May 16, 2007

Everyone, Meet Ramon Ortiz

As Dennis Green might say, Ramon Ortiz is who we thought he was. On January 22, when the Twins signed Ortiz to a one-year contract worth $3.1 million and handed him a spot in the starting rotation, I wrote the following:

Any defense of the signing from the team, its fans or the media almost has to center on things other than Ortiz's actual on-field performance, because there's really no way of getting around the fact that he's been a horrible pitcher for quite a while.

Once you account for how pitcher-friendly his home ballpark was, a decent argument could probably be made for Ortiz being the single worst starting pitcher in the league last season. ... He doesn't strike many batters out, doesn't have particularly good control, and serves up a ton of homers.

On April 19, after Ortiz got off to a good start and people quickly started calling me out for saying that signing him was a horrible move, I wrote the following:

All the talk of [pitching coach Rick] Anderson working a miracle and Ortiz turning into a new pitcher is extremely premature, because the underlying numbers within his performance suggest that he's been extraordinarily, unsustainably lucky.

There's plenty more where that came, of course, but I'm sure the point has been made. It took a month, but the Twins and their fans are now getting a good, long look at the real Ortiz. For as good as he is and as many mini-miracles as he's worked, not even Rick Anderson can turn a horrible 34-year-old pitcher into something other than a horrible 34-year-old pitcher. Ortiz has lost four straight decisions and sports a 12.27 ERA over his last three outings, all of them losses.

When asked about last night's disaster, Anderson talked as if Ortiz was temporarily broken, no doubt thinking that a few tweaks can turn him right back into the guy who pitched well to begin the season. That won't happen, because that pitcher doesn't actually exist. The good starts that came from Ortiz last month were the "broken" part, much like if Shaquille O'Neal somehow rattled off a dozen straight made free throws.

When O'Neal eventually went back to making 50 percent of his free throws again, like he has for more than a decade, would everyone act as if he was broken? Of course not. Ortiz is now back to pitching like himself again, like the guy who had a 5.36 ERA in 2005, a 5.57 ERA in 2006, and a 4.86 ERA for his nine-year career. The only question at this point is whether or not Anderson and the Twins will spend the rest of the season trying to fix something that's merely bad, not broken.

Remember all the rose-colored talk about how Ortiz would "eat innings"? How about the rationalizing that his ERAs haven't been good, but he'll "pitch well enough to keep them in games"? Last night he was handed a 2-0 lead before even stepping foot on the mound, and proceeded to force the Twins into burning through nearly their entire bullpen after losing the game before the first inning was over. If Scott Baker or Matt Garza had turned in that performance, it would take years to shake the stigma.

The Twins committed nearly $9 million to Ortiz, Carlos Silva, and Sidney Ponson despite the fact that the prospect-filled rotation at Triple-A was overflowing with MLB-ready starters. For that money, which represents about 12 percent of the team's entire payroll, they've received a 4.87 ERA, an average of 5.7 innings per start, and have gone 9-13 when that threesome pitches. Even worse, league-wide scoring is down so much this season that even the 4.87 ERA isn't as passable as it first appears.

The AL as a whole has a 4.32 ERA this year, which means Ortiz, Silva, and Ponson have combined to give the Twins 125.2 innings of pitching that's been 13 percent worse than league average. It's unfair to lump Silva and his 3.00 ERA in with Ortiz and Ponson, but he's due for an Ortiz-like trip back down to earth at some point. Ponson has been cut loose, but if you check back in a month, it's likely that Ortiz and Silva will still have managed to push the $9 million threesome's combined ERA above 5.00.

Signing Ortiz for $3.1 million was a mistake in January and it's a mistake now. Similarly, committing $9 million to three washed-up veterans while Baker, Garza, Kevin Slowey, and Glen Perkins waited in the wings was a mistake, period. While their best starters pitched at Rochester and a punchless lineup showed that it could have used $9 million worth of help, the Twins are in fourth place at 18-20 and have dug themselves right back into the hole they miraculously climbed out of last season.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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