January 2, 2013

Offseason outlook: Ryan Doumit

Ryan Doumit missed half of 2011 with a broken ankle suffered on a collision at the plate and became a free agent when the Pirates declined his $7.25 million option. He'd spent seven seasons as Pittsburgh's primary catcher, consistently ranking among MLB's best hitters at the position, but poor defense and multiple significant injuries suppressed his market and made him available to the Twins on a modest one-year, $3 million deal.

Just as Josh Willingham essentially replaced Michael Cuddyer as a right-handed bat in the middle of the Twins' lineup, the switch-hitting Doumit replaced Jason Kubel's left-handed bat. Doumit's career numbers were very similar to Kubel's numbers with the Twins, with the added bonus that he could split time behind the plate with Joe Mauer whenever necessary and keep manager Ron Gardenhire from relying so heavily on Drew Butera.

And that's exactly how things worked out. Doumit hit .275/.320/.461 to basically duplicate both his career .271/.331/.442 mark with the Pirates and Kubel's career .271/.335/.459 mark with the Twins. Gardenhire almost immediately soured on the idea of Doumit as a regular outfielder, but he ended up starting 22 games in an outfield corner along with 56 games at catcher and 48 games at designated hitter. And without having to catch five times a week Doumit stayed healthy too.

What made Doumit a nice fit for the Twins is that his bat is good enough to be useful at DH and his glove is good enough to be useful at catcher, and he was such a nice fit that they signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract extension in late June. He's locked in as a regular for 2013 and 2014, but his position will depend largely on how often Mauer is catching and could also be tied to what happens with Justin Morneau and Willingham.

Doumit wasn't perfect, of course. His defense behind the plate wasn't as awful as his reputation suggested, but it certainly wasn't pretty. He also looked bad in the outfield, including a brutal three-error inning in left field. And while Doumit's overall production offensively was strong, he hit just .247/.287/.403 against left-handers to continue a career-long pattern of extreme platoon splits that takes some of the value out of his being a switch-hitter and everyday player.

As a soon-to-be 32-year-old with a lengthy injury history and more than 4,000 career innings logged behind the plate Doumit is also an obvious candidate to decline, but going from everyday catcher to part-time catcher helped him remain nearly injury free while setting career-highs in games (134) and plate appearances (538). Doumit's dual role defensively helped him as much as it helped the Twins.

One potential red flag within his otherwise solid production is Doumit's plate discipline and strike zone control. He whiffed 98 times compared to just 24 non-intentional walks overall, including an ugly 46-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half. No one noticed because he was hitting .264 with a .468 slugging percentage during that time, but an approach at the plate that results in eight walks over 263 plate appearances is something that eventually catches up to a hitter.

Doumit was worth more than $7 million in 2012 alone and also topped that value in 2007, 2008, and 2011, so $7 million for two years should be a bargain. Ideally he'd catch a little less and be on the bench versus left-handed pitching a little more, but either way having his .750-.800 OPS bat around to plug in wherever it's needed is one of the reasons why the Twins' lineup looks to be in good shape for 2013. And if the losses start piling up again Doumit could have trade value.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul "Fantasy Camper" Bennett, who'll be blogging and tweeting about his annual experience at Twins fantasy camp in Fort Myers the week of January 6. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 28, 2012

Offseason outlook: Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer's uncertain health status caused the Twins to look for insurance behind the plate last offseason and they found a perfect fit in Ryan Doumit. Doumit was available cheaply as a free agent because, like Mauer, he was coming off an injury wrecked season, but by essentially using both players as part-time catchers and part-time designated hitters the Twins found a pairing that worked well for everyone involved.

Mauer made 72 starts at catcher and 42 at DH, plus 30 at first base. Doumit made 56 starts at catcher and 48 at DH, plus 22 in the outfield. And they both stayed healthy to set career-highs in games. Mauer got off to a slow start, but hit .337 in his final 110 games and took advantage of the reduced catching workload to hit .356 in September. Not bad for a guy who was regularly booed by a not insignificant portion of the home crowd at Target Field during the first half.

While those people were harping on last season's injury Mauer led the Twins in games and plate appearances. While those people were blaming the Twins' ineptitude on his $23 million salary Mauer's performance was worth $22.5 million according to Fan Graphs. While those people were focusing on his lack of power and supposed lack of clutch, Mauer nearly won his fourth batting title, led the league in on-base percentage, and hit .352 in "high-leverage" situations.

