December 20, 2004

Deadline Day

The big story today is that arbitration-eligible players must be tendered contracts for the upcoming season by 11 p.m. tonight or they will become free agents immediately. Typically this time of year results in a sort of second wave of free agent becoming available, as teams decide various players don't fit into their plans any longer.

For the Twins, there are some major decisions to be made. Jacque Jones, Luis Rivas, Matthew LeCroy, Johan Santana, J.C. Romero, Carlos Silva, and Kyle Lohse are all arbitration-eligible and must either be offered contracts or let go. There are different levels of arbitration eligibility and salaries based on service time, which makes some of the decisions no-brainers.

Silva and Lohse, who combined to make around $735,000 last year, should both be retained for 2004 at reasonable salaries. And, of course, Santana will be back at whatever cost is necessary (and hopefully the team is making progress with him on a long-term deal). That leaves Jones, Rivas, Romero, and LeCroy as the real decisions, and I'd like to discuss each of them a little bit.

Jacque Jones | 30 Years Old | Outfielder

The basic feeling among Twins fans seems to be that the money the team "saved" by not re-signing Corey Koskie will be used on retaining Jones, but I think that would be a major mistake. Before Jason Kubel's knee injury, the idea was that he would replace Jones, allowing the Twins to cut Jones and use the money elsewhere. Kubel's injury changed that plan a bit, but even without him the Twins are just fine in the outfield -- Shannon Stewart in left, Torii Hunter in center, and Lew Ford in right.

They do need a DH (Kubel would have played right field, pushing Stewart or Ford to DH), but spending a huge chunk of the payroll -- perhaps as much as $6 million -- on Jones would be foolish. Jones hit .254/.315/.427 in 2004, production that is far below average for a corner outfielder. He will also be 30 years old in 2005 and has yet to turn himself into anything but a liability against left-handed pitching. Even in 2003, when Jones batted an impressive-looking .304, his on-base percentage was just .333 and he slugged only .464, both merely right around average for a corner outfielder.

On a lot of teams, re-signing Jones for $6 million wouldn't be a tough decision -- he's a good defensive player with the potential to be a solid offensive contributor. On the Twins, however, he represents a luxury they can't afford. They don't need help in the outfield as much as they need help in other places, and they certainly can't be throwing around $6 million for a guy who might be an average player at his position in a good year.

I had hoped the Twins would shop Jones this offseason and trade him for some middle infield help or a young pitcher or something, but at this late date that's no longer an option. I'm still holding out hope that they won't commit what may end up being more than 10% of their total payroll to a guy who will probably be the team's fourth-best outfielder.

Verdict: Let Go

Luis Rivas | 25 Years Old | Second Baseman

Holding on to Rivas was one thing when he was cheap -- he made right around the league minimum in his first three years and got a raise to $1.5 million this season. However, now that he's in a position to get expensive, the idea that the Twins would continue to pay him while waiting for him to cease being a bad player is really mind boggling.

If the Twins had retained Koskie, Michael Cuddyer could have been given the second base job and Rivas could have been given his walking papers. Now that Koskie is gone, the talk is that Cuddyer will slide over the third base, leaving second base to Rivas for another year. Suffice it to say I think that would be a mistake.

Rivas has now played four full seasons in the big leagues without showing any sort of overall offensive improvement.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+

2001 .266 .319 .362 .682 79
2002 .256 .305 .392 .697 86
2003 .259 .308 .381 .689 80
2004 .256 .283 .432 .715 82

Rivas' raw OPS jumped over .700 for the first time as an everyday player this season, which would make it seem like he improved offensively. However, that is due to improved power (a good thing), which came along with even less plate discipline than usual (a bad thing). The end result was trading some on-base percentage for slugging, which makes your OPS look better but does nothing for your all-around value (as shown by his adjusted OPS+ staying at the same level).

