Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Johan Santana Deluge (links edition).

None of this matters yet and we really won't know whether this was a good move or a bad move until several years from now. The sentiment is pretty consistent across the entire media galaxy - mainstream or other - the Twins got swindled. This to me seems like a knee-jerk analysis when it comes to this transaction because one club just traded away the best pitcher on the planet (ibid) for four prospects that weren't on your average fan's radar. What's more is that the reactions on Wednesday would have still been the same had the Twins swapped for Ellsbury, Hughes or Martinez. The fact of the matter is everyone will question if you got enough in return for the best pitcher on the planet (ibid).

Did Bill Smith stall too long, blink too quickly and fold? Here's what the others are saying:

  • Keith Law is lauding Mets GM Omar Minaya for holding on to his two best prospects, Fernando Martinez and Mike Pelfrey. Bill Smith, however, took a bit of a lashing:
In the abstract, it's hard to accept dealing your marquee player and top trading asset without getting your partner's top young player in return, and that's what the Twins did. They did get back significant economic value in four young players, each of whom has under one year of big-league service and two of whom aren't even on the Mets' 40-man roster yet, so the Twins will have each of them under control for six full years of service. That return in exchange for just one year of Santana's services is reasonable. But premium players should fetch premium prices, because there's value to a club in having so much production coming from a single roster spot. And in this case, Minnesota GM Bill Smith did not get a premium prospect in return.
  • Joe Posnanski details the nature of uncertainty regarding prospects and the inability, even for industry insiders, to agree on whether or not these are solid prospects.

But I think there’s something else — baseball is a brutally hard game to predict. And I think this trade proves it. Here you have a major trade involving five players, all with some sort of professional track record, and the opinions about it (again, just from the people I know) are all over the map. I would say there’s a bigger consensus among fans (and I include myself here) — most of think this was a pretty sorry trade for the Twins; based on reports, they might have gotten Jacoby Ellsbury or Joba Chamberlain or some other bigger name prospect. Of course, you never know about reports.

But here’s the thing: If Gomez develops as some think he will — Moises Alou — then he alone could make this a winning trade for the Twins. Remember, they only had one year of Santana left. If on top of that they get some help from those arms, if Guerra turns into a Francisco Liriano, if Mulvey or Humber win 15 in the next couple of years, then it could be a Twins steal, a franchise-making move. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but what do I know? What does anyone know? That’s why it’s a great game. Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round. Nobody knows nothing.

  • Jim Callis at Baseball America is completely befuddled. It would seem that when it comes to these trade parameters, the Twins obtained no prospect that is even flirting with certainty.

Minnesota might be better off if those talks collapse, giving new Twins GM Bill Smith a chance to find a better return for Santana. While he’s going to command possibly the richest contract ever given to a pitcher, Santana is the best pitcher in the game. And Smith didn’t get enough for him.

Guerra (No. 2), Gomez (No. 3), Mulvey (No. 4) and Humber (No. 7) all ranked prominently on our Mets Top 10 Prospects list. But there’s simply too much risk involved in this deal for Minnesota.

  • The Hardball Times contributors weighed in on the deal. The consensus seems to be that the Mets are the victors. Bryan Tsao is places the blame square on Billy Smith's shoulders, however Chris Constancio defended the choice by saying that the package of prospects will indeed pan out in the Twins's favor:

Bryan Tsao: I don't think you can let Twins general manager Bill Smith off the hook here. While it seems the Yankees and Red Sox weren't willing to deliver an acceptable package at this late date, I suspect that the Yankees' interest—and by extension Boston's—waned when potential replacement options in center field (guys like Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron) and in the back end of the rotation started to go off the market.

In the abstract it makes sense for a high payroll team like the Yankees to concentrate as much value as possible into as few roster spots as possible (roster spots being more scarce than money), in practice they would have needed to replace the rumored major league talent heading to the Twins for the move to make sense. Smith should have known that the deeper it got into the offseason, the less a deal would make sense to the Yankees.

The window to close a deal was clearly earlier in the offseason, and while Smith did a good job of drumming up interest, he didn't close. Instead, he clearly overplayed his hand here and got burned. He deserves some credit for cutting his losses and taking the best package possible, but his tenure as GM is not off to a promising start.

Chris Constancio: I actually think Humber and Mulvey are "sure things". They both have moderate upside, but both also have major league stuff (low 90s fastballs and at least one above-average breaking pitch), solid control, and are nearly ready for the major leagues. I don't see why one or both couldn't evolve into a useful middle-of-rotation arm in another year or two.

Deolis Guerra and Carlos Gomez are each less of a sure thing, but both are very young and both have very good upside. Gomez was aggressively promoted to Triple-A in 2007, and the toolsy centerfielder held his own at the plate and improved his plate discipline until a hamate bone injury ended his season. There's plenty to like about his skillset, and in many ways he's similar to the much more hyped
Jacoby Ellsbury in the Boston organization.

Guerra was the youngest player in full-season baseball in 2006, and he followed that up with a solid showing against much older competition in the Florida State League last year. He improved his control while increasing velocity on his fastball in 2007, and he probably is the Twins best prospect now. They could send the 18-year-old (he doesn't turn 19 in April) to Double-A this year, but they might keep him at Class A and just try to keep him healthy for a full season.

  • Last December STATS, Inc did a WHIFF profile breakdown of Johan's three main pitches (fastball, change-up and slider). In 2007, Johan's change-up had a WHIFF rating of .399. In other words, when he threw his change-up, Johan made batters swing-and-miss nearly 40% of the time. The league average on this pitch was .277. My impression is that it wasn't so much the pitches themselves as it was the sequencing of them. There were reports last year that said he was relying more heavily on his fastball then he had in previous seasons.
    Santana's fastball averages 91.9mph, which is very good for a left-handed starter but only a 70th percentile MLB velocity. Yet, the fear of his changeup drips off his fastball WHIFF (.192), which ranks in the 87th percentile. Santana has a deceptive delivery as well, hiding the ball very well as he chicken-wings and shot-puts the ball to home plate. You don't see too many deliveries like Santana's. Besides short arm action, it's not exactly smooth or clean, but there's nothing problematic about his health or performance.
  • The same WHIFF profile said that his fastball was .192 - still better than the league average of .142 - but certainly not the dominatingly unhittable pitch as his change-up is. There is an old adage in baseball that says a good change-up adds 5 mph to your fastball. In a way this is true. Santana is having his best games when he is locating his fastball early in the count then peppering the batter with the change-up. Simply having the change-up in his arsenal can wreck havoc on a hitter. Look at this clip of Johan whiffing Jim Thome. It would appear that Thome is trying too hard to keep his wait back in anticipation of that change-up. Instead of the 82.6 mph change-up, Johan feeds him a 91.9 mph letter-high fastball to which Thome reacts tardy.

  • Voros McCracken has made note of something that really hasn't been discussed. Pundits like to say that the Twins have been good at analyzing and acquiring prospect talent in the past, only that was Terry Ryan's team and not Bill Smith's team. How do we feel about Smith's judgement to date?
    Now normally I’d give the Twins a ton of leeway when it comes to their evaluation of young talent, as their record the last decade has been impeccable (including a master stroke in trading for Santana in the first place). But those were Terry Ryan’s Twins, and as much as many of the same people are in place, it’s difficult for me to give full credit for the work done under Ryan to the new guy Bill Smith. I don’t despise this trade from the Twins point of view, but I sure don’t like it a lot. One problem is that the Mets system really doesn’t have anything spectacular in terms of prospects and so the Twins got more or less what there was to get. Compared to what the A’s got for Haren and Swisher, this looks pretty skimpy.
  • Bob Klapisch breaks down the anatomy of the deal. Sickeningly, he describes a scene during the trade negotiations that had Bill Smith operating "in a panic" and on Monday called the Yankees and told them Hughes was "no longer a prerequisite". And it gets worse. Like the scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise realizes that he has been ousted by Bob Sugar.

