November 29, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #30 Jacque Jones

Jacque Dewayne Jones | LF/CF/RF | 1999-2005 | Career Stats

Jacque Jones starred at USC and was a member of the bronze medal-winning Olympic team in 1996 before the Twins picked him in the second round of the 1996 draft. He hit .297/.342/.464 with 15 homers, 24 steals, and a 110-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 131 games at Single-A in 1997 and nearly duplicated that by hitting .299/.350/.508 with 21 homers, 18 steals, and a 134-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 134 games at Double-A the next year.

Jones started 1999 at Triple-A and hit .298/.333/.444 in 52 games before the Twins called him up in June. He debuted with an 0-for-4 against the Reds on June 9, 1999 and the rest of the story has been told and re-told here many times. Many of Jones' totals--132 homers, 476 RBIs, 189 doubles, 974 hits, 1,589 total bases--rank among the top 15 in team history, which might make it seem as though I've been overly critical of him over the years.

And that may be true, but there are some other factors to consider. For instance, it's important to remember that Jones played for the Twins in a high-offense era and played a key position for offense. All of which makes his raw totals look better than they really are when compared to hitters from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s or guys from various eras who hit well and played premium defensive positions.

Another factor in my past criticisms of Jones is that because of the weaknesses in his game he would've been more valuable for the Twins if only he'd have been utilized differently in two key areas. Jones' strength was always his ability to hit right-handed pitching, but Ron Gardenhire wiped away much of that value by refusing to platoon him against lefties. The end result was a relatively mediocre line of .279/.327/.455 in seven Twins seasons that breaks down as follows:

             AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
vs RHP      .294     .341     .488     .830
vs LHP      .227     .277     .339     .616

Not only was Jones a totally different hitter against righties and lefties, he was unable to put together even one good year versus southpaws in seven years in Minnesota. Because of that it would've been easy to squeeze the maximum value out of Jones as a hitter, letting him tee off on righties while shielding him versus most lefties. Gardenhire instead got the good hitting against righties and then let Jones erase many of those gains with his horrible work off lefties.

Jones' time in Minnesota is a prime example of how not to get the most out of your players by not putting them in a position to succeed and maximize their talent. And while Gardenhire is at fault for refusing to platoon him, the other major circumstance that could have added to Jones' value for the Twins really can't be pinned on anyone. Well, maybe Torii Hunter and whichever scout recommended that the Twins draft him back in 1993.

In most organizations Jones would have spent seven seasons patrolling center field, where his defense would have been more important and his offense would have been more valuable. However, with Hunter around Jones shifted first to left field and then to right field. His defense in both places was excellent, but his offense was really nothing special for a corner outfielder. Interestingly, his hitting and Hunter's hitting were very similar while with the Twins:

              PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Hunter      4894     .271     .324     .469     .793
Jones       3783     .279     .327     .455     .776

Almost identical overall numbers--albeit in different amounts of playing time--yet Hunter was a more valuable offensive player because his hitting was above average for center fielders while Jones' hitting was slightly below average for corner outfielders. In fact, according to the Runs Created Above Position metric, Jones was 43 runs worse than an average corner outfielder on offense while with the Twins.

If he were drafted by a team that didn't have a elite center fielder and played for a manager who knew the value of platooning Jones would've been a superior player to the one the Twins got. Of course, in ranking his place in Twins history those points are little more than sidebars. Instead of being a platoon center fielder in a fantasy world, he was a strong defensive corner outfielder with a slugging percentage-heavy bat that made him about average for the position.

Multiple all that by nearly 1,000 games spread over seven seasons and what you get is a very solid player. In fact, I might go so far as to say that if Jones played in an earlier era I wasn't around to see I'd view his Twins career in a more positive light. In other words, if I didn't have such vivid memories of Jones' flaws and the ways in which the Twins failed to ideally utilize him what I'd be left with is a decent hitter and quality defender who was durable and productive.

