December 16, 2010

Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain leave Twins for three-year deals

After seven seasons in Minnesota apiece Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain both officially left the Twins yesterday. Guerrier is heading to the National League on a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers, while Crain will be remaining in the division and relieving for the enemy after agreeing to a three-year, $13 million contract with the White Sox. Neither departure comes as a surprise, although Crain going to Chicago adds a little extra sting to the bullpen losses.

Guerrier was remarkably reliable and generally very underrated throughout his seven seasons in Minnesota and ranks as one of the best waiver-wire pickups in team history. Claimed from Pittsburgh in November of 2003 after the Pirates acquired him from the White Sox in a March of 2002 trade for Damaso Marte, he went on to throw 472 innings with a 3.38 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .247/.308/.387 while earning a grand total of just $6.6 million.

He twice led the league in appearances, worked 70-plus games in each of the past four years, is one of just three MLB relievers to log more than 450 innings since 2005, and had a sub-3.50 ERA in five of his six full seasons. Johan Santana, Al Worthington, and Rick Aguilera are the only pitchers in Twins history to throw more innings with a better adjusted ERA+ than Guerrier. And the Twins were right to let him go.

Guerrier has shown some signs of decline, as his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 7.0 in 2007-2008 to 5.4 in 2009-2010 and he lost a full mile per hour off his peak fastball velocity. And simply by virtue of being a 33-year-old relief pitcher with less than overpowering raw stuff and secondary numbers that never quite matched the sparkling ERAs his performance is likely to crumble before the Dodgers are done paying him like a top-of-the-line setup man.

Similarly, it's difficult to fault the Twins for failing to top the White Sox's bid for Crain when they demoted him to Triple-A less than 18 months ago and never fully trusted him as their primary setup man prior to this year. To his credit Crain returned from Rochester pitching better than ever with a 3.00 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 102 innings following the month-long demotion and was nearly unhittable down the stretch this year by allowing four runs in a 42-inning span.

Crain's second-half dominance can be traced to an increased reliance on his slider, as he used it a career-high 46 percent of the time after previously never topping 26 percent. His mid-90s fastball didn't go anywhere, but by throwing it just 42 percent of the time after never before dipping under 60 percent Crain became a more dangerous, unpredictable pitcher. Whether he can thrive long term throwing nearly 50 percent sliders, however, remains to be seen.

His change in approach and being four years younger than Guerrier made Crain my preferred choice to retain, but committing to three years for either pitcher would have been a misstep by the Twins. Their departures leave a pair of big holes in a bullpen currently in flux, but rarely do three-year deals for setup men work out well for the teams handing them out and if the Twins stay patient there will be capable relievers available at a fraction of the cost soon enough.

Crain is a Type B free agent, so the Twins will receive a compensatory draft pick between the first and second rounds for losing him (Crain was a second rounder himself in 2002). Guerrier is a Type A free agent, but by not offering him arbitration the Twins forfeited his new team's first-round pick, plus the same sandwich pick Crain brings back. Letting both Crain and Guerrier walk was the right call, but the decision not to offer Guerrier arbitration was less clear cut.

Receiving a three-year deal from the Dodgers and reportedly drawing two-year proposals from several other teams makes it seem like offering Guerrier arbitration should have been an easy call, but the situation is much more complicated. Offering him arbitration would've dramatically altered Guerrier's market value, as few teams are willing to forfeit a high pick for a 33-year-old reliever and in the past some lesser Type A free agents have struggled to drum up interest.

If the Twins offered arbitration and Guerrier found the market lacking it's possible he may have re-signed for a much more reasonable price, but it's also possible his agent would've advised him to simply accept, forcing the Twins into a one-year commitment worth around $5 million. I tend to think it was worth that risk, because bringing Guerrier back on a one-year, $5 million deal would hardly be disastrous and two compensatory picks carry millions of dollars in value.

With that said, it's tough to predict whether Guerrier would've accepted arbitration and even tougher to determine how many teams, if any, would've been willing to lose a first rounder to sign him. Offering arbitration to Crain was a no-brainer, because Type B free agents don't cost their new teams a pick, but unfortunately Guerrier was tagged as Type A by a ratings system that drastically overrates relievers and it forced a risk-versus-reward choice upon the Twins.

