January 31, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trees, hearings, numbers, and scouts

Rob Delaney signed with the Twins in 2006 after going undrafted out of St. John's University and his numbers were always far better than his raw stuff, so they viewed his success in the minors very skeptically and didn't give him a chance in the majors until a week before his 26th birthday. Delaney made just one appearance in a month with the Twins, serving up a homer to Ian Kinsler of the Rangers on September 4, and Thursday he was designated for assignment.

It's no shock that the Twins ditched Delaney before ever giving him an extended opportunity, because he's been sort of like a poor man's Anthony Slama and they haven't seemed all that inclined to give the actual Anthony Slama a lengthy look. It's also no shock that Delaney was claimed off waivers by the Rays, whose front office relies way more on statistical analysis than the Twins' decision-makers.

Delaney's numbers went from amazing in the low minors to merely solid in the high minors. He pitched well in two seasons at Triple-A with a 130-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 128 innings, but his ERA was an unremarkable 4.65 thanks to serving up 17 homers. He's racked up lots of strikeouts with a repertoire headed by his low-90s fastball and has excellent control with just 1.9 walks per nine innings.

As a fly-ball pitcher with so-so raw stuff Delaney has little margin for error and the Twins were certainly right to view his success skeptically when it comes to translating to the big leagues, but he was worth giving a chance to considering the question mark-filled bullpen. Tampa Bay is in a very similar situation, needing to replace most of what was a fantastic bullpen following free agent departures, and Delaney is capable of being a solid middle reliever for the Rays.

• Delaney was dropped from the 40-man roster because the Twins needed to clear room after claiming Dusty Hughes off waivers from the Royals. He spent most of last year in Kansas City's bullpen, posting a nice-looking 3.83 ERA in 56 innings, but the 29-year-old left-hander also had a terrible 34-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio and wasn't particularly effective against lefties (.260) or righties (.283) while allowing opponents to bat .273/.351/.380 off him overall.

Hughes is left-handed and had a superficially strong ERA last year, but there isn't a whole lot else to like about him. Hughes was even older than Delaney when he debuted in September of 2009 and unlike Delaney his minor-league numbers have never been impressive. In two years at Triple-A he had a 4.10 ERA and 112-to-66 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 143 innings and his raw stuff is hardly special, as Hughes averaged just 90.2 miles per hour with his fastball.

Much like their decision to give a 40-man roster spot to Giants castoff Eric Hacker after signing him to a minor-league deal in November, losing Delaney to add Hughes to the 40-man roster is an odd move that seems predicated on looking at the wrong numbers. Hacker had 16 wins at Triple-A last year, but it came with a 4.51 ERA, sub par secondary numbers, and a track record full of mediocrity from a 28-year-old.

In this case Hughes' nice-looking 3.83 ERA caught the Twins' eye (and being left-handed surely helped too), but he needed an awful lot of smoke and mirrors just to have modest success for 56 innings and brings with him a similarly uninspiring history of mediocrity in the minors at age 29. Delaney isn't a huge loss and would've placed near the bottom of my annual ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects, but picking Hacker and Hughes over giving him a shot is unfortunate.

• One of the misconceptions about park factors is that the dimensions of the field determine if a ballpark skews pitcher-friendly or hitter-friendly. In reality the dimensions definitely play a big role, but the run-scoring environment is also greatly impacted by other stuff like wind patterns, humidity, playing surfaces, and hitting backgrounds. Target Field was pitcher-friendly in its first year of existence, for a number of reasons, and the Twins have decided to make one change.

Hitters complained that the trees planted behind the wall in center field hurt their ability to see pitches, particularly in day games, so the Twins will remove them and install a new background designed to reduce glare. Obviously not being able to see pitches is something that had to be addressed, but it'll be interesting to find out what the overall impact ends up being considering the Twins went 53-28 at Target Field and actually scored more runs there than on the road.

