August 2, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Slowey, Plouffe, Myers, Ramos, and Eight Years

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of this blog and the Twins fittingly celebrated by winning their eighth straight game. When it comes to this blog I've been fortunate about many things, not the least of which is that the Twins have been a winning team for almost that entire time. I started blogging on August 1, 2002. Two months later they made the playoffs for the first time since 1991 and they've had just one losing season since then, going 703-591 (.543) overall.

I've been doing this since the summer after my freshman year of college and I sometimes think about how different my life could have been blogging about the Orioles or Pirates or Royals (or 1993-2000 Twins) during that time. Would losing teams have kept my interest for so long? And even if they did, would anyone have wanted to actually read about it? I've met great people and gotten great opportunities thanks to this blog, and timing and luck have played a big part.

I started because I wanted to be a writer and needed to find some kind of audience when the college newspaper wouldn't have me, so eight years, 1,515 posts, and 6.7 million visitors later I'm still amazed the thing lasted more than a month. Eight years is the limit for a presidency and the length of a $184 million contract, but I have no plans to stop any time soon. Whether you've been here since August 1, 2002 or just found the place today, thank you for reading.

And now the stuff you actually came here for ...

• In analyzing the rotation's struggles a couple weeks ago I noted that Francisco Liriano was suffering from some combination of bad luck and bad defense, because while his ERA was still plenty good his secondary numbers showed one of the elite pitching performances in baseball this season. At the time Liriano was coming off a start in which he failed to make it out of the second inning and so some readers found it hard to believe, but he's been unhittable since.

He shut out the Mariners for seven innings yesterday, making him 4-0 with a 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two runs allowed in 29 innings spread over his last four starts. And even his current 3.18 ERA is worse than it should be because Liriano still has one of MLB's highest ball-in-play batting averages. Based on his 150-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio and two homers allowed in 136 innings, Liriano has been the best starter in baseball according to FIP and xFIP.

• Liriano wasn't alone in blanking Seattle's awful lineup, as Kevin Slowey threw eight shutout frames Friday. I avoid relying much on win-loss records to evaluate pitchers and Slowey being 10-5 with a 4.44 ERA when Liriano is 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA isn't fair. With that said, beating the Mariners improved Slowey's career record to 36-20, which is a .643 winning percentage that ranks as the second-highest in Twins history among pitchers with at least 75 starts:

                      W      L     WIN%
Johan Santana        93     44     .679
KEVIN SLOWEY         36     20     .643
Camilo Pascual       88     57     .607
Mudcat Grant         50     35     .588
Jim Perry           128     90     .587

To be clear, that definitely does not mean Slowey "knows how to win" or even that he's been particularly good while posting a 4.40 ERA in 437.1 career innings, but it is kind of interesting.

Trevor Plouffe was recalled from Rochester to replace Nick Punto, whose hamstring strain requires a stint on the disabled list. Plouffe started six games at shortstop when he was called up to replace J.J. Hardy in mid-May, but seems unlikely to play much this time around with Ron Gardenhire committed to Alexi Casilla as the starting second baseman and No. 2 hitter while Orlando Hudson is out.

Plouffe played just 20 of his 770 games at second base in the minors, but like most shortstops should be able to handle the position just fine and in theory could compete with Casilla for the starting job there in 2011 if Hudson isn't re-signed. Plouffe has shown good power at Triple-A with a career-high 15 homers and .462 slugging percentage, but he's hitting just .259 with a .318 on-base percentage and 71-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his third season at Rochester.

• You wouldn't know it by his going 24-for-58 (.414) with 12 extra-base hits in 14 games since the All-Star break, but Joe Mauer has been diagnosed with tendinitis in his right shoulder and received a cortisone shot after going 3-for-4 in Saturday's game. According to Gardenhire an MRI exam revealed no structural damage, but because the soreness "just won't go away" the Twins decided to "put this in there, give it a couple days without throwing, and go from there."

