January 9, 2012

Leftover notes on Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer

I wrote plenty about Josh Willingham replacing Michael Cuddyer when the Twins signed him last month, but here are some leftover notes about their new right fielder and old right fielder:

• If you don't count re-signings and Tsuyoshi Nishioka's posting fee the $21 million deal given to Willingham is bigger than any two previous Twins free agent signings put together. And the $10.5 million difference between Willingham's deal and Cuddyer's contract with the Rockies is larger than any Twins free agent signing from 1961-2010.

• Cuddyer made his MLB debut on September 23, 2001, starting at designated hitter in place of David Ortiz against Indians lefty Chuck Finley. Brian Buchanan was the cleanup man and the other seven hitters in the lineup were Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie, Torii Hunter, Bobby Kielty, and Tom Prince. Cuddyer walked in his first plate appearance, went 1-for-2 with a double, and the Twins lost 4-2.

• Willingham didn't make his MLB debut until age 25 and didn't become a regular until age 27 despite hitting .277/.415/.512 in the minors, including .324/.455/.676 at Triple-A.

• Of the 47 players selected ninth overall in draft history Cuddyer ranks eighth in Wins Above Replacement despite being just 33 years old. Cuddyer has 11.8 WAR for his career, and Kevin Appier and Barry Zito are the only No. 9 picks with at least 20 WAR.

• Florida selected Willingham out of the University of North Alabama with the 491st pick in the 2000 draft. One pick later the Twins selected Paul Maholm, but failed to sign him.

• Over the past three years Cuddyer hit 48 percent ground balls and grounded into 21 double plays per 600 plate appearances, while Willingham hit 34 percent ground balls and grounded into 10 double plays per 600 plate appearances. Few hitters are on first base more often than Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Jamey Carroll, so Willingham's ability to avoid double plays can have a sizable impact.

• Compared to Cuddyer during the past three seasons Willingham has struck out 40 percent more often, walked 44 percent more often, hit for 17 percent more power, and been hit by 129 percent more pitches.

• Willingham has a .213 career Isolated Power, which would be fourth in Twins history behind Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, and Justin Morneau. Cuddyer has a .179 Isolated Power.

• Cuddyer ranks 12th in Twins history with 1,139 games, between Greg Gagne with 1,140 and Cesar Tovar with 1,090, and ranks 16th in Twins history with a .795 OPS, between Marty Cordova at .799 and Jason Kubel at .794. He's also 10th in hits, 10th in homers, 10th in RBIs, and 11th in runs.

• According to Fan Graphs pitch values Willingham was 44 runs above average versus fastballs from 2009-2011, compared to four runs below average versus fastballs for Cuddyer during that time. Cuddyer was more effective than Willingham against sliders, curveballs, changeups, and cutters, doing most of his damage versus off-speed stuff.

• Cuddyer swung at 17 percent more pitches than Willingham from 2009-2011, which includes swinging at 65 percent more pitches outside the strike zone.

• In describing himself as a hitter following the signing Willingham said: "I think I'm at my best when I'm going deep into some counts and working some walks and seeing a lot of pitches."

• Willingham was linked to the Indians, but they dropped out citing a poor fit defensively and after signing with the Twins he revealed that the Reds were his second choice.

• Willingham and Ryan Doumit share the same agent in Matt Sosnick.

• Among free agent corner outfielders signed in the past five offseasons Cuddyer's three-year, $31.5 million deal is tied with Raul Ibanez for seventh-largest behind Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Manny Ramirez, and Jose Guillen.

• Willingham got the same three-year, $21 million deal that the Dodgers gave Juan Uribe last offseason. Uribe is a shortstop/third baseman, but also a career .253/.298/.423 hitter.

Dan Szymborski's great ZiPS projection system over at Baseball Think Factory has the Twins getting $25 million worth of value from Willingham during his three-year, $21 million deal.

