August 31, 2004

The Big Trade

There was a time when a contending team trading for Pat Borders as they geared up for the playoffs would have been relatively big news. I was going to say it would have been "big news" without the "relatively" in front, but then I looked at Borders' numbers and realized that wasn't really true.

At his best, Borders was a catcher with a little pop in his bat and very little else. In his best season, he hit .286/.319/.497 with 15 homers, 24 doubles and 18 walks in 368 plate appearances. That was 15 years ago.

Borders is now 41 years old and his 16th season as a major leaguer, though just barely. Over the past six years, he has a grand total of 116 plate appearances in the major leagues, including 55 with the Seattle Mariners this season. In those 116 plate appearances -- about what an everyday player gets in a month -- Borders has hit .234 with a .254 on-base percentage and a .342 slugging percentage.

His lone remaining skill -- the thing I'm sure caused the Twins to value him enough to trade for him and use a roster spot on him -- is his age and whatever other qualities you want to attach to that. He's a veteran, he's good in the clubhouse, he's good at handling a pitching staff, he's been there before, and on and on and on.

I'm not particularly big on those things being of significant value, but in this case it doesn't much matter. Joe Mauer's knee is not going to allow him to catch again this season and his future behind the plate is in doubt as well. Because of that, and the fact that the Twins planned to have Mauer as their catcher for nearly every game this season, they have been left very thin at the position.

They have been relying on Henry Blanco as their starter, with Rob Bowen as his backup. Blanco's defense has been fantastic and he has done a very nice job with the pitching staff, but the offensive contributions of those two have been so bad that ... well, they've been so bad that adding Borders to the mix doesn't make things any worse.

The real issue here comes down to whether or not Borders is an upgrade over Bowen, and the smaller issue is whether or not upgrading your backup catcher really even matters. The problem with trying to make the comparison is that neither of them have played any sort of significant amount in the major leagues during the past several seasons. As I said, Borders has just 116 plate appearances going back as far as six seasons, while Bowen has a total of 43 plate appearances in his entire career.

Those types of sample sizes are so small that literally anything could happen in them. However, I think the value from Borders is that he is probably a better defensive catcher than Bowen (44.4% stolen base percentage against over the past two years, compared to 93.3% for Bowen) and less likely to "give away" at-bats in key situations.

In other words, both catchers have hit very poorly, but Bowen has looked completely lost at the plate while doing so. In 37 at-bats, he has struck out 14 times (37.8%) and has just four hits. And he was no better at Double-A, hitting .198 with a strikeout in 30.6% of his at-bats.

Basically what this entire deal comes down to is the fact that the Twins were apparently not comfortable with Bowen getting about three at-bats a week during the final month of the season and perhaps another at-bat every other game in the postseason.

I can't say that I blame them, but when you look at it that way, it's probably not even worth the amount of words I've already devoted it. However, I'd like to take it one step further. In order to acquire Borders and make the ever-so-slight upgrade at backup catcher, the Twins had to send the Mariners a minor league outfielder named B.J. Garbe.

Why is that notable? For one reason: Garbe was the Twins' first-round draft pick back in 1999. With the fifth overall pick that year -- three picks after the Marlins took Josh Beckett, four picks before the A's took Barry Zito, and five picks before the Brewers took Ben Sheets -- the Twins selected Garbe, a toolsy high school outfielder from Washington. Five years later, they've traded Garbe for a 41-year-old catcher who figures to get about 30 at-bats for the rest of the season.

And you wanna know the really sad thing? It wasn't a bad trade.

Garbe has been such an awful player throughout his minor league career that I see very little chance of him becoming anything more than a role player in the majors, if that. There have, of course, been players who have performed as poorly as Garbe has early in their career and gone on to big things, such as the Twins' own Torii Hunter, but you can't hold onto every struggling former prospect in the hopes of that happening.

In order to keep Garbe and not risk losing him in the next Rule 5 draft, the Twins would have had to again use up a spot on their 40-man roster on Garbe, which just doesn't make sense for a guy hitting .201 at Double-A in an organization flooded with outfielders who can actually hit. So, rather than lose a #5 overall pick who got a signing bonus of nearly $3 million for nothing, the Twins have "cashed him in" for Borders.

