November 24, 2010

Twins offer arbitration to Pavano, Hudson, and Crain

Last night was the deadline to offer departing free agents arbitration to receive compensatory draft picks if they sign elsewhere and the Twins did so to Carl Pavano, Orlando Hudson, and Jesse Crain, but chose not to tender arbitration offers to Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and Brian Fuentes. Pavano and Crain were no-brainers, as they'll both have plenty of interested teams on the open market and if not the Twins would gladly welcome them back on one-year deals.

Hudson was seemingly a tougher call, as he's had to accept one-year deals as a free agent in each of the past two offseasons and may simply decide to accept the Twins' arbitration offer to ensure another one-year deal for at least the $5 million he earned in 2010. That would hardly be disastrous, as he was certainly worth $5 million, but it's unclear how he fits into the budget for 2011 and I'd heard from several sources that the Twins weren't interested in keeping him.

As a Type A free agent Guerrier signing elsewhere would have brought back a first-round pick and a second-round pick had the Twins offered him arbitration. However, the odds of another team be willing to forfeit their first-round pick to sign a good but not great 32-year-old reliever seem slim and the Twins didn't want to risk Guerrier seeing his lack of other options and simply accepting the arbitration offer because that could have meant paying him $5 million in 2011.

My sense is that the Twins have little interest in bringing back Rauch, so while getting a draft pick when he signs elsewhere would've been nice they didn't risk his accepting arbitration and locking them into a one-year deal for at least $3 million. Fuentes earned $9 million this season, so any arbitration offer to him would essentially have been offering a one-year, $9 million deal and the Twins don't have that kind of payroll space even if they'd like to have him return.

I'm very curious to see how the Hudson situation plays out, especially since it could impact J.J. Hardy, and it'll also be interesting to see if they make efforts to re-sign Guerrier or Fuentes at lesser salaries. Doing so with Guerrier is far more likely, but it's possible Fuentes could also be an option to come back if he can't find any full-time closer gigs on the open market. As general manager Bill Smith put it: "We haven't closed the door on re-signing any of those players."

UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com speculates that the Twins may have a gentleman's agreement with Hudson that he'll decline their arbitration offer, which isn't unheard of (Javier Vazquez and Trevor Hoffman are also doing it) and would obviously make the entire situation a whole lot less surprising. If true, the Twins basically get a free draft pick out of the deal.

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.

October 7, 2010

ALDS Game 1: Yankees 6, Twins 4

Sigh.

Everything was perfect last night, except for that damn final score. I arrived at the jam-packed Kiernan's Irish Pub in time to see the final three innings of Roy Halladay's no-hitter, eventually made my way to fantastic Target Field seats just past third base, sat in gorgeous weather at a ballpark that was absolutely rocking ... and drove home depressed after watching a story that I've seen too many times before.

Some disjointed notes on another gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Yankees ...

• I didn't like Orlando Hudson bunting after Denard Span singled to lead off the game, just as I didn't like the various times when that situation played out the same way in previous playoff games against the Yankees. Giving up an out and playing for one run just doesn't make much sense when you're facing such a potent lineup. With that said, it's ultimately a pretty marginal situation strategically and I didn't have any major issues with the in-game tactics.

• On the other hand, I thought Joe Girardi did the Twins a favor several times with his bullpen management, first by leaving CC Sabathia in despite having David Robertson all warmed up in the sixth inning and then by using Boone Logan in a way that led to Jim Thome coming to the plate as the go-ahead run versus a righty. Sabathia wriggled out of his jam with the game still tied and Thome struck out, but Girardi's moves in those spots were questionable at best.

Francisco Liriano was thisclose to out-dueling Sabathia and putting together a great playoff debut, cruising through five very impressive innings, but things unraveled in the sixth inning. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada doing some damage is far from surprising, but Curtis Granderson tripling off the wall in right-center field was shocking given his career-long struggles against lefties and Liriano's dominance against lefties.

Jesse Crain was knocked around in his final appearance of the regular season Friday, giving up four runs against the Blue Jays, but prior to that he had a 1.06 ERA and .171 opponents' batting average in 51 innings spread over his previous 54 appearances. Perhaps his ugly end to the regular season was a sign that he'd serve up a back-breaking homer to Teixeira, but it would be crazy to not trust a guy who had one bad game following four months of dominance.