Actually, it was a perfect storm of good fortune for the Mets. Not only did they exploit Smith's weakened bargaining position, but they benefited from the Yankees and Red Sox' synchronized caution. Talk about long shots. Who would've thought the AL East's two powerhouses would become so rational at the same time? Major league executives say Smith will rue the day he chose not to jump on the Yankees' offer of Hughes, Cabrera, Class AA right-hander Jeff Marquez and a prospect of their choosing. That was Dec. 2 and all Smith had to do was say yes.

Incredibly, he waffled. Within 24 hours, Pettitte told the Yankees he intended to pitch again in 2008, prompting the team to reconsider the deal for Santana. Suddenly, Hank Steinbrenner started listening to his brother Hal and Cashman, both of whom pleaded their case for financial restraint. Little by little, Hank Steinbrenner's craving for Santana diminished; the longer Smith held out, trying to leverage the Yankees and Red Sox against each other, the closer he came to dooming the best deal he could've made for Santana.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Was Your Favorite Johan Santana Moment?

As we sit on the cusp of what seems imminent within the next 72 hours, I can finally take a moment to gather my collective thoughts when it comes parting with Santana. I have avoided making any sort of judgments on the rumored deals because future speculation is for tabloids. Months of speculation from mainstream sources and endless refreshes of or Gleeman's posts of endless rumors during the Winter Meetings left me numb. In a way, this announcement feels like a non-event that we had been preparing for since the end of the 2007 season.

Don't get me wrong, this is the correct business move. Demonize Pohlad if you must, but in the end he is simply running a business. The Twins live and die in the mid-market and he is operating within those parameters. There are no benevolent owners in this world, no execptions. Santana's price became large market following several Cy Young awards. So is the nature of baseball. Joe Posnanski summarized the emotions of being a fan in the mid-to-small markets eloquently in his blog recently. Those of us that monitor these transactions as a passion (read: people who have read Moneyball and idolize Billy Beane) have known for quite some time that this was bound to happen. It made all the financial sense in the world to trade Johan off when he was able to provide the Twins with prospective value. And it is only fitting that Santana takes the same course as Frank Viola did to replenish the farm system by the New York Mets. We said thank you to the Mets for 1991 and hopefully we will be thanking them for 2009 or sooner.

Still, I can't help but miss the idea of Johan. Watching Johan in his full opulence is amazing. I will miss his absolute mastery when it comes to setting batters up, leaving them swinging at the change-up in a manner so comically, it is usually reserved for whiffle ball games. I will miss referring to every fifth day as "San-terror" day - in homage to how he must have made the opposing lineup feel. I will miss the fact that we are no longer privy to hearing how futile Cleveland's shortstop Jhonny Paralta is against Johan (Paralta had struck out in 22 out of 28 at-bats against Santana leading to a .107/.167/.143 batting line). It is hard to replace him and the way he worked his opponents. Francisco Liriano is a raw version of that (better if you used FIP as a gauge), but he simply is no replacement.

Part of me wants him to fail his physical under the premise of fallen arches or because the doctor doesn't like the sound of that cough. Something to keep him here for one last season - to couple with Liriano as the deadliest left-handed combination since Hamilton and Burr - for one last, sick dominating run at the AL Central. Let all those other clubs load up offensively. Try and deal with Santana and Liriano in a series.

When the next generation of analysts reflect back upon the early 2000s, they will notice that a Rule 5 draft pick from Houston (via the Florida Marlins) not only became one of the best pitchers in the game but also helped breathe new life into a franchise that could have just as easily wound up in this nation's capital. When the Twins were flirting with contraction, Johan emerged as a superstar. A genuine superstar (not the pseudo-Marty Cordova "burn-myself-in-a-tanning-bed" who made an appearance on SNL type of star). People made the point of watching Johan Santana, whether it be on TV or live at the Dome.

  • You could say it started on July 28th, 2002. Until that date, Santana had made 8 starts in 2002 after playing part-time starter/part-time reliever/part-time roster spot in 2001 and 2000. A month prior on June 28th, Santana finished with 9 strikeouts and had dueled another up-and-coming prospect, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets for 8 innings where following a wild pitch from Santana to Alex Ochoa to move Richie Sexson to third, then giving up a Ochoa singled to center to score Sexson on his lone run (a game score of 79). Fast forward to July 23rd, where Santana could only last 3.2 innings against the Chicago White Sox while giving up 8 earned runs. It would appear that Santana might never solidify a spot in the rotation. On July 28th, however, you could have announced the arrival once and for all of Johan Santana. He finished 8 innings of shut out ball against the Toronto Blue Jays, 4 to 0. Over that time, Santana surrendered two hits, walked three, while striking out 13. The Twins completed the season as the front-runners of the AL Central with a 94-67 record. During the playoff series against Oakland and Anaheim, Santana made several appearances in relief as the Twins opted to stick with Rick Reed in spite of not make it out of the 6th inning in either starts during the playoffs (foreshadowed by not making it past the 5th inning in his last two starts of the regular season).

  • In 2003 the Twins returned him back to the bullpen to begin the season. Although he was making spot starts, Santana garnered national attention when he did not lose in 11 starts from August 3rd on. He finished 12-3 on the season but ended 8-0 in the last two months of the year. One of his best games pitched during that period was a no-decision for him in front of 30,000 fans at the Metrodome against Cleveland. On August 13th, 2003, Santana dueled a cadre of Indians pitchers 8 innings of scoreless ball where he only rendered 4 hits and struck out 8 (finishing with a game score of 81). After being replaced with Latroy Hawkins in the 9th, Juan Rincon failed him by giving up 3 straight singles in the 14th inning and gave way for JC Romero to blow the game. Attempting to carry his success into the playoff against PED-fueled Yankees, Johan pitched well in game 1 but was a no-decision as Latroy Hawkins won that game. Santana was the pitcher of record in the loss in the deciding game 4 after giving up 6 runs in the 5th inning.

  • 2004 was the Year of the Cy for Santana. On July 6th entering a game at the Dome against the non-factor 29-52 Kansas City Royals, Johan Santana, at 6-5, dominated the lowly Royals for 9 innings, giving up no runs on 3 hits with 13 strike outs (finishing with the highest game score yet in his career: 91). The Twins won 4-0 thanks to future Los Angeles Angel Torii Hunter's 11th home run of the season in the 2nd inning. From July 21st to September 24th, Santana rattled off 12 straight victories and finished 20-6 with a 2.61 era. In that season, Santana finished with 10 or more strike outs in a game 12 times. Santana was able to produce a victory in game 1 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium but was failed by his bullpen in game 4 where Nathan and Rincon were unable to hold a 5 to 1 lead. Kyle Lohse ultimately lost the game in the 11th. (Note to RHP Pitching Seeking GMs: Don't sign KYLE LOHSE for this reason).

  • 2005 was a continuation of his 2004 season. Santana began 5-2 in his first 10 starts on his way to finishing the season 16-7. Of those 7 defeats, Santana was subjected to 4 games in which he lost by one run - additional offensive and Santana might have been 20-3. The Twins finished 83-79, only good enough for 3rd in the AL Central, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Santana was second in the Cy Young voting despite pitching better than winner Bartolo Colon when comparing era+ and quality. Santana finished with 155 era+ while Colon finished at 122 era+. Want more evidence? Colon finished with 157 strike outs in 222.7 innings (0.70 k per inning), Santana finished with 238 in 231 innings (1.03 k's per inning). Instead of the peripheral numbers, the voters saw 5 more victories in Colon's favor for a team that ultimately had ten more victories.