Guerrier and Crain will be hard to replace, as they combined for an average of 135 innings with a 3.40 ERA in the past six seasons, but out-bidding 29 teams for the right to give three-year deals to middle relievers is the wrong way to build a bullpen. Right now the bullpen's outlook may be grim, but smart teams rely on the fungible nature of relievers and the Twins are better off trying to find the next Guerrier and Crain than paying a premium to retain the originals.

December 13, 2010

Twins select Braves left-hander Scott Diamond in Rule 5 draft

Overshadowed by the Twins trading J.J. Hardy to the Orioles last Thursday is that they also made a pick in the Rule 5 draft, taking 24-year-old left-hander Scott Diamond from the Braves. Undrafted out of a Canadian high school, Diamond signed with the Braves in 2007 for $50,000, which is the same price the Twins paid to select him. Despite being undrafted Diamond moved pretty quickly through Atlanta's system, reaching Triple-A in his third year as a pro.

He's had success at every level, posting ERAs of 3.08 at low Single-A, 2.79 at high Single-A, 3.51 at Double-A, and 3.36 at Triple-A. This year he made 17 starts at Double-A and 10 starts at Triple-A, posting a combined 3.46 ERA and 123-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 159 innings. Diamond's strikeout and walk rates have been mediocre, with 7.3 strikeouts and 3.0 walks per nine innings, but he's done a tremendous job inducing ground balls and limiting homers.

Diamond has served up a total of 19 homers in 442 career innings, including just 11 long balls in 290 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Not surprisingly he's also had a ground-ball rate above 50 percent at every level, suggesting he may be able to find success in the big leagues without missing a ton of bats. In order for the Twins to keep Diamond he must remain on the 25-man roster (or disabled list) for the entire 2011 season or he'll be offered back to Atlanta.

There are plenty of notable Rule 5 picks, including some guy named Johan Santana, but most of the time the players selected don't stick all year and are offered back to their original team. Diamond has a chance to stick, in part because he projects as a potentially useful pitcher and in part because the Twins have plenty of spots to settle in the bullpen. He could begin 2011 in a long relief role and perhaps get a chance to be a situational left-hander if things go well.

No players were plucked from the Twins in the big-league phase of the Rule 5 draft, which is good news since they left Kyle Waldrop unprotected despite back-to-back strong years after a move to the bullpen. Struggling down the stretch at Triple-A and getting knocked around in the Arizona Fall League may have scared teams off Waldrop, but the Twins' willingness to lose him and his lack of a 40-man roster spot could equal an uphill battle for a call-up in 2011.

In the Rule 5 draft's minor-league phase the Twins did lose three pitchers: Michael Allen, Jean Mijares, and Eliecer Cardenas. Very few players picked in the minors portion have gone on to have any sort of MLB career, with Brian Buscher actually ranking among the biggest success stories. Allen, Mijares, and Cardenas don't figure to be any different, as none ever cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects and weren't in consideration for the 2011 version.

December 10, 2010

Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Orioles for James Hoey and Brett Jacobson

Speculation about trading J.J. Hardy steadily increased after the Twins placed the high bid for exclusive negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka last month and yesterday they pulled the trigger, sending Hardy, Brendan Harris, and $500,000 to the Orioles for minor-league relievers James Hoey and Brett Jacobson. Nishioka and the Twins are negotiating, but moving Hardy shows they're very confident in signing him before the December 26 deadline.

However, even with Nishioka expected to sign shortly the decision to part with Hardy is a very questionable one for several reasons. First and foremost is that Hardy is simply a good player at a key position and tends to be underrated by those who don't recognize the full value of his defense, don't appreciate the lack of offensive production generally found in shortstops across baseball, or focus solely on the time he missed with a wrist injury.

Hardy is certainly not without flaws and some of them are prominent, but a deeper look at his performance clearly shows an above-average shortstop the Twins could have retained without having to make a multi-year commitment. He hit .268/.320/.394, which may not look like much but is actually better than the MLB average for shortstops of .262/.319/.371. And after coming back from the wrist injury Hardy hit .302/.356/.436 in 64 games.