• Hudson has made his share of head-scratching plays on both sides of the ball all season, but his going from first to third on Joe Mauer's third-inning squibber showed a ton of smarts and hustle. And it ultimately led to a run.

• In the seventh inning Mauer slashed a line drive into the foul territory along the left-field line and a guy sitting in the row in front of me reached out and snatched it out of the air with his bare hand as if he were catching a set of car keys someone had tossed him underhanded. It sounded like a cross between a gun shot and slapping a slab of meat, yet when asked a few minutes later if it hurt his response was simply: "A little bit."

• Pinch-running for both Jason Kubel and Danny Valencia in the eighth inning is an example of over-managing. Kubel wasn't even the tying run and Valencia is certainly fast enough to run for himself. And if the Twins were going to win the game there was a good chance those two spots in the batting order would come up again, at which point Jason Repko and Matt Tolbert are hitting. A huge deal? No, but needlessly finicky.

• Thome has been so amazing that it felt weird to see him fail to come through in a couple big spots. He struck out on a ball in the dirt with two men on in the seventh inning and popped up to end the game after the umpires gifted the Twins a 28th out. J.J. Hardy also came up empty in two key spots, including whiffing off an incredibly wobbly Sabathia with the bases loaded. They weren't short on chances, but the Twins went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

• Tonight's matchup: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

August 24, 2010

Back on board the Crain train

Back in early June, here is what I wrote in response to a Twitter mailbag question that asked, "Why does Ron Gardenhire stick with miserable Jesse Crain?":

Amusingly, that was sent in before Jesse Crain blew the lead Saturday.

Coming into Saturday's game he actually had a 3.32 ERA and 14-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings since back-to-back ugly outings in April, but that's the problem with Crain (and why people call him things like "miserable"). He tends to be awful, then pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role, and then immediately be awful again. Crain also has a career xFIP of 4.55, including 4.34 this year, so he just isn't very good.

Since then Crain has thrown 28 innings with a 0.32 ERA and .136 opponents' batting average, which definitely qualifies as "pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role." In fact, for the past month Crain's average appearance has been in higher-leverage situations than every reliever in the bullpen except closer Matt Capps. He's been unhittable for 10 weeks and Gardenhire is relying on him more and more as the primary setup man.

As for whether Crain will fall back into his aforementioned pattern and "immediately be awful again" following this success ... who knows. He's dominated before only to falter when trusted too much and while my statement that "he just isn't very good" looks awfully silly right now an amazing 28-inning run still leaves his xFIP at 4.07 this year and 4.49 for his career. However, his current stretch of success actually goes back much further than mid-June.

Crain struggled so much at the beginning of last year that the Twins demoted him to Triple-A in mid-June, but since returning in late July he's thrown 87.1 innings with a 2.78 ERA, 77-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .215 opponents' batting average, and just three homers allowed. That qualifies as extended dominance, and while I probably should know better by now I'm fully on board the "use Crain in the biggest spots" bandwagon.

As for how Crain is having this success, the answer is actually pretty simple. Despite a mid-90s fastball Crain's most effective pitch has always been his slider. Prior to this year he threw the slider 25 percent of the time while using his fastball 65 percent of the time. This season he's thrown the slider 46 percent of the time while using his fastball 43 percent of the time. So he's gone from throwing nearly three fastballs for every slider to using more sliders than fastballs.

And his slider, which has always been very, very good, has been downright extraordinary this season. According to Fan Graphs his slider has been worth 4.20 runs above average per 100 offerings, which makes it MLB's ninth-most effective pitch. His slider has been so untouchable and he's thrown it so often that it masks the fact that Crain's fastball has been far worse than usual at -2.20 runs per 100 offerings. His fastball has been terrible and he's still dominating.

That's one hell of a slider.

June 7, 2010

Twitter Mailbag: Answers

Last week I asked for mailbag questions submitted via Twitter, so here are about 1,700 words worth of me answering 140-character queries ...