Baseball sure is a funny game sometimes.

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The New Guy Hits, The Old Guy Talks

With 25 singles, 10 doubles and 13 home runs in 184 at-bats this season, Justin Morneau has a .549 slugging percentage. If he had enough playing time to qualify for the batting title, his slugging percentage would rank 11th in the American League.

The last Twins hitter to slug that high in a season with at least 175 at-bats was Shane Mack, with a .564 slugging percentage in 303 at-bats during the strike-shortened 1994 season. In fact, since the Twins won the World Series in 1991, Mack is the only Minnesota hitter to slug higher than Morneau's current mark.

Here's the Twins' all-time slugging percentage leaderboard ...

                         YEAR      SLG       

Harmon Killebrew 1961 .606
Harmon Killebrew 1969 .584
Rod Carew 1977 .570
Shane Mack 1994 .564
Harmon Killebrew 1967 .558
Tony Oliva 1964 .557
Harmon Killebrew 1963 .555
Bob Allison 1964 .553
Gary Gaetti 1988 .551

Not bad for a 23-year-old rookie, huh?

In a related story, the man Morneau replaced at first base, Doug "The Mouth" Mientkiewicz, had some interesting words for his former team recently.

Here's a quote, courtesy of the Boston Globe:

"I don't think Terry [Ryan] wanted to trade me," Mientkiewicz said. "I know Terry didn't want to trade me. It wasn't Terry. Our owner [Carl Pohlad] just found out I got traded, like a week ago. He's furious. I know that for a fact."

I'm not sure what's funnier here, the fact that Carl Pohlad just found out "like a week ago" that his team's first baseman was traded about a month ago, or the fact that Mientkiewicz thinks Pohlad would be "furious" about something that took him three weeks to learn about.

As he is wont to do, Dougie continued:

"Terry called me three or four times after a game and said, 'I can't do it.' I said, 'Then you better do something about it in there [the clubhouse], because it's not a happy situation.' The man [Gardenhire] did me wrong."

I've had the opportunity to speak with some people who were close to the situation and the general feeling I got was that Mientkiewicz was simply not interested in stepping aside for Morneau. The fact that he was traded this season and had some friction with Ron Gardenhire is perhaps unfortunate, but his eventual departure was as inevitable as Mientkiewicz mouthing off about it once he got to Boston.

Mientkiewicz wasn't hitting, Morneau was. Mientkiewicz is 30 years old and making millions, Morneau is 23 and making the league minimum. It doesn't take a genius to see that something had to give, particularly because Mientkiewicz himself is implying that he would not have handled being Morneau's backup very well.

Also, file this one under "be careful what you wish for." When you're a 30-year-old first baseman struggling to get your slugging percentage to .400 and you've got one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball on your tail, you might not be too happy with what happens when you tell the General Manager of the team that he "better do something about it because it's not a happy situation." Terry Ryan did something about it and it is now a very happy situation.

Mientkiewicz went on:

"The one thing I'll always wonder is, we have a DH for a reason," said Mientkiewicz. "Yep, it [the trade] will come back and get them."

I think the implication here is that Morneau stinks on defense and thus Mientkiewicz should have remained the team's first baseman. The problem with that logic is that the Twins also had to find at-bats for Shannon Stewart, Lew Ford and Jacque Jones, in addition to Morneau. Which of those guys would you bench in favor of Mientkiewicz?

Incidentally, I have been pleasantly surprised with Morneau's defense. He doesn't have Mientkiewicz's range, but neither do about 20 other starting first basemen around baseball. Morneau is far from a butcher out there and I think he's excellent at scooping poor throws out of the dirt, which is perhaps the single most important skill for a first baseman to have. And, unlike Mientkiewicz, he hasn't hit like a middle infielder.

As for the trade coming back to "get them," that isn't even an issue. For one thing, Mientkiewicz, even at his best, is not an elite player. For another thing, he has been far from his best the entire year, even since coming to Boston. He hit .246/.340/.363 for the Twins and is hitting .245/.273/.358 for the Red Sox.