Among the 28 shortstops to play at least 100 games this season Hardy ranked 11th in batting average, 13th in on-base percentage, 10th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS, making him above average for the position offensively no matter how you slice it. Toss in outstanding defense that Ultimate Zone Rating pegged as MLB's best at 12.8 runs above average per 150 games and Hardy was one of the top 12 shortstops in baseball even while missing 60 games.

Beyond underrating Hardy relative to other shortstops the trade also shows a level of faith in both Nishioka and Alexi Casilla that makes me nervous. Investing about $15 million for three years of Nishioka is a sound move, but like previous Japanese imports he's a question mark at the plate and is also coming off a career-year above his track record. And while he won a Gold Glove at shortstop in Japan, opinions are mixed at best on if he can thrive there in the majors.

Casilla is also an option at shortstop after faring well there in limited action subbing for Hardy, but he hasn't played the position regularly since 2007 at Triple-A and has never even graded out strongly at second base. He's also far from reliable offensively, or at least far from reliably good offensively. Casilla has hit well at times, but owns a career line of .249/.306/.327 in 1,073 plate appearances. To put that in some context, Nick Punto is a career .247/.321/.322 hitter.

Turning over the middle infield to Nishioka and Casilla has the potential for disaster, especially given that the primary backup options at this moment are Matt Tolbert and Trevor Plouffe. It doesn't shock me that the Twins have undervalued Hardy, but unless there's another move up their sleeve it does surprise me that they're so willing to go into 2011 with a pair of question marks atop the depth chart and a pair of replacement-level players as fallback options.

In speaking about the trade yesterday general manager Bill Smith made it very clear that the move was made largely because Ron Gardenhire wants to add more speed to the lineup and Hardy, despite his excellent range defensively, is one of the slowest shortstops in baseball. In a vacuum adding more speed is obviously a good thing, but in this case adding the speed may come with getting worse on both sides of the ball and being faster isn't that vital to winning.

Of course, the deal wasn't just about dumping Hardy and in fact the Twins chose to tender him an arbitration offer last week specifically because they felt confident about getting something in return for him via trade. Smith admitted to discussing Hardy with at least six teams and the decision to settle on the Orioles' offer of Hoey and Jacobson makes the Twins' targets in those talks crystal clear. They wanted bullpen help for 2011 and beyond in the form of power arms.

For the most part the Twins' longstanding, organization-wide focus on drafting and developing pitchers with better control and command than raw stuff has served them well, but at times it has also left them short on the flame-throwing relievers many other teams prefer to rely on in late-inning roles. Neither pitcher acquired from Baltimore fits the Twins' typical mold, as Hoey and Jacobson are both big guys with power fastballs and shaky command.

Jacobson was the Tigers' fourth-round pick in 2008 and was traded to the Orioles for Aubrey Huff in mid-2009. He spent this season repeating high Single-A at age 23, making his 2.79 ERA and 67-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings less impressive than it looks. His first crack at high Single-A included a 4.13 ERA and 55/26 K/BB ratio in 65 innings, so while being 6-foot-6 with mid-90s velocity gives Jacobson some upside his performance so far hasn't been special.

I'll need to study up on Jacobson before determining a ranking, but if he cracks my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects it'll likely be just barely. Hoey has fewer than 50 career innings in the majors and has spent the past two seasons exclusively in the minors, so technically he meets my qualification for "prospect" status too, but he also turns 28 years old in a few weeks and made his big-league debut way back in 2006. He's more of a project than a prospect.

Hoey was selected by the Orioles in the 13th round of the 2003 draft and emerged as a top relief prospect after putting up some incredible minor-league numbers in 2006 and 2007, but then blew out his shoulder and missed all of 2008 following surgery. He initially struggled so much after coming back in 2009 that the Orioles dropped Hoey from the 40-man roster and he passed through waivers unclaimed.

