November 15, 2010

Twins Notes: Hardy, Hacker, and high payrolls

• In addition to a whole slew of free agents the Twins also have a decision to make regarding J.J. Hardy, who's under team control for 2011 as an arbitration eligible player and would be all but guaranteed to get a raise from his $5.1 million salary. From my point of view keeping Hardy for at least one more season is a no-brainer, but there have been some hints in the media to suggest the Twins are less certain it's the right move.

Hardy was far from spectacular after coming over from the Brewers last November in exchange for Carlos Gomez, batting .268/.320/.394 and missing 60 games with injuries, but evaluating his performance and value can't be done properly without comparing him to other shortstops. At first glance Hardy hitting .268/.320/.394 doesn't look impressive at all, but that was actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371.

There were a total of 28 shortstops who played at least 100 games this season. Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS. Much like how some people don't fully appreciate Joe Mauer's value because they don't realize how terrible the average catcher is offensively, Hardy's season seems to be underrated by people who don't realize he was actually an above-average hitter among shortstops.

And of course Hardy is also an excellent defender, leading all MLB shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games at +12.8 runs. His lack of durability is a real issue and makes committing to Hardy long term risky, but for a one-year commitment at $6 million it should be an easy call. He's above-average offensively, fantastic defensively, and ranks among the top dozen players at a position where the Twins lack an MLB-ready replacement and the free agent crop is weak.

• In their first pickup of the offseason the Twins signed right-hander Eric Hacker and give him a spot on the 40-man roster after the 27-year-old left the Giants as a six-year minor-league free agent. Hacker was voted the Pacific Coast League's top right-handed starting pitcher, but that surely must have been based almost entirely on his winning 16 games because his actual performance wasn't noteworthy at all even accounting for the hitter-friendly nature of the PCL.

Hacker started 29 games and his 4.51 ERA was barely better than the PCL average of 4.78. He managed just 129 strikeouts in 166 innings, walked 62 batters, and allowed opponents to hit .280 with 21 homers. There's really nothing about his performance that stands out in any way aside from the fact that he went 16-8 and the only thing more misguided than judging pitchers on their win-loss record is judging minor-league pitchers on their win-loss record.

And that was his second season at Triple-A. He also had a 4.50 ERA and just 94 strikeouts in 132 innings at Triple-A in 2009, walking 3.4 batters per nine innings while opponents hit .301. He's a 27-year-old pitcher with a 4.52 ERA and mediocre secondary numbers in 301 innings at Triple-A, and while signing that type of guy is perfectly reasonable as organizational depth the Twins' decision to give Hacker a 40-man roster spot confuses me.

Perhaps the Twins reviewed the minor leaguers they'll need to protect from next month's Rule 5 draft and concluded they have 40-man spots to spare, but if signing Hacker means leaving a guy like Kyle Waldrop unprotected it'll be a major mistake. In addition to the underwhelming stats, Ben Badler of Baseball America offered this scouting report on Hacker: "88-92 miles per hour, works both sides of the plate, average slider, stuff very hittable, solid Triple-A-type arm."

• During their final two seasons in the Metrodome the Twins ranked 24th and 25th in spending with payrolls of $57 million and $65 million, but they increased the payroll to slightly over $100 million in their first year at Target Field. That shattered the team record by around $25 million and thanks to better-than-expected revenue from the ballpark Twins president Dave St. Peter told Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the payroll will rise again in 2011:

The payroll is going to go up. We don't take it for granted. We're all tremendously appreciative of the support but we also know we need to keep moving forward. We need to keep moving forward on the field, and frankly, we need to keep doing everything possible to make Target Field the best ballpark it can be.

Some of that quote refers to the planned Target Field improvements announced last week, but St. Peter making a clear "the payroll is going to go up" pronouncement suggests that perhaps there's room for another significant bump in spending. Even an increase to $115 million won't suddenly give the Twins a ton of spending room, because the players under team control for 2011 figure to cost about $105 million and that doesn't account for re-signing any free agents.

However, getting into the $115 million range would complete the transition from small-payroll team to large-payroll team, as Christensen notes that just six teams (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Tigers) had an Opening Day payroll that high in 2010. For next year that type of money is needed to simply pay team-controlled guys, but maintaining a top-10 payroll in the future would mean adopting a new view of roster management and free agency involvement.

