January 21, 2010

Twins Avoid Arbitration With All Eight Eligible Players

Despite having an MLB-high eight players eligible for salary arbitration this year the Twins will avoid the process altogether after agreeing to pre-hearing contracts with Carl Pavano, J.J. Hardy, Matt Guerrier, Delmon Young, Francisco Liriano, Jesse Crain, Brendan Harris, and Pat Neshek. The vast majority of arbitration-eligible players never get to a hearing because submitted figures are typically close enough for a compromise near the midpoint and neither side wants to engage in what can be an ugly process.

Pavano is a special case in that he's actually a free agent who accepted the Twins' arbitration offer last month, guaranteeing a return to Minnesota via a one-year deal at a price to be determined later. At the time my prediction was that he'd get "at least $6 million" and he ended up accepting $7 million, so the only surprising aspect is the contract including zero incentives for the oft-injured starter. Essentially the Twins signed him to a one-year, $7 million deal and can offer Pavano arbitration again next winter.

Hardy gets the second-highest salary at $5 million, which was exactly my guess at the time of the trade with Milwaukee. He'll be arbitration eligible again next season and then becomes a free agent. Guerrier gets $3.15 million in his final year before free agency, which is perhaps $500,000 more than expected. Young gets $2.6 million, which is a ton for a player's first crack at arbitration and suggests that he'll be very expensive in 2011 and 2012 whether his production improves or not.

Liriano getting $1.6 million for his first year of arbitration is also steep, whereas Neshek signed for just $625,000 in his first round of eligibility. Crain made $1.75 million in 2009 as part of a three-year, $3.25 million deal signed before he was even arbitration eligible, and he'll earn $2 million in his final season before free agency. And last but not least is Harris, who unlike the other seven arbitration-eligible guys avoided the process by agreeing to a two-year contract worth $3.2 million plus incentives.

Because this is Harris' first season of arbitration eligibility I'm unclear why the Twins would bother with a two-year deal. He was already under team control through 2012 anyway, so like Crain now that his three-year contract has expired Harris will still be arbitration eligible when the two-year pact is finished. Signing him for two years gives the Twins cost certainty, but Harris is hardly a threat to earn a big raise following a breakout and there's room to question whether they should even want him around in 2011.

He's been disappointing offensively and defensively since being included in the Young-for-Matt Garza swap two offseasons ago, hitting .263/.319/.379 in 943 plate appearances while proving to be a liability at shortstop and second base. He's been productive against left-handed pitching with a .303/.360/.425 line over the past three seasons and has a solid glove at third base, but with awful range up the middle and a .257/.313/.387 mark against righties I'm not sure why they needed to lock Harris in for 2011.

In all the Twins committed about $25 million to their eight arbitration-eligible players, raising the overall payroll commitment for 2010 to approximately $90 million. That represents a huge increase over their $65 million payroll last year, but a) with the new ballpark opening in April that was expected, and b) the payroll was already as high as $72 million in 2007. My hope is that there's still enough room to add an infielder for about $5 million since they're apparently willing to waste that much on Jarrod Washburn.

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January 19, 2010

Twins Bullpen Nearly Set After Condrey Signing

They haven't done much so far this offseason, but last week the Twins made a pair of corresponding bullpen moves by releasing Bobby Keppel and signing Clay Condrey to a one-year contract. Condrey made $650,000 in 2009 and was arbitration eligible for the first time, but the Phillies non-tendered the 34-year-old right-hander last month rather than risk paying him about $1 million. He got $900,000 from the Twins and Keppel, who never deserved a call-up in the first place, signed with a team in Japan.

Condrey's path to the majors was a unique one. Undrafted after playing college ball at McNeese State, Condrey was 22 years old and working as an electrician in Texas when his father suggested he attend a tryout advertised in the local newspaper. He was impressive enough to earn a call-back and received offers from 11 teams following his second throwing session, opting to sign with San Diego for a $500 bonus being offered by former Padres scout and current Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

Condrey made his big-league debut as a 26-year-old in 2002 and spent parts of two seasons with the Padres, posting a 5.49 ERA in 61 innings split between the rotation and bullpen. Traded to the Phillies in the spring of 2004, he spent the next two seasons at Triple-A before making it back to the majors in early 2006. In both 2006 and 2007 he frequently went back and forth from Triple-A to Philadelphia while being dropped from the 40-man roster and going unclaimed on waivers several times.