Since the team benched Mientkiewicz back in early July, they are 27-21 (.563), compared to 45-47 (.549) prior to that. Since getting rid of Mientkiewicz completely, they are 15-13 (.536). And all of those numbers without Mientkiewicz have come during what is, without question, the most difficult portion of their schedule.

Here's my favorite Mientkiewicz quote (which is saying something, since the article is like four pages long):

"From my perspective, I was a winner who wasn't very expensive. In the baseball scheme of things right now, I'm a very cheap alternative to what you have to pay other guys at my position. To me, I'd take 25 Bill Muellers over a five-tools guy any day of the week. He's going to win more games for me."

First of all, I'm not sure who the "five-tools guy" is that Mientkiewicz is referring to here, since there's no way anyone has ever accused Justin Morneau of having more then 2-3 tools. In fact, I would say Mientkiewicz has Morneau out-tooled.

Mientkiewicz is right that he is relatively cheap for a starting first baseman, but, as I said, the problem with that logic is that Morneau makes about 10% of Mientkiewicz's salary and that will be the case for at least a couple more years.

Also, the problem with bringing Bill Mueller into this whole conversation is that Mueller is actually playing well. He won the AL batting title last season and is hitting .286/.365/.448 for the Red Sox this year. According to Value Over Replacement Player, Mueller has been worth 20.3 runs over a replacement-level third baseman offensively in just 84 games this season, while Mientkiewicz has been worth 0.4 runs over a replacement-level first baseman in 99 games.

I don't want to come across as someone who dislikes Mientkiewicz, because he was actually a favorite of mine ever since he joined the Twins and I also appreciate a player who is willing to speak his mind. However, this comes across as nothing but sour grapes, a veteran player who is upset because he was pushed aside for a younger, better player.

If Mientkiewicz had played a little better this year, perhaps the Twins would have waited to make the switch until the offseason or even midway into next year. Unfortunately he didn't, and it's very difficult to stick with a first baseman slugging .363 when you've got a guy in the minors hitting .300 with a homer every three games.

I like Mientkiewicz and I wish him well in Boston, but there's no way I will ever be convinced that trading him was a bad decision. Justin Morneau is the real deal and he needed to play first base every day, and I'd say the Twins waited about as long to make the switch as they possibly could have.

It's nice to have a first baseman with some power, and while there have been some plays that Morneau missed that Mientkiewicz probably would have made, the position is still first base and Morneau's homers have made me forget all about Mientkiewicz and his defense (that is until he opened up his mouth).

And really, if Twins fans are going to get all hot and bothered about letting a first baseman leave, I think the first guy on the list might be David Ortiz, who finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Red Sox last season and is hitting .301/.375/.605 with 33 homers, 40 doubles and 114 RBIs for them this year. Ortiz was let go in favor of Doug Mientkiewicz.

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August 30, 2004

Little Ground Lost and Eyeing the Finish Line

It wasn't the greatest weekend for the Twins, as they dropped two out of three to the Angels, but it was a safe weekend because they lost just one game off their lead in the American League Central standings, as Cleveland and Chicago split their four-game series.

I keep re-figuring this in my head after every game because it makes me feel better about winning the division, so I might as well share it with you: If the Twins play .500 baseball for the rest of the season, the Indians would have to go 22-8 (.733) to catch them, while the White Sox would have to go 25-9 (.735).

That might sound a little too possible at first, but you have to remember that the Twins, once they finish up their three-game series with the Rangers that starts tomorrow, are pretty much done with the difficult portion of their schedule. After weeks and weeks of playing all of the AL playoff contenders, they host Kansas City following the Texas series, before heading to Baltimore and Detroit.

Their remaining schedule looks like this:

7 vs. Cleveland

6 vs. Chicago
6 vs. Baltimore
4 vs. Detroit
3 vs. Texas
3 vs. Kansas City
3 vs. New York

The seven games left against Cleveland (all in the final two weeks of the season) and six left against Chicago mean the Twins aren't going to put this completely out of reach at any point, but it's going to take a major collapse down the stretch for them to avoid a third straight division title.