  • A changing of the guard happened in Minnesota in 2006. Long-time opening date starter Brad Radke finally gave way to the new staff ace Johan Santana after Radke had initiated the summer the previous five years. Most had already given Santana the ace title after his Cy Young award in 2004 but this was still ceremonious in many ways. Making his predecessor proud, Santana lost his first opening day start against Toronto at the Rogers Centre, then he subsequently drop his next three starts. Through May 28th, Santana was 4-4 but had thrown several good games and had struck out more than 10 in his four prior starts. Santana was accountable for 19.7% of the wins as the Twins finished 96-66 in what was considered an improbable year though he suffered a 3-2 defeat in his only playoff start agaist the Oakland A's. His 19-6 record coupled with a 2.77 era and 245 strike outs in 233 innings (1.05 k's per inning) led to his 2nd Cy Young award.

  • Santana, like the Twins, was burdened a lot by unnecessary losses in the 2007 season. His 15-13 record does not reflect the 3 games he lost by 1 run and the 7 decisions he lost by 2 runs. A lot could be said about the 2007 team if they had offense at the right times. Santana was yet another victim of these run deficient circumstances. On Sunday, August 19th, completed what could be the best start of his career to date. I will remember it through the words of John Gordon and Dan Gladden on KSTP as I was driving home from a cabin in Emily, MN but somehow when you hear those words "SWWWWIIIIIIG...and a miss" from Gordo, it ingrains itself into yours psyche better than your eyes can. On that day, Gordon and Gladden reported that event 17 times (the most in San-terror's career) against the Rangers. Johan contributed to 18.9% of the 79 victories the Twins had accrued.

After the season end amid speculation that Santana had pitched his last in Minnesota pin stripes, we collectively recoiled. Again, those of us who are familiar with the works knew that it was true - that Santana was destined for a grander stage that the 2.4 million of us in the Twin Cities could not provide - so we held hope against all odds that the Twins ownership would come through with an offer.

Here is the hard truth: you will miss Johan too. You will miss the fact that during every Twins losing streak you at least had Santana to count on to extinguish it. You will grow tired of the nights this summer when he leads off 'Baseball Tonight', with clips of him striking out countless Phillies, Marlins, Pirates or Braves. You will anger over how Joe Buck fawns over him when he is selected to start for the National League All-Star team and references that, at the break, he is leading the NL in wins and that the Mets "only" had to give up four prospects with his smug, private-schooled, judgmental voice. You will HATE the umpteenth time Ken Rosenthal refers to Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana as the greatest living 1-2 starters since Drysdale and Koufax. Most of all, you will hate to see the reception he gets his first appearance at Shea because you are already starting to forget that feeling of having the most dominating lefty when he was in your own backyard.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One Special LOOGY, Coming Up.

As the modern baseball roster keeps evolving, we find a greater role for specialists. Managers frequently deploy left-handed pitchers for as little as one pitch to (hopefully) dispatch some of the game's more fearsome left-handed batters. These LOOGYs, once a rarity among the bullpen staff whose origins date back to the Kansas City A's, are now commonplace. While most do not adhere to the strict definition - 1) More than 20 appearances, 2) less than 1.20 innings per appearance and 3)fewer than 20% saves per appearance - all bullpens have a player that flirts with this measurement. And now, much like the "Closer Boom" of the turn-of-the-century, LOOGYs are cashing in on the free agent market. Does this seem reasonable economically? After all, these players are typically throwing in 40 to 60 games per year and are asked to obtain one out - which is usually a very favorable match-up (lefty on lefty). Yet general managers are throwing more cash at these guys as if they are vital to winning when obviously the limited usage makes these players appear to be better.

Consider J.C. Romero.

As the Twins began to embark on a new tradition of winning, the franchise found themselves with a solid nucleus of talent in the bullpen. In 2002, as a 26-year-old, Romero finished the season that brought the Twins back to the playoffs for the first time since 1991 with a 9-2 record and a extremely low 1.89 era (era+ 236). He averaged just 1 inning per appearance. In the next seasons Romero averaged 1.15, 0.99 and finally 1.15 innings per appearance between 2003 and 2005. Before 2005 started the Twins signed him to an ambitious 2-year/$3.7 million dollar contract (with a $2.75 option year). Pointing to both his erratic tendencies on the mound and thought to provide general clubhouse malaise, the Twins unloaded him to the Los Angeles Angels for Alexi Casilla. Once in the AL West, the Angels called upon him to throw more innings. His average went from 1.15 in 2005 to 1.31 in 2006 - a small change yet large enough to expose various susceptibility on the mound. His era rose from 3.47 to 6.70. The Angels declined his option year.

Theo Epstein and his cauldron of stat nerds in Boston recognized the value in having a LOOGY on staff and that using him in a certain capacity (say, averaging under 1.2 innings an appearance) they projected he could thrive. He was signed to a 1-year/$1.6 million dollar contract. Whether it was playing at Fenway with the looming Monster (7% hr/fb) or simply not finding his control (16.0% bb%), Romero compiled a 3.15 era (much better than his California stint) in 1.15 innings and still received his walking papers.

In the thick of a NL East pennant race, Pat Gillick and the Philadelphia Phillies took a flyer out on Romero and picked him up for a minor league contract. In the second half of the season, Romero dominated the left-handed batters and finished with a 1.24 era...while averaging 1.4 (!) innings per appearance. In the everlasting, infinite wisdom of the Phillies front office, they signed him to a large 3-year, $12-million dollar contract. As I had stated before, luck played a significant part in his second-half performance (.173 babip) and in no way did he "earn" a $12-million dollar contract. In total, Romero averaged 1.3 innings per appearance in 2007.

Cleveland touts a 25-year-old lefty Rafael Perez who has been deemed one of the better relief pitchers in the game after finishing 2007 with a 1.78 era while tossing less than an inning an appearance (0.78). Are these accolades thrown around due to his performance in what is essentially a bubble? In the next several seasons, if he is managed the same on the field and facing a diet of left-handed batters, his value will undoubtedly rise. Which is what happens when in your first full season Peter Gammons says that you "arguably the best left-handed reliever on the planet." After two more seasons, Mark Shapiro should trade him while his stock is high. Admittedly, Perez displays better stuff and could find himself working in different parameters but will not likely have the same success. There are plenty of gullible GMs looking to part with some prospects for a good LOOGY.

Another Twins example is Dennys Reyes. He's not a prototypical LOOGY, since over the course of the previous two seasons, Reyes made 121 appearances and accumulated 80 innings and, on average, the Twins used Reyes for approximately 1.5 innings per deployment. So he doesn't conform to the definition however, if Hafner, Thome or Ortiz were expected to have an at-bat in the 6th, 7th or 8th, you knew Dennys Reyes would be down in the bullpen. And the majority of the time you would want him in the game against those guys.

(Aside: I often wonder why he isn't on the DL more for neck problems because his jowls must weigh 80 lbs. Seriously. It looks like he is taking the mound with two medicine balls stuffed on either side of his cheeks. I don't know what gets closer to the ground: Neshek's knuckles or Reyes's face...)

In 2006 he made 66 appearances, finishing with a 0.89 era, and even though he proved effective enough to withstand both sides of the plate as he rendered bats useless with a .197/.259/.275 Gardenhire still only allowed him to average 1.3 innings per appearance slightly outside of the LOOGY definition. He contributed 9 win shares to the team for a bargain one-year/$550,000. The Twins resigned him to a 2-year/$2-million dollar contact.

