February 4, 2013

Twins Notes: MLB Network, Capps, Correia, Saunders, and Waldrop

"Clubhouse Confidential" on MLB Network is a really good, sabermetrically inclined show hosted by Brian Kenny and Friday's episode focused on the Twins. They had me on as a guest and then immediately after my segment they interviewed Terry Ryan. You don't see a whole lot of shows that feature a blogger and a general manager, which is why "Clubhouse Confidential" and Kenny are so fun to watch. Here's the opening segment, which includes my appearance:

And here's the interview with Ryan that followed:

I asked them to use the picture of me drinking from Twitter as the headshot, but it was a no-go.

• Two years ago the Twins paid $7.15 million to avoid arbitration with Matt Capps and last year they paid $4.5 million to re-sign him while also forfeiting a draft pick, but after a season in which he was limited to 29 innings by arm problems Capps could manage only a minor-league deal with the Indians. Capps was overpaid and overrated by the Twins at every turn for three years, but as a low-cost middle relief candidate he's a very solid pickup for the Indians.

• Fun facts: Capps has the 10th-most saves in Twins history despite converting just 79 percent of his save chances. Among the 31 pitchers with at least 40 saves from 2010-2012 he was second-to-last in strikeout rate, home run rate, and opponents' batting average. In two-and-a-half years with the Twins he threw 122 total innings, for which they gave up $13 million, Wilson Ramos, and a first-round draft pick. It was a bad trade then and they kept making it even worse.

Kevin Correia has spent his entire career in the National League, posting a 4.54 ERA in 1,066 innings through age 31, which is among the many reasons why it was a bad idea for the Twins to give him a two-year, $10 million contract. Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com asked Correia about the league switch--which has long been considered unfavorable for pitchers--and got an interesting response:

I think in the National League your innings get cut short because you get pinch-hit for in certain situations. So I'm looking forward to seeing how many innings I can put up in the American League for the first time in my career.

Which sounds good until you think about it. There have no doubt been times when Correia was pulled from a game because his spot in the lineup was due up, but that's hardly an every-start occurrence and is more than balanced out by getting to face the opposing pitcher multiple times per game. Last season NL and AL pitchers averaged an identical 5.9 innings per start. For his career Correia has allowed a .400 OPS to opposing pitchers and a .790 OPS to everyone else.

• It sure sounds like the Twins have a one-year offer on the table to free agent left-hander Joe Saunders, but he'd rather return to the Orioles if he can't get a multi-year deal. On last week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Twins president Dave St. Peter made it pretty clear that they still have plenty of payroll space for 2013 but don't want to commit any additional money for 2014 or 2015, so while I'm hardly a Saunders fan overpaying him for one season would make sense.

Kyle Waldrop signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates after the Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster in October. He's been in the organization since 2004, when the Twins drafted him 25th overall with the compensatory pick for losing LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent, but injuries forced Waldrop to switch to the bullpen and at age 27 his upside is limited. Waldrop induces tons of ground balls, but managed just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A.

Jeff Sullivan of Fan Graphs wrote an interesting article about Ryan Doumit and the impact of catcher defense on perceived value.

• I usually post the new "Gleeman and The Geek" episode here on Mondays, but we're recording later than usual this week because John Bonnes goes out of town for Super Bowl weekend every year and I didn't want to subject the world to another "Gleeman Without The Geek" episode like last time. When we do record this week's episode I'd like to include a mailbag segment, so if you have any questions post them in the comments section or send them to me via Twitter.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Rotoworld's annual "Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide," which is available in both magazine and online versions. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

January 30, 2013

Kevin Correia, free agent pitchers, and “better than the numbers”

Last week I wrote about how the Twins giving Kevin Correia a two-year, $10 million deal looks even worse now than it did back in December because so many equal or better starters have since signed one-year deals. That list then added another name when Shaun Marcum took a one-year deal from the Mets worth $4 million plus incentives. Marcum is an injury risk, but from 2010-2012 he threw 520 innings with a 3.62 ERA compared to 470 innings with a 4.77 ERA for Correia.

