July 11, 2012

Who should the Twins be selling and for how much? (Part 1: Pitchers)

With the league's second-worst record at 36-49 and an 11-game deficit in the AL Central at the All-Star break the Twins have made it clear that they should be sellers leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. Determining which players they should be willing to sell and how much they should expect to get in return is a more complicated question, so today I'll break down the pros and cons of pitchers potentially being shopped and later I'll do the same for hitters.


Francisco Liriano, 28-year-old starting pitcher

Why trade him? Liriano is an impending free agent with a maddeningly inconsistent track record that now includes following up an unexpectedly brief mid-May demotion to the bullpen with an extremely impressive eight-start stretch in which he held opponents to a .175 batting average with just one homer in 202 plate appearances and logged 49 innings with a 2.74 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Two months ago he was all but out of the Twins' plans and two months from now he'll be on the open market, so if a contender wants to trust that Liriano is again among the league's top starters and pay accordingly ... well, let them. Maybe the Twins actually trust Liriano's rebirth, but there's no guarantee he'd sign long term with free agency around the corner and if his asking price was, say, four years and $35 million that's an awfully scary commitment anyway.

Why not trade him? If the Twins' only options were to let Liriano walk for nothing, deal him for something, or make a risky long-term investment to keep him the trade route would likely be my choice, but under the new collective bargaining agreement they can also make a one-year, $12 million qualifying tender. If he accepts, they keep him for 2013 without a multi-year deal. If he declines, they get two draft picks as compensation when he signs elsewhere.


Jared Burton, 31-year-old relief pitcher

Why trade him? Essentially found money, Burton has been one of MLB's top relievers after the Twins plucked him off the scrap heap on a minor-league contract this offseason. It was a smart pickup, as Burton was an effective setup man for the Reds from 2007-2009 before arm injuries derailed his career, but no one could have expected him to be this good after back-to-back lost seasons and a 31-year-old with a history of arm problems isn't the safest bet going forward.

As the Twins sadly showed with Matt Capps every once in a while a contender is willing to vastly overpay for bullpen help at the trade deadline and turning a minor-league signing in November into a quality prospect in July would be quite a feat. He's been excellent, but 35 innings are still only 35 innings and selling high on a scrap-heap find and then diving back into the scrap heap in search of the next Burton makes plenty of sense.

Why not trade him? Because the Reds cut Burton loose before he reached free agency the Twins have him under team control via arbitration for next year at a relatively cheap salary. If he were an impending free agent trying to cash Burton in for whatever they can get might be smart, but with one-and-a-half more seasons at their disposal there's no rush to trade him and little reason to do so unless there's legitimately good value coming back in the deal.


Matt Capps, 28-year-old relief pitcher

Why trade him? Capps has actually been decent for the Twins, throwing 119 innings with a 3.55 ERA and 71-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio since they acquired him from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos in mid-2010, but the problem is that he's a setup-caliber reliever miscast as a closer, they inexplicably gave up a top prospect at a premium position to get him, and have vastly overpaid to keep him at $13 million for those 119 innings.

Some of that is Capps' fault, but most of that is former general manager Bill Smith's fault and the situation as a whole is an example of why focusing on "proven closer" instead of "good reliever" is so silly. With that said, when healthy Capps is a perfectly reasonable 28-year-old setup man who could help plenty of contending teams in a non-closer role and presumably even the Twins aren't crazy enough to pick up his $6 million option for next season.

Why not trade him? There aren't really any reasons for the Twins not to trade Capps, but there are reasons why Capps might not be traded. For starters he's currently on the disabled list with a sore shoulder that has sidelined him since mid-June. Beyond that he's owed about $2 million for the second half, plus a $250,000 buyout of his $6 million option for 2013, and the Twins might have to eat all of that money just to get a marginal prospect in return.


Carl Pavano, 36-year-old starting pitcher

Why trade him? Trading marginal prospect Yohan Pino to the Indians for Pavano in 2009 was a shrewd move and re-signing him for $7 million in 2010 was equally sound, but re-signing him a second time last offseason has proven to be a mistake. Pavano's age, injury history, and declining strikeout rate suggested a two-year, $16.5 million commitment was overkill and sure enough he's given them 285 innings of a 4.67 ERA for that money and is now injured.