Incidentally, I think what the Twins have been able to do over the last month or so, facing by far the toughest portion of their schedule, is very impressive. Starting on July 26, they have played 32 games, with all but three of them being against New York, Boston, Oakland, Anaheim, Texas, Cleveland and Chicago. During that stretch (which has three games against Texas remaining), they've gone 18-14.

All they need to do now is find about a dozen wins left in that schedule.

On a somewhat related note, the Twins have called up their top prospect, Jason Kubel, who I wrote about here last week. This might seem surprising, since rosters don't expand to 40 until September 1, but this move was made a couple days early in order for Kubel to be eligible for the playoff roster.

Which, incidentally, lends a little credence to my theory that the Twins think of Kubel a lot like they thought of Joe Mauer, which is to say a little higher than they thought of guys like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Lew Ford. All of which means I'm still holding out hope that Kubel, and not Jacque Jones, will be their Opening Day rightfielder in 2005.

New article at The Hardball Times: Wrapping Up the Weekend

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August 26, 2004

Reader Mail (All Twins, All The Time Edition)

Would you believe people are complaining about me writing about the Twins over at The Hardball Times too much? As if they'd rather I write about the Royals and Orioles than discuss the best pitcher in the league.

Anyway, at the risk of people complaining that this blog has become too Twins-centric (save your breath on that complaint, by the way), here are some Twins-related e-mails I've gotten recently ...

Regarding Twins prospect Jason Kubel, who I wrote about on Wednesday, Andrew writes:

I saw Jason Kubel play for the Red Wings tonight in Buffalo. I hadn't seen him play before, so I was curious as to what he was like, and picked seats right along the first-base line.

As it turned out, he played left field tonight, so he was quite distant from me, and his first at-bat looked awful; two called strikes and a swinging third that looked like the ball was in another zip code from where he was swinging. He ended up going 0-for-3 with a walk, but after that first at-bat he made pitchers work; his third at-bat (in the seventh) was ended by an impressive running catch by the leftfielder in foul territory.

His last at-bat, though, impressed me with his patience against closer David Lee for the Bisons. He worked the count full, fouled off a couple more, and drew a walk that spawned a rally for Rochester that fell just short in a 3-2 loss.

What struck me about Kubel was, oddly, his fielding, which sounds weird for a corner outfielder. In the third inning, a Bison led off with a triple, the next one struck out, and then a long fly was hit to Kubel. The Bison runner tagged up, and Kubel threw home and nabbed the Bison running from third.

It was a very accurate throw, and the local fans booed but it was a good (if close) call. Considering he hasn't played in Buffalo more than a few times so far (Rochester plays here only eight times a year, and a few were when he was still in New Britain), it says a lot that he knew that it might be possible to beat the runner with a throw home. Certainly not a wondrous fielder (that's what we have in center), but one who seems to know what he's doing and willing to learn about different parks and opponents.

While these are my impressions of Kubel from one game, what do you know about his fielding, if anything?

Great e-mail, thanks Andrew.

The reports on Kubel's fielding are usually that he's a solid but unspectacular corner outfielder with a very good arm, but definitely could not handle center field on a regular basis. All of which is why his likely destination in Minnesota is right field.

My suggestion is that the Twins should replace Jacque Jones with Kubel next year and, while that will be a downgrade defensively, Kubel should be able to make up for some of that with his arm. It's not that Jones' arm is bad, but the problem is that half his throws literally don't even make it back to the infield without bouncing. He has some serious issues with his release point.

On a play at third base or home plate, his throw is either right on the money or it take eight bounces just to get to the cutoff man. It's a very strange thing, almost like Jones has the corner outfield version of whatever Rick Ankiel has (or had, if you've seen his numbers in the minors this year).