He'll forever be under-appreciated by people who still think homers and RBIs are the best way to judge a hitter, but Mauer's incredible ability to get on base enabled Josh Willingham (and Justin Morneau before him) to rack up huge RBI totals hitting behind him. And when Mauer came to the plate with runners on base he hit .346, including .372 with runners in scoring position, .397 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .500 with the bases loaded.

Win Probability Added measures the actual in-game impact of hits and awards more value for, say, a game-tying solo homer in the ninth inning than a grand slam in a blowout. Mauer ranked seventh among AL hitters in Win Probability Added and Mike Trout was the only guy ahead of him who also played an up-the-middle position defensively. Mauer's singles, doubles, and walks made a huge impact based on actual game situations.

Mauer's lack of power certainly plays a part in his modest RBI totals, but he drove in 18.1 percent of the runners on base for his plate appearances. Not only did that rank eighth-highest in the entire league, it topped Willingham's mark of 16.3 percent. Mauer converted a higher percentage of his RBI chances than Willingham, but Willingham had 45 more runners on base in 26 fewer plate appearances because Mauer was on constantly in front of him.

Outs are an offense's most precious commodity and having runners on base drives scoring more than anything else, and Mauer is spectacular at avoiding outs and getting on base. If someone is unwilling or unable to recognize the value in those skills despite endless amounts of supporting research ... well, then that's on them at this point. It's time to stop placating the "yeah, but he doesn't hit homers!" subset and start appreciating Mauer for what he does so well.

Mauer has always walked a ton, but this season he walked more than ever before to rank fifth among AL hitters in walk rate. That's pretty remarkable considering Mauer saw the eighth-most fastballs in the league and hit just 10 homers, and speaks to his great eye and amazing patience. He swung at a lower percentage of pitches than anyone in the league and when he did swing only nine hitters made more contact. And only two hitters saw more pitches per plate appearance.

He also walked more than he struck out for the sixth time in seven seasons and was one of only two hitters in the league with more walks than strikeouts. And yet despite striking out less often than all but 20 hitters in the league Mauer's strikeout rate of 13.7 percent was a career-high and solidly above his lifetime mark of 10.7 percent. That could represent a change in approach due to aging or an attempt to add power, or it could just be a one-season fluctuation.

For the first time in his career Mauer pulled more than the half the balls he put in play, which would seemingly lend credence to the change in approach theory, although his line-drive rate, ground-ball rate, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power were all right around his norms. And his overall .319/.416/.446 line was very close to his .323/.403/.471 career mark even though offense was down across baseball. His adjusted OPS+ was seventh in the league.

Things weren't so pretty defensively, as Mauer struggled to throw out runners all season and finished with an abysmal caught-stealing rate of 14 percent. That's below the MLB average of 25 percent and miles from Mauer's career rate of 33 percent. Doumit and the normally impossible-to-run-on Drew Butera were also below average, so the pitching staff shares a big part of the blame, but Mauer threw out at least 26 percent in each of his first eight seasons.

Of course, the difference between 14 percent and 25 percent amounted to a grand total of seven extra steals under Mauer's watch. He also had lower passed ball and wild pitch rates than Doumit and Butera, so while Mauer's defense certainly wasn't good and definitely cost the Twins runs it only made a small dent in his overall contributions. Mauer ranked ninth among AL hitters in Wins Above Replacement, which factors in offense, defense, and positions played.

Mauer needs only to duplicate his 2012 performance to be worth his annual salary to the Twins and while that's no sure thing as he approaches age 30 he's produced at least $20 million in value in five of the past seven seasons. By re-signing Doumit the Twins can put together a similar catcher/DH split in 2013, although if his defense bounces back and he avoids the disabled list it wouldn't be surprising to see Mauer's workload behind the plate expand.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Ryan Doumit

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 20, 2012

Offseason outlook: Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe's quasi-breakout season can be separated into four distinct parts. First he made the Twins out of spring training as a bench player and was used sparingly, starting 13 of the first 30 games while hitting .140. Then he became the starting third baseman when Danny Valencia was demoted to Triple-A and went on an amazing power binge, at one point going deep 13 times in 22 games and slugging .582 over a 57-game stretch.

Plouffe injured his finger on July 20, was "day-to-day" for more than a week, finally went on the disabled list for what turned out to be a total of three weeks, and hit .147 with one homer in his first 21 games back. And then, as many people started to wonder if Plouffe's two-month power display was a fluke, he finished the season by smacking four homers and 11 total extra-base hits in his final 24 games for a lofty .227 Isolated Power.