My initial reaction what that the Twins had lightning strike with Reyes, it wouldn't likely strike twice or three times more, then again a million a season is practically chump-change in the relief market. 2007 may have had been more like 2006 for Reyes had our starting pitching been able to go deeper into games (Ponson and Ortiz struggled mightily early) and the bullpen hda key breakdowns such as injuries to Jesse Crain and finally Reyes himself who couldn't avoid the DL. That, in addition to his 2006 success, probably caused his usage to increase to 1.7 innings per appearance. Being exposed more to unfavorable match-ups led to Reyes being knocked around some. His era went up (mostly because at 0.89 up is about all it can go) and his location began to suffer (his walk rate climbed from 7.7% to 15.1%).

As pitchers and catcher prepare to report for camp, Reyes's role has not be defined. Rumors from the East Side Fishwrap indicated that the Twins had made an offer to Jeremy Affeldt for $1.5 million. One particular reason was that the lack of left-handed depth was noticable when Reyes was on the DL. Affeldt himself found success in that same role for the Colorado Rockies in 2007 as he finished with 3.51 era, no saves in 75 games and average 1.21 innings per appearance. Instead of signing with the Twins for a $250,000 raise, Affeldt took $3 million for one season with the Cinncinati Reds. As was the case with Reyes, I believe Affeldt will also be inflicted by the Reds with the burden on additional work based upon his successful 2007 campaign. Which is why if Reyes has a successful first half in 2008, Bill Smith should consider trading him to a team willing to relinquish a prospect or two. It is a seller's market for LOOGYs.

What can be determined out of this? Naturally, throwing less innings supplies a better chance of a serious implosion if you have one bad inning, however, if the match-ups are skewed towards the pitcher (lefty-on-lefty), the advantage goes to the hurler. One thing is for sure is that cheap retreads (Reyes, Affeldt) and minor league prospects (Perez) can thrive in this role if managed carefully.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Desparately Seeking Relief.

The recent signing by the White Sox of 34-year-old Octavio Dotel to a multi-year, $11-million dollar contract highlights once again an important facet that has allowed the Twins to remain a successful franchise in spite of the non-profit-like budget: Internal Relief Development. Because of Internal Relief Development, or I.R.D., the Twins have not had to invest valuable payroll towards what has become one of the most costly (and volatile) acquisitions on the free agent market.

"Relievers are like the stock market — you just hope you can hit on one," Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told USA Today. "Bullpens are almost impossible to build. There is supply and demand, inconsistency of performance. You never know what you are going to get in a part of the roster that's increasingly important."

And O'Dowd did well assembling one of the better bullpens in 2007 considering he sunk nearly 23% of his payroll ($12.636 million) in Brian Fuentes (era+ 155), Latroy Hawkins (era+ 140), Jeremy Affeldt (era+ 137), Jorge Julio (era+ 122), Manuel Corpas (era+ 231), and Matt Herges (era+ 162). As the season ended, two free agents were looking to cash in on their recent success. In a maneuver that echoed his belief in the quote above, O'Dowd chose to let Hawkins (who has since signed a 1-year, $3.75 million dollar contract with the Yankees) and Affeldt (who recently inked a 1-year, $3 million dollar deal with the Reds) go unabated to the free agent market. What could be said about those two is that they greatly out-performed any estimates based on their previous seasons and O'Dowd knew this. And with the defense built at Coors, O'Dowd is betting that his I.R.D. graduates (like Ryan Speier and Corpas) will provide similar results and for the same asking price per year as Hawkins, sign Luis Vizcaino, a more consistent performer, for two years.

Bottom-line is that pitching is expensive, starting or relief, to purchase on the open market. USA Today reported that as of two weeks ago, teams have spent a combined $122 million on bullpen help gearing up for 2008. Unfortunately, as you will see, it would appear that these franchises have allocated more money for what are sure to be disaster relief efforts than FEMA during hurricane season.

Even with that wisdom that O'Dowd expound, organizations across the league have invested far too much in set-ups and LOOGYs who have become nearly as expensive as their closer brethren:

  • The Royals signed 37-year-old lefty Ron Mahay to a two-year, $8-million dollar contract. Mahay is cashing in on a season where he limited left-handed batters to a .189/.248/.292 split while with Texas and Atlanta. However, the two previous seasons Mahay's left-handed opponents hit .240/.336/.458 in 2006 and .302/.338/.571 in 2005. What's more is that there is no substantiating evidence to suggest that Mahay turned a corner last year. When analyzed, it would appear that Mahay was the recipient of good defense and luck as his batted balls in play was near .270 (his groundball rate has ranged from 43% to 52%). In the previous three-seasons combined (2005-2007) lefties batted .234/.302/.419 against him. In comparison, during that same period, lefties hit .203/.283/.256 against Dennys Reyes. The difference is that while the Twins will owe Reyes $1-million dollars next year, the Royals owe Mahay $3-million more.

  • The Phillies re-signed J.C. Romero to a 3-year, $12-million dollar contract because of his low 1.24 era in 36.4 innings of work. This statistical sampling is by no means large enough to valuate one's performance. Romero, as Twins fans will remember, had erratic tendencies and 2007 was no different. His walk rate was 16.8%, nearly double the league average of 9.0%, with Boston and Philadelphia. Romero is expected to set-up for Brad Lidge although his stats really indicate that he would thrive better as a LOOGY. In the previous three seasons, Romero has had a much better split against left-handed batters (.202/.309/.292) then the right-handed counterparts (.279/.400/.445). The Phillies will discover this in 2008 when his lower than average babip (.173) corrects itself.

  • The Brewers signed righty Eric Gagne to a one-year, $10-million dollar contract. It could be that the Doug Melvin did some online shopping at Baseball-Reference once they lost Francisco Cordero to the Reds and acquired his number one comparison. This acquisition was made under the guise of Gagne being a closer, still, he has been far from the once reliable closer he once was after spending significant time in and out of operating rooms (elbow and back), not to forgot being mentioned in a certain Mitchell Report. Gagne didn't have a terrible year last seasons split between the Rangers and the Red Sox - his era was a hefty 6.75 in 18 innings with Boston and he struck out 24.7% of batters faced while issuing walks to 10.1% of them. He converted 16 of 20 save opportunities (80% success rate) and maintained a era that was 121 points better than the league average. That being said, Gagne is a big gamble. In the previous three seasons he has thrown only 67 innings and 52 of those came last year.

Avoiding this cost by promoting from within has benefited the Twins not only by saving money but also by not partaken in these types of acquisitions, the Twins have managed to steer clear of large sums of money dedicated to bullpen calamities. Granted, there are some blemishes within the Twins pen, notably Juan Rincon and the lack of left-handed depth. A team that is rich in pitching resources can take the opportunity to make small-risk signings in the free agent market (like Dennys Reyes) and then sign premium pitchers to long-term contracts (like Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain and hopefully soon Pat Neshek).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

AL Central Round-Up. 1/19/08.

