November 13, 2007

ZiPS Projects the 2008 Twins (Part 1: Pitchers)

Friend of and Baseball Think Factory editor-in-chief Dan Szymborski began publishing his team-by-team ZiPS projections for 2008 just hours after the regular season concluded and posted the Twins' numbers last week. For those of you who're unfamiliar with ZiPS, it's Szymborski's own system and holds its own against various other sets of projections on an annual basis. As an added bonus, the information is available for free and gets posted publicly much earlier than most other projections.

Plus, Szymborski can be convinced to add projections for players who he'd skipped initially, which is what happened when I bugged him for numbers on guys like Brock Peterson, Tommy Watkins, and Matt Tolbert. The end result is an accurate, early projection that includes nearly every player in the organization who could conceivably see big-league playing time in 2008, which is the sort of thing that can hold my mid-November interest until what figures to be a busy offseason gets going.

ZiPS projects the 2008 Twins to be similar to the 2007 version, with a strong pitching staff and a lineup that struggles mightily to score runs. In fact, with several young pitchers expected to emerge and Torii Hunter leaving as a free agent, ZiPS' outlook for the Twins in 2008 is even more extreme. I'll look at the good news today, going through the pitching projections for next season, and later this week I'll cover the bad news that is the team's lack of impact bats.

STARTERS             ERA        RELIEVERS            ERA
Johan Santana 3.21 Joe Nathan 2.19
Francisco Liriano 3.42 Dennys Reyes 3.45
Kevin Slowey 3.93 Matt Guerrier 3.49
Matt Garza 4.21 Pat Neshek 3.62
LEAGUE AVERAGE 4.39 Juan Rincon 3.68
Scott Baker 4.50 Jesse Crain 3.80
Jeff Manship 4.64 LEAGUE AVERAGE 4.04
Carlos Silva 4.83 Yohan Pino 4.46
Nick Blackburn 4.86 Eduardo Morlan 5.01
Anthony Swarzak 4.90 Bobby Korecky 5.08
Boof Bonser 4.98 Jay Sawatski 5.19
Oswaldo Sosa 5.01 Carmen Cali 5.38
Brian Duensing 5.23 Julio DePaula 5.44
Glen Perkins 5.42 Ricky Barrett 5.82
Ryan Mullins 5.77 Jose Mijares 6.78

In short, the Twins' pitching projects to be fantastic next season. Between Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, and Joe Nathan few teams in baseball can even come close to their elite-level talent and with a total of 10 pitchers projected to be better than average in 2008 their overall depth is also tough to compete with. Right off the bat, you'll notice that Carlos Silva projects to be the team's seventh-best starter in 2008, which is why the Twins would be foolish to pay a premium for him on the open market.

According to ZiPS, a Silva-less 2008 rotation of Santana, Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Matt Garza, and Scott Baker would feature four above-average starters and one slightly below-average starter. ZiPS projects that fivesome to include a pair of No. 1 starters, a No. 2 starter, a No. 3 starter, and a No. 4 starter, which would easily be among the best rotations in baseball. And that still leaves Boof Bonser, Nick Blackburn, Jeff Manship, and Anthony Swarzak, who each project to be about as effective as Silva.

Projected ERAs of 4.60 for Manship and 4.90 for Swarzak don't look especially impressive in 2008, but it's important to note that they have 86.1 innings above Single-A between them. That ZiPS sees a 22-year-old and a 23-year-old as being essentially MLB-ready right now bodes extremely well for their futures given that neither pitcher figures to see significant action in Minnesota before 2009. On the other hand, ZiPS projecting a 5.42 ERA for a 25-year-old Glen Perkins is discouraging.

Most of the rumors and speculation regarding the Twins' offseason plans center around trading young pitchers for young hitters, which is something that I've been in favor of for years. ZiPS sees Perkins, Bonser, and Blackburn as the young starters to shop, although obviously the potential return on that trio may not be overwhelming. If teams require more for an impact bat, then ZiPS sees Baker as more expendable than Garza and Garza as more expendable as Slowey (although I'd disagree on the latter).

Over in the bullpen, ZiPS sees the Twins as having six above-average relievers for 2008, led by closer Joe Nathan and his amazing 2.16 projected ERA. Nathan has had a sub-2.00 ERA in three of his four seasons with the Twins, but given all the regressing to the mean involved in projections a 2.16 ERA is as good as it gets. I'm surprised to see Dennys Reyes projected to have the bullpen's second-best ERA, but perhaps I shouldn't be given his 2.02 ERA in 80 career innings with the Twins.

I'm also surprised to see Matt Guerrier project slightly better than Pat Neshek and shocked to see that ZiPS thinks Juan Rincon is still a good setup man. ZiPS looks beyond Rincon's 5.13 ERA in 2007 to see ERAs of 2.91, 2.45, and 2.63 during the previous three seasons, but Rincon's decline has been steady and significant. Given his loss of velocity/movement and the drop in his strikeout rate, I'd peg Rincon as the reliever who the Twins should be actively shopping. Some Rincon numbers:

YEAR     xFIP      SO%     K/BB
2004 3.15 32.4 3.31
2005 3.32 26.3 2.80
2006 3.73 20.6 2.71
2007 4.67 18.0 1.75

Like Manship and Swarzak, ZiPS projecting Eduardo Morlan for a 5.01 ERA as a 22-year-old is actually a good thing, because he's pitched all of four career innings above Single-A. Last offseason I ranked Morlan as the team's No. 8 prospect for 2007 and he projects as a dominant late-inning reliever. Bobby Korecky, Jay Sawatski, and Julio DePaula don't project nearly as well for 2008 or the future, but they'd be middle-relief options for teams that don't have an entire bullpen full of sub-4.00 ERA projections.

Assuming that Santana isn't traded and both Liriano and Jesse Crain are healthy enough following season-ending arm surgeries to have an impact in 2008, the Twins could part with as many as 4-5 of the pitchers who're currently in the team's 2008 plans to some degree and still have a deep pitching staff with plenty of available reinforcements for both the rotation and bullpen. For instance, here's what the staff could look like if they dealt all four of Perkins, Bonser, Rincon, and Blackburn for lineup help:

SP1  Johan Santana       3.21        CL   Joe Nathan          2.19
SP2 Francisco Liriano 3.42 SET Pat Neshek 3.62
SP3 Kevin Slowey 3.93 SET Matt Guerrier 3.49
SP4 Matt Garza 4.21 RH Jesse Crain 3.80
SP5 Scott Baker 4.50 LH Dennys Reyes 3.45

That's only 10 pitchers and they'll go with at least 11, but filling out low-leverage bullpen spots will be easy given the many options to pick from. That 10-man core would be among the best in baseball and trading Perkins, Bonser, Rincon, and Blackburn would certainly allow the Twins to address some of their offensive problems. If that foursome isn't drawing tons of interest in trades, the Twins could keep Perkins or Bonser while parting with Baker, or perhaps even swap Garza or Slowey for a big bat.

More important than the specific scenarios and names is that the Twins have an incredible collection of young, MLB-ready pitching depth with yet another wave of promising arms set to arrive in 2009 or 2010. Young pitching has always been at a premium in baseball, but that's perhaps the case now more than ever given the incredibly weak crop of free-agent starters that pitching-starved teams have to pick from this winter.

The Twins hurt themselves in the past by refusing to part with some of their abundance of young pitching, but now appear committed to the idea that swapping pitching for hitting is needed. Their timing is actually quite good, because they should have the ability to get good value in this market whether it's shopping 2007 disappointments like Bonser and Rincon, parting with lesser long-term options like Perkins and Blackburn, or pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal for Slowey or Garza.

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

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