So, to recap: Plouffe was barely used and incredibly unproductive early, became one of MLB's best hitters for two months, injured his finger and struggled upon returning, and then quietly had a solid last few weeks. Overall he hit .235/.301/.455 in 119 games, mixing tremendous power with a low batting average and poor strike zone control. He also looked very much like someone with limited experience at third base, often struggling to make routine plays.

In fact, at this point the question is basically whether Plouffe's power potential is enough to cancel out the many flaws in his all-around game. He's already 26 years old and Plouffe's track record includes a .261 batting average and .315 on-base percentage in 339 games at Triple-A, plus a .231 batting average and .295 on-base percentage in 222 games for the Twins. Those are not numbers that fit particularly well in a corner spot, especially from a non-elite defender.

With that said, Plouffe's power potential is legitimately outstanding. Even with his horrendous start and post-injury struggles included in the overall numbers Plouffe had the 16th-highest Isolated Power in the AL and joined Kirby Puckett in 1994 and Harmon Killebrew in 1965 as the only right-handed hitters in Twins history with 20-plus homers in fewer than 500 plate appearances. And his similar power binge at Triple-A in 2011 suggests it wasn't just a fluke.

Given the Twins' longstanding inability to develop power hitters and their need for right-handed pop in a lineup that's been lefty dominant for more than a decade now living with Plouffe's flaws seems palatable if he can go deep 30 times. Whether he can do that still remains to be seen, of course, but the days of Plouffe being a light-hitting shortstop prospect are long gone and it's not as if the Twins have a ton of other options.

Late in the season general manager Terry Ryan talked about needing to see more from Plouffe, especially defensively, before viewing him as the long-term answer at third base. It's tough to disagree with Ryan's stance, but the Twins lack other in-house options to fill the position, don't have any good third base prospects near the majors, and the only third basemen they've been linked to this offseason have been utility-man types.

If he's capable of 25 homers per season then Plouffe only needs to hit .250 and play something resembling passable defense at third base to offer a flawed all-around package that would be plenty valuable from someone making the minimum salary for a couple more seasons. There's no reason to lock him into the job long term and there are lots of reasons to remain skeptical, but the Twins need to find out if Plouffe is for real in 2013.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

November 29, 2012

Offseason outlook: Josh Willingham

In the grand scheme of baseball a three-year, $21 million contract is hardly record-breaking, but Josh Willingham's deal last offseason was the largest free agent signing in Twins history. He was signed to replace Michael Cuddyer's right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup and at the time there was a lot of skepticism from fans when guys like me suggested Willingham was likely to be an upgrade for less money, but his track record of elite power hitting didn't lie.

Willingham got off to an amazing start, hitting .347/.447/.681 in April, and had an OPS above 1.000 as late as May 20. He eventually cooled off and reverted back to his career norms of a low batting average and lots of strikeouts with a ton of power. After the monster April he hit .246 with 126 strikeouts in 125 games, yet still produced an .852 OPS during that time to nearly match his .845 career mark thanks to 30 homers, 23 doubles, and 67 walks.

Even after sitting out the final week of the season with a shoulder injury his 145 games set a career-high and Willingham also established new highs in homers (35), walks (76), slugging percentage (.524), OPS (.890), RBIs (110), and runs (85) at age 33. It was his seventh straight season with an OPS in the .800s and ranks as one of the greatest seasons by a right-handed hitter in Twins history.

In fact, with 35 homers Willingham tied Bob Allison in 1963 for the most by a right-handed Twins hitter not named Harmon Killebrew, who amazingly owns the top eight spots on that list all by himself. Willingham also joined Allison as the only non-Killebrew right-handed hitters with an Isolated Power above .250 and his 144 adjusted OPS+ is the 12th-best in Twins history among right-handed hitters, with Killebrew owning seven of the spots above him.

Willingham had always been one of baseball's premier right-handed sluggers and analysis last offseason showed that his dead-pull power was well-suited for Target Field. Sure enough he almost single-handedly silenced all the talk about Target Field suppressing power too much by hitting .293/.407/.610 with 21 homers in 249 at-bats there. To put that in some context, the Twins got 29 total homers in 1,385 at-bats from right-handed hitters at Target Field in 2011.

Willingham's monster start followed by his usual .850 OPS led to reports of teams pursuing him at the July 31 trade deadline. On one hand that made sense, because he's a really good hitter. On the other hand just six months earlier those same teams apparently weren't willing to offer him more than $21 million. That speaks to how good the signing was for the Twins, but also brought thoughts of trading him to the forefront. Or at least it should have.