Rivas' supporters (and the herd is thinning, thankfully) have always talked up his youth and potential. At this point, he is no longer all that young (2005 will be his age-25 season) and players with tons of potentially typically show some of it by the time they have nearly 2,000 plate appearances in the major leagues.

Rivas is what he is -- a 25-year-old whose development has stalled, perhaps in part because he was pushed too fast by the team when he was legitimately young and full of potential. Or maybe, as I've argued before, Rivas was never all that full of potential to begin with. His minor-league numbers are far from impressive, and the real reason people thought he was going to become a good player was based on his being so young.

Well, now he's 25, he's starting to get expensive, and he's no better than he was four years ago. It's time to cut bait, but sadly I'm guessing the Twins won't.

Verdict: Let Go

Matthew LeCroy | 29 Years Old | Designated Hitter

Take a look at the following two players and what they've done offensively over the past three seasons:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS

Player A .286 .330 .468 .798
Player B .275 .327 .458 .785

One of those guys is Jones and the other is LeCroy. I could tell you which is which, but for the purposes of this little exercise it doesn't much matter. Now, clearly Jones has value in areas LeCroy does not. Jones is a very good defensive player who can play any of the three outfield spots, while LeCroy is a born DH who can struggle along at first base or catcher for a few innings at a time.

However, the Twins have three perfectly capable starting outfielders already, so their need for a hitter in the DH spot is just as strong as their need for a corner outfielder. So, if you've got all three outfield spots accounted for by solid players and you've got an opening in the lineup at DH, who is the more desirable player? I'd still go with Jones, but there is one other thing to consider: Jones will likely make about four times as much as LeCroy in 2005.

If you can leave Stewart, Hunter, and Ford alone in the outfield and put LeCroy at DH, get 90% of the offensive production you would have gotten out of Jones, and save $3-4 million in the process, that's my idea of an easy decision. And this doesn't really have as much to do with LeCroy as it does with the fact that there are all sorts of guys capable of putting up decent numbers in the DH spot for a lot less than $6 million a year.

LeCroy still fits into the Twins' plans for the very reason Jones no longer should: he's still cheap.

Verdict: Keep

J.C. Romero | 29 Years Old | Relief Pitcher

I could go either way on Romero, who has been a maddeningly inconsistent player, seemingly alternating dominant performances with trips to the mound where he can't even find the plate. Still, he has been a very valuable reliever in two of the past three years, and I think he has been better than most fans give him credit for.

I suspect a lot of the Twins' thinking behind keeping Romero would be based on the fact that he's left handed and the only other lefties the team currently have -- Santana and Terry Mulholland -- will likely begin the season in the rotation. However, as several teams have shown in recent years, having a lefty in the bullpen just to say you have a lefty in the bullpen is silly. For instance, the Angels have gone without a lefty reliever for huge parts of the past few seasons and have typically had one of the better bullpens in baseball.

The Twins, with their assortment of right-handed power pitchers, could certainly feature a similar, lefty-barren bullpen. When you can trot out flamethrowers like Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon in front of Joe Nathan, and perhaps even add J.D. Durbin to the mix, the lack of a lefty shouldn't be a concern at all.

Still, even ignoring which hand Romero throws with, I think the Twins would be smart to keep him around for 2005. Without Romero, the bullpen remains a strength for the team, but it could be one of the best, most powerful, and deepest in baseball with him around. He has thrown 218.1 innings with a 3.34 ERA over the past three years, holding opponents to .234/.338/.331, and has been nearly as effective against righties (.238/.348/.364) as he has against lefties (.230/.324/.286). Unlike with Jones or Rivas, that is difficult production to replace.

Verdict: Keep

Today at The Hardball Times:

- Blowing Up the A's (by Aaron Gleeman)

- The A's/Cardinals Trade: the St. Louis Perspective (by Brian Gunn)

- Rivals in Exile: Feeding Frenzy (by Ben Jacobs and Larry Mahnken)

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