Matt Capps ($7.15 million), Kevin Slowey ($2.7 million), Alexi Casilla ($865,000), and Glen Perkins ($700,000) have each avoided arbitration with one-year deals, leaving Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano as the unsigned arbitration eligible players. Young filed for $6.25 million, compared to $4.65 million by the Twins. Liriano filed for $5 million, compared to $3.6 million by the Twins. No player has gone to a hearing with the Twins since Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006.

• Much has been made about Bert Blyleven needing to wait 14 years before baseball writers voted him into the Hall of Fame, but he's also had to wait those same 14 years for the Twins to retire his number, which they'll officially do on July 16. Blyleven, who has the most strikeouts in Twins history and ranks second to Jim Kaat in wins and innings, will join Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Kent Hrbek in the retired numbers club.

Eric Bynum of Baseball Journeyman recently interviewed Cary Broder, a Twins scout based in Asia whose evaluations played a big part in the team bidding on Japanese players Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hisashi Iwakuma this offseason. They signed Nishioka for a total commitment of $15 million and finished runner-up for Iwakuma, who ended up not signing with the A's. Broder is a good guy and it's always interesting to learn about people working behind the scenes.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com included Michael Cuddyer on his "all-underrated team" and I was preparing to rant about how incredibly misguided that is, but then Nick Nelson did it for me.

• I just put the finishing touches on my annual "Top 40 Twins Prospects" series, so the first of eight installments (covering five prospects apiece) will run later this week.

January 28, 2011

Link-O-Rama

• The concept of gravitational pull in picture form, starring Kim Kardashian at an NBA game.

• Last week former Gophers football star Laurence Maroney was arrested for marijuana and gun possession in St. Louis after attending a Rick Ross show and his mugshot is spectacular.

• Google has the power to make or break billion-dollar businesses by adjusting some settings.

• As someone who's been blogging for nearly nine years without a single break of more than a few days and has no plans to stop any time soon, this article on "blog quitters" confuses me.

• When you try to imagine the men capable of moving from January Jones to Jennifer Aniston to Scarlett Johansson in the span of months, Jason Sudekis probably doesn't top the list.

• To be honest, I'm surprised the percentage is that high.

• On a related note (sort of), I can think of worse ways to go.

• I haven't linked to anything about Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate Kate Beckinsale in a while, but thankfully she's still super good-looking. Phew.

• Must-Read Article of the Week: "Sabermetrician in Exile" by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.

Well done, Kevin Love. And well done, Timberwolves.

• If you missed Ricky Gervais' incredible monologue at the Golden Globe awards, here it is:

Gervais no doubt angered enough big names that he'll never, ever be asked back as host, but hopefully they haven't ruled out Karl Pilkington.

• Gervais' brilliant hosting kept me tuned in for the entire show, but the highlight was Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com Mila Kunis holding hands and hopping with Emma Stone. Obviously.

• Or you could just, you know, pay someone to shovel your driveway. Either way.

• As someone who's arranged his life so that about 99.9 percent of all social interactions occur online, I really enjoyed Katie Baker's essay about her old internet persona. One day I'll reveal that I'm actually a 15-year-old girl, but until then keep thinking of me as a 28-year-old fat guy.

Dan Levy of Press Coverage speculates that the newly formed NBC-Comcast combo is more or less going to take over the online sports world. No big deal.

• My fellow Modern Family and Parenthood viewers should read this story about Craig T. Nelson turning down one for the other because of money. Probably worked out for the best, because he's good on Parenthood and Ed O'Neill is great on Modern Family.

• Speaking of Modern Family, something about Sofia Vergara starting her own clothing line for Kmart and also serving as the products' model seems sad in an "attention Kmart shoppers, no amount of inexpensive, mass-produced clothing will make you look like one of the best-looking humans in the world" sort of way.

Carla Gugino is still incredibly underrated, even if it took Esquire Mexico to remind me.

• Must-Listen Podcast of the Week: Jonah Keri and Alex Belth spent an hour chatting about everything from The Big Lebowski to baseball blogs, and it would have been a great listen even if they hadn't name-checked me about halfway in.

