August 16, 2011

Twins trade Delmon Young to Tigers for Cole Nelson and PTBNL

There's no doubt that trading Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to the Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie on November 28, 2007 was a big mistake. It was a bad move at the time, as the Twins undervalued Garza and Bartlett while overlooking Young's considerable flaws as part of his supposed upside, and in the four years since then it has proven to be one of the most lopsided missteps in team history.

At various points along the way the Twins surely could have gotten a decent return by trading Young, particularly following a 2010 season in which he hit .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers, 46 doubles, and a bunch of RBIs. But they didn't and he took several massive steps backward this year. Trading for Young was a mistake and not trading him after last season was too, but once those poor decisions were made yesterday's decision to dump him was a sound one.

Young was a No. 1 pick and universally regarded as an elite prospect, but those days are long gone. Now he's a 25-year-old veteran of 2,800 plate appearances and has hit .289/.322/.426 with meager power, zero plate discipline or strike-zone control, awful defense, and laughably bad baseball instincts. He's also being paid $5.38 million this season and would be in line for a raise to at least $6 million next season via arbitration, with free agency looming in 2013.

There's nothing the Twins could do to erase their previous bad decisions regarding Young, but the mistake now would have been keeping him for another season at that price. Too little too late, but the Twins finally came to the realization that he shouldn't be in their long-term plans and that left them three options. They could trade him now, they could try to trade him shortly after the season, or they could non-tender him this winter.

They chose the one option with a guaranteed return, minimal as it may be, trading him to the Tigers for minor leaguer Cole Nelson, a player to be named later, and around $1.25 million in savings. Nelson was a 10th-round pick in last year's draft out of Auburn and the Edina native is a 6-foot-7 southpaw with plus fastball velocity and mediocre numbers at Single-A, so he's a decent second-tier prospect. I'm told the player to be named later will be "nobody special."

By trading Young within the division the Twins made it clear they no longer believe his oft-cited potential is likely to arrive and it's difficult to argue otherwise about a poor defensive corner outfielder with a .426 slugging percentage and 12 homers per 500 at-bats. Since he joined the Twins in 2008 the only player in all of baseball with more plate appearances and a lower Wins Above Replacement total than Young is Yuniesky Betancourt. Seriously.

Even in 2010, his lone quality season in four years with the Twins, he was merely a good but not great hitter whose putrid defense wiped away much of his offensive value. That year there were 64 total corner outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitters with at least 500 plate appearances and Young ranked 46th in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging percentage, and 27th in OPS. And in the three surrounding seasons Young slugged .401.

Perhaps it'll click for Young in Detroit or his next home after that, but he got ample opportunity to show he's more than just another bad-glove, good-bat corner outfielder and couldn't even consistently accomplish the good-bat part. Young's flaws on and off the field mean his bat has to be special and it's barely been average. There's a reason the Twins got so little for him and it's the same reason their trade for him was such a mistake: Young simply isn't very good.

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September 2, 2010

Twins complete Fuentes trade by sending Van Mil to Angels

Technically the Angels had until October 15 to decide on the player to be named later heading their way in the deal for Brian Fuentes, but it turns out they were simply waiting for Loek Van Mil to go through waivers after being designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for Fuentes. He predictably went unclaimed and yesterday the Twins finalized the trade by sending the 7-foot-1 right-hander to the Angels.

Van Mil ranked 39th on my list of the Twins' top prospects this winter, but has been limited to just 33.2 innings due to injuries and posted a 6.15 ERA between high Single-A and Double-A. He's intriguing simply by virtue of standing 7-foot-1 and actually had quite a bit of success prior to this season, but Van Mil will turn 26 years old next month, has yet to throw even 50 innings in a season, and almost surely would've been cut from the 40-man roster by the offseason.

By going through waivers Van Mil was available to any team willing to place him on the 40-man roster and he also would have been eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft in December, so giving the Dutchman up as the PTBNL for Fuentes is a no-brainer for the Twins. Because of his size and good fastball Van Mil is perhaps still capable of developing into a quality reliever if he can stay healthy, but he's a pretty fungible commodity at this point.

