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.

July 7, 2010

Checking in on the Twins’ top prospects (and a possible Cliff Lee deal)

Twins prospects are suddenly a popular topic with everyone wondering what type of package the Mariners may accept for Cliff Lee, so I thought it would be worthwhile to check back in on my preseason top five prospects to see how they're faring and how it could impact a potential trade for the ace left-hander. In no particular order ...

Miguel Sano is a very, very long way from the majors, but the early returns on last season's record-breaking $3.15 million investment are looking pretty great for the Twins. Sano debuted weeks after his 17th birthday, homered in his first professional at-bat, and hit .344/.463/.547 in 20 games in the Dominican Summer League to earn a quicker-than-expected promotion to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League ... where he singled in his first at-bat earlier this week.

Rarely does a 17-year-old making his professional debut show good plate discipline and hitters from the Dominican Republic are especially known for hacking at everything, yet Sano drew 14 walks in just 80 plate appearances. Now, two of those walks were intentional and given how thoroughly Sano destroyed DSL pitching several others were probably of the quasi-intentional variety, but his simply not having an immediate aversion to free passes is a pleasant surprise.

• On the other hand, Wilson Ramos has been totally overmatched by Triple-A pitching, posting a hideous 41-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio while hitting just .208/.244/.319 in 52 games. Ramos showed reasonable enough plate discipline in the low minors, but since advancing to Double-A last year he has 14 walks and 64 strikeouts in 106 games. He's making contact at a palatable rate, but the total lack of patience is disturbing along with a .427 career slugging percentage.

Ramos remains a very solid prospect largely due to projecting as a good defensive catcher, but it was always wishful thinking to assume he was even close to an MLB-ready impact bat and that notion now looks silly. With that said, he's still just 22 years old and has fewer than 450 plate appearances above Single-A, so there's no need to sour on Ramos too much. However, if the Mariners view him as an acceptable centerpiece for a Lee trade, it would be very tempting.

• Much less tempting is a report that the Twins have offered both Ramos and Aaron Hicks for Lee, which is far enough above other rumored offers for Lee and previous midseason hauls for impending free agents that I'll assume it's off base. Hicks has been somewhat disappointing since a great debut at rookie-ball in 2008 and his .256 batting average in 143 games at low Single-A is a concern, but he also has 92 walks and 51 extra-base hits in those 143 games.

Few truly excellent prospects have .256 batting averages in the low minors, but his strikeout rate isn't absurdly high and a speedy 20-year-old center fielder drawing 92 walks in 638 plate appearances qualifies as an exceptional skill from which to build. Even with Hicks' stock falling a bit he's still a notch above the quality of prospect I would feel comfortable parting with for a half-season rental and compensatory draft prospects. His upside is just too high.

Ben Revere led the minors with a .379 batting average when he was at the same level and the same age Hicks is right now, but his OPS has dropped 200 points in the two seasons since then. Even coming back down to earth Revere has still hit .311/.372/.369 in 121 games at high Single-A last year and .307/.380/.361 in 64 games at Double-A this year, but the difference is that he lacks the patience and power potential to have the same type of room for growth.

In the past two years Revere has a .375 on-base percentage and .365 slugging percentage, while Hicks has a .363 OBP and .396 SLG. Almost identical, except Revere has done that with a .310 batting average and Hicks has hit .256. Obviously it's better to hit .310 than .256, but in terms of projecting future value Revere will have to bat .300 to make a major impact whereas Hicks could do so at even .275 because he'll tack on significantly more walks and power.

Kyle Gibson went through a brief rough patch at Double-A last month, but has bounced back with three straight impressive starts in which he allowed a total of two runs in 20 innings. He hasn't been nearly as dominant at Double-A as he was at high Single-A to start the season, as his ERA has nearly doubled, his strikeouts are down 10 percent, he's induced 15 percent fewer ground balls, and his opponents' batting average is up 20 percent.

However, some deterioration is expected as a player moves up the minor-league ladder and that mostly just shows how great Gibson was at high Single-A, because a 3.56 ERA, 51-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 54 percent ground-ball rate in 61 innings at Double-A is still plenty strong from a 22-year-old. It's tough to project him as a future ace based on his performance so far because his strikeout rate isn't great, but one step below that seems doable.

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I'd probably shift the order around somewhat, but my preseason top five prospects would still be my midseason top five prospects. In terms of what I'd feel comfortable parting with in a Lee trade, my focus would be trying to sell Seattle on a deal built around either Ramos or Revere. Ramos because he's a bigger question mark than widely assumed and probably destined to be traded at some point anyway, and Revere because his upside is basically Juan Pierre.

If the Mariners are willing to take Ramos or Revere plus a mid-level prospect or two the Twins would be smart to pull the trigger. And if they're willing to include underrated reliever Brandon League along with Lee it would even make sense for the Twins to give up Ramos and Revere. I'd balk at anything beyond that, including a Hicks/Ramos package. Lee is amazing, but getting him for half a season guarantees nothing and that's just too much long-term value lost.

July 6, 2010

Cliff Lee rumors

I generally try to avoid getting too caught up in trade speculation here, but last night the Cliff Lee-to-the-Twins rumor mill started churning enough for me to believe there might actually be some fire behind the smoke. For now I'm hoping this report is wrong (or at least exaggerated).