March 28, 2007

Silva In, Garza Out

As expected, the Twins sent Matt Garza to Triple-A yesterday and handed the final spot in the starting rotation to Carlos Silva. Silva pitched horribly last season and was even worse this spring, while Garza is one of the elite pitching prospects in all of baseball and was fantastic in Fort Myers this month. The Twins' decision had nothing to do with any of that, however. Instead, Silva received a spot in the rotation because the Twins decided back in November to guarantee him $4.35 million this season.

A mistake five months ago essentially locked them into a bad decision yesterday, and now three-fifths of the rotation consists of Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson, who combined to go 26-36 with a 5.84 ERA in 2006. After each of the many times I've written something similar over the past few months, I've gotten comments along the lines of: "What's the big deal? The Twins can always ditch them and bring up the prospects." While technically true, that line of thinking ignores several key points.

First, games played in April and May count as much as games played in August and September. The Twins dug themselves out of a deep hole last year, but planning to do the same every season is hardly a successful strategy. The AL Central may contain four of the 10 best teams in baseball this year, and the Twins will almost certainly need every win they can get. Under very few scenarios does going with the likes of Silva, Ortiz, and Ponson mean maximizing a team's chances of winning games.

Beyond that, ditching some combination of Silva, Ponson, and Ortiz won't be nearly as easy as ditching Juan Castro and Tony Batista was last year. Castro and Batista dragged the team down for one-third of the season, but ultimately cost the Twins about three percent of the payroll, which is an easy pill to swallow. The Twins can certainly choose to eat the salaries of Silva and Ortiz much the same way, but this time they'll be wasting over 10 percent of the payroll.

At this point you can throw a rock and hit a Twins fan who's upset about the decision to go with Silva over Garza, but that's not where the criticism should be aimed. Sure, if you look at it in a vacuum, choosing to hand a rotation spot to an inferior pitcher is a poor move. However, it's really just the predictable and seemingly inevitable end result of a poorly constructed plan that represents a much larger mistake. In fact, at the core it's part of an annual tradition of similarly misguided decisions.

Devoting a huge chunk of the payroll to mediocre veteran starters hurt the Twins' ability to build a strong team and handing 60 percent of the rotation over to those mediocre veteran starters will hurt the Twins' ability to win games with that team. It's debatable which is worse, but I tend to focus on the root instead of the tree. Would picking Garza over Silva have been wise? Perhaps, but regardless of that the decision to commit $4.35 million to Silva and $3.1 million to Ortiz wouldn't have become any better.

The Twins can ditch Silva, Ortiz, and Ponson if they pitch poorly to begin the year. The Twins can quickly call up Garza, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker if they impress at Triple-A. The Twins can bounce back from the slow start Silva, Ortiz, and Ponson may help cause. The Twins can succeed despite wasting a large percentage of their payroll on veteran mediocrity rather then spending it to improve other areas. The Twins can do all of those things, but that doesn't mean they should have to.

The decision to go with Silva over Garza to begin the season doesn't really bother me. What bothers me is everything that led up to that decision and everything that leads to similar decisions being made on a near-annual basis. The names change while the story remains the same, and I'm sick of this particular history repeating itself. Those four days between Johan Santana's starts are going to be long ones. And all for just $9 million.

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