• Along with saving $10.5 million over three seasons, by swapping Cuddyer for Willingham the Twins also added the No. 32 and No. 65 overall picks in June's draft.

December 16, 2011

Twins sign Josh Willingham, say goodbye to Michael Cuddyer

With their three-year, $25 million offer to Michael Cuddyer on the table for almost two weeks and no resolution in sight the Twins decided to move on, replacing his right-handed bat in the middle of their lineup by signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million deal. Cuddyer then signed with Colorado for three years and $31.5 million, so by swapping 33-year-olds the Twins save $10 million, get two draft picks, and maybe even wind up with the superior player.

At a minimum Willingham is the superior hitter, offsetting lower batting averages than Cuddyer by offering considerably more power and plate discipline. This year their overall production was nearly identical, as Cuddyer hit .284/.346/.459 with 20 homers and an .805 OPS in 139 games and Willingham hit .246/.332/.477 with 29 homers and an .810 OPS in 136 games. However, in 2010 and cumulatively during the past three seasons Willingham's edge over Cuddyer is clear:

2011            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .284     .346     .459     .805     121
Willingham     .246     .332     .477     .810     121

2010            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .271     .336     .417     .753     107
Willingham     .268     .389     .459     .848     129

2009            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .342     .520     .862     124
Willingham     .260     .367     .496     .863     127

2009-2011       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .341     .465     .806     117
Willingham     .257     .360     .479     .839     125

That certainly isn't a massive difference, but during the past three seasons Willingham topped Cuddyer by around 20 points of on-base percentage and 15 points of slugging percentage, all while playing in pitcher-friendly ballparks and grounding into one-third as many double plays. Willingham has been more consistent as well, posting an OPS above .800 in each of his six full seasons in the majors while Cuddyer cracked an .800 OPS three times in eight full seasons.

Willingham has also displayed a less extreme platoon split than Cuddyer, who often struggled against right-handed pitching. Willingham hasn't crushed left-handed pitching quite as well as Cuddyer, but hit a robust .249/.368/.514 off lefties from 2009-2011 and also hit .259/.358/.466 off righties. By comparison Cuddyer hit just .267/.320/.424 off righties from 2009-2011, which is below average for a corner outfielder. Cuddyer crushes lefties, but Willingham hits everyone.

He's one of MLB's most powerful right-handed bats, averaging 27 homers and 32 doubles per 550 at-bats for his career. Among all right-handed hitters with 1,500 plate appearances since 2009 he ranks 11th in Isolated Power, sandwiched between Alex Rodriguez and Matt Kemp, and his adjusted OPS+ ranks 16th. And as Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy pointed out in an analysis of Willingham's swing, his dead-pull approach should be an ideal fit in Target Field.

Defense is a different story, as Willingham is a poor left fielder with limited experience in right field and little action at first base since the minors. Ultimate Zone Rating pegs him as 6.7 runs below average per 150 games in left field since 2009 and his numbers in right field are similar. Ideally he'd be a designated hitter and that may be an option at times, but it sounds like the Twins want Willingham to replace Cuddyer in right field.

That won't be pretty, but neither were Cuddyer's numbers in right field. Ultimate Zone Rating shows Cuddyer as 10.5 runs below average per 150 games in right field since 2009 even with his strong arm factored in. Cuddyer also has experience at first base and can be an emergency option at second base and third base, so he has considerably more versatility than Willingham, but in terms of simply turning fly balls into outs they've been similarly bad.

As a walks-and-power, fly ball-hitting slugger with poor batting averages, big strikeout totals, and little range Willingham is an obvious departure from the typical Twins mold. He's also the most expensive free agent signing in Twins history, although that isn't saying a whole lot for a team that had never dropped even $10 million on an outside free agent. Across baseball $21 million over three years won't rank among the dozen biggest contracts of the offseason.