Here's an updated list of free agent starters who signed one-year contracts:

Brett Myers         Indians       $7.0 million
Scott Feldman       Cubs          $6.0 million
Scott Baker         Cubs          $5.5 million
Shaun Marcum        Mets          $4.0 million
Mike Pelfrey        Twins         $4.0 million
Roberto Hernandez   Rays          $3.3 million
Bartolo Colon       Athletics     $3.0 million
Jason Marquis       Padres        $3.0 million
John Lannan         Phillies      $2.5 million
Jeff Karstens       Pirates       $2.5 million
Jair Jurrjens       Orioles       $1.5 million
Jeff Francis        Rockies       $1.5 million
Freddy Garcia       Padres        Minor League
Erik Bedard         Astros        Minor league

Correia has topped 175 innings just once in his career and of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranks 88th in ERA, 76th in xFIP, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Clearly the Twins are aware of those numbers, so why did they target Correia and feel the need to give him a two-year contract in a market where similar pitchers were available for one-year commitments? Here's what Terry Ryan told Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN:

Well, I always go back to the scouting evaluation, people that have seen him, and we saw him a lot with the Pirates, and certainly before that when he was with the Padres and the Giants. We like his makeup, he has stuff, we had evaluators tell us and me in particular that this guy is better than the numbers.

I have a lot of faith and trust in people that have seen him, and they were adamant that this guy can help us. ... I don't think we overpaid drastically in this situation. People that know him say that he's a good teammate and all that type of stuff, so you take all of that into consideration. We needed pitching badly, so we went and got him.

I've been very skeptical of the recent talk about the Twins increasing their involvement in and reliance on statistical analysis and that quote is a prime example of why. Correia is 32 years old with a decade-long track record of mediocre or worse pitching, but for the Twins that abundance of data took a backseat to "makeup" and being "a good teammate" and their scouts saying "this guy is better than the numbers."

All of which would be fine if Correia were, say, 24 years old with just a couple hundred innings under his belt. In that case relying on scouting would be hugely important and could potentially give the Twins a significant advantage if done well. But at age 32, with 10 seasons and 1,066 innings of experience, Correia is exactly as good as his numbers. And those numbers include a 4.60 ERA in 159 career starts spent exclusively in the NL and a plummeting strikeout rate.

It's also worth wondering why exactly the Twins are so confident in their scouting when it comes to free agent starting pitchers, because their recent track record isn't pretty. They trusted their scouts and overlooked poor numbers to sign Jason Marquis last year and Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson before that. Numbers would have told them to stay away from all four pitchers, who combined to throw 302 innings with a 5.90 ERA for $13 million.

I'd certainly like to see the Twins do more than dip their toes in the statistical analysis pool while so many other teams are swimming laps, but out-scouting other teams remains hugely important. In fact, an argument could be made that the value of out-scouting teams has increased as the MLB-wide reliance on statistical analysis has increased. Teams that zig while other teams zag will always have an opportunity to benefit.

Of course, the "out-scouting" part is what makes that actually work. If instead a team is miles behind many other teams in statistical analysis and continues to target players based on scouting that hasn't done a particularly good job ... well, that's an awfully dangerous combination. And unfortunately when it comes to free agent starting pitchers that's exactly where the Twins find themselves and how they ended up overpaying a mediocre-at-best 32-year-old.

For a lot more about the Twins' rotation plans, plus a lengthy interview with Twins president Dave St. Peter, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Peter David Benson's book "All Babies Suck," which is available on Amazon.com as a free Kindle download. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

November 7, 2012

Waiver wire wrap-up: Casilla, Deduno, Roenicke, and Field

Alexi Casilla made $1.375 million this year and was in line for at least $1.5 million in 2013 via his final season of arbitration eligibility, so my assumption was that the Twins would non-tender him by the end of the month. Instead they shopped him around for a trade, predictably found no takers, and placed Casilla on waivers where he was claimed by the Orioles. And so ends one of the more unproductive, frustrating tenures in recent Twins history.

During his first stint as Twins general manager Terry Ryan gained a reputation for plucking unheralded prospects from the low minors of other farm systems in trades and watching them develop into quality big leaguers. Casilla is an oft-cited example, as Ryan acquired him from the Angels in December of 2005 for setup man J.C. Romero, who'd worn out his welcome by struggling to throw strikes and being ineffective versus right-handed hitters.