@Komencentz: Why don't the Twins put Michael Cuddyer back at third base?

My understanding is that Michael Cuddyer moved away from third base after the 2005 season in part because the Twins didn't like his defense there and in part because the loss of hearing in his left ear during childhood made it tough for him to play the position regularly. I've gotten questions about why the Twins don't put him back at third base ever since and they'd finally died down before Ron Gardenhire gave him a surprise start at second base last week.

Cuddyer was a bad defender at third base in 2005, with Ultimate Zone Rating pegging him as 10 runs below average per 150 games, so he'd presumably be downright awful moving back there after not playing the position at all for the past five years. Plus, while it would certainly improve the Twins' lineup the true impact would likely be overstated because Jim Thome and Jason Kubel aren't good versus lefties and Delmon Young isn't very effective versus righties.

@ThomasKelsey: Do you think Danny Valencia at least can be Kevin Kouzmanoff?

Danny Valencia being as good as Kevin Kouzmanoff is closer to the best-case scenario than an "at least" scenario. Kouzmanoff spent most of his career in MLB's most pitcher-friendly park, yet his numbers in the majors are more or less the same as Valencia's numbers at Triple-A. In the minors he batted .332/.395/.556--including .368/.426/.643 at Double-A and Triple-A--and Kouzmanoff was already an above-average everyday player for the Padres at Valencia's age.

@RyanHyde10: How good is Kyle Gibson?

Kyle Gibson struggled Saturday for the first time, but he still has a 2.27 ERA, .219 opponents' batting average, and 67-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 75 innings. He's not quite in the elite tier of pitching prospects because he doesn't throw in the mid-90s or miss a ton of bats, but is safely in the second tier as a strike-throwing, ground-ball pitcher with upside as a low-end No. 1 starter or high-end No. 2 starter. He's the Twins' best pitching prospect since Matt Garza.

@MLBgrrl: Why do I love Joe Mauer so much? I'm happily married and have no chance of meeting him?

I'm not sure, because I have a really hard time understanding why anyone would want to lust after someone they have no chance of ever being with.

@_2244: Do you see the Twins moving on a closer this year? Any thoughts on who or the price it would take to acquire him?

I wrote tons about the closer situation this spring, basically concluding the Twins were better off seeing if Jon Rauch (or another in-house option) could get the job done than overpaying for a so-called "proven closer." Rauch is 15-for-17 converting saves with a 2.74 ERA, so my opinion certainly hasn't changed. Closer is the most overrated "position" in baseball and it's funny how everyone saying Joe Nathan's injury would cost double-digit wins have vanished.

@djjlav: Is Matt Guerrier the most underrated Twin in terms of attention received by the local/national media and fans?

Generally speaking non-closer relievers don't get much attention and Matt Guerrier is further overlooked because his raw stuff doesn't blow anyone away, but he has a 3.30 ERA over 428 career innings and has posted a mark above 3.50 just once in six full seasons. Setup men are always underrated relative to closers because of the misguided focus on saves, but since his debut in 2004 only three Twins pitchers have a higher Win Probability Added than Guerrier.

(Twins pitchers with a higher WPA since 2004: Nathan, Johan Santana, and ... Juan Rincon.)

@nicosamuelson: Now that Ken Griffey Jr. has retired, who's the greatest center fielder of all time still active?

Jim Edmonds, although many people seem to have a hard time believing that despite the fact that he's an eight-time Gold Glove winner with 385 homers and a .284/.377/.527 career line.

@ScandiAngel: Is there an overarching reason that speaks to the Twins' ineptitude versus the Yankees or is the abysmal record simply dumb luck?

I tend to believe there's been a significant amount of bad and/or dumb luck involved, but also think the Yankees have been a) extremely good, b) clearly better than the Twins nearly every season, and c) an especially poor matchup for a staff with strike-throwing, fly-ball pitchers. All of which I wrote quite a bit more about in an entry last month.

@hlrule: Will the high LOB counts and double plays eventually catch up with the Twins?