His first full season in the majors came in 2008, at age 32, and he also stuck with the Phillies for all of last year, although Condrey spent most of the second half on the disabled list with a strained oblique. Strictly a reliever in parts of four seasons in Philadelphia, he appeared in 161 games with a 3.45 ERA, .290 opponents' batting average, and 102-to-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 190 innings. While the ERA is nice, a .290 opponents' batting average and just 102 strikeouts in 190 innings are hardly stellar.

With that said, Condrey's walk rate is misleadingly high because 16 of 58 free passes were intentional, and he's a sinker-slider pitcher who allowed just 17 homers in 827 plate appearances and induced a ground ball on 51.3 percent of his balls in play. Not only would that have been the highest ground-ball rate on the Twins last year, Keppel was the only pitcher on the staff above even 47 percent. And unlike Keppel, Condrey throws strikes and has a history of big-league success.

Condrey has a 4.43 career xFIP, including marks of 4.02, 4.81, 4.37, and 4.01 in the past four seasons, which would make him a serviceable middle reliever. Given that modest upside and the fact that he's 34 years old I'm not sure the Twins really needed to sign Condrey, because if Pat Neshek comes back healthy the bullpen was already going to be plenty crowded and they also have prospects like Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

On the other hand the price is right, Condrey is definitely a capable middle reliever, and going to spring training with too many useful bullpen arms is usually a nice problem to have. Assuming a 12-man staff the bullpen locks are Condrey, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, and Jesse Crain, seemingly leaving one spot for a healthy Neshek or the loser of a fifth-starter competition. That's a very solid group, particularly if Neshek comes back with anything resembling his previous effectiveness.

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January 17, 2010

Twins Notes: Catching Up

Between the holidays and magazine-making hibernation I've been a bad blogger lately, so while things get back to normal in this space here's my attempt to catch up on some Twins stuff I've neglected ...

  • Mike Redmond made it clear that he planned to keep playing at age 39 despite the Twins making no effort to re-sign their longtime backup catcher and sure enough he found a new home with the Indians. After trading Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach the Indians are slated to go with Lou Marson as their starting catcher, so Redmond will mentor the 24-year-old rookie while likely seeing a bit more playing time than he got with the Twins when Joe Mauer was healthy.

    Jose Morales' presence was behind the Twins' willingness to let Redmond leave as a free agent and that was a sound decision, but now Morales will be sidelined for 6-8 weeks following surgery to repair a strained tendon in his right wrist. Opening Day is still about three months away, so barring setbacks Morales should have enough time to enter the season as Mauer's new backup, but any recovery delays may lead to Drew Butera spending some time on the roster and he's hit .214/.296/.316 in the minors.

  • Speaking of 39-year-old former Twins, Eddie Guardado will try for an 18th season in the majors after signing a minor-league deal with the Nationals. Guardado barely managed more strikeouts than walks for the Rangers last season and hasn't had an xFIP below 5.00 since 2006, but he certainly picked the right bullpen to eek out one more year. As always, MLB.com provided an amusing, team-approved spin on the signing:

    The Nationals continue to be busy this offseason, and they are set to sign left-hander Eddie Guardado, according to a baseball source. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed. The Nationals have been interested in Guardado, 39, since the Winter Meetings. According to the source, team scouts told general manager Mike Rizzo that Guardado would be a big help to the club. Rizzo was unavailable for comment.

    If they ever make a sequel to All the President's Men about a 39-year-old reliever inking a minor-league deal with a 100-loss team, the MLB.com story can serve as the source material and Bill Ladson can be this generation's Woodward and Bernstein. Just to recap: An unnamed "baseball source" revealed that "team scouts" informed a general manager a player "would be a big help to the club" and then the GM "was unavailable for comment." Guardadogate, perhaps? "Get out your notebook. There's more."

  • Like every year since 1998 the Baseball Writers Association of America failed to elect Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame, but the big difference this time is that with 74.2 percent of the vote he's a near-lock to crack the 75-percent barrier for induction on the next ballot. In the past I've been a strong supporter of his candidacy and continue to believe he's a clear Hall of Famer, but you won't see me stumping on his behalf because a) the BBWAA has turned me off to anything they vote on, and b) Blyleven is a hypocrite.

    When it comes to evaluating his own performance Blyleven is quick to turn the attention away from his win-loss record, choosing instead to quote strikeout-to-walk ratio, WHIP, or even adjusted ERA+ while noting that his teams often failed to provide decent run support. And he's absolutely correct to do so. Unfortunately in his role as Twins television announcer when it comes to evaluating any other pitcher's performance he's just as quick to focus on wins and losses while ignoring all that other stuff.

  • Asked last week how Francisco Liriano has looked pitching winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Ron Gardenhire said:

    I just got a report that he's throwing the living fire out of the ball down in the Dominican. He threw eight innings the other day, and his fastball was 92 to 94 [miles per hour] and his slider was filthy.