Justin Morneau was initially scheduled to take batting practice before yesterday's game, but opted against it at the last minute in part because it was "family day" and various Twins would be on the field with their kids. Gardenhire explained that Morneau "didn't want to be on center stage" and "wants to ease into it ... with less people around." He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet on July 7 and recovering from a concussion is notoriously unpredictable.

• After sending Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa to the Nationals for Matt Capps the Twins failed to make another move prior to Saturday's trade deadline, but they reportedly were close to acquiring Brett Myers from the Astros. Whether or not that would have been a sound move is impossible to say without knowing the players heading back to Houston, but Myers was listed among my preferred starting pitcher targets when examining potential fits two weeks ago.

Despite owning the fourth-worst record in baseball and going into full-scale rebuilding mode by trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, the Astros chose not to deal the 30-year-old Myers and instead signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract extension with a $10 million option or $3 million buyout for 2013. That seems like a questionable decision for a team years from contention and certainly suggests the Astros' asking price for Myers in trade was substantial.

• To make room on the 25-man roster for Capps' arrival the Twins sent Nick Blackburn and his $14 million contract to Triple-A. I've made my objection to Blackburn's extension clear since the day it was signed in March, but at this point demoting him to Rochester certainly makes sense. Whether or not Blackburn has the ability to get back on track is up for debate, but obviously it wasn't going to happen while pitching sporadically as a mop-up man in Minnesota.

• Washington assigned Ramos to Triple-A following the trade, but general manager Mike Rizzo said he'll be "at least" a September call-up because "we feel like he's major-league ready." For now the Nationals have Ivan Rodriguez as their starting catcher and the future Hall of Famer is actually signed through 2011, but he's hitting just .264/.291/.345 at age 38 and moving into more of a backup/mentor role next year seems likely if they truly think Ramos is MLB-ready.

• Capps uses "Final Countdown" as his entrance music, which will always remind me of this.

July 19, 2010

Life after Cliff Lee

All the Cliff Lee trade speculation went for naught, as the Twins reportedly balked at making Aaron Hicks part of a package for the impending free agent and the Mariners ended up with several offers beyond what the Twins should have been willing to give up for him anyway. At the last moment the Mariners pulled out of a nearly agreed-upon deal with the Yankees for a package headlined by Jesus Montero to accept a Justin Smoak-led offer from the Rangers.

Prior to the season Baseball America ranked Hicks as the No. 19 prospect in baseball, but the same list had Smoak at No. 13 and Montero at No. 4. At midseason Baseball America published a rankings update that had Montero at No. 5 and Hicks at No. 9, with Smoak no longer eligible for "prospect" status after playing regularly in the majors. I'm sure plenty of people view Hicks as a better prospect than Montero or Smoak, but in general he's not seen at quite that level.

New York's offer reportedly included Montero and two or three other mid-level prospects, while Texas' package for Lee included Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matthew Lawson. In terms of trying to match those offers up to the Twins' farm system, it would likely be something along the lines of Hicks plus David Bromberg, Alex Burnett, and Luke Hughes. Or perhaps, as was rumored at one point, Hicks plus Wilson Ramos. Either way, far too much for my liking.

Now that Lee is off the table Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com speculates that Cubs lefty Ted Lilly would be a "logical target" for the Twins. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune went even further, listing the Twins and Mets as the front-runners for Lilly. It passes the smell test, as the Cubs are clearly sellers, Lilly has long been a solid mid-rotation starter, and as an impending free agent he'd be much easier to acquire from a payroll standpoint than, say, Roy Oswalt.

In fact, recent reports suggest that no teams are even willing to absorb the remaining money on Oswalt's contract, let alone do that and give up prospects. Lilly is owed about $5 million for the rest of the season, which the Cubs may be willing to cover in the right deal. On the other hand, because he projects as a Type A free agent the Cubs could just let Lilly walk and collect a pair of compensatory draft picks, so any trade offered would likely need to beat that value.