B.J. Raji's post-touchdown shimmy in the NFL title game Sunday is my favorite fatboy dance since Chunk did the truffle shuffle in "The Goonies."

If you enjoyed it too, thank Dom Capers.

• I can remember my 16-year-old self reading the Sports Illustrated profile of Tamir Goodman, so the follow-up a dozen years later was very interesting.

• Thanks to everyone at the Beckett Media office in Dallas for being so friendly to me last week while we put the finishing touches on the annual Rotoworld baseball draft guide. It should be hitting newsstands in early February, with Albert Pujols on the cover and well over 100,000 words from me, Craig Calcaterra, Matthew Pouliot, Drew Silva, D.J. Short, Eno Sarris, Thor Nystrom, Nate Stephens, and Jesse Burkhart.

• Incidentally, the room Beckett had me work in featured a framed Mark Brunell jersey, walls plastered with old magazine covers, and Ricky Martin collectibles. I felt right at home.

• After watching "Winter's Bone" on the flight back from Dallas last week, I'm pretty convinced the movie would have been much different had Jennifer Lawrence worn this the whole time.

• I'm not even from Seattle, but this sounds fantastic: "Kemp scores a layup-and-one with this happy hour."

• I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds like an intriguing option for some AG.com poker games.

• I'm proud to be a very, very, very small part of this.

• Question of the Week (in the form of the AG.com-approved music video): Is Billy Joel's song "Only The Good Die Young" more anti-religion or pro-having sex with Catholic school girls?

January 26, 2011

Nick Punto head-first slides his way to St. Louis

Last week Nick Punto left the Twins as a free agent to sign a one-year deal with the Cardinals and in doing so provided perhaps the most obvious example of the front office overruling the manager's wishes during Ron Gardenhire's decade-long tenure in Minnesota. Some day when Gardenhire retires and is asked about his favorite players I'll be shocked if he doesn't mention Punto right alongside stars like Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer.

As a diminutive, punchless infielder with a great glove and far more frenetic energy than actual talent Punto represents everything Gardenhire looks for (and tends to significantly overrate) in a non-star. No other manager would've given Punto an average of 434 plate appearances per season for a six-year span in which he hit .248/.323/.325 and had a sub-.650 OPS four times. Since his Twins debut in 2005, no MLB player has more plate appearances with a lower OPS.

Some of that can be blamed on the front office, of course, as they re-signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million contract the last time Punto was a free agent following the 2008 season. He hit .232/.328/.291 for that money, posting the worst slugging percentage and third-worst OPS in all of baseball, and Gardenhire wrote him into the lineup enough for Punto to rack up 728 plate appearances even while spending four different stints on the disabled list.

In an offseason full of difficult decisions for the Twins declining their $5 million option on Punto for 2011 and giving him a $500,000 buyout instead has to rank as the easiest, and Gardenhire expressing a desire to bring him back was equally predictable. My assumption was that they'd try to re-sign him at a lesser salary, particularly given the question marks surrounding the new middle infield duo of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla, but clearly that wasn't the case.

Not only did Punto leave the Twins for the Cardinals, he did so for a one-year deal worth just $750,000. He earned more than $12 million from 2007-2010 and the Twins gave him $500,000 to avoid paying Punto another $5 million in 2011, so the fact that $750,000 was enough to go elsewhere after being in Minnesota since arriving in 2004 as part of the Eric Milton trade with the Phillies suggests zero effort was made to re-sign him despite Gardenhire's wishes.

Maybe the Twins let Punto go without a fight because they're confident Matt Tolbert or Trevor Plouffe can step into the utility man role. Maybe the Twins let him go without a fight because it was the only way to keep Gardenhire from finding ways to get Punto into the lineup. Or maybe it was a little of both, and after seven years, $14 million, and 2,700 plate appearances they'd simply had enough. Whatever the case, it's a mistake. Or at least it's a mistake for $750,000.