Fuentes might actually accept and stick them with a $10 million bill for 2011, so I'll be surprised if the Twins risk offering him arbitration in order to receive compensatory draft picks when he leaves as a free agent. Essentially that means they dealt Van Mil and $1.9 million for six-plus weeks of a good left-handed setup man. For a contending team with an obvious bullpen need that's an ideal move, although Fuentes' back problems unfortunately may complicate things.

August 27, 2010

Twins get Brian Fuentes from the Angels for a player to be named later

Earlier this week the Twins added Randy Flores, a 34-year-old southpaw reliever who's an iffy fit for the "left-handed specialist" role because he's a marginal big leaguer and not particularly effective against left-handed hitters. Friday evening they added another 34-year-old southpaw reliever by sending a player to be named later to the Angels for Brian Fuentes, but if anything the four-time All-Star and longtime closer is actually vastly overqualified for the same gig.

I'm not sure what the Twins ever saw in Flores, against whom left-handed hitters have batted .290 with a .470 slugging percentage in his last 120 innings, but there's no such mystery with Fuentes. He's no longer the elite reliever he was for the Rockies from 2002-2008, but with his funky sidearm delivery and fastball-slider combo Fuentes remains death to left-handed batters and is potentially still good enough versus righties to be significantly more than a specialist.

Fuentes is perhaps one of the most underrated relievers of this era, posting a 3.48 ERA in 515 career innings despite calling Coors Field home for most of that time. Among all active relievers with at least 500 lifetime appearances Fuentes' adjusted ERA+ of 137 ranks seventh, behind only Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Cordero. He's no longer quite at that level, but he's a massive upgrade over Flores.

Fuentes has been nearly unhittable against left-handed batters this season, holding them to a .132 batting average and .158 slugging percentage in 44 plate appearances. You can blame the small sample size on opposing managers doing whatever they can to avoid letting lefties face Fuentes, and while no one is that good versus lefties over a larger sample during the past three years Fuentes also held them to a combined .213/.284/.276 line in 192 trips to the plate.

Fuentes was also very strong against right-handed hitters during that same three-year span, limiting them to a .224/.313/.349 mark that, for example, compares well to Matt Capps' career .260/.298/.396 line versus righties. This year Fuentes has allowed a .465 slugging percentage against righties due to five homers and nine doubles in 101 at-bats, but small-sample power numbers can be fluky and he's still held them to a .228 average and .328 on-base percentage.

Based on his 2007-2009 performance Fuentes is now the best reliever on the team. Based on his slightly less dominant performance this season Fuentes is now the best option on the team versus lefties and a capable option against righties. Assuming the player to be named later is no one special this is an ideal stretch-run pickup for the Twins, who add one of MLB's truly elite lefty-on-lefty relievers and someone capable of getting late-inning outs versus righties as well.

I'm hopeful that Ron Gardenhire recognizes Fuentes' strong track record against right-handed hitters and is willing to use him as more of a setup man than a pure lefty specialist, because Fuentes and the new-and-improved, slider-slinging Jesse Crain setting up Capps should be a very effective late-inning trio while leaving Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, and perhaps eventually Jose Mijares to work the middle innings. And if not, Fuentes can just shut down lefties.

Fuentes is in the second year of a two-year, $17.5 million deal and is owed $1.9 million for the rest of 2010. His contract also has a $9 million option for 2011 that vests if he has 55 games finished this year, but with just 33 so far it isn't an issue. PTBNLs always make me nervous, but as long as the prospect proves palatable this is a sound move and in fact adding a quality arm so cheaply makes me question trading Wilson Ramos for Capps even more than before.

July 30, 2010

Twins get Matt Capps from Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa

Matt Capps was available for nothing this offseason. Non-tendered by the Pirates in December following a career-worst campaign that saw him post a 5.80 ERA and .324 opponents' batting average while serving up 10 homers in 54.1 innings, Capps became a free agent and signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals in large part because they were one of the only teams willing to promise him an opportunity to remain a closer.

