November 15, 2007

ZiPS Projects the 2008 Twins (Part 2: Hitters)

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 Jeff Manship, Ryan Mullins, and Jay Sawatski. 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.

I looked at the good news earlier this week, going through the pitching projections for next season, so today I'll cover the bad news that is the team's lack of impact bats. 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.

Led by Joe Nathan, Johan Santana, and Francisco Liriano, ZiPS projects 10 different Twins pitchers to be better than the MLB average in 2008, but ignoring Hunter only four Twins hitters are projected to be above average in 2008. Toss in the fact that none of those four hitters clears the "average" bar by anything close to the same distance that Nathan, Santana, and Liriano do and it's easy to see why things are looking extremely ugly offensively.

Of course, comparing all hitters to the same overall MLB average is misleading. For instance, a first baseman can be an above-average hitter compared to all of MLB while being a below-average hitter at the position. Meanwhile, a catcher can be well below the MLB average while being well above average for the position. With that in mind, I've grouped Twins hitters into catchers, infielders, and outfielders while including the MLB average for each position to make putting numbers into context easier.

CATCHERS             AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA
Joe Mauer .315 .404 .458 .296
Mike Redmond .299 .342 .362 .244
AVERAGE C .256 .317 .395 .241
Jose Morales .257 .311 .347 .227
Chris Heintz .261 .303 .337 .221

In terms of good news within the bad news, this is it. Joe Mauer projects to be about 23 percent above average offensively for a catcher, while Mike Redmond also checks in at slightly above par. Redmond would dip below average if given a higher percentage of his plate appearances against right-handed pitching, which is why he's in a perfect spot backing up a left-handed hitter like Mauer who's capable of being an asset at designated hitter on days when he's not catching.

ZiPS sees Jose Morales and Chris Heintz posting ugly numbers, but even those projections would make them somewhat serviceable backups offensively given that catcher is by far the worst-hitting position (which is something that I've discussed in this space many times in relation to Mauer's value). With Mauer and Redmond in the majors and Morales waiting at Triple-A, the Twins have perhaps the best catching setup of any team in baseball and the position is arguably the team's biggest strength.

INFIELDERS           AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA
Justin Morneau .283 .355 .527 .292
AVERAGE 1B .275 .354 .462 .275
AVERAGE 3B .271 .339 .440 .263
AVERAGE 2B .273 .333 .406 .251
Ken Harvey .274 .328 .406 .249
Jason Bartlett .275 .341 .367 .246
AVERAGE SS .271 .326 .399 .246
Brock Peterson .253 .318 .404 .244
Chris Basak .242 .317 .393 .241
Erik Lis .249 .294 .399 .232
Garrett Jones .235 .289 .401 .230
Brian Buscher .251 .309 .361 .229
Matt Tolbert .255 .306 .363 .228
Matt Macri .231 .302 .359 .226
Tommy Watkins .246 .310 .344 .226
Alexi Casilla .260 .311 .319 .220
Nick Punto .235 .311 .306 .216
Alejandro Machado .245 .307 .304 .214
Trevor Plouffe .240 .290 .328 .213
Matt Moses .214 .263 .305 .195

Mauer and Justin Morneau are essentially projected to be equal offensively in 2008, but that would give Morneau just a six-percent edge over the average first baseman compared to Mauer being 23 percent above average for a catcher. Of course, six percent above average for a first baseman is still plenty good and the infield also has Jason Bartlett, who's projected to be almost exactly average offensively for a shortstop. Unfortunately, it gets pretty ugly after that.

No second baseman or third baseman in the entire organization is projected to be average offensively for their position. In fact, only minor-league veteran Chris Basak--a potential utility man who was claimed off waivers near the end of the season--even falls into the category of "slightly below average." For 2008 at least, ZiPS doesn't think much of Brian Buscher, Matt Tolbert, Matt Macri, Tommy Watkins, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, or Alejandro Machado, and for the most part it's tough to disagree.