As a 27-year-old, lifelong Twins fan ... well, that could take some getting used to.

November 11, 2010

Blowing up the bullpen on a budget: Low-cost free agent options

Joe Nathan going down for the year with a torn elbow ligament in the middle of spring training left the Twins without one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history and forced some unexpected changes on the bullpen, but Jon Rauch and Matt Capps converted 37-of-43 save opportunities while replacing him as closer and the relief corps as a whole ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA.

Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully have him ready for Opening Day, but with Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Fuentes all free agents the Twins could be forced to completely remake the bullpen this offseason. That quartet of free agents logged 45 percent of the Twins' total relief innings, including the vast majority of high-leverage work, and it seems unlikely that more than one or maybe two of the pitchers will be re-signed.

Healthy or not Nathan is under contract for $11.25 million in 2011 and as an arbitration eligible player Capps is all but guaranteed to get a sizable raise from his $3.5 million salary, meaning the Twins may have to rebuild the rest of the bullpen on a budget. Spending about $17 million on Nathan and Capps alone could make it difficult to re-sign any of their own free agents and also likely takes the Twins out of the running for other big-name relievers on the open market.

Nathan, Capps, and Jose Mijares are the under-contract holdovers and some other in-house options include Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, and Kyle Waldrop, but whether it means re-signing their own free agents or bringing in outside help my guess is that at least two bullpen spots will be filled by pitchers not on that list. With a close eye on the budget, here are some potential low-cost suggestions ...

Koji Uehara: He couldn't stay healthy as a starter after leaving Japan to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles two winters ago, but Uehara quietly had a ton of success following a move to the bullpen this season. He posted a 2.86 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, including an absurd 45-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.

As a 35-year-old with a history of arm problems Uehara is risky, but that should also keep his asking price down and perhaps make him available for a reasonable one-year contract. Uehara converted 13-of-15 saves for the Orioles after moving into the closer role late in the year, but would make an ideal setup man for the Twins and certainly fits pitching coach Rick Anderson's preferred strike-throwing mold.

Chad Qualls: With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

Dan Wheeler: Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been Wheeler's weakness, with 28 homers allowed in 172.1 innings over the past three seasons, but he still managed ERAs of 3.12, 3.28, and 3.35 in that time thanks to a 144-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That includes a 46/16 K/BB ratio and .207 opponents' batting average in 48 innings this season, which made it surprising that the Rays declined to exercise their $4 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander.

As a Type A free agent it's possible the Rays will offer Wheeler arbitration even after declining his option, in which case the Twins should cross him off their list because he's not worth giving up a first-round pick to sign. Even if they don't offer arbitration other teams with more money to toss around than the Twins may snatch him up for more than the declined $4 million option. He has a 3.31 ERA in 392 innings since 2005, including a sub-3.50 mark in five of six seasons.

Octavio Dotel: Available after the Rockies declined his $4.5 million option, Dotel is somewhat similar to Wheeler in that limiting homers has been his biggest weakness throughout most of his career. He's also 37 years old and has lost a bit of velocity in recent years, but Dotel still averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball this season and racked up 75 strikeouts in just 64 innings. He's never averaged fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a full relief season.

To put that in some context consider that in Twins history there have only been 10 instances of a pitcher logging 50 or more innings while cracking double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, with Nathan and Johan Santana accounting for six of them. Dotel has done it eight times since 2000, including each of the past three seasons. He'll serve up some homers, but Dotel will also miss a ton of bats and put together plenty of dominant outings.

Frank Francisco: Early struggles saw Francisco lose his closer job to Neftali Feliz in April and a strained rib muscle got him left off the Rangers' playoff roster, but in between he posted a 2.84 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 57/16 K/BB ratio in 51 innings from mid-April to the end of August. He also had a 3.43 ERA, .206 opponents' batting average, and 140/41 K/BB ratio in 113 innings during the previous two seasons.

There's a strong chance some teams may still view Francisco as a closer option, in which case the Twins can't really compete for his services, but if he fails to draw any offers for ninth-inning duties they shouldn't hesitate to offer the 31-year-old righty a two-year deal. He's consistently had elite raw stuff and results, perhaps masked by ugly outings in April and a non-arm injury. He's a Type A free agent, so they'll have to wait to see if the Rangers offer arbitration.