And while a 33-year-old is at risk for decline Willingham has yet to provide less than $7 million worth of value in six years as a big leaguer, with Fan Graphs pegging his all-around production at $11 million per 140 games. That includes valuations of $11.5 million, $12.4 million, and $9.4 million during the past three seasons, so even if Willingham slips a bit in his mid-30s the Twins should get solid value in the form of a skill set they've struggled to develop internally.

Willingham has generally been a better player than Cuddyer, besting him in metrics like Wins Above Replacement, but they're very similar and close enough in value that an argument can certainly be made for preferring Cuddyer, as the Twins know what they're getting and clearly loved him on the field and in the clubhouse. However, factoring in the money saved and draft picks gained makes it much tougher to justify a preference for Cuddyer over Willingham.

No picks were lost to sign Willingham, but the Twins get two picks for losing Cuddyer. Because the Rockies went 73-89 in 2011 the compensation for Cuddyer isn't as strong as if he'd signed with a winning team, but the Twins get two of the top 70 picks in June's draft and can add a pair of quality prospects to a farm system in need of help. Based on draft studies those two picks project to be worth $3-5 million and then there's the $10 million saved in salary.

Cuddyer was the Twins' first-round pick in 1997, worked his way through the minors to debut in 2001, and leaves as one of the best, longest-tenured, and most-beloved players in team history. Keeping him around would've been nice, but it's unclear if Cuddyer wanted to remain in Minnesota and ultimately the Twins were able to replace him with a similar and arguably superior player for $10 million less while adding two valuable picks. They made the right call.

December 14, 2011

Report: Twins close to three-year, $21 million deal with Josh Willingham

Nothing official yet, but Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Twins are "very close" to signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract to replace Michael Cuddyer. Once things are finalized I'll have a full write-up here, but in the meantime you can read my article from earlier this week examining whether the Twins would be better off re-signing Cuddyer or signing Willingham.

December 12, 2011

Michael Cuddyer or Josh Willingham?

Nearly a week ago the Twins made Michael Cuddyer a three-year contract offer believed to be worth $25 million, and depending on which reports you choose to trust he's either holding out for more money to re-sign or hoping another teams steps forward with a similar offer because all things being relatively equal he'd rather not return to Minnesota. Or maybe he's just been too busy with newborn twin daughters to make a decision.

Whatever the case, the wisdom of re-signing Cuddyer involves factors that go beyond his age, performance, and salary. For one thing, if Cuddyer signs elsewhere the Twins would receive a first-round pick and supplemental first-round pick as compensation, which studies have shown is a combination worth approximately $5 million. That type of value (and two quality prospects) shouldn't be brushed aside, particularly for a team whose farm system has slumped of late.

Replacing his right-handed bat in the middle of a lefty-dominant lineup is also an issue, but the Twins have reportedly been preparing for that possibility by reaching out to free agent corner outfielder Josh Willingham. By choice or not, if the Twins were to let Cuddyer walk and sign Willingham to replace him they'd gain two valuable draft picks as part of the switch and, based on recent speculation about Willingham's likely asking price, might even save some money.

On the most basic level the question about re-signing Cuddyer is whether he'll be worth $25 million for the next three seasons, but on a deeper level the question should be whether he's more valuable than Willingham and two picks (and possibly some extra cash too). Not only is that a tough case to make, there might be a stronger argument for Willingham simply being a better player than Cuddyer even before factoring in the draft picks or money.

Cuddyer and Willingham are both 33-year-old corner outfielders with poor range, but Cuddyer has a better arm and offers more versatility defensively. This year Cuddyer hit .284/.346/.459 with 20 homers in 139 games for the Twins and Willingham hit .246/.332/.477 with 29 homers in 136 games for the A's. Combined during the past three seasons Cuddyer hit .276/.341/.465 and Willingham hit .257/.360/.479. Here are their year-by-year and 2009-2011 numbers:

2011            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .284     .346     .459     .805     121
Willingham     .246     .332     .477     .810     121
2010            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .271     .336     .417     .753     107
Willingham     .268     .389     .459     .848     129
2009            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .342     .520     .862     124
Willingham     .260     .367     .496     .863     127
2009-2011       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
Cuddyer        .276     .341     .465     .806     117
Willingham     .257     .360     .479     .839     125

Cuddyer has consistently posted a higher batting average than Willingham, but the superior overall production has typically come from Willingham because he offers more power and plate discipline. However you slice it they're extremely similar players in terms of age, handedness, skill set, and performance, with Cuddyer likely holding a slight edge defensively and Willingham holding a slight edge offensively.

