) in those spots.

Kubel's grand slam yesterday was the seventh of his career and he's now hitting .400 with an .833 slugging percentage in 73 plate appearances with the bases loaded.

• Slama, on being called up from Triple-A to join a clubhouse full of equally mustachioed men:

I've been grooming this thing since April. I didn't know all this was happening up here, the mustache extravaganza. It's good to see some real men in here.

Indeed.

July 23, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• I'm not quoted in the article, but my tip for avoiding burnout is to never wear pants at work.

• I haven't watched Survivor in years, but might have to start tuning in again just to see what happens to Jimmy Johnson's hair on the island.

• Not only did Anthony Slama throw a scoreless inning with two strikeouts in his long-awaited MLB debut, he did so while sporting a fantastic mustache/stirrup combination.

• This was a banner week for pictures of Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com Mila Kunis looking cute on the set of some movie she's filming. Incidentally, this is the exact look I imagine Kunis giving if ever told about the title she holds. I've seen the look before in girls. It's called "not amused."

• As fans at last night's Twins game learned, Orioles security is even worse than the Orioles.

• I'm sure going to jail is a pretty big wake-up call too, but when Robert Shapiro can no longer stomach being your lawyer it's probably time to reassess pretty much everything in your life.

• I took my quarterly trip to a movie theater to see Inception last weekend. It was right up my alley in every possible way, from the plot and cast to the basic concept of the entire film, yet I didn't quite love it. I loved the idea of the movie and movie-going experience, but merely really liked the actual movie. With that said, a week later I still haven't stopped thinking and talking about it. I'm giving serious thought to turning my Al Newman bobble-head doll into a "totem."

• I really enjoyed Inception director Christopher Nolan as a guest on Elvis Mitchell's podcast "The Treatment" and also checked out some of the other interviews in the extensive archive.

• Speaking of my tendency to learn about a podcast and then manically burn through its entire archive in days, my latest discovery is "WTF with Marc Maron." I'd heard Marc Maron do some stand-up comedy before and was aware of his stint as a radio host, but the podcast is great in a totally unexpected way. He does laid-back, long-form interviews with fellow comedians, with plenty of laughs mixed in with genuinely interesting conversations about all kinds of topics.

I've hand-picked episodes based on my interest in the guest, but they've all been so good I'm planning to devour the entire 92-show archive. My favorites so far are Maron's interviews with Chelsea Peretti, Dave Attell, Maria Bamford, Jim JefferiesJim Norton, Jen Kirkman, and Doug Stanhope. If you enjoy stand-up comedy, talk radio, and being a fly on the wall for some super-intimate conversations between interesting/weird people, it's basically a perfect show.

• Twins fans are never going to believe this, but umpire Phil Cuzzi screwed up another call.

• Why yes, someone did splice together Seinfeld clips into a trailer for an action/thriller movie:

Wayne Knight is definitely one of the most underrated villains in television history.

• I'm thrilled to say that, for the most part, local media members no longer write this brand of tripe about the Twins' bad players.

• Last month Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom received the coveted Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement from the Associated Press Sports Editors and took the opportunity to lecture his fellow journalists on the morality of their profession, at which point Jason Whitlock, Tommy Craggs, and Dave Kindred all lit into Albom, the APSE, and the newspaper business for ... well, read this particularly eviscerating rant from Whitlock if you don't already know.

• Rotoworld contributor Glenn Colton was featured in the Wall Street Journal, but I'm mostly jealous to learn that he played in a fantasy baseball league with professional poker player and "The Scoop" co-host Adam Schoenfeld.

• I'll happily take the publicity, but this seems like an odd list in that AG.com probably gets like one percent as much traffic as the other "mega traffic" blogs listed.

• Paramedics in Columbus, Ohio own "18 stretchers that can move patients up to 650 pounds" and "those stretchers cost about $5,000 each." But guess what? Now "the city is considering buying even stronger equipment" for "when paramedics have to move patients weighing more than 650 pounds." The kicker? According to this very sad article, that "generally happens twice a month." As a longtime fatso I'm thinking about moving to Columbus so I can feel svelte.

• I finally got around to buying my plane ticket for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention in Atlanta in a couple weeks. If any AG.com readers are going, let me know so I can add you to the list of people who can be counted on to buy me a beer.

• Thanks in part to Twins games and in part to what can only be described as the Phil Mackey Effect, the most recent ratings are pretty much dead even between local sports radio stations KFAN-1130 and ESPN-1500.

• Speaking of Mackey, he and Patrick Reusse interviewed David Kahn and the Timberwolves' general manager blamed Michael Beasley's problems in Miami on his being a "kid who smoked too much marijuana" and called Chris Webber "kind of a schmuck" for their recent on-air chat. I'm not sure if Webber has responded or not, but "takes one to know one" would work.

• I'm amused that a strip club opening several blocks from Target Field qualifies as news worth arguing about, as if men who go to baseball games (and men who play in baseball games) are something other than the exact target audience for such an establishment or just seeing the exterior of an adult-only business among other adult-only businesses will ruin children forever.

• Finally, all my contacts made before being expelled from Hebrew school are paying off.

• New(ish) blog to check out: Designated Sitter.

• Here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana is really, really good
- Ouch! Carl Crawford is day-to-day with a "testicular contusion"
- Ken Macha complains to MLB about Brewers being plunked
- Rocco Baldelli stops coaching to begin comeback at Single-A
- Oliver Perez as a "lefty-on-lefty specialist" might actually work
- Stephen Strasburg will beat you and yell stuff at your fans
- Mets manager Jerry Manuel is back on the hot seat again
- Astros reportedly reluctant to trade starter Brett Myers
- Phillies and Twins interested in Ben Sheets, but will A's trade him?

• Finally, in honor of Inception this week's AG.com-approved music video is Fiona Apple singing a live version of "Sleep to Dream":

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