Chan Ho Park: He was a bust in New York after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract last winter, but Park's struggles can be traced to serving up seven homers in 35 innings for the Yankees. Obviously that's not a positive thing, but his ground-ball rate suggested it wouldn't continue and sure enough he allowed just two homers in 28 innings after the Pirates claimed him off waivers in early August.

His overall numbers include a 4.66 ERA and 52/19 K/BB ratio in 64 innings and Park was a big part of the Phillies' bullpen in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and 52/16 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. At age 38 and with the poor first-half showing in New York he's unlikely to be in high demand and I certainly wouldn't trust Park with a high-leverage role in 2011, but he still looks very capable of being a solid middle reliever and the price figures to be right.

Will Ohman: I first advised going after Ohman two offseasons ago only to see him miss most of 2009 following shoulder surgery, but he bounced back with a 3.21 ERA and 43/23 K/BB ratio in 42 innings this season. He's been used primarily as a left-handed specialist and struggled versus right-handed hitters this season, but Ohman did a solid enough job against righties in previous years to be more than a one-batter-per-appearance guy.

And he's been death on lefty bats, of course, holding them to .229/.323/.313 this season and .208/.298/.348 for his career. Ohman makes sense as a second lefty alongside Mijares, but if the Twins are looking for more of a true southpaw specialist side-armer Randy Choate may be a better target. Choate led the AL in appearances with 85 yet logged a total of just 45 innings. He can't be trusted versus righties, but has held lefties to .217/.297/.301 for his career.

November 7, 2010

Twins Notes: Mauer, Puckett, Hudson, Guerrier, and Crain

Joe Mauer has taken a lot of criticism for his lack of playoff production, which includes hitting .286/.359/.314 in nine career games. My hope is that anyone who's been reading this blog for any length of time would realize that a sample size of nine games spread over three different postseason appearances is hardly meaningful, but Seth Stohs recently took a different view of Mauer's playoff performances that should hammer that point home even further.

Mauer has participated in the playoffs in 2006, 2009, and 2010. In all three seasons the Twins were eliminated in three games. Kirby Puckett has a reputation for being a postseason hero, and rightfully so, but much of that comes from his actually having the opportunity to play more than three playoff games at a time. For instance, Puckett made his postseason debut in 1987 against the Tigers and went 1-for-13 through three games of the ALCS.

What if, like Mauer after just three games in 2006, 2009, and 2010, the 1987 playoffs would've been over for Puckett at that point? They weren't, of course, but in the World Series that same year Puckett was 3-for-12 through three games. Again, what if he wouldn't have had a chance to play beyond a third game? And then in 1991 he was just 3-for-12 through three games of the ALCS and 1-for-12 through three games of the World Series.

My point isn't to take anything away from Puckett's postseason greatness, but rather to show that focusing on three-game samples spread out over multiple seasons as a way to conclude something about Mauer (or any player) is silly. If you take the first three games of Puckett's first three playoff series--essentially matching Mauer's career playoff opportunities--one of the greatest playoff heroes of all time would instead be 7-for-37 (.189). Mauer is 10-for-35 (.286).

• I wrote last month that several people who know about such things have told me that the Twins are highly unlikely to re-sign Orlando Hudson, in part because of payroll limitations and in part because the veteran second baseman wasn't universally beloved within the clubhouse. After talking to Hudson recently Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported more or less the same thing, but in slightly nicer terms, writing:

Hudson, who turns 33 in December, told me he would love to return to the Twins, but he's a pending free agent, and the writing is on the wall with their payroll situation. It looks like he'll be playing for his fourth team in four years in 2011.

Hudson provided nice value for the Twins on a one-year, $5 million deal, hitting .268/.338/.372 with good defense in 126 games, but right now my guess is Alexi Casilla will be the Opening Day second baseman in 2011.

• Speaking of Hudson, the official Elias Sports Bureau free agent rankings used to determine draft pick compensation have classified Carl Pavano and Matt Guerrier as Type A and Hudson, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch as Type B. Teams that lose Type A free agents receive the signing team's first-round pick and a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds, while teams that lose Type B free agents receive only a sandwich pick.