And last night the Twins decided to overpay for that closing experience, acquiring Capps from the Nationals for Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa. To be clear, Capps is a good, solid late-inning reliever. He bounced back nicely in Washington with a 2.74 ERA and 38-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings and has a 3.50 ERA in 317 career innings. However, if not for his racking up 93 saves for bad teams I'm convinced the Twins never would have even considered this move.

Much like the Twins turning to Jon Rauch with Joe Nathan sidelined, Capps' reputation as an "experienced closer" comes largely from teams simply giving him a shot to accumulate saves. Rauch has done a perfectly fine job filling in for Nathan, converting 21-of-25 saves with a 3.05 ERA and 27-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.1 innings, and if given a longer opportunity may have turned himself into an "established closer" just like Capps did. Seriously.

Take a look at their respective career numbers as relievers:

           IP     ERA     FIP    SO/9    BB/9     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Capps     317    3.50    3.80     7.0     1.7    .263    .302    .415    .717
Rauch     402    3.54    3.90     7.5     2.7    .242    .297    .390    .687

Capps has had better control, Rauch has been tougher to hit, and their overall effectiveness is nearly identical across the board. If pressed I'd pick Capps over Rauch because he's younger and has fared better in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), but by far the biggest difference between them is that one has accumulated saves for four seasons while the other has accumulated saves for one season.

No one would ever suggest that trading Ramos for a reliever who's slightly better than Rauch is a sound idea, yet by focusing on the save statistic the Twins have done just that and many fans will instinctively be on board with the move for an "established closer." Now, don't get me wrong: Capps is a quality reliever and represents a clear upgrade to the Twins' bullpen. What he's not is an elite reliever or enough of an upgrade to part with Ramos.

Capps is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player next season as well, which means the Twins essentially traded Ramos and Testa for 1.5 seasons of him. Unfortunately part of his inflated perceived value includes his likely price-tag in arbitration, which is sure to rise from this year's $3.5 million salary to over $5 million (and perhaps well over $5 million) thanks to those same shiny-looking save totals.

Capps makes the Twins better for the final two months of this season and all of next year, but the improvement isn't nearly as large as the "All-Star closer" label would have you believe and the cost involved is significant in terms of both players and money. Next season the Twins will pay a premium for a quality setup man they perceive as something more because of a reliance on a flawed statistic and they gave up a good catching prospect for the right do that.

In fairness, Ramos' value is inflated as well. His historic debut caused the Twins fans who don't know any better to assume that he was destined for stardom and his subsequent struggles at Triple-A have exposed him as a good but not great prospect. However, he still projects as a good defender behind the plate and a 22-year-old being overmatched in his first experience at Triple-A is far from disastrous.

I'm not convinced that Ramos will become a star, but the possibility certainly exists and at the very least he looks capable of developing into a starting-caliber catcher for many years. Joe Mauer's presence meant Ramos had little shot to be that starting-caliber catcher in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean the Twins needed to deal him immediately or when his value was at an all-time low or for an underwhelming return like Capps.

I have no problem with trading Ramos or trading for bullpen help, and in the Twins' minds they just traded him for an "All-Star closer." In reality they traded Ramos for a setup-caliber reliever who accumulated saves on bad teams and is thus overrated and soon overpaid. Among the 93 pitchers who've logged 150-plus relief innings in the past three calendar years, Capps ranks 38th in xFIP, 49th in FIP, 50th in ERA, 61st in strikeout rate, and 85th in opponents' average.

You'd think the Twins would have learned something about the created-not-born nature of the closer role and often spurious value of saves from Rauch's relatively successful stint filling in for Nathan, but instead they just paid a premium for a guy whose perceived value and ability are much higher than his actual value and ability solely because of his role and save total. Capps is a good reliever, but the Twins paid for a great reliever and did so for all the wrong reasons.

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