Before unsuccessfully pitching through a shoulder injury Pavano was still a useful fourth or fifth starter and contenders that miss out on big-name trade targets often look to plug rotation holes with an innings-eating veteran. That's basically what the Twins were doing when they acquired Pavano in mid-2009, and as an impending free agent with no hope for draft-pick compensation he'd be a cheap, no-frills fallback option.

Why not trade him? Much like with Capps there's no reason not to trade Pavano but plenty of reason why he might not be traded. For one thing he's on the DL with a shoulder injury that dates back to May and could still be there on July 31. That makes it tough and perhaps even impossible to sell him, let alone sell him as an innings-eater, and the Twins would have to eat the remaining $4 million he's owed to even start a conversation for a low-level prospect.


Nick Blackburn, 30-year-old starting pitcher

Why trade him? Blackburn has been bad, hurt, or bad and hurt since the Twins mistakenly handed him a four-year contract in 2010. They erred simply making a long-term investment in a mediocre pitcher with a miniscule strikeout rate and overstated ground ball-inducing ability, but the other issue is that Blackburn was already under team control via arbitration through 2013. Had they smartly gone year-to-year with Blackburn he'd have been cut long ago.

Instead he's being paid $4.75 million to pitch at Triple-A and is owed another $5.5 million next year, although at least his $8 million option for 2014 can be declined without a buyout. Since signing the deal Blackburn has a 5.51 ERA in 65 starts and ranks dead last among all starters in strikeouts per nine innings (4.2), batting average against (.309), and slugging percentage against (.500). And if they don't trade him, you know he'll be back in the rotation eventually.

Why not trade him? Well, it's not like they'll get anything for him. It's possible they could find a taker if they ate his entire deal, but that won't save any money and certainly won't fetch any kind of useful prospect. Admitting that he's a sunk cost and wiping the slate clean might be addition by subtraction, but with next year's rotation wide open they'll need someone to start games and why dump Blackburn only to spend more signing another washed-up veteran?


  • neil

    And so the Blackburn Era continues.

  • pk

    Good analysis Aaron. I do want to say I’m tired of hearing about Blackburn as a bad signing. Granted he’s performed poorly and below expectations but teams look for cost certaintity and signing him at the time provided just that.
    It too easy to call it a bad signing when in reality it just hasn’t worked out how the Twins and Blackburn would’ve liked. Also, I don’t think he makes enough money in baseball ‘starting pitching’ world to truly register as bad money. The Red Sox spend more on video staff and their bullpen catchers than Blackburn makes in a year.
    Just my opinion. Feel free to rip away..

  • Ben

    Ripping away. The Twins had cost certainty jn Blaxkburn via arbitration. There was no way that he would have become overly expensive through arbitration. The contract that they gave him gad no benefit for the Twins, because there was no chance that he was ever going to cost much more than the yearly salary they stupidly guaranteed him with that contract. They took on all of the risk without any upside.

  • Jeff O

    There is just no defending the Blackburn deal. It made no sense when he was pitching well, and now it’s proved to be an atrocious decision.

    I really hope all of these guys are on the table. If you can get good value for anybody on this team, you trade them. I’m actually excited to see what Terry Ryan can do at the deadline. Even if he makes small moves, I’ll be happy to see practical, forward-thinking trades.

  • Heathcliff

    “overstated ground ball-inducing ability”

    Please explain this.

  • Paulie

    Why are people defending the Blackburn signing? Yes, Aaron has repeatedly reminded his readers how unnecessary and poor his contract “extension” was, though it’s not as if he didn’t say this the minute after they made the deal. Also, just because his contract isn’t worth a LOT of money doesn’t make it any less bad. For a fan base that constantly throws stones at Mauer’s $23m/year deal you should scrutinize all of their deals if the team decides to reduce payroll to lock in profits. I’m not saying that the Pohlads shouldn’t make money on the team, but rather that the front office has to avoid making deals like Blackburn’s to optimize their resources ($/roster mgmt) like the Rays have done.

