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.

  • PFG

    Is there anyway to find out how many games Hardy and Hudson played when Pavano pitched? And how different his numbers looked in those games one or both missed?

  • Pat

    oh no, who are we going to kick around now that LNP is no longer a Twin??

  • Jake

    Some free agent bullpen & infield names to kick around: Manny Corpas, Troy Glaus, Vladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cabrera, Bobby Crosby, Bobby Seay, Joe Beimel, Todd Coffey, Cristian Guzman, Mike MacDougal. Any chance any of these end up with the Twins?

  • Andrew

    RE: Who to kick around with LNP gone?

    That’s an easy one to answer, Pat. Alexi Casilla. Twins fans are already extremely skeptical of him and it won’t take them long to start calling for his removal if he starts slowly.

    Of course, there will be plenty of ire for the offensive ineptitude of Drew Butera, Matt Tolbert and Jason Repko as well.

  • Andrew

    RE: Free Agents

    We don’t really have room for any of them on the bench, Jake. Crosby had one solid half-season of batting that looks like a fluke now, and he’s managed to make a career out of it. A return for Christian Guzman might have looked appealing at one time but his defense has degraded far to much for us to have any value for him.

    Vladimir Guerrero will likely sign a one-year contract for $8 million – and he’ll be playing full-time at DH. The Twins wouldn’t have picked him up for that price even before signing Thome and now that we have signed Thome, there’d simply not be enough ABs to spread around unless one of Young, Kubel or Cuddyer were traded. Glaus might have made for an interesting option before we re-signed Thome, but again, we don’t have the ABs or the room on the bench for another DH-type.

  • David

    What you see is what you get. The Twins are done acquiring players. Their utility infielder will be Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, or Trevor Plouffe, and their bullpen will be comprised of guys already on the roster.

  • dirleton

    And they will be spun in such a way as to make the casual fans (aka mindless twits) think that decent baseball is being played – maybe even stumble around within reach of another Central Division title (only to be squished like a bug in the playoffs). This will keep the new park filled and the beer flowing. Mission accomplished.

  • Brian

    To say that Pavano was helped by the strong defense of JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson in 2010 is a very misleading statement. JJ Hardy only saw about half the time at short in 2010 and between Orlando Hudson and Alexi Casilla, Casilla is by far the better defender. When Hardy was not playing in 2010 his position was played by Casilla or Plouffe (rarely punto). If anything, a better argument (although unproved with Nishioka) can be made that the middle infield defense of the Twins will actually be better in 2011. It’s not a given, but the argument that the defense may in fact decline without a half season of Hardy and no Orlando Hudson seems to carry very little merit given the defensive prowess of their replacements.

  • brian

    Repko could bat .210 as long as he throws someone out at second every fortnight. Same thing applies to the others- nifty play = heat off. That seems to satisfy Gardenhire and most fans.

  • http://cheapseatchronicles.com Jeremiah Graves

    One of the perks of Glaus–if there was room–is that he can play (more or less) 3B/1B/LF in a pinch. Thome offers none of that. Personally, I wanted the Twins to land Manny or Vlady rather than Thome, because we could use the right-handed punch.

  • dirleton

    Thome sells more beer and jerseys.

  • mike wants WINS

    I remain amused that people still don’t think Hardy was/is a great defender.

  • ML

    Is Repko’s value to the Twins in his bat? Will Gardy play him as a backup/utility guy or an everyday player? There’s no comparison to Punto.

  • ewen21

    I am a little disappointed. I was hoping to read Aaron’s eulogy on the departure of Nick Punto. Maybe he’s cooking one up?

  • TMW

    As Brian mentioned, why are ‘odds against the middle infield being as effective’? Casilla played plus defense at both 2B and SS, and we literally know nothing about how Nishioka will turn out in the field. Saying the defense will probably take a step back is quite pre-mature.

  • Old Twins Cap

    Hardy played in 101 games and, if I recall correctly, Hudson sat out for at least 4 weeks in total last season. AG is stretching his argument about MI defense to the point of incredulity. I, for one, believe that Nishi and Casilla will have more range, not less, than Hardy and Hudson.