Chicago White Sox

  • Yet another former Royals reliver is ready to sign with the White Sox. This time it's the 34-year-old Octavio Dotel. In attempts to rehab a combustible bullpen, Sox General Manager Kenny Williams has been rumored to offer a two-year, $11 million dollar contract to the righty. In the previous season, Williams tried to pacify relief troubles presented at the end of 2006 with the power-arms of Mike MacDougal (Royal), Matt Thornton, David Aardsma and Andrew Sisco (another Royal), which only led to a bullpen in 2007 that finished 19-25 with a 5.47 era. The lone bright spot was closer Bobby Jenks who finished with a 2.77 era and a batting average against of .198. Dotel, who split 2007 between Kansas City and Atlanta, finished the year with a 29.7% strike out rate and a 8.7% walk rate in 33 appearances. However Dotel can be spanked hard. In that span, Dotel allowed 29 hits and 41.3% of them when for extra bases.
  • Like Cleveland after 2006 who signed Keith Foulke and Joe Borowski, the front office of the White Sox have determined that they need to fortify the bullpen, unfortunately for Williams, through the expensive reliever free agency. After signing former Brewer Scott Linebrink to a four-year, $19 million dollar contract, the Sox have turned to Dotel who will make $11 million for half the years as Linebrink. The allocation of $10.25 million in two players next season just highlights how important a pipeline of pitchers developed from within is to an organization. While Joe Nathan of the Twins stands to make $5.25 million in 2008, for the price of Linebrink/Dotel - two underwhelming relievers - the Twins have Nathan, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain and Dennys Reyes. For just a year's worth of Dotel, the Twins can deploy Matt Guerrier, Glen Perkins and Pat Neshek and still have change left over. Keeping a steady flow of pitching prospects ready to substitute for anyone in your bullpen with the same results is the best route when trying to keep your budget down. The Sox, meanwhile, have been trading away a good amount of prospects this offseason including pitchers Gio Gonzales and Fautino de los Santos. Gonzales lead the organization with 185 strikeouts while de los Santos was the tops in era (2.65) and opponents average (.163).
  • Joe Crede will return to US Cellular for at least part of the year after avoiding arbitration by signing a one-year, $5.15 million dollar contract. The media has speculated with the emergence of Josh Fields (who is making $400k this season), Crede has been deemed expendable. After injuries sidelined him after 167 plate appearances, it was obvious that Crede's power was depleted after finishing with a .101 isolated power average while hitting about the .200 mark in 2006 and 2005. Crede flashes very good leather so he will make an excellent trade candidate for those seeking glove love at third as evident by his revised zone ratings. In the two seasons prior to his back injury, Crede finished 3rd and 5th among AL third baseman in RZR category and also was displayed range as seen in his Out of Zone numbers. He also supports his glove by carrying a strong bat as well. Provided that his back is fully healed from surgery, Crede should attact plenty of suitors interested in an affordable third baseman. While I am not dismissing Mike Lamb's abilities just yet, it would be nice to have a well-rounded third baseman who can add both offensively and defensively to the line up.

Brandon Inge (Detroit) .780 49 .776
Mike Lowell (Boston) .765 43 .814
Joe Crede (Chicago) .760 57 .828
Adrian Beltre (Seattle) .721 61 .792
Eric Chavez (Oakland) .717 37 .786

AL - 2005




Eric Chavez (Oakland)




Bill Mueller (Boston)




Brandon Inge (Detroit)




Melvin Mora (Baltimore)




Joe Crede (Chicago)




Cleveland Indians

  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an excellent profile on Indians prospect Jordan Brown. First baseman Brown has won two consecutive league MVPs. In 2006, at high-A Kingston, Brown finished .286/.349/.469 while gaining extra bases in 36.0% of his hits coupled with a solid walk rate (9.6%) and a low strike out rate (11.1%). For an encore, Brown was moved up to double-A Akron in 2007 where he improved to .333/.421/.484, hit for extra bases in 30% of his hits and significantly improved his plate discipline (12.5% bb%|9.9% k%). Brown has been drawing comparisons to Sean Casey and Mark Grace for his plate approach, but his Casey comparison might be the most telling. Like Casey who found himself blocked by mighty Jim Thome, Brown is currently blocked by Ryan Garko, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. He will begin 2007 with Buffalo but could be relocated to another club when/if the Indians begin needing help in other positions.
  • Weird fact: Koreans apparently do not use a pitch count. Indians Tommy John recovering outfielder Shin-soo Choo said that his ligament damage could have been traced back to his pitching days in Korea where in one stretch, Choo threw 44 innings in five games in one week. That's an average of 8 innings for those 5 games.
  • The Dealer's columnist Paul Hoynes who answers readers questions in his column 'Hey, Hoynsie!' recently responded to this inquiry:

Q: Hey, Hoynsie: Would the Indians have any interest in Kevin Mench? His career seemed very promising, but has really dropped off. - Richard Foderaro, Parma.

A: Hey, Richard: Let me get this straight, you want the Indians to acquire a player that's on the downside of his career?

OK, I got that out of my system. Several years ago the Indians had interest in Mench. I'm guessing that has cooled like his power production.

  • To me, the answer begs the question: what are you basing "power production" on? Again, as someone who is biased for the acquisition of a guy like Mench who can absolutely mash left-handed pitching, my view may be some what skewed. If you are looking at his standard numbers like rbis and homers, yes, it appears that he is in a decline. However when you look closer at the quality of the at-bats and hits provided, you see a different story. First, Mench's strikeout rate went from 12.0% in 2006 to 6.8% in 2007. Secondly his power did decline slightly in 2006 but rebounded in 2007. In 2005, Mench hit for extra bases in 41.4% of his hits. In 2006, split between Texas and Milwaukee Mench hit for extra bases in 32.5% of his hits. Last year, he improved to 40%. Both Trot Nixon and David Dellucci finished behind Mench in these areas.

Detroit Tigers

  • I don't know if I would refer to it as an ill-advised signing, but once again this indicates the necessity of being able to develop left-handed starting pitching internally to avoid high-payouts to mediocre pitchers like Nate Robertson. 30-year-old Robertson inked a three-year, $21.25 million dollar deal avoiding arbitration. He stands to make a modest $4.25 in 2008, but will earn a substantial amount more in the next two seasons: $7 million in 2009 and $10 million in 2010. In the previous three seasons, Robertson has yet to finish above .500%. ESPN describes his "best" season as the one where he finished 13-13 with a 3.84 era in 2006 - a season where he was accountable for 20% of the losses. His walk rate is typically right around league average while his strike out rate is slightly below average. This means that he is heavily reliant on his defense to make plays. In the "best" season, his low era was reflective of a low babip (.282) which had been consistently above .300 and his FIP (4.77) was nearly a run higher than the era (3.84). The 2008 salary might be a bargain, but the subsequent $17 million might prove to be a burden when trying to unload a pitcher when he fails to produce at the 2006 season levels.
  • Detroit Free Press's (and Baseball America contributor) John Paul Morosi has revealed his list of Top 10 Tigers prospects, highlighted by rhp Rick Porcello who has yet to have any professional experience. Five of which were added AFTER the trades with Florida and Atlanta.

Kansas City Royals

  • Nothing of substance has emerged from Kansas City, except several rumors tying free agent pitcher Bartolo Colon to Kauffman. USS Mariner analyzed the potential of signing a player like Colon who had missed significant time in 2007 and called him the "hidden gem of the free agent pitching" market. A deal that could be reasonable considering his recent stretch on the disable list that has scared other suitors away and would put him within the Royals' price range. Colon in the rotation along with Gil Meche and sophomore Brian Bannister could give the Royals one of their better three starting combinations in the rotation since Gubicza, Saberhagen and Liebrandt 20 years ago in 1988. It still wouldn't make the Royals a contender, especially when considering the league that they are in, but it does give a reason to go to the K before renovations start.
  • Avoided arbitration with Gload, Buck and de la Rosa. The fans rejoice.

