December 26, 2011

Twins spend $3 million to fill out the starting rotation with Jason Marquis

By cutting the payroll from $115 million to $100 million and then dumping Kevin Slowey on the Rockies for a marginal prospect the Twins forced themselves to go shopping for rotation depth in the bargain bin. They were linked to low-cost veterans like Paul Maholm, Jeff Francis, and Joel Pineiro, but ultimately settled on Jason Marquis and signed the 33-year-old right-hander to a one-year deal worth $3 million (which is $300,000 more than Slowey will get in Colorado).

Had the Twins kept the payroll stable from 2011 to 2012 there would've been plenty of money available to add a better starter via free agency or trade, but slicing $15 million off the budget limited their options and left them with less than $5 million to fill the final rotation spot and find right-handed bullpen help. As a fan that payroll drop is tough to swallow going into Year 3 of a publicly funded ballpark, but within the self-imposed spending limit Marquis is a decent pickup.

Marquis was once an innings-eater for the Cardinals, Cubs, and Rockies, averaging 32 starts and 196 innings from 2004-2009, including 190 or more innings if five of six seasons. That got him a two-year, $15 million deal from the Nationals as a free agent, but Marquis spent most of that time on the disabled list. Elbow surgery limited Marquis to just 13 starts in 2010 and his 2011 season ended in mid-August when a line drive fractured his right fibula.

Signing a 33-year-old who logged a total of just 191 innings during the past two seasons due to injuries doesn't really match the Twins' oft-stated focus on adding a durable starter, but $3 million doesn't buy a whole lot of durability and prior breaking his leg Marquis had a 4.43 ERA in 132 innings. In fact, if you ignore his abbreviated 2010 season that was wrecked by elbow surgery Marquis has posted an ERA between 4.00 and 4.75 in five of the past six years.

His secondary numbers are similar, with xFIPs between 4.00 and 4.99 in all but one of the past 10 seasons, as Marquis makes up for poor strikeout-to-walk ratios by inducing tons of ground balls. Of concern to the Twins is that Marquis' off-speed pitches have never been very effective and his fastball has steadily lost velocity, falling from 92-93 miles per hour in 2002-2004 and 90-91 miles per hour in 2005-2009 to just 89 miles per hour in each of the past two seasons.

Marquis has never missed many bats and this past season he averaged just 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings, which ranked 113th among the 132 pitchers to start 20-plus games. And among all active right-handed pitchers only Jon Garland has started more games than Marquis with a lower strikeout rate. Despite previous lip service to the contrary adding another soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact starter shows that the Twins haven't changed their preferred pitching mold.

Of course, hard-tossing, bat-missing starters aren't usually available for $3 million and at least Marquis keeps the ball on the ground. During the past three years his ground-ball rate of 55.1 percent is fifth-highest in baseball, trailing only Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson, and Fausto Carmona. Not surprisingly Terry Ryan called Marquis "a ground-ball machine" and noted that the Twins "have got to support him defensively."

However, the general manager also said Marquis "throws the ball over the plate" and ... well, that's just not true. He had 3.2 walks per nine innings in 2011, which is double Carl Pavano's rate of 1.6 per nine frames, and Marquis' career rate of 3.5 walks per nine innings is the exact same as Francisco Liriano. In fact, over the past two years only Lowe and Livan Hernandez have thrown fewer of their pitches in the strike zone than Marquis at 40.7 percent.

"Throws the ball over the plate" is an odd description of someone with twice as many walks as another pitch-to-contact starter like Pavano and the same walk rate as a bat-missing starter with control problems like Liriano. Marquis offsets the poor control and pitching to contact with lots of grounders, but that's a fine line for a 33-year-old with declining velocity and leaves little room for upside when combined with an infield defense that figures to be at best mediocre.

In his first go-around as general manager Ryan made an annoying habit of signing washed-up starters like Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson rather than trusting younger and cheaper in-house options to fill out the rotation. At first glance Marquis might seem similar, but he's a step up from the previous scrap-heap veterans and unfortunately the Twins don't have an obvious in-house option breaking down the door thanks to Kyle Gibson's elbow surgery.

Liam Hendriks is the best upper-minors pitching prospect, but he's 22 years old, far from elite, and has just 162 innings above Single-A. Aside from Hendriks the farm system lacks MLB-ready starters, Anthony Swarzak is iffy as even a fifth starter, and the Twins are smartly committed to shifting Brian Duensing back to the bullpen. Marquis throwing 175 innings with a 4.50 ERA would be worth $3 million, but he's an uninspired pickup made necessary by payroll slashing.