  • Pedro Munoz

    The signing of Nick Punto by the Cardinals is the best news I have heard this offseason. He signed for only $750K, which means that the front office stood up to Gardy and decided LNP just wasn’t coming back.

    Casilla will never be the turd that Punto was because his salary ($865K next year) was a fraction of the $4M Punto made last year, and because Casilla won’t get the long leash that Punto did. The problem with Punto wasn’t just that he is a bad baseball player. Its that no matter how much he sucked, how poor his fundamentals were, Gardy still loved him and never held him accountable.

    If Casilla can just manage to run through first base when he grounds out, we will have upgraded.

  • BR

    The Twins have a weak hitting bench beyond Thome, with no RH you’d want to see PHing. They need depth.

    There are some interesting veterans still out there that I’d like to see the Twins grab as a NRI or bat-in-waiting at AAA: The perpetually injured Nick Johnson (LH, good glove at 1B) and Mike Sweeney (RH), Willy Aybar (SH and some defensive versatility), Felipe Lopez (similar to Aybar).

  • Parkman

    AG, are the Twins really thinking about starting Duensing in the bullpen this year? I understand that Slowey, Blackburn and Baker have no bullpen value but cmon man!

  • mike wants WINS

    Why is it likely the D will be worse? (all stats from fangraphs, just went to leaders, value, sorted on fielding…..)

    Hardy had the 5th best fielding stats of any SS with at least 350 PAs last year. Do people think Casilla will be one of the 5 best fielding SS next year? What are the odds of that?

    Hudson was the 3rd best fielding 2B in all of MLB last year. What are the odds Nishi will be one of the 3 best fielding 2B in all of MLB next year?

    I’d say the odds are extremely high that the Twins will be worse in the MIF, just because there is nowhere but worse to go…..

  • Snortwood

    Regarding Pavano, it was obvious to anyone who has been married for more than a few seasons that Pavano was going to stay with the Twins through this off-season if you saw the interview that took place during some game during the season where Bert & Ernie were interviewing the players’ wives who were participating in some fund-raising effort. Among those interviewed, Mrs. Carl, and the only other time in my life that I ever saw her was as a pursed-lipped tension wracked I’m-not-here-at-all face on TV during one of Carl’s (few, apparently) NY Yankee games. But here she was in Minnesota absolutely beaming, nearly gushing, We’re very happy here in Minnesota and Carl is thrilled to be part of the Twins, i’m paraphrasing but that’s about the gist of what she said. And she meant it.

    As stated, if you’re married, you know this much — if she ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy, and she wad’n happy in New York. But she was happy here! And that was all Carl needed to convince him to stay in town. All the talk of him going elsewhere, i can assure you from the one interview i saw of Mrs. P against the memory of what she looked like in that stolen moment from his NY experience, there was never any discussion of going anywhere else as a free agent other than re-signing with the Twins in the Pavano household.

  • TMW

    “Hardy had the 5th best fielding stats of any SS with at least 350 PAs last year. Do people think Casilla will be one of the 5 best fielding SS next year? What are the odds of that?”

    Casilla UZR/150 in 2010 at SS: +27
    Hardy UZR/150 in 2010 at SS: +12.8

    I’m not making any predictions. I just think the assumption that the Twins are screwed at SS is REALLY pre-mature.

    And if Casilla winds up at 2B, his 2010 UZR/150 was less than Hudson’s but he was still a plus defender. Again, can I say that Nishioka is going to come in wherever they put him and vaccuum everything up? Of course not. But at least I know that my assumption that the infield defense is probably going to continue to be solid is pre-mature.

  • mike wants WINS

    TMW, good points. but let’s be honest, if you have two players in the top 5 in MLB, what are the odds that you can replace them, and still have two in the top five? That just seems hard to imagine. heck, I’d say that even if they kept Hardy and Hudson, that they’d be hard pressed to match last year’s results. It’s just no easy to be in the top 5, year after year, at two positions.

  • TMW

    Right, but I think the overall goal is have plus defense. Being top 5 is just academic so long as the job is getting done. The Twins are likely to get the job done again up the middle and at a much cheaper price tag.

  • mike wants WINS

    Fair enough. I hope you are right. I have strong doubts about Casilla, and hope I’m wrong.