He remained in the Orioles' organization at Double-A and put together a decent 2009 despite struggling to throw strikes, but was left off the 40-man roster last offseason and wasn't picked in the Rule 5 draft. Hoey began this year back at Double-A, but earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A and combined for a 3.25 ERA, .196 opponents' batting average, and 70 strikeouts in 53 innings between the two levels.

His control was awful with 34 walks in 53 innings and the great numbers aren't much different than what Anthony Slama has done in the high minors, but Hoey's velocity has bounced back enough post-surgery that his raw stuff is superior to Slama's. As a 28-year-old "prospect" with a surgically repaired arm he's by definition a long shot, but Hoey's numbers this year show the potential for dominance and unlike Slama he has the mid-90s heat and power slider to match.

Hardy and Nishioka starting with Casilla as a backup would've been the best chance to win in 2011. Instead they focused on Hardy's flaws, trading an above-average shortstop under team control at a palatable one-year price and turning to two question marks in the name of getting faster. It makes them worse in the short term, perhaps by a lot, and the haul from Baltimore isn't impressive, but clearing Harris' salary off the books is nice and at least Hoey is intriguing.

December 9, 2010

Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Orioles, select Scott Diamond in Rule 5 draft

I'll have a whole lot more on this tomorrow (or tonight, maybe), but for now the short version: J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris have been traded to the Orioles for minor league relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, which also means the Twins are all but certain they'll sign Tsuyoshi Nishioka. And in this morning's Rule 5 draft the Twins lost no one and picked left-hander Scott Diamond from the Braves.

December 7, 2010

Winter meetings rumblings: Nishioka, Hardy, Uehara, Thome, and Pavano

I'm not at the winter meetings this year, but my blog-mate Craig Calcaterra is on the scene in Orlando writing lots of good stuff on Hardball Talk and after Day 1 there are even some Twins-related rumblings worth noting ...

Bill Smith met yesterday afternoon with Tsuyoshi Nishioka's agent for the first time and Ed Price of AOL Fanhouse reports that the Twins have offered the Japanese infielder a three-year deal worth $9-$10 million. Last week I crunched some numbers on previous Japanese players signing with MLB teams and concluded: "Based on those precedents ... a three-year deal for around $9 million seems likely." Not bad. Now he just needs to accept the offer.

J.J. Hardy's status remains up in the air, but I expect his situation to come into focus quickly once Nishioka signs. My hope is still that the Twins keep both players and use Alexi Casilla in a utility role, but as many as six teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for Hardy and if the Twins are going to move him they'll want to do so before the shortstop market gets settled. Right now I'd probably bet on Hardy being traded for bullpen help.

• Speaking of which, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun the Twins are among six teams to express interest in free agent reliever Koji Uehara. A month ago I examined low-cost bullpen options and put Uehara atop the list of my recommended targets, suggesting that he'd "make an ideal setup man" if "available for a reasonable one-year contract." With at least five other teams bidding that may prove difficult, but it's nice to hear the Twins like him too.

• Last week Jim Thome's agent reiterated that he planned to play in 2011 at age 40 and now the future Hall of Famer told Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com that he wants to play two more seasons. Thome called the Twins "an awesome organization" and "a wonderful place to play," but stopped short of saying he planned to re-sign. According to Rosenthal, agent Pat Rooney "has received calls from multiple teams expressing interest."

• Smith told ESPN1500.com's Phil Mackey that he hasn't ruled out re-signing Carl Pavano, but given various reports of heavy interest from several teams and speculation about three-year offers his returning to Minnesota seems highly unlikely. Making a three-season commitment to Pavano would be a mistake, so hopefully the Twins will be content to let the 34-year-old right-hander walk and take the compensatory draft picks.

Brian Fuentes is drawing interest from multiple teams, including the Red Sox, and is said to be seeking $6-$8 million per season in a multi-year deal. There's no indication that the Twins are in the mix to re-sign him and by not offering Fuentes arbitration they forfeit compensation for the Type B free agent signing elsewhere.

• After sitting out this season following his third back surgery in three years Joe Crede is now attempting a comeback.

Ron Mahay is reportedly drawing interest from the Red Sox and Mets.

• I'm slated to be the guest on Seth Stohs' podcast tonight, starting at 10:00 p.m.

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