At the time Casilla was 20 years old and no one's idea of a top prospect, but was coming off a season spent mostly at Single-A hitting .325 with 47 steals in 78 games and--because some things never change--the Twins were short on middle infield talent. I wrote a positive review of the trade on December 12, 2005, crediting Ryan for getting something of value in return for Romero and his undesirable contract while saying the following about Casilla:

Casilla is a switch-hitting middle infielder who has almost zero power, controls the strike zone, gets on base, and has a ton of speed. ... If Casilla develops well, he could step in at second base and the top of the order when [Luis] Castillo's contract is up in two years. If his development stalls a bit, he could turn into a solid utility man.

Well, sort of. Sure enough Casilla ended up replacing Luis Castillo at second base in mid-2007 and during the next six seasons he was given 1,764 plate appearances to show that he could be that speedy top-of-the-order asset. There were occasional flashes of that player, most notably in 2008, but more often than not Casilla was terrible while his age and experience were frequently overlooked by people focusing on his supposed potential.

For the most part Casilla's contact skills carried over from the minors, as he struck out in just 12 percent of his plate appearances, but despite being a ground-ball hitter with excellent speed his batting average on balls in play was a measly .282. He never developed any power and the good plate discipline he showed in the minors vanished, as he drew an average of just 37 walks per 550 trips to the plate.

Casilla's speed was as advertised and he became an extremely efficient basestealer with a career success rate of 89 percent. Unfortunately for whatever reason he never fully put that elite skill to proper use, attempting a grand total of 80 steals in 515 games. Defense proved to be his biggest strength, particularly at second base, and Casilla's glove is good enough that he doesn't have to hit much to be valuable.

Sadly even "doesn't have to hit much" was too high a standard for Casilla, as he cracked a .700 OPS twice in six seasons and hit .250/.305/.344 overall. Among the 320 major leaguers with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2006-2012 he ranked 295th in on-base percentage, 311th in slugging percentage, and 313th in OPS. And in all of Twins history only Al Newman and Danny Thompson had a lower OPS in more plate appearances than Casilla.

• Two weeks ago I identified 11 "marginal players" on the 40-man roster who could painlessly be dropped to clear space for the offseason and less than 24 hours later the Twins dropped seven of them. They've now dropped an eighth player from that list, passing Samuel Deduno through waivers unclaimed and sending him outright to Triple-A. Deduno had the ability to leave the organization as a free agent, but decided to re-sign on a minor-league deal.

I spent most of Deduno's time with the Twins trying to explain why a poor track record, terrible control, and an awful strikeout-to-walk ratio made his initial success unsustainable. People looking for a reason to believe in Deduno came up with all sorts of theories on why he was different, but in the end he threw 79 innings with a 4.44 ERA that was both worse than the league average and right in line with a 4.73 xFIP based on his terrible 57/53 K/BB ratio.

For a team in desperate need of pitching there was an argument to be made for hanging onto Deduno for a while and that's perhaps why he wasn't among the initial 40-man cuts. On the other hand if the Twins are in position to need meaningful innings from Deduno again that means their attempt to fix the rotation was a flop. They deserve credit for seeing through his smoke-and-mirrors act and for realizing the other 29 teams probably weren't fooled either.

• Along with passing Deduno through waivers unclaimed the Twins also filled two of those 40-man roster spots by claiming Josh Roenicke and Tommy Field off waivers from the Rockies. At first glance Roenicke looks like an excellent pickup. He's a hard-throwing right-handed reliever with a 3.25 ERA in 89 innings this year, which is made more impressive by the fact that he called hitter-friendly Coors Field home.

However, scratch beneath the surface and you'll discover that, not unlike Deduno, his secondary numbers were anything but impressive thanks to a horrible 54-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio and nine homers allowed. None of which is to say that Roenicke can't be a useful player. His fastball averaged 93 miles per hour, which by itself would stand out on the Twins' pitching staff, and Roenicke's slider/cutter has been a plus pitch throughout his career.

Combining good fastball velocity and a quality second pitch is often enough to succeed in a role that requires 20 pitches per appearance and 60-80 innings per season. Of course, that truism about relievers doesn't just apply to Roenicke and at age 30 there isn't a lot in his track record to suggest he's particularly promising. His hard throwing has produced 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings, including 5.5 per nine innings this year, which is below average for a reliever.