Punto has an awful bat and an excellent glove, which makes him the epitome of a utility man. When that type of player is earning $4 million and getting 435 plate appearances he drags a team down, which is why Punto (and Gardenhire's over-reliance on Punto) has been the target of so much criticism over the years. However, when that same player is earning $750,000 and getting 150 plate appearances he can be a good fit in a limited role.

Punto has long been overpaid and overused, but that doesn't change the fact that the Twins' need for a utility man this season is higher than it has been in years and he's likely a better fit for the role than Tolbert or Plouffe. I understand not wanting to bring back Punto for $4 million and 435 plate appearances or because there's a superior alternative ready to take his place, but neither of those things are true.

He was available for around $350,000 more than the minimum salary and a total commitment that represents less than one percent of the Twins' payroll, and the options to replace him are Tolbert, a 29-year-old poor man's Punto on both sides of the ball, and Plouffe, a 25-year-old marginal prospect whose Triple-A numbers project his bat to be every bit as inept as Punto's. And neither of them will come close to matching his great glove.

There's a tendency to lump utility infielders together because none of them can hit and they all have nice gloves, but there's a difference between good defense and what Punto plays. Based on Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games, since joining the Twins in 2005 he's 18.9 runs above average at shortstop, 20.0 runs above average at third base, and 4.6 runs above average at second base. In other words, stick Punto out there for a full season and he'll save 10-20 runs.

And that's compared to an average defender, which is already plenty valuable. Among all major leaguers with at least 1,000 innings at a position since 2005, his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games ranks No. 1 at shortstop and No. 1 at third base. So yes, he can't hit, but neither can Tolbert or Plouffe or most utility infielders. For that matter, Punto has a higher career OPS than Casilla. At least with Punto you're getting legitimately elite defense along with the bad bat.

To be clear, Punto is a bench-caliber player who's been paid and played too much, and most of the criticism leveled at him, Gardenhire, and the Twins' front office while he logged 2,700 plate appearances has been warranted. However, there's a big difference between someone being overpaid while playing too often and someone being useless, and for $750,000 and a reserve role Punto has value because he's simply likely to be better than Tolbert or Plouffe in 2011.

January 24, 2011

Carl Pavano returns to Twins for $16.5 million over two years

For seemingly the past month various reports described Carl Pavano as being on the verge of re-signing with the Twins and finally Wednesday the two sides officially agreed to a two-year, $16.5 million contract that includes $500,000 in performance bonuses. He'll receive $8 million in 2011 and $8.5 million in 2012, and each season can also earn $100,000 bonuses for reaching 190 and 200 innings as well as $150,000 bonuses for reaching 210 and 220 innings.

Pavano is 35 years old with an infamously lengthy injury history and his 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season was the fifth-lowest rate in baseball among the 92 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title, so making a multi-year commitment to him was hardly a no-brainer despite a strong 2010. In fact, last season was just the second time in Pavano's career that he's thrown more than 100 innings with an ERA under 4.00, with the first coming way back in 2004.

And beyond the considerable risk involved in committing to Pavano for his age-35 and age-36 seasons, the Twins also would've gotten two high draft picks as compensation had he signed elsewhere. Those picks carry significant value and should be factored into any analysis of the signing. However, once the Twins decided that re-signing Pavano was the smart idea bringing him back for two years and a slight salary increase is a clear win from their point of view.

Pavano was generally considered the second-best starter in a pretty weak free agent crop, so the right-hander and his agent decided not to engage in any serious negotiations until Cliff Lee signed, no doubt hoping that teams would turn their attention to Pavano after missing out on Lee. On the surface that seemed like a sound plan and it may indeed have been the right move, but the reported interest in Pavano definitely shrunk as the offseason went along.

One problem for Pavano was that several of the teams bidding on Lee didn't really view him as a viable fallback option, so little changed when Lee came off the market on December 15. For instance, the Nationals were constantly linked to Pavano early on, but general manager Mike Rizzo later insisted that they were never all that interested. Another problem was that trading for Zack Greinke on December 19 took the Brewers out of the running for Pavano.