That's already caught up with the Twins in the sense that it's cost runs and wins, but it's not something that necessarily carries over to future games. Hitting poorly with the bases loaded in April and May doesn't have any impact on games played in August and September. Certainly strong on-base percentages and high ground-ball rates will continue to make the Twins prone to double plays, but hitting with runners on base is generally not a similarly sustainable skill.

@jarends703: Does the All-Star system need to be changed? How would you change it?

I really couldn't care less about the All-Star game at this point, in large part because the focus on first-half performances rather than multi-year track records leads to tons of mistakes in the selection process every season. To me the All-Star teams should feature the best players in baseball, not the guys who played the best for the first half of one season.

@bgipple: Any idea when Derek McCallum will be back for low Single-A Beloit? He's been on the seven-day disabled list for a while.

He should be back fairly soon. Derek McCallum had wrist surgery in mid-May and was given a five-week recovery timetable. This winter he ranked 31st on my list of the Twins' prospects.

@georoam: Why does Gardenhire stick with miserable Jesse Crain?

Amusingly, that was sent in before Jesse Crain blew the lead Saturday.

Coming into Saturday's game he actually had a 3.32 ERA and 14-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings since back-to-back ugly outings in April, but that's the problem with Crain (and why people call him things like "miserable"). He tends to be awful, then pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role, and then immediately be awful again. Crain also has a career xFIP of 4.55, including 4.34 this year, so he just isn't very good.

Also, since I haven't ranted about how stupid "wins" and "losses" are for individual pitchers in a while, allow me to point out that Crain cost Francisco Liriano a win Saturday. Liriano racked up 10 strikeouts in seven innings of two-run ball, but because the guy who relieved him stunk he doesn't get a win. On the other hand, after Crain blew the lead Alex Burnett retired the only batter he faced on four pitches ... and got the "win" when the Twins later scored. Idiotic.

@ThomasKelsey: Why do the Twins hate Anthony Slama?

As my mom always says, "Hate is a strong word." I don't think the Twins put much faith in his minor-league numbers and have never believed he's the real deal. I'm not sure he is either, but much like with Pat Neshek once upon a time at some point the guy deserves a chance to prove it one way or another and he's already 26 years old. For a lot more on Slama, check out my interview about him with Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel last week.

@kdoggm1214: Why aren't you ever on Paul Allen's talk show?

He's never invited me, but Paul Allen does have Seth Stohs on as a regular guest. Both things are probably to his credit.

@Mnbeersportgeek: Any chatter on the Twins trying to acquire Roy Oswalt?

I haven't seen anything to indicate the Twins are legitimate players for Roy Oswalt, although a few prominent writers have suggested they'd be a good fit. I wrote about the possibility last week and basically concluded he'd likely be too costly in terms of both salary and prospects.

@jeffboone: With the Mariners playing so poorly, what are the chances the Twins could make a move for Cliff Lee down the stretch?

Probably even lower than their chances of trading for Oswalt, since Cliff Lee is an impending free agent and the Twins obviously wouldn't be in a position to re-sign him. Would it be worth trading multiple top prospects for a few months of Lee and a couple draft picks? I doubt it and making a big splash like that would certainly be very uncharacteristic. Intriguing to think about, but ultimately pretty pointless for Twins fans.

@jarends703: Could we see a shift to a new era with offense waning?

Between increased steroid testing and various standout pitching performances many are quick to assume a huge shift is taking place in terms of offensive levels dropping, but that really isn't supported by evidence. This year the average team is scoring 4.5 runs per game, which while slightly lower than the 4.6 runs scored in 2008 and 2009 is hardly a massive change. Beyond that, run scoring in general tends to be lower early in the season due to poor weather.

@2ndSwingGolf: Are you a golfer? Big fan of Highland National?

For a couple summers back in junior high I golfed a ton, including many rounds at the course in Highland Park that was just blocks from my house, but I never loved it and was so incredibly inconsistent hitting tee shots with a driver that being decent at everything else was pointless (although I did shoot one randomly great round while vacationing at Madden's). In retrospect I probably should have taken a few lessons first.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ending with a question and answer that no one could possibly care about seems fitting. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, as the response was strong enough that I'll try to make this a regular feature. In the meantime you can follow me and my 140-character ramblings on Twitter.

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