    Liriano has indeed been impressive in the Dominican Republic, starting seven times with a minuscule ERA and 41-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. However, when it comes to passing along third-hand reports about Liriano's velocity Gardenhire isn't exactly a trustworthy source. Two winters ago, as Liriano was making his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery, Gardenhire shared the following report on his throwing sessions at the Twins' academy in the Dominican Republic:

    He's letting it fly. He threw two innings at the academy and they said he was averaging 93 [miles per hour] and throwing it up to 96. Free and easy.

    If you replace "letting it fly" and "free and easy" with "throwing the living fire out of the ball" and "filthy" it's basically the same quote. In reality Liriano arrived at spring training throwing in the high-80s and was the furthest thing from "letting it fly" or "free and easy," at which point third-hand reports relayed to the media by Gardenhire ceased having any credibility. This time the glowing reports are paired with some data, so perhaps the 2010 version will prove more accurate than the 2008 version, but I'm skeptical.

  • BizOfBaseball.com's Maury Brown compiled payroll data from 2000-2009 and found that the Twins ranked 25th in spending for the decade. Given that fact a .533 winning percentage and five playoff trips during that time is plenty impressive, although less so when you consider that the other four teams in the AL Central ranked 14th, 17th, 19th, and 26th in 2000-2009 payroll. For the decade the Twins' payroll was 33 percent below average and about $1.3 billion (yes, billion) lower than the top-ranked Yankees.
  • At the winter meetings last month the Twins reportedly offered Glen Perkins to the Padres for Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was traded to the A's over the weekend for Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham. I'm far from a huge Kouzmanoff fan, but he's certainly worth more than just Perkins at this point and the Padres ended up getting a better return from the A's. In writing about the Kouzmanoff trade and Perkins' future with the Twins, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune opined:

    To the Twins' credit, they didn't add more. Perkins and Kouzmanoff are similar players in that they are still looking for their breakthrough season. Suggestions that the Twins should have added Alexi Casilla to the deal are crazy.

    Neal's paragraph consists of 38 words and I disagree with all of them. Kouzmanoff is a more valuable player than Perkins and the Twins have more use for a third baseman than a fifth starter, so why they deserve "credit" for not adding more to the offer is beyond me. In particular, the notion that it would be "crazy" to package Alexi Casilla with Perkins is ... well, crazy. Casilla will turn 26 years old this season and has hit .244/.301/.314 through 243 games in the majors after batting .278/.352/.350 at Triple-A.

    He's not a great defender or base-stealer, and aside from a 50-game stretch in 2008 there's nothing to suggest that his bat will be starting caliber. If the Twins thought dealing Perkins for Kouzmanoff made sense they should almost certainly have been willing to toss in Casilla, who has no clear role for 2010 and dwindling upside. Of course, Neal apparently doesn't think much of Kouzmanoff if he equates him to Perkins as "similar players in that they are still looking for their breakthrough season."

    In reality Perkins has a 4.73 ERA and arm problems have limited him to just 281.2 career innings while Kouzmanoff has already been a solidly above-average starting third baseman for three full seasons in the majors and has hit .285/.327/.474 away from pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Not only is he better than and in no way similar to Perkins, there's a reasonable shot that Kouzmanoff has already accumulated more value than Perkins and Casilla will combine for in their entire careers. But hey, maybe I'm crazy.

  • Whether or not the Twins end up trading Perkins, my hope is that they trust the in-house candidates for the final rotation spot rather than wasting money on Jarrod Washburn, who reportedly turned down their $5 million offer recently. Washburn is an overrated 35-year-old coming off knee surgery and they'd be far better off investing in an infielder while letting their various younger, cheaper fifth-starter options battle for the job. Shouldn't they have learned something from Livan Hernandez and Ramon Ortiz?

  • Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

    January 12, 2010

    Guest Blogger: Chris Jaffe on Tom Kelly

    I'm at the Beckett Media offices in Dallas putting the finishing touches on Rotoworld's annual baseball magazine, so in my absence here's a special treat. The following is an excerpt about Tom Kelly from friend of AG.com Chris Jaffe's new book, "Evaluating Baseball's Managers, 1876-2008." Not only is he a really nice guy, Jaffe has done a tremendous amount of work analyzing managers throughout history and if you enjoy his take on the Twins' former skipper the whole book is a must-read. Enjoy ...