And so once the December reports of Pavano seeking a three-year, $30 million contract from a half-dozen serious suitors died down the Twins welcomed him back on a two-year deal worth slightly more annually than the $7 million he earned after accepting arbitration and re-signing last winter. I'm not completely convinced that bringing back Pavano was the right move, but if the Twins are then the terms of his return are likely pretty close to their best-case scenario.

There's no doubt that acquiring Pavano from the Indians in mid-2009 for prospect Yohan Pino is one of the best trades of the Bill Smith era. I praised the deal at the time and it worked out even better than expected, as Pavano pitched well down the stretch in 2009 and then had the second-best season of his career after re-signing for $7 million. However, making a good move to acquire a player doesn't always mean it's an equally good move to keep that same player.

For example, swapping Bobby Kielty for Shannon Stewart in mid-2003 worked out extremely well for the Twins, but then re-signing Stewart to a three-year, $18 million contract proved to be a mistake as he hit just .287/.345/.405 while playing only 268 of 486 games due to injuries. Trading for Pavano was smart, re-signing him for 2010 was a good move that turned out very well, and re-signing him again is a reasonable risk, but those are three separate decisions.

As for what the Twins figure to get out of Pavano in 2011 and 2012, his injury history makes it tough to say with any kind of certainty. He hasn't skipped a turn in the rotation for two years and ranks 19th among all MLB pitchers with 420 innings during that time, but his 4.39 ERA is the second-worst in that group, his 3.98 xFIP ranks 35th among all pitchers with 300 or more innings since 2009, and Pavano threw a grand total of just 146 innings from 2005-2008.

All of which paints Pavano as more of an innings-eating No. 2 starter than an ace, which is fine given that Francisco Liriano somewhat quietly reemerged as one of the game's elite starters last year, but Pavano's declining strikeout rate could make it difficult to maintain his 3.97 ERA in 44 starts since joining the Twins. Pavano has never been a strikeout pitcher, but his whiffs per nine innings went from 6.6 in 2009 to a career-low 4.8 in 2010 for a dropoff of 27 percent.

Pavano made up for the decrease in missed bats by inducing a career-high 51 percent ground balls, but was also helped by a very strong defensive middle infield of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, both of whom will be elsewhere in 2011. Obviously the Twins believe the new middle infield duo of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla will be strong too, but no one is even sure which guy will play which position yet and the odds are against them being as effective.

In other words, Pavano trading strikeouts for ground balls worked last season and is capable of being a recipe for success in 2011 and 2012 as well, but the change in approach does leave him with a much slimmer margin for error and causes him to rely very heavily on the new-look middle infield to turn those ground balls into outs like Hardy and Hudson (and Nick Punto, who also won't be back with the Twins) did so well.

I've gone back and forth on whether the Twins should re-sign Pavano, leaning slightly toward taking the picks and letting him walk, but $16.5 million for two years is reasonable enough to basically make it a toss-up in my mind. Ultimately the success of the deal depends on Pavano staying healthy, continuing to make up for a lack of missed bats with grounders, and avoiding a mid-30s decline, but what the Twins do with their rotation surplus will also play a big factor.

Pavano's return means the Twins have six starters for five rotation spots and 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson should be ready for a call-up at some point this season. It's a nice problem to have, of course, and re-signing Pavano will look even better if the Twins are able to address other needs by either trading one of Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Brian Duensing for good value or shifting someone to the question mark-filled bullpen with success.

January 19, 2011

Carl Pavano re-signs with Twins

As expected, Carl Pavano has re-signed with the Twins for a two-year contract worth $16.5 million. Pavano returning has been assumed for a while now and I've written about it a couple times recently, but my full analysis of the move may have to wait until this weekend because I'm in Dallas working on the Rotoworld baseball magazine at the Beckett offices. Sorry. Short version: Reasonable price and nice to avoid a three-year commitment.

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