Lilly has a 3.76 ERA, .235 opponents' batting average, and 584-to-180 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 693 innings since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs, including a 4.07 ERA, .236 opponents' batting average, and 75-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104 innings this year. He has a 4.22 xFIP during that four-year span, which would basically put him neck and neck with Scott Baker as the Twins' third-best starter behind Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano.

Among the starters rumored to be available Dan Haren strikes me as the most intriguing. He's one of the youngest of the bunch at 29 years old and has generally been underrated, with his value perhaps at a low point because of a bad-looking 4.60 ERA through 20 starts this season. His secondary numbers are far better, with a 133-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 innings, and he's had a sub-4.00 xFIP in six straight years to go with a 3.72 ERA in 207 career starts.

Haren is one of the top dozen or so starters in baseball despite remaining fairly anonymous in Arizona and he's also signed through 2013 at about $13 million a year, so if the Diamondbacks are looking to sell low on him the Twins should be willing to pounce. However, it doesn't sound like that's necessarily the case, with reports that they're smartly asking for a lot in return, and it's tough to imagine the Twins giving up top prospects and absorbing that much salary.

Ricky Nolasco is another interesting name rumored to be available thanks to his 4.90 ERA in 50 starts since going 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA in 2008. His secondary numbers are significantly better than his ERA, with a 3.73 xFIP this season and a 3.85 xFIP for his career, and Nolasco is even younger than Haren while still being arbitration eligible next season. If you look past the recent ERAs he's a 27-year-old mid-rotation starter who misses bats and throws strikes.

I've gotten e-mails and comments asking about Fausto Carmona since the Indians are clearly sellers and he was their representative in the All-Star game. Carmona has seemingly bounced back from a horrendous 2009 with a 3.65 ERA in 19 starts, but a 64-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings suggests not that much has changed. He has electric raw stuff and induces tons of ground balls, but Carmona remains a big question mark because of shaky command.

Oakland will likely make Ben Sheets available, because he's signed to a one-year, $10 million deal and the A's are struggling just to stay around .500. Sheets got off to a terrible start after missing last year following elbow surgery, but has a 3.72 ERA and 66-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 82 innings. Similarly the Astros will likely look to deal Brett Myers, although his one-year, $3.1 million contract also includes an $8 million mutual option for next season.

Myers has a 3.35 ERA and 93-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings this year and an xFIP of 3.91 in over 1,300 career innings.  While not really a fly-ball pitcher he struggles at times to keep the ball in the ballpark, serving up an average of 31 homers per 200 innings during eight seasons with the Phillies. Myers has kept the long balls in check so far this season and Target Field would help mask any homer-related issues with the Twins.

Guys like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, and Jeremy Guthrie are also said to be available, but aside from making a change just for the sake of making a change none represent any kind of real upgrade over Baker or Kevin Slowey (and nearly anyone represents an upgrade over Nick Blackburn at this point). Sticking with in-house options is a much better idea than giving up value to scrape the bottom of the veteran barrel.

Haren and Oswalt are legit No. 1 starters, Lilly, Nolasco, and Myers are all strong mid-rotation starters, Sheets is a riskier mid-rotation option, and after that it dries up in a hurry. Between those six starters there are definitely opportunities for the Twins to upgrade the rotation, but with Baker and Blackburn both signed to long-term deals and Slowey still 26 years old with a career 4.53 ERA despite recent struggles the situation is a lot trickier than just picking a name.

May 24, 2010

Should the Twins trade for Roy Oswalt?

Roy Oswalt requested a trade from the Astros over the weekend and judging from the e-mails and tweets I received on the topic many fans are wondering if the Twins should pursue a deal for the 32-year-old right-hander. Oswalt has been one of baseball's elite pitchers for a decade, yet generally seems underrated for someone fourth among active pitchers in ERA and winning percentage while winning more games than everyone his age or younger except CC Sabathia.