    Comment by McGivey — December 26, 2011 @ 1:01 am

  2. I’d argue that as a starter, Kevin Slowey is better than Marquis, and Swarzak and Doyle might be better given the chance. Marquis’ numbers came in the National League and without having to face a pitcher every 9th PA, the strikeout total will be even lower than it is. I really do not understand this signing at all. I’d rather see them use that amount for one or 2 bullpen arms and let Blackburn, Swarzak, Hendriks, Doyle and DeVries (along with the garbage pile MiLB FA pick ups) fight for the last 2 rotation spots. This spendthrift philosophy has not worked in the past for Ryan (you mentioned those names, and others should probably be added to the list from last century) for pitchers of position players…

    Comment by thrylos98 — December 26, 2011 @ 5:09 am

  3. Terry Ryan is showing he JUST DOESTN’T GET IT!

    First he wastes tons of money and a precious draft pick on Capps. THERE IS NO REASON TO OVERPAY FOR A CRAPPY CLOSER WHEN YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE 90 GAMES!

    Second, why give Slowey away for a chance to sign a washed up Marquis?? At lease Slowey has some upside and if Gardy hates his attitude you can hope he shows a glimmer of hope in the spring and trade him then.

    Gardy is obviously a problem with his Good Ole Boy Society but Ryan is on his way to taking this organization to new lows.

    Comment by Al — December 26, 2011 @ 7:05 am

  4. I just don’t get the love for Kevin Slowey around here. I can understanding defending him a bit since the team went out of his way to trash him, but let’s not pretend he’s anything more than a back of the rotation guy at best. For all his peripheral stats, he’s incapable of going deep into games at the MLB level. Considering his solid K rates and K/BB ratio, it made sense for the Twins to try and turn him into a reliever. (Got a pitcher with the ability to get guys out the first trip through, but gets clocked in the 5th inning on a regular basis? sounds like a recipe for relief to me…) But Slowey A) never bought into the move and bitched about it, and B) didn’t show success in the role (while bitching about it).

    The Slowey over Marquis debate seems entirely predicated on the idea that Slowey still has that mysterious “upside” that will allow him to be a better pitcher. At this point in his career, I just don’t see it happening. You can’t project him to throw more than 150 innings at best, and he’s a 5th starter who can’t (or won’t) work out of the pen. Time to move on.

    Marquis isn’t a great pitcher or anything, but he’s got decent odds of stabilizing the back end of the rotation. He’s been an innings eater over his career and appeared to be past the elbow problems before freakishly breaking his leg (and was tough enough to go out the next inning and try to pitch, which will at least play well around here).

    I would have liked to have seen them go after Oswalt and spend a bit more money for a guy with more upside (and a proven track record), but they may have been scared away by his recent injury history and figured he was more of a risk and not worth the significantly bigger dollars. I can’t say they’re wrong.

    The Twins are rebuilding without saying they’re rebuilding. We’ll see where it goes. But Marquis is another one of those low-risk signings that should help stabilize the team from last year’s disaster. Better health and returns to form will help this team win a lot more than last year, but they’re probably not a contender unless others drop back as well.

    Comment by Josh — December 26, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  5. Josh, I agree with you on Slowey. He’s at best a sixth man. And I think (hope?) you’re right about them rebuilding quietly. Let’s see if they dangle some players at the trade deadline when they’re struggling to stay around .500. If things break in their favor, this rotation is good enough to let us watch games without getting nauseated.

    Comment by birdofprey — December 26, 2011 @ 10:26 am

  6. The key here are the 2 firsts paragraphs of the post. After a very short spending holiday the Twins are back to “making money is the most important” ways. There is no explanation for the cut on payroll, other than “we are not gonna win anyway, so we better save the money”. After that, they are gonna hire whoever fits in the budget, hope that the results are mediocre but not 2011 bad, then claim that the team showed improvement.

    Comment by adjacent — December 26, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  7. “There is no explanation for the cut on payroll, other than ‘we are not gonna win anyway, so we better save the money’.”

    I think that is true, but I don’t have a problem with it. We aren’t going to compete regardless of whether that money gets spent. This year was such a disaster its hard to know what really needs to be fixed. I would rather have the Twins figure out some things next year, and have a better idea where to spend that money. Also, the 15 million not spent doesn’t go away. There is no reason the team couldn’t spend that extra $15 million in 2013 and have a $130 million payroll.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — December 26, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  8. If M&M are productive and the team competitive, the money might still be spent for in-season help. If M&M aren’t healthy and productive, spending more now would be a waste.