Given all those similarities I'm willing to believe the Twins would be better off sticking with the guy they know and clearly love, but there's a huge difference between preferring Cuddyer to Willingham and preferring Cuddyer to Willingham, two high picks worth millions of dollars, and perhaps some extra money. Subjectively the Cuddyer decision is no doubt very tough for the Twins, but objectively it's even tougher to argue that Willingham wouldn't be a better option.

December 9, 2011

Twins Notes: Slowey, Turpen, Doyle, Hunt, Popham, Florimon, and Cuddyer

Kevin Slowey and the Twins have been headed for divorce since they demoted him from the rotation in favor of Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn during spring training and he reacted poorly to the idea of becoming a reliever. He lasted much longer than I ever expected, making it through the season with a team that grew to despise him, but the two sides finally parted ways as the Twins traded him to the Rockies for a marginal reliever prospect in Daniel Turpen.

Slowey absolutely deserves plenty of criticism, both for his attitude and performance, but the Twins also created the ugly situation by dumping a 27-year-old career-long starter with a 4.41 ERA from the rotation and trying to force him into a role he was unwilling or unable to accept. Duensing and Blackburn combined for a 4.87 ERA in 54 starts while Slowey's stock plummeted so far that the Twins dumped him for a reliever who won't crack my top 40 prospects list.

No one should come off looking good, yet the local media focused on portraying Slowey in the worst possible light while freeing the Twins of any responsibility. He was ripped for refusing to accept an understandably upsetting demotion and for supposedly faking arm issues, and once it became clear the Twins no longer wanted anything to do with Slowey the criticism became absurdly personal. Following the trade, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan wrote:

Slowey, we hardly knew ye. Oh, wait, yes we did. That's why Twins traded the jerk for a boiled hot dog and a used spit cup.

Terry Ryan made the deal of winter meetings. Traded Slowey for a human.

That's just the culmination of his season-long bashing and while Souhan is the most extreme example he was hardly alone. I'm not defending Slowey's pitching or behavior, but the media coverage was laughably one-sided and the personal attacks were both pathetic and plentiful. Slowey showed how not to handle a demotion, the Twins showed how to squander an asset, and the local media showed how willing they are to rip a guy to shreds if given the go-ahead.

• In trading Slowey to the Rockies the Twins sent him to the worst possible place for a fly-ball pitcher and calling Coors Field home makes it far less likely he'll come back to haunt them. In a neutral environment Slowey remains capable of throwing 150-175 innings with a 4.50 ERA and great strikeout-to-walk ratios, but the odds are heavily stacked against a control pitcher with a high-80s fastball and one of the highest fly-ball rates in baseball thriving at altitude.

Colorado targeting Slowey is weird, but the Rockies probably just saw a 27-year-old formerly decent mid-rotation starter under team control at reasonable salaries for two more years and figured why not pick him up for pennies on the dollar. Turpen was revealed as the player to be named later immediately after the Rule 5 draft was completed and the brief delay was due to the Twins not wanting to protect him from being selected by placing him on the 40-man roster.

Turpen was actually picked by the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft last winter, but didn't stick and is now with his fifth organization in five seasons. He spent this year at Double-A, where the side-arming righty threw 60 innings with a 4.82 ERA and more walks (35) than strikeouts (33). Turpen's previous track record was somewhat better and he's a ground-ball pitcher with good velocity, but as a 25-year-old reliever yet to reach Triple-A he's a long shot to be useful.