He's started at least 30 games in seven of the past eight seasons while posting an ERA above 3.55 just once during that span, yet is only a three-time All-Star and has never finished higher than third in the Cy Young balloting. Last year back problems limited Oswalt to fewer than 200 innings for the first time since 2003 and he posted a career-worst 4.12 ERA, but he's been as good as ever this season with a 2.66 ERA and 60-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings.

One of the issues for the Twins in terms of possibly upgrading the rotation is that they already have five solid starters, and while not all of them have performed as well as hoped early on in 2010 there isn't an obvious Ramon Ortiz or Sidney Ponson or Livan Hernandez to jettison. In other words, it's tough to trade a mid-level prospect or two for a Carl Pavano type when you already have the actual Pavano and a rotation full of similarly solid but unspectacular pitchers.

If the Twins want to legitimately upgrade the rotation they'd have to target an upper-echelon starter, which brings up two other issues. First, those guys tend to be very expensive in terms of both salary and cost to acquire. Beyond that, unless one of the current starters is part of the trade package for that upper-echelon guy a deal would involve dumping someone from the rotation who doesn't really deserve it and is a perfectly good big-league starter.

As for whether Oswalt fits that upper-echelon bill, the answer is a pretty clear yes even if he's just as clearly declined some from his prime. Beginning with Oswalt's first full season in 2002, he's ranked 4th, 15th, 13th, 13th, 9th, 25th, 11th, 26th, and now 8th among MLB starters in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which removes factors like bullpen and lineup support, defense, and luck from the equation to evaluate pitchers based strictly on things they control.

At age 32 and with his two worst years coming in 2007 and 2009 he seems more likely to be a top-25 starter than a top-15 starter at this point, but even at his worst he's been a low-end No. 1 guy and Oswalt's strong work so far this year suggests getting back to the top-15 range isn't out of the question (although moving to the AL would make that tougher). Relative to the Twins, he's had a better xFIP than any of their current starters in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010:

2007        xFIP      2008        xFIP      2009        xFIP      2010        xFIP
Oswalt      4.08      Oswalt      3.55      Oswalt      3.88      Oswalt      3.29
Baker       4.41      Slowey      4.02      Pavano      3.96      Liriano     3.37
Slowey      4.78      Baker       4.14      Baker       4.22      Baker       3.70
Liriano      N/A      Liriano     4.31      Slowey      4.23      Pavano      3.72
Pavano       N/A      Blackburn   4.48      Liriano     4.55      Slowey      4.66
Blackburn    N/A      Pavano       N/A      Blackburn   4.56      Blackburn   5.12

Some of Oswalt's advantage over the Twins' current starters is definitely due to his pitching in the much weaker league, but I feel safe in saying he'd be a clear upgrade and likely the team's top starter (depending on Francisco Liriano's progress). However, the Astros would no doubt demand several of the Twins' top prospects in return for Oswalt and he's making $15 million this year with another $16 million in 2011 and a $16 million option or $2 million buyout in 2012.

While around $26 million for 1.5 seasons or $40 million for 2.5 seasons is essentially the going rate for a true No. 1 starter, even with the new ballpark boosting revenue higher than ever the Twins seemingly aren't in a position to add another big salary given their commitments to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Denard Span, plus upcoming arbitration-fueled raises for several other players.

There's zero question Oswalt would be an upgrade and his remaining contract is more or less commensurate with his skills, but it's not that easy. Is he better than, say, one of Blackburn, Baker, or Kevin Slowey plus two top prospects and $30 million? Because in trading for Oswalt the Twins would also be dumping one of their current starters from the rotation, giving up at least one and perhaps multiple highly rated prospects, and taking on the rest of his deal.

Without knowing the Astros' demands it's impossible to say for sure, but those factors would make me think twice about a move and my guess is Oswalt's contract alone takes the Twins out of the running. Oswalt is an outstanding pitcher with gas left in the tank, but between the costs to acquire him and lack of an obvious rotation weak spot pursuing him doesn't seem to be a great fit unless the Astros like Slowey, Blackburn, or Baker as a major part of the deal.