    Comment by bobojo — December 26, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

  9. I’m in total agreement with bobjo… At least that’s been my take. If they look competitive, the Twins won’t waste the opportunity to spend the money to get better in season… The way I see it, they’re playing both sides and it’s appropriate. If they stink, they’re sellers and rebuilding for 2014 which will leave them huge ammounts of payroll flexibility, with the need for the farm system to fill many of these holes.

    The Capps move was terrible, given they need to turn over this roster in the next two years. Every draft pick matters.

    Comment by MC — December 26, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  10. Why isn’t anyone talking about Rich Harden?

    Comment by senorsmoke — December 26, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  11. My immediate reaction was also to think, “Keeping Slowey would have been better.” But that’s a false choice. It’s rpetty clear that the Twins had determined that Slowey was no longer a prospect or a guy dependable enough to put in the rotation. so he simply wasn’t going to be an option.

    I agree with others that the Twins are rebuilding, and, sorry to say, this is what a rebuild job for a mid-market team looks like. They’re not going to throw an extra $30M at a half dozen holes the way “big market” clubs (with big TV deals) do. On the other hand, they won’t simply go into ST like the Padres, Pirates or Royals with a bunch of AA players fighting for 10 roster spots.

    Instead, they’ll go halfway, picking up cost-effective vets like Carroll, Doumit and Marquis. They’ll hope those guys slightly outperform their projections so that if all goes well, the team could dream about competing in a relatively weak division. If not, maybe they can deal one or two of them at the deadline or when younger guys are ready to be promoted and pick up some useful parts for the future.

    Comment by BR — December 27, 2011 @ 9:14 am

  12. Aaron, better to start Manship or Swarzak, and sign a couple of bullpen arms, or to sign Marquis? Slowey was gone from day one. The question was how to spend that $3MM. Given that their starters can’t make it out of the 6th inning, a bullpen seems more important to this team than another mediocre starter.

    Comment by mike wants wins — December 27, 2011 @ 9:28 am

  13. aren’t we forgetting about moustaches? with Marquis and Pavano, we’re going to have the best moustaches in the AL.

    Comment by Bill — December 27, 2011 @ 10:00 am

  14. Duensing to the pen is the correct move? Just wait. Either marquis or Liriano will start out terribly, get moved to the pen, and Brian D. will come in and do a great job. Then everyone will be askin – why’d we move him to the pen in the first place?
    Just watch. 3M for Marquis isn’t that bad a price, but come on already. The Twins are making more $’s off the stadium(even in such a terrible season as last yr.) I just don’t understand why they don’t wanna put the best team out on the field instead of stickin the $’s in the bank.

    Comment by Noel — December 27, 2011 @ 11:06 am

  15. Noel…see above posts by bobojo and MC.

    Comment by ML — December 27, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  16. Don’t you have to factor in Nathan’s buyout and the money the Twins will spend to slot draft picks into payroll? It’s a cut but not a $15 M cut.

    Comment by Brick Baseball House — December 27, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  17. Another pitcher who will be crushed by the terrible defense? The Twins are speeding toward a 110 loss season.

    Comment by Greg — December 27, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

  18. Brick, didn’t they sign draft picks and foreign free agents in previous years? Don’t buy your argument….

    Comment by mike wants wins — December 27, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

  19. I am not at all excited about Marquis, but neither am I slamming my mouse on the desk in anger. This is the position the Twins are in, and unfortunately, the Carroll and Marquis-type signings are largely irrelevant to what this team does. It doesn’t really matter to me that the Twins spend $100 million as opposed to $103 million when the guys they sign are no better than replacement value options.

    The only reason people aren’t more angry is because they’re so down on our pitching prospects. Nobody really thinks that Liam Hendricks is going to step in and throw a sub 4.00 ERA, and this team has brought up a legitimate prospect who could miss bats since Liriano (acquired from another organization). This is what happens when you spend year after year on draft picks trying not to fail (conservative pitch-to-contact college pitchers with low walk rates) instead of aiming high and drafting guys that have the potential to be aces. It’s unfortunate that the one time they DID do that (Gibson), he blew his arm out, so we’re probably 12-18 months from any meaningful contribution by him.

    Comment by Jeff H — December 29, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

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