Minnesota Twins

  • The broken arm of Jose Mijares is going to sideline him for four-to-six months. The lefty had superficially good season for New Britain where he went 5-3 with a 3.57 era in 46 appearances. Mijares is a bit wild and would have had to have shone up his control had he wanted to advance to Minnesota. He had a 17.5% walk rate which he did offset with a 27.3% strikeout rate. Rochester would have been a more obtainable goal in 2008.
  • Avoided arbitration on Morneau, Kubel and Rincon...still waiting on Cuddyer and Guerrier.
  • Joe Christensen tries to context the Santana saga by rehashing the Chuck Knoblauch trade.
  • Seth has an interview with Kevin Slowey.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Baseball Prospectus's Joe Sheehan included Kubel in his list of 2008 Breakout Seasons candidates:

Jason Kubel: While playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, Kubel, then 22 and considered one of the best hitting prospects in the game, suffered a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2005 season. Although he came back and played in ’06, he wasn’t remotely the same hitter. Most notably, Kubel’s post-injury strikeout rate has been much higher—147 in 835 PA, versus 193 in 1770 PA prior to the injury. That’s not just a result of playing at higher levels: that’s evidence of damage to the engine.

What we saw in ’07 was Kubel finally get back to the hitter he was before the injury. In the season’s first two months, Kubel struck out 33 times and walked 11 in 165 PA. In the next two months, those numbers were 21/10 in 148 PA: a big drop in strikeout rate and K/BB. Over the last two months: 25/18 in 153 PA. Kubel, a disciplined hitter coming through the minors, regained that discipline in ’07. His batting average and power followed. He’s 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins’ best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer.

I have long been an ardent supporter of Jason Kubel so I tend to whole-heartedly agree with this statement. He has been a batter that has showed a balanced approach at the plate in the minors. In 2003 at Ft. Myers, Kubel walked in 10.2% of his plate appearances and struck out in 11.5%. The following year, Kubel split 541 plate appearances between double-A New Britain and triple-A Rochester and finished with walks in 9.7% of his plate appearances and strike outs in 10.9% of them. If anything, this shows that Kubel had no history of free-swinging nor being overpowered by pitching when advancing levels. Even his brief 2004 call up to Minnesota, where he had 67 plate appearances with similar results (8.9 bb% | 13.4% k%) fuels the notion that Kubel is a very disciplined hitter.

Fast forward to the Arizona Fall League in 2004, following a massive leg injury in which his entire 2005 season would be lost. After what amounted to an entire year dedicate to rehabilitation, Twins farm director Jim Rantz told Baseball America in September 2005 that: "[Kubel's] on his own timetable. Missing a year like he has is one of the most difficult things for a player to go through, but to his credit he's worked extremely hard to battle through it. You never know how a player is going to rebound mentally from injuries, but with Jason there's never been any doubt of where his desire is. It's to be back on the field."

Analysts began saying that Jason Kubel would be having a breakout year in 2006, and hoping that advances in modern medicine would off-set the severity of injury, I did too. Unfortunately his 2006 numbers told a completely different story: He struck out in 19.1% of his plate appearances and his walk rate was a measly 5.2%. On top of that, his pop was gone too. In 2003 and 2004, Kubel had an extra base hit rate of 23% and 39% while slugging .400 and .590, respectively. When he did get hits in 2006 he managed just 18% of them to go for extra bases - an indication that his knee lacked the leverage to both drive the ball from and round the bases hard.

"There was a point where my left knee was getting tired and sore and I couldn't stay back on it, and in my right knee I couldn't run. That affected everything," Kubel told the Sporting News in February 2007, "I wasn't able to swing. I wasn't able to get out of the box quick enough. I wasn't able to get down to the base. So it was kind of tough, just trying to do everything all upper body."

2007 started essentially where 2006 left off:

-In April, Kubel struck out in 16.4% in his 73 plate appearances and coaxed walks in only 4.1%. While he was hitting line-drive at a 30% clip, none of them were finding turf.

-In May, his power improved as his isolated slugging average grew from .087 to .146 in a month where he hit 2 home runs. Still his strike out rate in his 92 plate appearances was near 23%.

-June became a time where he began to turn a corner. In his 69 plate appearances, Kubel struck out in only 11.6% of them and drew walks in 7.2%. His isop was up to .203 after hitting 3 home runs. He finished the month with a .266/.309/.469 line, by far his best of the year.

-His June performance earned him more plate appearances in July where he added 4 more home runs and completed the month with a .225/.288/.437 line.

-By August it was clear that the pre-injury Kubel had returned as seen in his 35% line drive rate, his 12.5% walk rate and his best line yet .364/.438/.509.
-In September he reaffirmed any non-believers by smacking 3 home runs, peppering the field with line drives in 24% of his balls in play and drawing a season high walks in 13.3% of appearances. His .325/.404/.584 batting line in September would be one of which would leave impressions on the front office for the entire offseason.

His final line of .273/.335/.450 would have look much wimpier had he not turned the corner mid-summer. Even with his tumultuous start, he still managed to finish with what amounts to a major league average of 9% walk-rate and a 17% strike out rate.

I believe that Kubel will have what amounts to a "breakout season" if the organization gives him every opportunity to play everyday - but there is the rub. With Craig Monroe and Delmon Young (not to mention defenseless Mike Lamb at third base) it is quite easy to visualize Ron Gardenhire playing music chairs with his line up, especially in the designated hitter position. This will certainly imped on Kubel's ability to redevelop his keen eye at the plate.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Starting With What's Left in the Twins Farm System

The most expensive position to buy on the open market is left-handed starting pitching. This is the cause behind the Tigers, Braves and Diamondbacks all signing aging lefties to large, one-year contracts (Rogers - $8 mil., Glavine - $8 mil., and Johnson - $10 mil.). When it becomes apparent that there are no internal options, a franchise begins to overvalue the player and, in desperation, ends up spending too much for this commodity either through trades or free agency. Look no further for trade examples than the offers made for Johan Santana and Erik Bedard. The Mets are thinking of trading five of their top ten prospects while rumor has it that the Mariners have dangled Adam Jones as a bargaining chip for Bedard. If the Indians bring CC Sabathia into next season without getting him a contract extension, he might help replenish the Cleveland farm system with whomever he is traded to.

In the most recent example of abuse of the free agent market, the San Francisco Giants overpaid and are now committed $14.5 million dollars to Barry Zito in 2008 (which accounts for 16.1% of the total 2008 payroll). Prior to being signed by the cross-bay rivals to the richest pitching contract ever, Zito had a decent year on the surface: he finished with over 200 innings, a 16-10 record with 151 strikeouts and 3.83 era. After constantly generating similar results in his previous seasons with the A's, most assumed that Zito had the wherewithal to repeat those same statistics.

Following the acquisition, Peter Magowen - the Giants managing general partner - said this to the San Francisco Chronicle this during the signing press conference: "I'd say this is the most important signing we've had since we first signed Barry Bonds late in 1992," Magowan said. "It means that much to this franchise, to the future of this franchise. We don't make deals like this every other year or every five years. It takes a special kind of player to make the kind of commitment we've made. We're aware, I think, fully, of the risk involved of signing a pitcher to a contract as long as this one. But if you look at Barry Zito's track record, he hasn't missed a start in the last six years. When you look at his age, which is only 28, and most importantly when you look at his work regimen, which is very rigorous, in the offseason, those three factors mitigate the risk."