    Tom Kelly

    W/L Record: 1,140-1,244 (.478)


    Full Seasons: Minnesota 1987-2001

    Majority in: (none)

    Minority of: Minnesota 1986

    Birnbaum Database: +75 runs

    Individual Hitters: -107 runs

    Individual Pitchers: -249 runs

    Pythagenpat Difference: +96 runs

    Team Offense: +80 runs

    Team Defense: +255 runs

    Team Characteristics: By most metrics, his teams had outstanding defenses. (Defensive Efficiency Ratio finds them average, but that could be a park effect). His offenses centered on contact hitters who slapped out singles. He had little use for power hitters, and even less for bunts or the hit and run. His pitching staffs based their game on control.

    Several years ago, ESPN.com columnist Rob Neyer invented the Beane Count in honor of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s teams, which excelled at walks and home runs on both sides of the game. Tom Kelly’s Twins took a different approach to baseball, eschewing the things that brought success to Oakland’s early twenty-first century clubs. When the Tendencies Database gets a hold of the Beane Count’s four categories (all adjusted per plate appearances or innings pitched), these are baseball’s most anti-Beane Count managers:

    Least Interest in Beane Count

    Tom Kelly 4.907

    Burt Shotton 4.533

    Jimmy Dykes 4.529

    Fred Hutchinson 4.516

    Jimmy McAleer 4.505

    Kelly wins in a rout. Actually, that understates his tendencies because Kelly’s pitching staffs were terrific at avoiding walks. With the remaining three components, Kelly scores nearly well enough (4.320) to crack the above list.

    He was content to punt homers with Minnesota. After 1987, no Twin ever hit 30 homers in a season for Kelly, while baseball’s other teams had 342 different 30-home run performances from 1988-2001. In only two of his fifteen seasons in Minnesota did the Twins hit more home runs than they allowed, both times by the narrowest of margins (151 to 146 in 1988, and 140 to 139 in 1991). From 1987-2001, Tom Kelly’s Twins allowed 2,612 homers while blasting 1,902, which amounts to a home run differential of nearly -47 per season.

    For context, fewer than 130 teams (out of 2,500+) in baseball history have been -47 or worse in a season. Kelly’s -710 homer differential is the worst in baseball history. Only one other manager (Jimmy Dykes) is below -400. Here are the worst single season homer differentials in baseball history:

    Year Team HR Dif. Manager

    1996 MIN -115 HR Tom Kelly

    1999 MIN -103 HR Tom Kelly

    2000 MIN -96 HR Tom Kelly

    1995 MIN -90 HR Tom Kelly

    2006 KCR -89 HR Buddy Bell

    2000 KCR -89 HR Tony Muser

    A clear pattern exists. Please note 1995 was not a full season due to a labor stoppage.

    Those homer differentials reflect not only the available talent, but also Kelly’s coaching tendencies. Former Twins’ prospect David Ortiz once gave an interview explaining why his power erupted when he came to the Red Sox. He noted that in the minors his plate approach focused on hitting for power but when he came to Minnesota, they wanted him to shorten up his swing and approach the game the way everyone else on the team did. Thus a man with a pair of 30 home run seasons in the minors hit only one every nine games with the Twins. Upon arrival in Boston they let him go back to his old ways, and his homers, walks, and strikeouts all rose.

    That story reveals the downside to Tom Kelly’s managing, as he could be too inflexible for his (or the team’s) own good. While Kelly was the worst manager for the David Ortizes of the world, he was not a net negative on the job. Kelly had a losing record in his career, but that was due to Minnesota’s rosters. In the Birnbaum Database his score of +78 runs seems merely decent, but when circumstances are accounted for, he rises up.

    To compare: Kelly had +78 runs in 2,384 games with a .478 winning percentage while John McNamara scored at –174 runs in 2,415 games and a .484 winning percentage. The cigar-smoking Kelly had won four minor league manager of the year titles before getting his shot at the big league level.

    Kelly punted Beane Count stats because his frame of reference centered on balls in play. The Twins were a difficult team to fan under Kelly. For example, from 1990-93 the squad struck out 795 times per year. Other AL teams averaged over 900 whiffs per season during this span. Several players had their strikeout rates drop under Kelly. These improvements were consistent, though rarely dramatic. Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne, and Corey Koskie were free swingers in their careers, yet none fanned quite as regularly under Kelly as they did away from him. The tendency was especially noteworthy with Kent Hrbek. The burly first baseman routinely had 80-90 whiffs a year, but once Kelly arrived he never had more than 60.

    A man who fanned more than once every seven at bats spent the rest of his career going down that way only one in nine times. Even Paul Molitor, who ended his 21-year career under Kelly, had his best single season strikeout rate under Kelly. From 1987-2001, no Twin struck out more than 130 times for him. The other AL teams had it happen to them on 112 occasions. Kelly’s Twins made contact and legged out hits. In the Tendencies Database, Kelly had a higher score with batting average than Joe McCarthy (0.730 to 0.737).

