November 6, 2006

Did Anything Happen While I Was Gone?

The first couple weeks following the Twins getting knocked out of the playoffs were filled with little in the way of actual news, aside from the team predictably exercising its $12 million option on Torii Hunter for 2007. Then I left the friendly confines of my bedroom by heading to New York (and Connecticut) for a few days and three discussion-worthy stories immediately emerged. It was like the Twins waited until I boarded the plane Wednesday night and then said, "He's gone, start the offseason!"

While I was doing all sorts of exciting things that perhaps I'll tell you about in great detail at some point, Hunter won his sixth straight Gold Glove Award, Carlos Silva's $4.3 million option for 2007 was picked up, and Francisco Liriano was scheduled Tommy John surgery. I've discussed all three issues here already while waiting for the offseason to get going and certainly none of the developments come as a surprise. Instead, they each sort of fall under the heading of "well, now it's official."

I've felt for months now that Liriano would eventually require surgery, although my non-medical opinion meant nothing beyond the fact that I read up on his injury and talked to some people who actually know something about it. In the end that's exactly how it played out, with the Twins putting off surgery for a while in the hopes that rest and rehabilitation could "fix" Liriano's problem (which everything I've read suggested was highly unlikely, at best).

After seemingly just delaying the inevitable to stall for a miracle (the real kind, not something involving Olympic hockey or Doug Flutie), the Twins ultimately went with Dr. Lewis Yocum's recommendation that Liriano's damaged elbow ligament needed to be replaced. Losing him for 2007 is a tough bit of news to get in early November, but it's only "news" in the sense that it wasn't 100 percent fact prior to now.

As discussed here following Liriano's second failed comeback attempt of the season, Tommy John surgery is far from a career-wrecker at this stage. In fact, there's plenty of evidence--including an excellent article in the soon-to-be-released Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007--to suggest that the surgery may help a percentage of those who have it and, at the very least, restores the vast majority of pitchers to their pre-injury effectiveness.

It is, as I've now taken to repeating in regard to Liriano, a mere speed bump on the road to greatness. One in ten major-league pitchers have undergone the surgery Liriano is undergoing today. Among those pitchers, nine in ten have come back from it with excellent results, typically within 18 months. In case you're curious, Liriano will be all of 24 years old in 18 months. The odds are in favor of him starting Game 2 of the 2008 season, after Johan Santana takes the mound on Opening Day.

Liriano's situation combined with Brad Radke's likely retirement (or similarly lengthy recovery from shoulder surgery) no doubt pushed the Twins in favor of paying Silva $4.3 million to return in 2007. It's an interesting decision to analyze, because there's no real argument for Silva deserving anywhere close to that kind of money based on his actual performance. He went 11-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 2006, giving up 246 hits in 180.1 innings, including a league-leading 38 homers.

Silva was certainly decent at times, which tends to be the case with any pitcher who's given 31 starts, but the end result was one of the worst seasons in recent memory. In fact, he posted the single worst ERA of any American League pitcher with 180-plus innings in a season since the mound was lowered in 1969:

                      YEAR      ERA
CARLOS SILVA 2006 5.94
Bobby Witt 1999 5.84
Jose Mercedes 2001 5.82
Zack Greinke 2005 5.80
Jaime Navarro 1997 5.79

In other words, over the span of 38 years, no AL pitcher has pitched at least 180 innings while being less effective than Silva was in 2006, which is amazing given that he did that pitching for a division-winning team. The idea that someone who sits atop the above list deserves $4.3 million the next season is absurd on the most basic level, particularly on a team where that accounts for about six percent of a mid-level payroll.

Within that ugly ERA were some similarly ugly numbers, including a steep decline in ground-ball percentage (to the point that Silva can no longer be called a "ground-ball pitcher"), the continued presence of an almost non-existent strikeout rate, and a ton of line drives and big flies. In other words, whether you think he's salvageable or not--and apparently pitching coach Rick Anderson does--Silva deserved his horrible ERA in 2006.

With that said, the Twins are in clear need of starting pitching and understandably felt that they needed to fill at least one of the rotation vacancies behind Santana with a veteran. I would argue that they'd have been better off cutting Silva loose and then using his $4 million to shop for someone better on the free-agent market, but the team apparently prefers the devil they know. Much like overpaying Hunter by a couple million bucks, giving Silva far more money than his performance warrants won't kill the Twins.

However, when taken together, the decision to pick up both options has sapped the Twins of any real ability to fill holes through free agency. Unless the payroll is significantly and unexpectedly raised, it's unlikely that a veteran third baseman or designated hitter will be brought in and it's unlikely that another veteran starting pitcher will join Santana and Silva in the rotation. Instead, Terry Ryan will hope his scrap-heap buys turn out a little better than they did in 2006 and perhaps focus on improving via trade.

Unlike the news on Liriano and Silva, Hunter taking home another Gold Glove has no real impact on the Twins. In fact, it has no real impact, period. Season-ending awards have taken on less and less significance over the past few years, at least for me, and the Gold Gloves in particular have come to mean almost nothing. There are so many examples of players winning the award despite being clearly undeserving that it's difficult to take it seriously as a legitimate honor.

Derek Jeter, who most Yankees fans would even admit is far from the best defensive shortstop in the league, has now won three straight Gold Gloves. Because he had won the Gold Glove in the previous two seasons, Rafael Palmeiro was named the best defensive first baseman in the league for a 1999 season that saw him play the position a grand total of 28 times. There are plenty of other examples, but I think you get the point.

As national writers have outlined, the managers who vote for the award tend to give it little thought, which is why a player can usually count on a long winning streak once he secures that first Gold Glove. The actual voting process is a joke, the people casting ballots don't take it seriously, and the results are often illogical. It seems obvious that being a "Gold Glover" should carry almost zero weight, yet to the average fan it continues to mean something.

All of which is a very long way of saying that Hunter winning the award in a season that saw him struggle defensively is no surprise. Twins fans will no doubt point to his winning the award as some sort of proof that Hunter didn't suffer any kind of decline in center field this season--plenty ignored it without an award to cling to, after all--but anyone who watched him out there should be able to see through that way of thinking with ease.

For much of the year Hunter was very good defensively, but for a non-trivial stretch of time he was bordering on downright bad. Whether or not that adds up to deserving a Gold Glove is perhaps up for debate, but it's not one I'll be participating in. If it's meaningful to someone, somewhere, that Jeter and Hunter have been deemed the best defensive players at their respective positions for the 2006 season, then so be it and long live the Gold Glove.

To recap: Liriano is undergoing season-ending elbow surgery today (possibly while you're reading this), the Twins have chosen to pay Silva $4.3 million after he turned in one of the worst seasons by a starting pitcher in a long time, and Hunter has been given an award that purports to name him one of the league's elite defensive players for 2006. If nothing else, I guess that'll teach me to get out of bed.

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