Roenicke also has abysmal control, throwing just 45 percent of his pitches in the strike zone on the way to 4.6 walks per nine innings. And as his mediocre strikeout rate would suggest it's not as if his wildness has caused batters to chase pitches. In fact, Roenicke has induced a below-average number of swings on pitches outside the strike zone and an average number of swinging strikes, period. He throws hard, but is very wild and not especially tough to hit.

• Field was a 24th-round draft pick out of Texas State University in 2008, has had a couple brief stints with the Rockies, and spent this year as their starting shortstop at Triple-A. He hit just .246/.315/.400 with eight homers in 121 games, which is bad for any 25-year-old at Triple-A and really bad for someone in hitter-friendly Colorado Springs, which as a team hit .291 with a .784 OPS and had a 5.07 ERA.

Field did show some offensive potential in the lower minors, but his numbers were never anything special and he was old for each level. He'll be 26 years old before spring training and has hit a combined .256/.337/.413 in 278 games above Single-A. Reviews of his defense are positive and he has experience at both shortstop and second base, so Field profiles as a utility man and gives the Twins some middle infield depth right after parting ways with Casilla.

August 9, 2012

Twins’ trade deadline inactivity forces fans to have faith

Last year's July 31 trade deadline came and went without the Twins making a deal, although on August 15 they sent Delmon Young to the Tigers for minor leaguers Lester Oliveros and Cole Nelson. This year they pulled the trigger on trading Francisco Liriano two days before the deadline, acquiring marginal prospects Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Hernandez from the White Sox, and then chose not to make further moves (except later dumping Danny Valencia).

Rarely do struggling teams avoid trading any veterans for long-term help, yet in back-to-back seasons the Twins reached the July 31 deadline with one of MLB's worst records and failed to acquire a single quality prospect. Last year's inactivity stemmed from the Twins misguidedly still believing they had a chance to get into contention, plus the knowledge that they were in line for draft pick compensation for impending free agents Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel.

This season there were no such illusions of contending, but Liriano was their only impending free agent with any sort of trade value and the Twins felt the time wasn't right to deal players signed beyond 2012. It's unclear whether that means the Twins felt the time wasn't right because those players are part of the team's intended plan to contend in 2013 or because they simply hope to get more value for them this offseason, but either way they stood pat.

Aiming to contend in 2013 or waiting until the offseason to deal veterans lead to the same thing, which is not trading Josh Willingham, Denard Span, Justin Morneau, Jared Burton, and others by July 31, but the long-term impact of those scenarios are very different. If they held onto veterans believing they're close to consistently contending again that's "optimistic" without plans to add lots of free agent rotation help and further delays a much-needed rebuild.

However, if the Twins held onto veterans believing that players signed beyond the current season will have a stronger trade market in November than in July that's a calculated risk and certainly defensible. Morneau and Burton are both under team control for next season, Willingham is signed through 2014, and Span's contract runs through 2015, so not trading them by July 31 doesn't rule out eventually trading them.

Terry Ryan and company need to be right about that, of course, and there's definitely reason to be skeptical of Willingham or Burton ever having more trade value than they do right now. And if any team was offering to absorb Morneau's entire $14 million salary for next season and give the Twins any sort of quality prospect, that's a move worth jumping on immediately. Still, in theory at least there was no rush to part with players under team control past this season.

Ultimately it comes down to having faith in Ryan and the front office, first to realize the focus should be on finding young talent rather than trying to contend in 2013 and then to maximize their returns from trading the few veterans with value to other teams. If you have faith, the Twins' trade deadline inactivity shouldn't be troubling. If you don't have faith, the Twins missed an immediate opportunity to restock the farm system and dive headfirst into rebuilding mode.

This week's blog content is sponsored by DiamondCentric's new "Walks Will Haunt" t-shirt, which looks good on any Twins fan. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

July 25, 2012

Twins Notes: Deadline duds, spreadsheet nerds, back hair, and Zubaz

• In what may have been his final start in a Twins uniform Francisco Liriano turned in a clunker Monday night in Chicago, failing to make it out of the third inning while the White Sox got to him for seven runs. Coming into the game Liriano had gone at least five innings in every start since April 27, but he allowed three homers in 2.2 innings after allowing a total of three homers in his previous 71 innings.

Obviously one bad start isn't likely to significantly impact someone's trade value and even with the ugly outing Liriano has a 3.68 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 11 starts since rejoining the rotation in late May. Still, it was rough timing considering he has a maximum of one more start before the July 31 trade deadline and at least a half-dozen scouts were on hand to file reports to interested teams.