Of that group, Buscher has the best chance to significantly out-hit his 2008 projection, because ZiPS views his out-of-nowhere breakout season along with the rest of his sub par minor-league career. Projection systems are supposed to work that way--taking multi-year track records into account rather than focusing on one season--but there's a chance that Buscher has legitimately turned a corner in his development.

Among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances in 2007, Buscher had the best offensive season of anyone in the Twins' minor-league system, posting a context-adjusted hitting line of .316/.388/.540 between Double-A and Triple-A. That performance was way out of line with the rest of his pro career, so either it was a fluke or he's a better long-term bet than ZiPS projects. Time will obviously tell (assuming that the Twins actually give him a chance to play), but I'd take the over on his ZiPS projection.

In the past I've tried to dispel the notion that Garrett Jones is a legitimate prospect and his horrendous ZiPS projection certainly agrees with me, yet he'll no doubt see far more playing time than he deserves in 2008. ZiPS projects Brock Peterson to be about six percent better than Jones in 2008--the same edge that Morneau has over the average first baseman--despite the fact that Peterson is three years younger and has yet to play above Double-A.

Peterson's .290/.383/.505 context-adjusted hitting line as a 23-year-old at Double-A ranked second to only Buscher among the organization's minor-league hitters with at least 350 plate appearances in 2007. As you can see by the above ZiPS projections the Twins are severely lacking in good-hitting first basemen and designated hitters, so Peterson is someone to watch as a long-term DH option (or potential replacement for Morneau, I suppose). On an unrelated note: Matt Moses is horrible.

OUTFIELDERS          AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA
Torii Hunter .276 .339 .462 .268
AVERAGE LF .274 .345 .448 .267
AVERAGE RF .273 .342 .450 .266
Michael Cuddyer .269 .352 .427 .265
Jason Kubel .268 .332 .436 .258
AVERAGE CF .268 .332 .418 .254
Rashad Eldridge .249 .315 .381 .237
Jason Tyner .280 .330 .325 .230
Craig Monroe .236 .286 .402 .229
Darnell McDonald .256 .310 .357 .229
Rondell White .250 .291 .370 .223
Denard Span .257 .305 .326 .219

I've lumped all outfielders together, but grouping them into "corner outfielders" and "center fielders" might be more accurate given the gap between the positions' MLB-wide production. All of which is what makes Hunter such a valuable player. He's not only above average offensively for a center fielder, he'd also be above average for a left fielder or right fielder. Like Morneau compared to first basemen, ZiPS projects Hunter to be about six percent better than the average center fielder offensively in 2008.

That's going to be nearly impossible to replace unless the Twins swing a major trade, but the good news is that ZiPS sees Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel essentially being average offensively for corner outfielders despite relatively conservative projections. Cuddyer is projected for a .426 slugging percentage that's slightly below his .433 mark in 2007, but he's slugged .450 for his career. Kubel's projection suffers because ZiPS doesn't know why he missed all of 2005 and then struggled in 2006.

In other words, ZiPS just assumes that Kubel didn't play in 2005 and played horribly in 2006 because he wasn't very good in those years, but in reality a severe knee injury was to blame. That's obviously not a good thing and the missed development time is damaging, but Kubel finally appears to be healthy and batted .303/.379/.511 after the All-Star break. Given that he hit .273/.335/.450 as a 25-year-old who was healthy for the first time since 2004, I'd bet on Kubel topping his .268/.332/.436 projection.

Like the infield with Morneau and Bartlett, once you get past Cuddyer and Kubel in the outfield it gets ugly. ZiPS doesn't see the newly acquired Craig Monroe bouncing back much from a dismal season, which is something that I warned about while discussing him at great length yesterday in this space. ZiPS sees Jason Tyner essentially being Jason Tyner and rightfully doesn't think that Denard Span is anywhere close to a legitimate option to replace Hunter in center field.

As things stand right now, the big picture for the Twins offensively isn't very good. They figure to get significantly above-average production from catcher, above average production from first base, and at least average production from shortstop, left field, and right field. Normally that would be the makings of a solid lineup, but unfortunately they currently have no one who's projected to be anywhere near average for the gaping holes at second base, third base, center field, and designated hitter.

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

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