There's little indication that the Twins seriously considered dealing Willingham and parting with an immediate fan favorite putting up great numbers would have been hugely unpopular. However, considering Willingham ultimately cost them nothing but money to acquire trading a 33-year-old free agent signing for a package of prospects would have been a nifty/tricky way to add young talent and long-term help. If nothing else hopefully they at least considered it.

None of which is to suggest that Willingham won't be very valuable and worth his remaining contract in 2013 and 2014, but regressing back to his slightly less spectacular career norms can be expected and at age 34 a further decline wouldn't be shocking. Beyond that focusing strictly on Willingham's hitting overstates his all-around value, as his defense in left field was passable at best and often ugly.

Ultimate Zone Rating had Willingham as 7.9 runs below average in his 119 games as a left fielder, which is short of Delmon Young territory but still wipes away a sizable chunk of his hitting value. Willingham's career numbers are similarly bad in the outfield and he certainly looked bad most of the time. Even with defense factored in he was a very valuable all-around player and worth 2-3 times his $7 million salary, but he contributed to the pitching struggles.

If you think the Twins are legitimately on the verge of putting a contending team on the field then Willingham is a near-perfect fit as a righty slugger in the middle of a lefty-heavy lineup who doesn't seem to care that Target Field kills power. If you think the Twins are more than a year or two away then the most value to be extracted from a 34-year-old with two years on his contract might be in what he could fetch via trade. Either way, it was a helluva first season.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

October 31, 2012

Offseason outlook: Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau was a shell of his former self in 2011, hitting .227/.285/.333 while missing 93 games with an assortment of injuries that included continued symptoms related to his mid-2010 concussion, but he was mostly healthy and relatively productive in 2012. Morneau played 134 games after totaling 150 games in the previous two seasons and showed glimpses of being the offensive force whose career was derailed by a knee to the head on July 7, 2010.

After a modest first half that was focused on staying healthy Morneau hit .317/.356/.506 in 42 games from the All-Star break through the end of August, but then he faded in September by hitting .236/.351/.316 in 27 games before being shut down for the final weekend in Toronto. There was no specific injury cited, but Morneau talked often about being unable to lift weights because it bothered his surgically repaired right wrist and he simply seemed worn down.

Coming into the season everyone involved would have gladly signed off on Morneau logging 570 plate appearances and hitting .267/.333/.440, especially since he avoided any major concussion-related setbacks. However, in addition to the concussion threatening his career Morneau has also had surgeries on his wrist, back, knee, and foot within the past two years and at age 31 it's natural to wonder how much of a toll that's taken on him physically.

Compared to his 2008-2010, pre-concussion numbers Morneau's overall production was down 15 percent, including 25 percent less power, 28 percent fewer walks, and 27 percent more strikeouts. Morneau chased pitches outside the strike zone 28 percent more often, swung through more pitches than ever before, and hit just .232/.271/.298 with an ugly 45-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 214 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching.

Among the 30 first basemen and designated hitters with at least 500 plate appearances he ranked 18th in batting average, 15th in on-base percentage, 19th in slugging percentage, and 18th in OPS. Perhaps being another year removed from the concussion and having a full offseason to rest will enable Morneau to build on his 2012 production, but even setting aside his many health issues he's at an age when declines are expected.

Morneau also has just one season remaining on his contract and it's hard to see him fitting into the Twins' plans beyond 2013. When reports surfaced that the Dodgers were showing interest in Morneau at the trade deadline and may have been willing to give up prospects in addition to taking on his entire contract that seemed like a good opportunity for the Twins to shed his $14 million salary for 2013 and acquire some young talent.

Instead the Twins decided to keep Morneau and the Dodgers traded for Adrian Gonzalez, ruling them out as a potential future trade fit as well. Whether other teams were ever willing to assume Morneau's contract and part with prospects is unclear, but even wiping his $14 million salary off the books would have value for the Twins as they try to rebuild the starting rotation and his departure would clear a path for Chris Parmelee to get regular playing time.

In other words, if Morneau is no longer an elite hitter and is unlikely to be on the team beyond 2013 would the Twins be better off getting some value for him now and moving on? To me that beats paying him $14 million for one more season and then letting him walk for nothing as a free agent, although if he puts together a strong, healthy first half in 2013 his trade value could potentially be just as high or higher than it was in July.

Trading one of the best players in team history is never easy, particularly considering what Morneau has gone through, but in the larger picture he's a good but not great first baseman with tons of health-related question marks signed to a one-year, $14 million contract. Letting him play out that deal and hit the open market might be the least-painful option in the short term, but it would also likely be a missed opportunity to better allocate that money.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit

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