Instead, I see is the wild swings and helplessness versus lefties, the throws from the outfield that were either air-mailed past the catcher or launched directly into the turf, the struggles in the postseason and short peak, and an overall lack of improvement that seemed to symbolize Twins hitters at the time. I still see what could've been with Jones, rather than what actually was. And what actually was ... well, it was pretty good for quite a while.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS
Homers                132    10th
Extra-Base Hits       336    11th
RBIs                  476    12th
Doubles               189    13th
Total Bases          1589    14th
Isolated Power       .176    14th
Plate Appearances    3783    15th
Hits                  974    15th
Runs Created          502    15th
Games                 976    16th
Runs                  492    16th
Slugging Percentage  .455    17th
Times On Base        1233    17th
Steals                 67    18th
Batting Average      .279    24th
OPS                  .782    25th

November 26, 2010

Twins win negotiating rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka with $5 million bid

Earlier this month, when the Twins announced plans to increase their payroll even further next year after blowing away the previous franchise record with more than $100 million in salaries this year, I wrote that "getting into the $115 million range would complete the transition from small-payroll team to large-payroll team" and "maintaining a top-10 payroll in the future would mean adopting a new view of roster management and free agency involvement."

And then I didn't even take my own advice.

When various national and local reports began to link the Twins to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka my assumption was that they had little chance of actually submitting the high bid for his exclusive negotiating rights. Since when do the Twins throw around money for free agents, let alone free agents from Japan who literally require out-bidding every other MLB team? Since now, apparently.

By submitting a high bid believed to be about $5 million to Nishioka's team in Japan, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Twins have acquired exclusive negotiating rights to the 26-year-old middle infielder. That gives them 30 days to work out a separate deal with Nishioka, at which point the $5 million bid will be refunded to the Twins if the two sides can't reach an agreement and he'll be ineligible to play in the majors until going through the same process next offseason.

Japanese players who previously joined MLB teams through the "posting" process typically got contracts that were close to the same amount as the high bid for their negotiating rights. For example, the Red Sox bid $51 million to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka and then inked him to a six-year, $52 million contract. Going back even further, the Mariners bid $13 million to talk to Ichiro Suzuki and then signed him for $14 million.

Kazuhisa Ishii, Kei Igawa, and Akinori Iwamura also had similarly even bid/contract splits via the posting process, and Iwamura is perhaps the most comparable to Nishioka. Tampa Bay bid $4.5 million to get Iwamura's negotiating rights from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in November of 2006 and signed him to a three-year, $7.7 million contract. Based on those precedents and initial reports of Nishioka's asking price, a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely.

As for what type of player the Twins are now trying to sign ... well, that's difficult to say with any kind of certainty. Nishioka won the batting title this year by hitting .346 and notched 206 hits in a 144-game season for the most by any player since Suzuki in 1994. However, he came into the year as a career .280 hitter in six previous seasons and batted just .260 in 2009. He also has limited power, with a career-high of 14 homers and just 11 in 596 at-bats this year.

No doubt one reason why the Twins pursued Nishioka is that they wanted to add speed to the lineup after becoming more of a station-to-station team in recent years. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, as the Twins' offense during the past three seasons has been better than it was since the early 1990s, but Ron Gardenhire has repeatedly singled out the middle infield as a spot to add that speed.

Nishioka has averaged 28 stolen bases a season, including 22 this year, so he certainly would bring significantly more speed to the lineup than J.J. Hardy or Orlando Hudson. On the other hand his career success rate on the bases is a poor 72 percent, which is below the standard break-even point where attempting steals is actually beneficial to a team, and Nishioka's raw speed is considered merely good rather than elite like Suzuki or Iwamura.

Defensively he's won the Japanese equivalent of a Gold Glove award three times, receiving the honor as both a shortstop and second baseman. However, some reports have questioned his ability to play shortstop full time in the big leagues and the only previous Japanese shortstop to sign with an MLB team, Kaz Matsui, was a four-time Gold Glove winner in Japan and proved to be shaky enough at the position that he quickly moved to second base.

Matsui's disappointing seven-year run in the majors also provides some reason to be skeptical of Nishioka's offensive upside. Even in winning the batting title with a .346 average Nishioka's overall numbers this year pale in comparison to Matsui's gaudy production in Japan. Nishioka posted a .905 OPS this season and has a .790 OPS for his career. Matsui averaged a .920 OPS during his final five seasons in Japan, batting .320 with 25 homers and 25 steals per year.

Nishioka's career-year is basically what Matsui did every year, and Matsui ended up hitting just .267 with a .321 on-base percentage and .380 slugging percentage in the majors. Obviously it's not fair to assume Nishioka will follow in Matsui's footsteps just because they're from the same country, particularly since guys like Suzuki and Hideki Matsui thrived here, but as of now there's no precedent for a Japanese shortstop thriving offensively or defensively in MLB.