And in order to receive any compensation the team losing a free agent must first offer salary arbitration, with the risk being that the player may accept and force them into a one-year deal. Guerrier being ranked Type A complicates his status quite a bit, because many teams won't be interested in losing their first-round pick to sign him. That makes him far more likely to accept the Twins' offer of arbitration, which would mean a one-year contract for at least $5 million.

• Crain has said he'd like to remain with the Twins, but indicated that his chances of re-signing depend largely on whether other teams offer him an opportunity to be their closer:

Obviously, I'd love an opportunity to do that. I guess we'll see what happens this offseason. A team might come and offer me that. I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what happens. I'd love to be back here. I love the guys, I love the organization. It's the only place I've ever been. I feel comfortable. We'll just have to see what happens.

Crain has never closed for the Twins, saving a total of just three games in seven seasons, but certainly has the velocity most teams look for in the role and is hitting the open market at an ideal time after posting a 1.42 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 42/20 K/BB ratio in his final 45 appearances (before serving up a homer to Mark Teixeira in the playoffs).

Justin Morneau told Kelly Thesier of MLB.com that there's "nothing really new to report" on his recovery from the July 7 concussion that caused him to miss the final three months of the season. Morneau ramped up his workouts in September in the hopes of perhaps being ready at some point during the playoffs, but was ultimately shut down again after experiencing more post-concussion symptoms and has yet to resume working out.

• While appearing on 1500-ESPN with Patrick Reusse and Phil Mackey general manager Bill Smith made it clear that the Twins will attempt to re-sign Jim Thome, which is no surprise.

Jacque Jones was among the many Twins minor leaguers who became free agents once the season ended and he's unlikely to be back after batting just .280/.319/.386 in 96 games at Rochester. Some other relatively well-known minor-league free agents: Brock Peterson, Matt Macri, Mike Maroth, D'Angelo Jimenez, Tim Lahey. No major losses and the bigger decisions will come when better prospects have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft next month.

• Bodog.com has posted some very early odds on each team winning the World Series in 2011 and the Twins are listed at 16-to-1, which is tied with the Rangers for seventh-best.

November 5, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• And to think, all this time I was ashamed of my collection of Tim Biakabutuka rookie cards.

• I've done some really weird things out of sheer laziness, but this seems like a bit much.

• Like clockwork, every couple decades Bill Carter gets to write amazing stuff about Jay Leno screwing over another late-night host.

• Roughly translated this story means "Aaron will see the movie in a theater the night it opens and probably buy the DVD."

• I used to listen to "Ice Ice Baby" on my Walkman while waiting for my dad to pick me up from first grade. Now the song is 20 years old and Sony has stopped making Walkmans. I feel old.

John Mayer is obviously a big believer in the "if there's grass on the field, play ball" theory.

• It took 20 years too long, but the most underrated performer in radio history is finally getting the attention he deserves.

• If you've ever wondered why Diora Baird is an Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate, click here to see the beauty and click here to see the charm. And her Twitter feed is great too.

• I remain a huge Kevin Garnett fan, but the odds of him actually uttering the words "you are cancerous to your team and our league" are about the same as me saying "no thanks, I don't like donuts."

• As someone who attempted to sit in the back of any classroom he ever entered, this analysis couldn't be more accurate.

• He may be a 12-year-old in a smoking jacket, but he's also only human.

• All the restaurants in Tennessee better get their shit together in a hurry.

• And yet Green Man gets away scotfree.

• Yuengling is looking to spread its wings and hopefully it means my favorite beer being widely available in Minnesota some day.

• One man, one word, one hilarious video:

Luckily for Don Draper it'll be another 30 years before Wayne's World.

• This seems like a big mistake for someone who has become a sex symbol because she looks unlike other women on television. I vote nay.

• I can't wait to read the "Ida Blankenship, Queen Of Perversions" chapter.

• Last month I read an interview with Kiernan Shipka and assumed that her responses must have been written by someone else because they seemed impossibly mature and well-spoken. Turns out, Sally Draper is just the world's most thoughtful 10-year-old.

• I'm predictably hooked on AMC's new show The Walking Dead after one episode, and based on the incredible premiere ratings apparently I'm not alone.