• With the No. 2 pick in the Rule 5 draft the Twins selected right-hander Terry Doyle from the White Sox. Doyle's strong performance in the Arizona Fall League got the Twins' attention, but that involved just eight starts and he split the regular season between Single-A and Double-A despite being a 25-year-old drafted out of college in 2007. He fits the Twins' mold with good control and a low-90s fastball, throwing 173 innings with a 3.07 ERA and 122/33 K/BB ratio.

Rule 5 picks must remain in the majors all season or be offered back to the original team. Last year the Twins took Scott Diamond from the Braves and rather than keep him on the roster traded former second-round pick Billy Bullock for the ability to stash him in the minors. I hated the move, as Bullock had far more upside as a hard-throwing reliever with big strikeout totals, and the Twins ended up promoting Diamond to the majors in July anyway.

Presumably by passing on various higher-upside arms to take Doyle with the No. 2 pick they're willing to simply keep him in the majors as a long reliever and mop-up man. Vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff told John Manuel of Baseball America that the Twins think Doyle "has got the ability to be a fourth or fifth starter" with velocity that ranges from "marginal" to "average." Not exactly what I'd target atop the Rule 5 draft, but he's not without potential.

• Despite leaving some decent prospects unprotected the Twins lost no one in the big-league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Shooter Hunt was taken by St. Louis in the minor-league phase, but the 2008 first-round pick's complete inability to throw strikes took him off the prospect radar long ago. Hunt once projected as a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, but he's yet to move beyond Single-A and has a 6.85 ERA with 236 walks in 193 career innings.

They also selected right-hander Marty Popham from the Indians in the minor-league phase and unlike Doyle he can remain in the minors. Popham is another strike-thrower with low-90s velocity and the former 20th-round pick tossed 112 innings with a 4.58 ERA and 106/25 K/BB ratio between high Single-A and Double-A as a 23-year-old. Major-league Rule 5 picks rarely pan out and minor-league Rule 5 picks almost never pan out, so he's likely just Triple-A depth.

• Baltimore trimmed Pedro Florimon from the 40-man roster after an abbreviated September call-up and the Twins claimed the 24-year-old shortstop off waivers. Prior to making his debut Florimon spent the year hitting .267/.344/.396 in 133 games at Double-A. Those numbers are mediocre enough for any 24-year-old at Double-A, but also include a poor 114-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio and actually represent the best performance of Florimon's six-season career.

In other words he can't hit, but Florimon has a reputation as a good defensive shortstop and the other middle infielders on the 40-man roster were Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, and Luke Hughes. There isn't a standout defensive shortstop in the bunch and even "middle infielder" is a stretch in some cases, so for now at least a good-glove, no-hit guy is worth adding to stash in the minors even if Florimon's upside is utility man.

• It sounds like the Twins' primary competition for Michael Cuddyer is the Rockies, so he might be reunited with Slowey if they top the Twins' reported three-year, $25 million offer.

• Old friend Jose Morales signed a minor-league contract with the Pirates. Morales was traded to the Rockies last offseason when the Twins opted for Drew Butera as their backup catcher and ended up missing most of the season with a broken thumb.

• I'm assuming ESPN.com chose this picture to accompany Jerry Crasnick's article about Terry Ryan because it features a Phil Mackey cameo.

• Speaking of which, Twins baseball communications manager Dustin Morse shared a photo of Mackey, John Shipley, and Rhett Bollinger grilling Ron Gardenhire at the winter meetings.

Dan Szymborski released his annual ZiPS projections over at Baseball Think Factory and the Twins' numbers ... well, they aren't pretty.

• This week's podcast features lots of talk about Cuddyer, Slowey, Matt Capps, Jason Kubel, and the winter meetings, plus various other beer-fueled randomness, so give it a listen.

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