    With his kind of player, Kelly could be quite effective. Brian Harper was Kelly’s kind of player. A back up journeyman catcher, Harper underwhelmed baseball by combining substandard defense with an inability to slug or work the count. Kelly focused on what Harper could do – put the ball in play – and made him Minnesota’s starting catcher. From 1988-93, in what should have been Harper’s declining years, he developed into one of the game’s best-hitting catchers, posting a .306 batting average while fanning once every twenty at bats.

    However, it would be wrong to consider Tom Kelly a smallball manager. He had no interest in the hit and run, for example. While a manager like Casey Stengel instinctively monitored the game to avoid possible double play situations, Kelly stoically resigned himself to double plays as a cost of doing business. In the 1990s, only thirteen teams hit into 150 double plays. Kelly managed five of them, and his 1999 Twins had 149. In 1996, the Twins grounded into 172, the second highest total in baseball history. As a result, double plays hurt Kelly more than any other manager in history. If you take team DP and GIDP, and give them the Mauch adjustments, here are the worst career double play differentials:

    Worst Double Play Differentials

    Tom Kelly -278 double plays

    Mayo Smith -222 double plays

    Joe Torre -210 double plays

    Mel Ott -189 double plays

    Bruce Bochy -184 double plays

    Kelly possesses a sizable lead.

    When it came to run prevention, Kelly was a practitioner of the classic Comiskey philosophy of throwing strikes and playing sound defense. At the end of his career, he had one of the greatest defensive outfields of all-time with the “Soul Patrol” of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, and Matt Lawton. The same squad had Gold Glover Doug Mientkiewicz at first. Ten of Kelly’s teams were in the top four in fielding percentage. Twice they led the league in Fielding Win Shares, and were runner up two other times.

    A manager can get away with minimizing the Beane Count approach by maximizing his team’s quality on balls in play. Even more than defense, though, control pitching typified Kelly’s squads. Ten times they were in the top four in the AL in fewest walks per nine innings. The league averaged 3.5BB/9IP, but Kelly’s Twins stayed under that every year except 1995. In the two dozen times someone threw at least 200 innings for him, nine times the hurler allowed less than two walks every nine innings.

    This combination of solid defense with splendid control pitching allowed Kelly to minimize the importance of hurlers who blew opponents away. None of Kelly’s starting pitchers ever struck out 200 batters in a season; rather unusual for a late twentieth-century manager. Only one-third of the pitchers who qualified for an ERA title under his watch struck out batters at a superior rate to the league as a whole. This fits into the philosophy pioneered by Comiskey and perfected by McKechnie: defense plus control equals less need for power pitching. Brad Radke was the ultimate Tom Kelly pitcher. He never struck fear in anyone’s heart but he was durable and had great control. In 2001 he walked 1.04BB/9IP, the second lowest total by an American League pitcher since Walter Johnson.

    With his lack of interest in the long ball and offensive walks, Kelly appeared to be a man from another era as the game’s power numbers surged in the 1990s. Apparently Kelly thought so, because he voluntarily retired after 2001, despite only being 51 years old. In all baseball history, only one other person with at least 2,000 games managed who never served as a player-manager left at such a young age – Frank Selee, a century earlier. And that was not voluntary, Selee was dying.

    Click here for more information on Chris Jaffe's new book, "Evaluating Baseball's Managers, 1876-2008."

    January 3, 2010

    Old Man, Birthday Boy

    My apologies for the lack of content here over the past two weeks, but I'm still very busy putting together the annual Rotoworld baseball magazine, which is due at the printer next week. Plus, the Twins haven't done a whole lot worth writing about recently, so you haven't really missed much. I mostly just wanted to check in so that everyone knows I'm still alive. In fact, yesterday was my 27th birthday. I celebrated by waking up early for absolutely no reason and then covering meaningless NFL games for Rotoworld.

    Life in the fast lane, no doubt. Oh, and here's a fun fact: I was 19 years old when this blog launched in August of 2002. I'm not sure whether doing this for eight years is more commendable or mockable, but either way it's been a lot of fun and I'll get back to pumping out new stuff once the Twins do something notable or we put the magazine to bed, whichever comes first. In the meantime, here's a picture of two of my birthday gifts that perfectly sums up how people think of me when shopping:

    Not sure why I picked a light switch for the background, but surely there's some artistic explanation that scholars will debate when studying my photography centuries from now.

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