January 11, 2007

Fire Away: The Answers (Part 2: Baseball Questions)

Monday's request for questions garnered the response I expected, which is to say I got a whole bunch of them (about 50 in the comments section and another three dozen or so via e-mail). Rather than pick out a handful to answer in Gleeman-length detail, I figured the better plan was to respond to as many of them as possible by being relatively brief (for me, anyway) and breaking the answers down into two separate entries. In other words, I answered half yesterday and will answer the other half today.

Yesterday's half of the responses included what I'd classify as "random questions," which basically meant stuff about this blog, my personal life, and my opinions on non-baseball topics. Today's half of the responses will deal strictly with baseball-related questions, most of them focusing on the Twins. It seemed natural to break it down that way, so that those of you who are bored by one or the other can plan your reading accordingly. Now then, my responses to the baseball questions you guys sent in ...

(Questions are bold and underlined, while my responses are ... well, you can figure it out from there.)

Who do you think will get most of the DH at-bats for the Twins? White? Kubel? And is there any chance the team will come anywhere close to league-average production from the DH spot?

As things stand now, the Twins have little choice but to go with some combination of Rondell White and Jason Kubel at left field and designated hitter. I suspect they want Kubel to play left field, but the health of his knees will ultimately determine that. Neither player is a great defender, but if Kubel is relatively healthy they're both above average out there, which means the DH question is really a DH and left field question.

The average DH hits around .275/.350/.470, while the average left fielder hits about .275/.345/.440. Those numbers are going to be tough for the Twins to match with White and Kubel, but I suspect both players will be significantly more productive than most fans think. White batted .289/.341/.476 in the three years prior to joining the Twins and hit .321/.354/.538 in the second half after getting his shoulder and swing straightened out. Kubel's ZiPS projection has him at .284/.342/.477.

What do you think the Twins' starting rotation will look like this coming season and will it affect our team because we have usually been able to depend on a good starting rotation to begin the season?

It's true that the Twins have generally had good starting pitching during their six-year run of success, but it's also true that simply having Johan Santana accounts for a lot of that. You may think that they "depend on a good starting rotation to begin the season," but the starters were horrendous to begin last year, posting a combined 6.93 ERA through 18 games. In fact, take out Santana and Francisco Liriano, and the rest of the rotation went 40-47 with a 5.89 ERA overall last season.

The perception seems to be that the rotation is in shambles--half the Twins-related questions were on this subject--but that's overstated. Instead, the rotation is simply going to be filled with young, relatively unproven pitchers, which many people equate to being in shambles. However, Santana is still the best pitcher in baseball, and Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have spots locked up behind him. I'm not optimistic that Silva will return to his past success, but I do think Bonser will be a capable No. 3 starter.

That leaves two spots open for some combination of Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, Sidney Ponson, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey. Garza certainly wasn't great after coming up from the minors last year, but my sense is that he has all but secured the fourth spot, leaving Perkins, Ponson, Baker, and Slowey to fight over the last vacancy. Now, if you have zero trust in young pitching or gave up on Garza because of 50 mediocre innings, then certainly the rotation looks like a mess behind Santana.

However, Garza is among the elite pitching prospects in baseball--remember, Liriano didn't exactly light the league up during his debut either--and Perkins and Slowey aren't that far behind. Bonser pitched well enough last year to convince me that he's solid and while the Twins may have given up on Baker, I remain convinced that he can be a capable third or fourth starter. I don't have much hope for Ponson, but as veteran spring-training fliers go, he's not a bad one.

Any chance Mike Smith gets another crack in '07? And, more importantly, is he still sporting the greasy mullet?

The odds are against Mike Smith ever pitching for the Twins again, but if someone in the bullpen gets hurt I could see them giving his mullet a look in middle relief.

What is the status of Shannon Stewart?

Shannon Stewart is a free agent after playing out his three-year contract with the Twins. I've heard no indication that the Twins are interested in bringing him back and he's garnered little public interest from other teams due to his declining play and the uncertain nature of his foot problems. Incidentally, for all the misguided talk about Stewart being the team (or even league) MVP in 2003 and all the excitement from fans about re-signing him to a long-term deal, he was a bust from 2004 on.

He hit well in 2004, but missed 70 games because of injuries. He missed "only" 30 games in 2005, but hit poorly. And then last year he missed 118 games and hit poorly. Dealing for him in mid-2003 was a great move that worked out perfectly, but giving him $18 million for the next three seasons ended up being a relatively big mistake. For their $18 million, the Twins got an increasingly sub par defensive left fielder who hit just .287/.347/.405 while missing 218 of a possible 486 games.

I had a question involving the Twins' farm system and international signings. How come the Twins don't sign more teenagers from Latin America? Every year there's highly talented youngsters and they never take a shot on any of them. Why not?

I think this is a misconception, because the Twins sign many teenagers from Latin America. However, they don't have the budget available to sign high-profile players from those countries, who tend to flock to teams like the Yankees and Mets for what is often $1 million or more. The Twins don't sign big-time foreign prospects for the same reason they don't sign big-time free agents. Instead, they focus on cost-efficient signings and focus more of their scouting attention on places like Australia.