In terms of what the Twins might actually get for Liriano, the Marlins' haul for fellow impending free agent starter Anibal Sanchez offers some clues. Miami sent Sanchez and good but not great infielder Omar Infante to Detroit for a three-prospect package led by 21-year-old right-hander Jacob Turner, a 2009 first-round pick who ranked among Baseball America's top 30 prospects in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Fans should be thrilled with a Turner-like prospect.

• On a related note, this week's Gleeman and The Geek episode featured me arguing with John Bonnes about whether or not Liriano's trade value was likely to continue rising if the Twins held off making a trade until right before the deadline.

Terry Ryan made it clear he'll be looking for high-upside prospects rather than MLB-ready prospects at the trade deadline, which is good to hear. Putting a decent team on the field for 2013 would be nice, but taking a short-term view of a long-term problem would be a mistake and Ryan deserves credit for recognizing that even when he might not be general manager for the long haul. They simply need talent and putting any limits on that search is silly.

• Two weeks ago Glen Perkins publicly outed himself as a Fan Graphs-reading, batting average on balls in play-quoting stat-head, which means he's now subject to the same anti-sabermetrics taunting that lowly bloggers like me have long endured on a regular basis. Case in point, this Twitter exchange between Perkins and a media member bully following Monday night's game in which Twins hitters grounded into five double plays:

Nerds are the worst, amirite?

Carlos Gutierrez has been limited to 10 appearances at Triple-A due to shoulder problems and now the 2008 first-round pick may be out until next season following arthroscopic surgery. If healthy Gutierrez still projects as a potential ground ball-getting middle reliever, but with a 4.90 ERA in 257 innings between Double-A and Triple-A his on-field performance has never matched the Twins' frequent touting of his raw stuff and he'll be 26 years old in September.

Brett Jacobson, the minor-league reliever acquired from the Orioles along with Jim Hoey for J.J. Hardy, has been released. Jacobson was always a marginal prospect and completely fell apart at Double-A this season, walking 45 batters and allowing 41 runs in 42 innings. Hoey was lost on waivers to the Blue Jays back in December, so the Twins officially got zero value out of the Hardy trade that was all kinds of misguided even if they'd gotten a better return.

Jason Kubel had a three-homer game this week and is hitting .297/.368/.577 with 21 home runs and an NL-leading 71 RBIs for the Diamondbacks, but it's tough to blame the Twins for letting him walk. Ryan Doumit has matched his Twins production at a fraction of the cost and Kubel has hit .257/.320/.414 away from Arizona's hitter-friendly ballpark. And for all the talk about Target Field killing Kubel's power he hit .275/.335/.450 on the road in 2010-2011.

• I'm not saying this couldn't have been me, but it wasn't me:

My favorite part? Someone else had to do the sculpting of that Joe Mauer back-hair jersey.

• It's too bad that so much of Chris Parmelee's season has been spent collecting dust on the Twins' bench, because when given a chance to play regularly at Triple-A for the first time in his career he's been very impressive. Parmelee, who initially skipped Triple-A to begin this season in the majors, has hit .302/.446/.510 with four homers, eight doubles, and more walks (24) than strikeouts (18) in 28 games for Rochester.

• In their never-ending search for pitching depth the Twins have signed Eric Hurley, a former first-round pick who was released from Triple-A by the Angels. Hurley is still just 26 years old and ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects in both 2007 and 2008, but hasn't pitched in the majors since 2008 and has a 5.43 ERA in 60 career starts at Triple-A. He's purely depth for Rochester at this point.

Trevor Plouffe's thumb injury is a shame, because even after his power binge of 13 homers in 22 games came to an end in mid-June he's hit .283/.354/.460 with five homers, five doubles, and 11 walks in 26 games since. And overall since carrying a .133 batting average into May 15 he's hit .296/.344/.618 with 18 homers in 52 games.

• When asked by Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com if the Twins are shopping Josh Willingham an unnamed general manager replied: "He's out there if you want to pay, like, forever."

Michael Rand of the Minneapolis Star Tribune passes along the best Tom Kelly picture ever:

I'm waiting for Zubaz to make a comeback. Maybe we can get hipsters to wear them ironically?

This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.

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