Power hitting in Japan hasn't translated to MLB, with Kaz Matsui perhaps the most prominent example of someone who went from a slugger there to a slap-hitter here. Prior to a crippling knee injury Iwamura was a nice top-of-the-order bat for the Rays, using his speed to rack up infield hits while getting on base at a .355 clip, but he was actually a 40-homer guy in Japan. Nishioka is unique in that his power in Japan hasn't even been impressive.

Nishioka is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .346/.423/.482, but as a 26-year-old career .293/.364/.421 hitter any attempts to project MLB performance that take into account pre-2010 production in Japan aren't going to be very kind. Going from Japan to MLB has turned middle-of-the-order monsters into bottom-of-the-order slappers, so Nishioka's already modest power may prove to be nearly non-existent.

With that said, if he can maintain a batting average around .275 and get on base at a decent clip after showing solid plate discipline and contact skills in Japan he'd still be a decent-hitting middle infielder, and if that comes with good defense a total investment of approximately $14 million for three seasons could certainly be worthwhile. Nearly everything about Nishioka boils down to an educated-guessing game, but his defense in particular is a huge key.

If he can stick at shortstop and/or be a major asset at second base Nishioka looks like a solid player, although how exactly he fits into the Twins' plans for 2011 is unclear. Hudson is still in the picture for now after the Twins offered him arbitration Tuesday, but that was reportedly only done because the two sides have a behind-the-scenes agreement that he will decline the offer before almost surely signing elsewhere.

Alexi Casilla is the obvious replacement for Hudson at second base, but he could also move to shortstop if the Twins can sign Nishioka and view him more as a second baseman. And then of course there's Hardy, who must be tendered a contract by early next week if the Twins want to retain his 2011 rights. They're likely to do that regardless of whether they plan to actually keep Hardy, as multiple teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for him.

My best guess right now is that the Twins will tender Hardy a contract and retain him until the Nishioka negotiations are resolved one way or another, ultimately trading Hardy if they're able to sign Nishioka and keeping Hardy as the starting shortstop if they aren't. Keeping both guys is perhaps also an option, and Hardy at shortstop with Nishioka at second base and Casilla as the utility man would likely be the best-case scenario from a strictly on-field standpoint.

Unfortunately the Twins appear to have soured somewhat on Hardy despite his being above-average for a shortstop this year and it seems unlikely they'd have room in the budget--even a souped-up version--to keep Hardy for around $7 million after committing $14 million or so to Nishioka. I'd prefer to see a Hardy-Nishioka middle infield with Casilla in a bench role, but right now I'd bet on a Nishioka-Casilla middle infield with Hardy being dealt for bullpen help.

Twins win bidding for negotiating rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka

More later, but for now ... wow.

November 24, 2010

Twins offer arbitration to Pavano, Hudson, and Crain

Last night was the deadline to offer departing free agents arbitration to receive compensatory draft picks if they sign elsewhere and the Twins did so to Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson, and Jesse Crain, but chose not to tender arbitration offers to Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes. Pavano and Crain were no-brainers, as they'll both have plenty of interested teams on the open market and if not the Twins would gladly welcome them back on one-year deals.

Hudson was seemingly a tougher call, as he's had to accept one-year deals as a free agent in each of the past two offseasons and may simply decide to accept the Twins' arbitration offer to ensure another one-year deal for at least the $5 million he earned in 2010. That would hardly be disastrous, as he was certainly worth $5 million, but it's unclear how he fits into the budget for 2011 and I'd heard from several sources that the Twins weren't interested in keeping him.

As a Type A free agent Guerrier signing elsewhere would have brought back a first-round pick and a second-round pick had the Twins offered him arbitration. However, the odds of another team be willing to forfeit their first-round pick to sign a good but not great 32-year-old reliever seem slim and the Twins didn't want to risk Guerrier seeing his lack of other options and simply accepting the arbitration offer because that could have meant paying him $5 million in 2011.

My sense is that the Twins have little interest in bringing back Rauch, so while getting a draft pick when he signs elsewhere would've been nice they didn't risk his accepting arbitration and locking them into a one-year deal for at least $3 million. Fuentes earned $9 million this season, so any arbitration offer to him would essentially have been offering a one-year, $9 million deal and the Twins don't have that kind of payroll space even if they'd like to have him return.