Staying on the subject of Kubel and Jones, here's an e-mail from none other than the Twins Geek himself, the world famous John Bonnes:

You're the second person in a week that I've seen suggest that Kubel will be in the lineup next year if Jones isn't. Given the Twins caution with prospects, I just don't see it. I don't think they'll re-sign Jones, but don't you think they play Ford in RF and have LeCroy DH? That also cleans up the LH thing. My guess would be:

1) Shannon Stewart - R

2) Lew Ford - R

3) Joe Mauer - L

4) Justin Morneau - L

5) Torii Hunter - R

6) Corey Koskie - L

7) Matt LeCroy -R

8) Michael Cuddyer - R

9) Punto/Veteran - R

I like that lineup. Maybe Hunter and LeCroy swap if LeCroy gets hot. Or, if LeCroy continues to struggle, or an OF gets hurt and has to play DH, we might get to see Kubel in there, but we won't see it in April or May.

There's no way they enter 2005 with Matthew LeCroy as the everyday designated hitter. Just no way. They tried that in 2003 and they tried that this season. In the past he has hit well while losing his job, but this year he hasn't even done that. I'm not sure what LeCroy's role will be with this team next year, but I'd bet a large sum of money that it won't be the everyday DH. That is, of course, if I had a large sum of money (or any sum of money).

I think John's belief that Kubel won't begin the season with the team is a solid one, if only because, as I've lamented here numerous times, the Twins never seem to do things quickly. Justin Morneau is their first baseman and cleanup hitter, but it took a while (and 38 Triple-A homers) to happen. Lew Ford has been their most valuable offensive player, but he's 28 years old and this is his first time playing regularly. And they still won't let Michael Cuddyer play more than once a week.

However, I have some hope that the Twins might view Kubel differently than guys like Ford, Cuddyer and even Morneau. What I mean is that the Twins' decision-makers gush over Kubel much like they gushed over Joe Mauer, and they don't seem to point out his faults like they often did with Morneau. And if the Twins view Kubel as similar to Mauer, he could very well be thrown into the fire right away, just like Mauer was this season after just 73 games above Single-A.

Regarding me saying "Carlos Silva is not an option against the Yankees (or anyone) in the playoffs" after his horrible outing against New York last week, Jim writes:

At some point I remember you seemed pretty high on the Silva but now you've soured on him. I'm wondering what role you see him settling into? He can't strike anyone out, thus relying on getting a timely grounder. I see him as a middle reliever guy that comes into trouble to face a right hander and hopefully induce a DP.

First off, I really don't remember ever being particularly high on Silva. I said I liked the trade that sent Eric Milton to the Phillies for Silva and Nick Punto, but that had more to do with getting rid of Milton's $9 million salary for this season than anything else.

I see Silva as a perfectly mediocre back-end-of-the-rotation starter, nothing more. He doesn't strike anyone out and he gives up home runs, which is an awful combination. However, he also throws strikes, has been very cheap, and, so far at least, pretty durable, which makes him someone who is nice to have soaking up innings at the end of the rotation. That said, if a team is counting on Silva to start a playoff game, they are in trouble. I have no dreams of him becoming anything better than an innings eater, but he does a fine job at that job, which has some value.

Oh, and by the way, the trade is still a good one and I'll argue that until Luis Rivas has a good season. Milton has a shiny won-loss record thanks to some incredible run support, but his pitching has been no better than Silva's this season. In fact, their numbers are amazingly similar, as they have both thrown 160.2 innings and they both have a 4.71 ERA. It's almost eery.

              IP      ERA      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     QS     VORP

Milton 160.2 4.71 .319 .511 .830 .271 15 16.5
Silva 160.2 4.71 .347 .474 .820 .274 13 18.8

One of those guys is being paid $9 million this year, while the other is being paid $340,000. Which do you think the Twins and their $55 million payroll are better off with?

See ya Monday ...

New article at The Hardball Times: Reader Mail (No More Twins! Edition)

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August 25, 2004

Twins 8, Rangers 5

Some notes on last night's game ...

  • Joe Nathan is a complete mess right now.