The Giants, an organization that has had its share of bad transactions (i.e. Pierzynski, Benitez), so it comes to no surprise that the top brass failed to compile an adequate due diligence report otherwise what they would have found that the left-handed starting pitcher was actually a number three starter in disguise. Cloaked in the confines of a very pitcher-friendly ballpark in his first seven seasons, Zito had both solid offense and defense assisting him to his 102 victories. His strikeout rate had declined since his Cy Young campaign, his walk rate had always been around league-average and, most telling, his era was consistently UNDER his FIP. This is often an indication of someone getting assistance through defense (which the A's had) or simply luck (low babip) rather than having overpowering stuff. To illustrate, Zito had finished consecutive seasons with FIPs of 4.46 and 4.94 but with eras of 3.86 and 3.83 (diff. -0.60 and -1.08) in his two seasons prior to the end of his contract with Oakland. In those same seasons, Johan Santana finished with FIPs of 2.96 and 3.09 and eras of 2.87 and 2.77 (diff. -0.09 and -0.32). The smaller gap between his era and FIP leads one to believe that Santana's low era has far greater legitimacy than Zito's.

Whether or not Beane was aware of this as the A's let him test the market, he probably knew that the going-rate for left-handed starters was too high to buy in free agency or even attempt to bid with the large-revenue clubs. Besides, the A's had left-handed prospects such as Dallas Braden and Dan Meyer who could possibly provide the same output at a fraction of the cost. To a money-conscience franchise like Oakland, that is life or death. The bridge between the two organizations couldn't be any wider. San Francisco has been absorbing money through the quaint ballpark on the Bay, while Oakland does everything it can from hemorrhaging money including trading pitchers Hudson, Mulder and Heren to maximize their return.

The Twins, meanwhile, have been just as capable of minimizing the need to scour the free agent market for left-handed starters (the one they did, Kenny Rogers, was relatively inexpensive). The ability to have left-handed starters allocated for their first six years of major league time frees up money that would have been spent on pitching to other resources. Aside from major league ready Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins, the Twins have five bonafide left-handed starting pitching prospects ready to make the transition in the next year or three if Bill Smith decides to either a) trade Santana (which could bring us MORE cheap left-handed starting pitching depending on this partner) or b) keep Santana and let him be bid on for more money than the Catholic church.

1) Brian Duensing - 24-years-old - AA/AAA (2007)

In those two levels, Duensing finished with a 15-6 record (.714 wpct%), a miniscule 5.3% walk rate and a 17.9% strike out rate. He has made small struggles while ascending to the next level. In 2006, he began the season with Beloit with a era-FIP diff. of -0.01 in 70 innings but finished the year with New Britain and had a era-FIP diff. of -0.99 in 49 innings. This past season, the Twins had him begin at New Britain where he had a diff. of -0.11 while his stint in Rochester earned him a diff. of -0.79. I fully expect him to have similar results next year split between Rochester and Minnesota while in 2009 he could be a solid #3 in the rotation.

2) Tyler Robertson - 20-years-old - A (2007)

Seth's Twinkie Town Twins prospect poll has Robertson as the #2 prospect in the system and with good reason: he has been dominating his competition. At 20-years-old, Robertson finished 2007 in a league where he was two years younger (19) than the rest of the league on average (21.5) and still owned them with a 29.2% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate. When contact was made, he was getting groundballs 52% of the time and he sported a 2.29 era | 2.33 FIP. If an era-FIP is any indication of stuff-to-performance, his in the Midwest League was -0.04. His eta for Minnesota appears to be 2009 (as a September call-up).

3) Ryan Mullins - 24-years-old - A+/AA/AAA (2007)

Mullins climbed three levels last year, making a pinnacle at Rochester. His overall 7-9 record with a 3.93 era does not do his season justice. Of 667 batters faced in 2007 in 155 innings, Mullins struck out 20.2% of them while walking 5.9%. Sure, some of it came at Fort Myers where he was older than the surrounding players but he also had good starts at New Britain where his 3.99 era | 3.40 FIP indicates that he threw better than his standard statistics reflect. A strong showing in AA/AAA next year and he might be able to make an appearance with the Twins in 2009 -- otherwise maybe a strong trade candidate for those less fortunate organizations.

4) Michael Tarsi - 21-years-old - A (2007)

Having already been profiled in the OTB 2007 draft review, personally I like his 68% groundball rate and 0% home run rate the best. Starts in A+ in 2008 but could make rapid progression if he replicates his 2007 success. Eta 2010.

5) Henry Reyes - 22-years-old - Rookie/A (2007)

Split his season between Elizabethton and Beloit. Did significantly better in Appalachian League than the Midwest league (but in his defense he only made 1 start in 2 appearances for Beloit). Finished 7-2 (.700 wpct%) with a 3.43 era. Good peripheral numbers, 8.0% walk rate and a 28.2% strike out rate, but his era-FIP diff. in Elizabethtown of -1.27 (2.87 era | 4.40 FIP) may be an indication that his success is short-lived.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Can You Hear The Drums, Fernando?

Typically I tend to withhold my opinion about these speculations considering they tend to be discredited before I can finish the second paragraph. Twins fans seem to be almost apathetic to new wire stories proclaiming yet another team has managed to make a package offer that never comes to fruition. Sure it give the bloggers the opportunity to disassembled the prospective deals but I attempt to stay above the fray and avoid the fodder and leave the full-time dissection to Gleeman, Seth, Josh and the Nicks. Then after watching some video clips of Fernando Martinez, I figured I needed to weigh in.

Depending on whose reports you believe, 18-year-old Fernando Martinez is either a) the linchpin prospect in a gaggle of four prospects to finally incite the Twins to execute the Johan Santana trade with the Mets or b) the most ludicrously overblown story ever uttered (supplemented by this NY Post article entitled "Just Say Nohan"). What has been offered, according to sources, is that the Mets, in exchange for Johan, are willing to part with the #6 though #3 prospects in system rated by Baseball America's rankings and #7, #4 through #2 ranked by John Sickels. That alone would be an almost complete decimation of the Mets farm system. However, intelligence says that if the Mets include Martinez (#2 in BA, #1 in Sickels) to the package, Santana would already be in Shea.

For those unfamiliar with Martinez, the Mets's propaganda machine had aired this piece introducing the nubile outfield prospect who was signed out of the Dominican in 2005. He was 16 when he received a $1.4 million bonus to sign with New York (Metsgeek has the full run down here):

-At 17, he spent the bulk of his first professional career at low-A Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. While there, in 211 plate appearances Martinez hit .333/.389/.505. His ops (.894) was 174 points high than the league average. His play earned him a promotion to high-A where he had an additional 130 plate appearances and hit .193/.254/.381 and his ops (.641) was 60 points lower than the Florida State League average. In his first full season of professional ball, Martinez, still not old enough to purchase Skoal, finished with a respectable line of .279/.336/.497 (as a reference, Ben Revere finished his first season at 18 with .325/.388/.429).

-In 2007, the Mets started the 18-year-old Martinez at Double-A Binghamton in the Eastern League where he had 259 plate appearances and finished similar to his previous season's total but with less pop, .271/.336/.377. Despite the lower production, it was a very solid season for a player who was seven years younger than the league average (25.0).

When analyzing both Martinez's swing (which you can view here) his most similar comparison seems to be that of Curtis Granderson (which you can view here). Aside from sharing the left-handed batters box, both generate power from a balanced weight-shift at the front foot which plants early but the hands and rest of the body stays back. They share long, quick swings which will lead to strike outs (as is the case with Granderson). You will notice that one difference between the swings is the position of the bat: Granderson tends to hold the barrel closer to his shoulder while Martinez moves his around more then holds it straight up. I would tend to assume that as Martinez ascends in the system, he will be asked to keep his bat still.