  • Pedro Munoz

    Here is Aaron on Blackburn right after he signed his contract:

    http://aarongleeman.com/2010/03/07/6074/

  • Torstein

    This is good analysis Aaron and I don’t disagree with any of it, but it obviously takes 2 parties to make a trade so I think it’d be interesting to flip this around and look at what/who the Twins want back in any potential trades. Terry Ryan has already said that no one on the team is untouchable (except Mauer’s not going anywhere)so would it make sense to give up more value e.g. Willingham or Span to get more back in return? I know Liriano frustrates the hell out of all of us, but I really don’t see them getting much value for him right now – same for Pavano and Blackburn. You’ve got to give up value to get value – unless you’re dealing with Bill Smith.

  • Bradley

    While I agree with most of what was said I think it’s misguided to blame Bill Smith for Matt Capps. He didn’t give up the compensation pick for resigning him this year. He didn’t decide to give him millions more than what he was worth this year months before other closers signed with other clubs. The fact of the matter is that the Twins operate in a Good Old Boys bubble and love to keep what they know rather than take a chance on an unknown. While Bill Smith was part of the problem he was far from the only problem.

  • mazeville

    Hahahahaha! Trade Blackburn! Hahahahahaha! Like somebody will actually give us something for him. That’s a hoot.

    My two cents: give Capps a few innings after he returns to show that he’s still in good form, and then do what you can to get a prospect or two for him. Do the same with Pavano if he has any health whatsoever. Keep Burton.

    I’d strongly prefer keeping Liriano at this point. The Twins should see if they can sign him to a three-year deal — because they need pitching next year, and signing him means they’ll have to convince one fewer free agent to come here over the winter. If he doesn’t sign before the trade deadline, they should trade him for some prospects.

  • Scott Stahoviak

    Call me crazy, but I’m in favor of keeping Liriano at this point purely because I have no faith in the Twins ability to land any solid pitching this offseason. If we give away Liriano right now, we’ll have an unproven starter in Diamond and nobody else in the rotation. There isn’t a halfway decent starting pitcher on this roster so why would we give away our only pitcher?

    Yes, Liriano is frustrating as hell to watch and he’ll certainly be inconsistent for years to come, but I think we are still getting him for somewhat of a bargain.

    Plus, we all know that the second Liriano goes to another team he’ll start ripping it up & winning playoff games. Trading him for nothing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this point considering where this franchise is at…Let’s ride this one out

  • jfs

    sign liriano and baker. if liriano can be had for 3 years/25 million, go for it. baker won’t be ready to go full-tilt until 2014, so a 2-year deal to cover down time in 2013 and his expected return to the rotation in 2014 would be optimal. baker for 2 years/9 million? a top four of diamond, liriano, hendriks, and gibson in 2013?

  • Torstein

    Scott, I like your plan – with 1 addition. This team desperately also needs to add a top of rotation veteran. I would use the $$$ saved from Pavano’s contract next year to help pay for a new Liriano contract – And a top starter like Zach Greinke. This team needs to stop living in fantasy land and bite the bullet on a big contract to a top starter. There should be the salary available to do it. I think if this doesn’t happen soon – they’re going to be back at an attendance baseline of 20,000 – 25,000 per game and then have even less revenue to work with and as soon as the Vikes finish their new stadium, the Twins could once again become the forgotten stepchild of sports teams in this town.

  • BR

    If the Twins don;t trade Liriano and he pitches credibly in the 2d half, my fear is that they’ll go with the “known quantity” and extend the $12M qualifying offer to him, and that he’ll take it. (E.Jackson’s a fair comp, and he had to settle for a 1-year, $11M deal last offseason.) A one-year commitment isn’t awful in itself, but it’s enough coin that I strongly suspect it would kill any chance of the team going after a legitimately good starter.

    As a big “midmarket” team with solid revenues, they should be going after a top FA pitcher, or trading for a good but getting more expensive guy (James Shields?). Settling for second tier lands you in the second division.

  • twinstalker

    Where’s the “how much” part?