• Friend of AG.com and Basketball Prospectus writer Kevin Pelton penned an in-depth analysis of the first of many John Wall-Evan Turner matchups.

This picture is one of the many reasons why he's my favorite pitcher.

Pablo Sandoval celebrated the Giants' championship much like I would have.

• If you think of it as 25 percent of his lifetime earnings, this suddenly doesn't seem so crazy.

• How can someone have so many television shows and so little money?

• I enjoy when Baseball America dusts off their old scouting reports, like this one on the World Series MVP as a 20-year-old prospect.

• Friend of AG.com Andrew Bryz-Gornia is up for a blogging scholarship and needs your vote.

• I'm addicted to WhatIfSports.com's Hardball Dynasty game and my league has one franchise open with a new season set to begin next week. Hardball Dynasty is not fantasy baseball, but rather an incredibly detailed simulation of running a fictional MLB organization from rookie-ball to the majors, so due to the steep learning curve and time commitment required we're looking for an owner with previous Hardball Dynasty experience. If you're interested, let me know.

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

- Brian Sabean has no plans to trade Barry Zito … because he can't
- Why did the Yankees fire their pitching coach if it had nothing to do with pitching?
- Rangers decline $9 million option on Vladimir Guerrero
- Are coaches underpaid? (And how much was Davey Lopes worth to the Phillies?)
- State taxes could play a factor in Cliff Lee choosing between Rangers and Yankees
- Don't count on Eduardo Nunez as Derek Jeter's successor
- Adrian Beltre officially becomes a free agent by declining $10 million option
- Astros eliminate "advance scout" position to focus on video

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "Evolve" by Kermit Quinn, which really is an excellent song if you're willing to overlook it being made for use in a Gatorade commercial:

November 1, 2010

Option decisions: Kubel exercised, Punto declined

As expected, the Twins exercised their $5.25 million team option on Jason Kubel for next year. He wasn't worth that salary this season, hitting just .249/.323/.427 in 582 plate appearances for career-lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, but Kubel is a strong bet to bounce back at least somewhat at age 29 and duplicating his .271/.335/.463 career line in 2011 would make him worth more or less that money.

Kubel's poor defense and inability to hit left-handed pitching severely limit his value, and while his overall production is solid it's not particularly difficult to find solid-hitting designated hitters and corner outfielders in that price range. Retaining him for only a one-year commitment, even as perhaps a slight over-pay, was probably pretty close to a no-brainer for the Twins, but his presence could complicate things a bit in terms of potentially re-signing Jim Thome.

Justin Morneau missing the final three months of the season meant Kubel and Thome were in the lineup together, but if Morneau is healthy and starting every game that would leave one of Kubel, Thome, Michael Cuddyer, or Delmon Young on the bench. A simple solution would be sitting Kubel or Thome versus lefties and Cuddyer for righties, but in the past Ron Gardenhire has been unwilling to platoon Kubel or Cuddyer and they'll combine to get $16 million in 2011.

In tandem with picking up their $5.25 million option on Kubel the Twins declined their $5 million option on Nick Punto, choosing a $500,000 buyout instead. Normally not paying $5 million for a 33-year-old utility infielder with a good glove and awful bat should be a no-brainer, but there aren't no-brainers with Punto and the Twins. They paid him $4 million in each of the past two years and have given him an average of 434 plate appearances per season since 2005.

In other words, don't be surprised if they attempt to re-sign him at a lesser price. And doing so wouldn't necessarily be a bad move. When he's making $4 million and coming to the plate 434 times having Punto around is a mistake, but for, say, $1 million and 150 plate appearances he would be a perfectly reasonable bench player. For now Matt Tolbert is penciled into the utility infielder role for about $350,000, but Punto is a comparable hitter and a better defender.

Punto came to the Twins along with Carlos Silva and Bobby Korecky in the December of 2003 trade that sent Eric Milton to the Phillies. Since that deal Punto has 2,707 plate appearances, which is fourth-most on the Twins behind only Morneau, Cuddyer, and Joe Mauer. And across baseball Punto is also one of just two players since 2004 to bat at least 2,700 times and post an OPS below .650, with the other being Cesar Izturis.

« Newer Posts