Among the players ranked in my ongoing Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2007 series, seven were signed internationally by the Twins. Juan Rincon and Luis Rodriguez were both signed by the Twins out of Venezuela as 17-year-olds. And if you want to dredge up painful memories, the Twins found Luis Rivas in Venezuela as a 16-year-old. The Twins certainly focus more on the draft and trades to stockpile prospects, but they go after foreign teenagers too.

Do you think the Twins will sign Torii Hunter to a long-term contract before or after the season, or will the Twins just trade him at the trading deadline?

My guess, at this point, would be "none of the above."

I've heard a rumor about the possibility of the Twins signing Mark Mulder. Does this hold any truth at all? I really really want to believe this.

There's zero truth to any Mark Mulder-to-the-Twins rumors, which--PLUG ALERT!--you'd know if you watched my weekly video report on NBCSports.com. Mulder said publicly last week that he narrowed his choices down to St. Louis, Texas, and Cleveland. It sounds like he's on the verge of re-signing with the Cardinals for $13 million plus incentives over two years, which means he was well out of the Twins' price range anyway.

Will the Twins sign other veteran starters like Bruce Chen or Ramon Ortiz?

I hope not. One thing I've often accused the Twins of is not trusting the young talent they've developed nearly enough, choosing instead to block their path to playing time with mediocre (or worse) veterans. There are numerous examples of this over the years, with Juan Castro and Tony Batista being the most recent. The rotation options are collectively very young, but it's also a very deep, talented group that doesn't need to be stifled by a bunch of veterans pulled from the scrap heap.

I'm not against taking a flier on someone like Ponson, but if the Twins are going to settle for a 5.50 ERA from guys like Bruce Chen or Ramon Ortiz, they might as well let a couple prospects with actual long-term potential take the innings. Just as I'd always take my chances with Jason Bartlett over Castro despite their experience gap, I'll take my chances with Bonser, Garza, Perkins, Slowey, and Baker rather than multiple washed up veterans whose main asset at this point is being born in the 1970s.

What is keeping Bert Blyleven out of the Hall?

Thirteen wins and a bunch of stubborn, misguided voters who have a lack of understanding about performance analysis.

Are you going to be at Twins Fest? This will be the first year I will be able to make it and was wondering if it's worth the time. I really want some autographs (how tough are these to get?) and also want to get my hands on some early tickets.

I've been to Twins Fest a couple times in the past, but my complete lack of interest in autographs made it a pretty mediocre experience. If you're into looking at a bunch of Twins-related stuff or waiting in line for 20 minutes to have Jesse Crain put his signature on a baseball, then you'll love it. Also, it's a good opportunity to eat some Dome Dogs in the middle of winter and you might run into Seth Stohs.

I think one of the big reasons Joe Mauer was originally a fan favorite was not only because of his good ball-playing ability, but because he's home grown. Do you see him sticking with his home for a while longer? Or do you think money will get the best of him sooner than later?

When questions like this start popping up already, it really makes me think Twins fans are far too obsessed with the idea of losing star players for monetary reasons. Joe Mauer is under the Twins' control through at least the 2009 season and you'd be hard-pressed to name a recent Twins star who left because the team didn't have enough money to retain him.

ESPN.com has speculated recently that the Yankees have been stockpiling prospects recently in an effort to prepare for a future trade for Johan Santana. What are your thoughts on the Twins' ability to keep Johan Santana after his contract expires. Is it realistic to expect the Twins to be able to retain Santana?

The sudden influx of "will the Twins lose Santana?" stories is the offseason's most overblown topic. There's been an insane amount of spending on the free-agent market this offseason, with some huge contracts handed out, but Santana's situation remains unchanged. In fact, nothing that happened this winter has caused the going rate for elite, Hall of Fame-caliber players to rise dramatically. It's always been sky high, as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Derek Jeter can attest to.

Regardless of how much Barry Zito made this offseason, Santana was always going to be in line for a long-term deal worth in excess of $20 million per season. That number shocks a lot of people and many fans assume the Twins simply can't pay one player that much, but I don't think that's the case. If the Twins can pay Joe Mays $7.5 million in 2005, Brad Radke $9 million in 2006, and Hunter $12 million in 2007, they can certainly pay the best pitcher in baseball $20 million in 2009 and beyond.

I'm sure we'll be bombarded with plenty of Santana-to-the-Yankees speculation over the next year, because Yankees fans are obsessed with being able to pluck star players from other teams and Twins fans are obsessed with losing star players over money. Of course, most of the prospects the Yankees "stockpiled" for a potential Santana trade aren't good and Santana is under the Twins' control with a no-trade clause through 2008, which is the sort of information that gets lost in the hysteria.

If Santana wants to stay in Minnesota, the Twins will have more than enough payroll room to make him a fair-market offer. If he wants to hit the open market and sign with the highest bidder, the Twins have no chance to retain him. That's always been the case, dating back long before this offseason, and it's sort of amusing that the issue has seemingly snuck up on the local media all of a sudden.

When will the next Twins decline begin? Is trading Santana key for them to avoid their next skid?

First, I don't think trading one of the five best players in all of baseball is ever the "key" for a team "to avoid their next skid." Beyond that, if the Twins are going to decline, it likely won't be for several years. Santana is signed through 2008, Mauer and Justin Morneau are signed through 2009, and the new ballpark opens in 2010. By that time, I suspect fans will be fretting about Garza or Kubel leaving as a free agent down the road, and the whole cycle will begin again.

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