    He went 29 straight innings without allowing a run and converted 27 straight saves. Then, last week against the Yankees, Nathan fell apart, giving up four runs while blowing the save and getting a loss. He then gave up a run in his next appearance and followed that up with blowing another save against the Rangers on Tuesday. So 24 hours later, Nathan came into last night's game with a three-run lead to protect in the bottom of the ninth inning and, although he converted the save, looked terrible.

    He walked the leadoff man, Eric Young, gave up a single to David Dellucci, got Michael Young and Hank Blalock to strike out (both looking), and then walked Mark Teixeira to load the bases. The third and final out of the inning came on a long fly ball to deep center field by Laynce Nix, who missed a game-winner homer by about 10 feet and a game-tying double by about three feet.

    Plus, in addition to the actual results of his pitching over his last three appearances, Nathan simply doesn't look good out on the mound. He's got that sort of confused look on his face that bad closers get when they're just hoping the ball gets hit at someone, and that's completely different than the "Here it is, try to hit it" look Nathan has had for most of the year.

    Nathan has no control of his breaking ball and it is forcing him to throw his fastball right down the heart of the plate. His fastball is generally 95-96 MPH, which is why he's not a complete disaster right now, but I wouldn't be surprised if he blows several more saves before the end of the season.

    Getting him back on track and getting his confidence back (Henry Blanco may have set a record for most trips to the mound in a scoreless inning last night) should be priority #1 for the Twins right now, because they aren't doing anything in the playoffs if he's pitching like this at the end of games.

  • Who woke Luis Rivas up?

    Rivas came into last night's game hitting .208 since the All-Star break and .210 in August (and .247 on the year, for that matter), and proceeded to double, triple and homer before the eighth inning was over. He got another at-bat in the top of the ninth inning to try to single for the cycle, but flied out to center field.

    Any time Rivas wants to impersonate an actual hitter it's perfectly fine with me, but the problem is that, in all likelihood, he'll go back to stinking starting with today's game, but last night's outburst will "earn" him all sorts of slack (and playing time) from Ron Gardenhire and Twins fans.

    In other words, he's been stinking for months (and, in the larger scheme of things, for years), but I'd be willing to guess that his three hits last night did more to boost his stock in Gardenhire's mind than all of his awful hitting since the All-Star break has done to drop his stock, combined.

    For all my fellow poker players out there, here's a really awful analogy: What Rivas did last night is like when you decide to see the flop with some crappy hand like J-6 off-suit and the flop comes J-J-6. Sure, you flopped a monster hand and won a big pot, but now you're probably going to be tempted to play hands you should be folding.

    Luis Rivas is a seven-deuce off-suit and that stinks, no matter how many flops come 7-7-2.

  • Kyle Lohse was once again awful last night, giving up five runs in five innings while getting his seventh "win" of the season. Normally I'd use a game like last night to ridicule the importance most baseball fans place on a pitcher's wins and losses, but I'm sick of doing that lately and I'm only going to get sicker once Mark Mulder steals Johan Santana's Cy Young award.

    Santana now leads Mulder in the following categories:

    - ERA

    - Batting Average Against

    - On-Base Percentage Against

    - Slugging Percentage Against

    - OPS Against

    - Strikeouts

    - Strikeouts Per Nine Innings

    - Walks

    - Walks Per Nine Innings

    - Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio

    - WHIP

    - Quality Starts

    - Quality Start Percentage

    - Average Game Score

    - DIPS ERA

    - Component ERA

    - Win Shares

    - Win Above Average

    - Win Shares Percent

    - Runs Saved Above Average

    - Value Over Replacement Player

    - Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement's Buster Olney, on his choice for AL Cy Young: "Mulder is the Cy Young right now for me."

    I assure you, he's not alone. The idea that in the year 2004, intelligent baseball fans, some of whom are paid nice salaries to report on and analyze the game, cannot get past the fact that a pitcher who has 17 wins might not be better than a pitcher who has 14 wins is one of the most mind boggling non-developments in sports history.

    And yeah, I know I just said I wasn't going to use last night's game to complain about this. And yeah, I know Santana hasn't actually been robbed of his award yet. Consider this a preemptive strike.

New article at The Hardball Times: Enigmatic Disappointment to Superstar in 465 At-Bats

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