I'm very curious to see how the Hudson situation plays out, especially since it could impact J.J. Hardy, and it'll also be interesting to see if they make efforts to re-sign Guerrier or Fuentes at lesser salaries. Doing so with Guerrier is far more likely, but it's possible Fuentes could also be an option to come back if he can't find any full-time closer gigs on the open market. As general manager Bill Smith put it: "We haven't closed the door on re-signing any of those players."

UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com speculates that the Twins may have a gentleman's agreement with Hudson that he'll decline their arbitration offer, which isn't unheard of (Javier Vazquez and Trevor Hoffman are also doing it) and would obviously make the entire situation a whole lot less surprising. If true, the Twins basically get a free draft pick out of the deal.

November 22, 2010

Twins Notes: 40 men, help for Rochester, decisions, and Webb

• Friday night was the deadline for teams to set their 40-man roster in preparation for the Rule 5 draft on December 9 and the Twins added four prospects: Joe Benson, Rene Tosoni, David Bromberg, and Chris Parmelee. No surprises among the additions, as all four rank among the Twins' top 20 prospects, but the one name that stands out among the various Rule 5-eligible players they chose not to protect is right-hander Kyle Waldrop.

Waldrop was a first-round pick in 2004 who looked less and less impressive as he moved up the minor-league ladder and then missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery, but he shifted to the bullpen full time after returning in 2009 and has had back-to-back strong seasons as a reliever. This year Waldrop had a 2.59 ERA and 60-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87.2 innings at Triple-A, allowing just five homers while inducing 64 percent ground balls.

His lack of top-notch velocity and mediocre strikeout rates make it unlikely that Waldrop will be a strong late-inning reliever, but as a 24-year-old who certainly looks capable of being a useful middle reliever he's someone worth protecting given the Twins' current bullpen questions. He struggled down the stretch at Triple-A and got knocked around in the Arizona Fall League, so the Twins have either soured on him or believe that will keep other teams from selecting him.

• In the past the Twins have generally had successful minor-league teams, but this year their four full-season affiliates combined for an abysmal 228-332 record (.407) that includes 49-95 at Triple-A and 44-98 at Double-A. Winning percentages in the minors are far from an accurate gauge of an organization's prospects, but keeping the affiliates in Rochester, New Britain, Fort Myers, and Beloit happy is still important.

In an effort to avoid another horrendous year at Triple-A the Twins have signed some veteran reinforcements to pair with whichever prospects are assigned to Rochester in 2011, inking Jeff Bailey, Phil Dumatrait, Yorman Bazardo, Chase Lambin, Jake Stevens, and Justin Huber to minor-league deals. Eric Hacker, who was confusingly signed to a major-league contract and given a spot on the 40-man roster last week, may also end up at Rochester.

Bailey, Dumatrait, Bazardo, and Huber have all played in the majors and Stevens once ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, but aside from Hacker they were all brought in as Triple-A filler with long odds of playing their way into the Twins' plans. Those types of guys are never in short supply and signing them to ensure a more competitive Rochester team is smart, which is why giving the equally replaceable Hacker a 40-man roster spot seems to strange.

UPDATE: There's no official word yet, but I'm told the Twins have also inked right-hander Andy Baldwin to a minor-league deal. Baldwin is a Minnesota native and former fifth-round pick who spent the past three seasons pitching at Triple-A for the Mariners.

• I wrote last week about why keeping J.J. Hardy around for at least one more season should be a no-brainer move, but clearly the Twins don't feel the same way. Ron Gardenhire and Bill Smith have both spoken publicly about wanting to add more speed to the lineup, specifically at shortstop, and reportedly at least one team has talked to the Twins about possibly trading for Hardy. December 2 is the deadline to tender Hardy a contract for 2011.

• Based on the amount of reported interest in Carl Pavano it sounds like he's a goner unless the Twins want to give him a three-year contract. And they shouldn't. Depending on the price bringing Pavano back for one or maybe even two years could make sense, but a three-season commitment to a 35-year-old pitcher with his extensive injury history is just asking for trouble. Be happy with how well he pitched for 1.5 seasons and take the draft picks when he walks.

• According to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick the Twins are among the teams interested in former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, who hasn't pitched since Opening Day of 2009 thanks to an assortment of shoulder problems. Before the injuries he was an elite starter and ground-ball machine, winning one Cy Young award and finishing runner-up twice, but he hasn't been right since the second half of 2008. Intriguing if the price is right, but it probably won't be.

Older Posts »