Naturally the two differ in the course of which the they reached professional baseball. Granderson graduated after playing college ball and made his way to high-A as a matured 22 while Martinez first saw action in high-A as an pubescent 17-year-old. Statistically, to this point in Martinez's short career they have had similar learning curves:

FM (A) 17 7.1% 17.1% 32.8% .894 .707
CG (A-) 21 8.6% 15.0% 30.1% .896 .666

FM (AA) 18 7.7% 19.6% 25.0% .713 .738
CG (A+) 22 9.3% 17.3% 36.7% .810 .668

Both upon reaching the next level saw the strikeout rates increase slightly (2.5% increase for Martinez and a 2.3% increase for Granderson) but also an increase in their walk rate (.6% for Martinez and .7% for Granderson). Martinez's power decreased in Double-A - again, a league whose competition was seven years older (25) - and he saw a decline of 7.8%. Granderson, on the other hand, increased his extra base hit ratio by 6.6% - but in a league where he was the league's average in age (22).

Based on this information, we can consider the projection of Martinez's career to be that of a Curtis Granderson as a baseline. If this is indeed the case, I would consider it a very good trade (with the company of Gomez, Humber, Guerra and Mulvey) for the Twins. However, I believe that Granderson is not the equivalent to Martinez because of the age differential while making progressions in the minors. Because of his relative success coupled with his young age, Martinez does have the capability to be the kind of ballplayer you can build a franchise around.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Minnesota Draft Revisited: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda (pitcher edition).

(You can located part one (offensive) here, part two (Tim Belcher) here)

After rifling through all of the amateur drafts records the past week, I was struck by how different the Twins organization may have been had several players over the years been enticed to sign. To be sure, playing the 'What If' game is like attending a strip club: it is fun envisioning the titillating possibilities but at the end of the day you are still going home to your girlfriend or wife (for better or worse). Needless to say the ability to alter the past is reserved for the likes of Scott Bakula through his quantum leaps, but, like the strip club in the aforementioned analogy, it doesn't hurt to look.

1983. r2.29) Bill Swift

Like Belcher selected a round before him, Bill Swift declined the lowly Twins' advances and remained at the University of Maine for one more season only to be selected by a team that was just as loser-friend. After pitching for the USA Olympic Team in 1984, Seattle picked him with their 1st round, 2nd overall spot and rushed him into the lineup in 1985 after two months in the minors an in ill-advised move.

In 1984 the Marniers had as much credibility as the Tampa Bay Rays do today. Since their 1977 inception, Seattle had not produced a winning team. Far from. The closest thing the Puget Sound had seen to a winner was the 1982 squad that had a .469 winning percentage, a 76-82 team that could hardly be called competitive because they finished 17.0 games out of first. What Seattle did have to give them hope (similar to the Rays again) was a young core of pitching led by Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Matt Young, all of whom were under the age of 25 in 1984 and homegrown. Swift was yet another prospect to add to the promise of winning seasons to come.

Rushed along after only two months in the minors, Swift, along with the rest of the Mariners, looked overmatched in the major leagues in 1985. As a 23-year-old groundball-inducing righty that started 21 games and accumulated 120.7 innings, his peripheral numbers were an indication that he was not fooling anybody. His inability to strike people out (10.2% k%) was further exacerbated by his issuance of free passes (9.3% bb%) and was reflected in both his 4.77 era and his 6-10 record, but his 65% groundball rate was reason to give hope in Northwest. These are telling signs of a pitcher who is heavily reliant on a defense.

In 1986, Swift pitched in even fewer innings (115) while shuttling between Triple-A Calgery and Seattle. At times, he had flashes of brilliance. On August 30th, 1986, Swift battled New York Yankees and Tommy John for 8.2 innings in a 5-2 win. Over his 8.2 innings, Swift struck out 7, walked 4, only surrendered 2 hits and had a Game Score of 83. The high point of his short career made a quick pendulum swing the other direction as the losses began to pile up. In fact, he suffered through a stretch of losing five consecutive starts to end the season. The extra work in the minors only managed to raise his walk total to 55 (10.2% bb%) while tying his strike out total of 55 (10.2% k%). Swift missed the entire 1987 season because of a bone spur in his throwing elbow. Upon his return in 1988, Swift's walk total (65) eclipsed his strike out total (47) and soon became a fixture in the Mariners bullpen, both because of his spotty performance and his inability to remain healthy.

In 1991, Swift was the defacto closer for the Mariners and accumulated 17 saves. The Mariners figured that they should take the opportunity to sell high on Swift. After the 1991 season, the Mariners had enough of the 30 win-40 loss and 17 saves that Swift had provided and shipped him to San Francisco along with Dave Burba and Mike Jackson for Kevin Mitchell and Mike Remlinger. The shift down the coast proved beneficial to him. Once he landed in San Francisco, Swift led the NL in era in 1992 (2.08, 159 era+) and followed up with 21 wins in 1993 and finished second to Greg Maddux for the Cy Young award. In 1993, he had a career high in strikeouts (157). During this period, Swift's control, arm strength and stamina culminated into his best season of his career. Arm troubles and high altitude (a pitcher's worst combination) ultimately led to the end of his career.

Obviously an underwhelming choice to analyze and "second-guess" the Twins on for not signing when you consider the trajectory of his career: one that had several seasons of mediocrity (1988, 1989, 1990), several of good seasons (1991, 1992, 1993), an equal number of bad seasons (1985, 1986, 1998), and one of outstanding quality (1993). If you subtract his 30-40 record (.428 winning percentage) while with Seattle between 1985 and 1991, Swift finished 64-38 (.627) with San Francisco, Colorado and once again with Seattle. Of course this is entirely speculation, to say that Swift's career would have taken a different path had he signed with the Twins one would have to make numerous assumptions:

1) That the Twins, if they did sign Swift, would allow him to develop in the minors.

2) That the Twins had enough mature starting pitching to not have to call upon him until 1987 or 1988. (Viola, Smithson, Butcher, Blyleven, et al)

3) There was an easily identifiable candidate in the Twins rotation to have been replaced. (Straker, Niekro, or Carlton in 1987, Straker, Toliver and Lea in 1988)

4) That Swift would have been injury-free (or close to).

1988. r37.961) Aaron Sele

The Twins tried for Golden Valley, Minnesota native Aaron Sele in the 37th round in 1988 instead Sele opted to attend Washington State University were he played with John Olerud and Scott Hatteberg. After his college career culminated with WSU as the 18th-ranked team in the NCAA, Sele was drafted by the Boston Red Sox with the 23rd overall pick.

Beginning the 1993 season in Triple-A Pawtucket, Sele was summoned to Boston after yet another solid beginning to his season. The 23-year-old joined 37-year-old Danny Darwin, 30-year-old Roger Clemens, 33-year-old Frank Viola and 29-year-old John Dopson and helped low the average age to 30.6 years old - the second oldest in the league next to the Oakland Athletics. On a team whose pitching staff was aging by the inning, the Fenway faithful were looking to pitching to turn the team around from a cellar-dwelling 1992 season. Sele provided some excitement to the 80-82 Sox by winning his first 6 decisions and finished the season 7-2 with a 2.74 era (era+ 169). He came in third for Rookie of Year behind Tim Salmon and forgettable Jason Bere.

Sele had several noteworthy seasons after a trade to Texas in 1997 (for Damon Buford and Jim "DUI" Leyritz):

-1998 with Texas. Finished 19-11 (.633 wpct), era+ 113, 17.5% k%. Selected to the All-Star team. Lost one game in the ALDS to the Yankees.

-1999 with Texas. Finished 18-9 (.667 wpct), era+ 107, 20.2% k%. 5th in Cy Young voting. Lost in his only start against the Yankees in the ALDS.

-2000 with Seattle. Finished 17-10 (.629 wpct), era+ 102, 15.0% k%. Selected to the All-Star team. Won against the White Sox in the ALDS. Lost again to the Yankees in the ALCS.

-2001 with Seattle. Finished 15-5 (.750 wpct), era+ 116, 9.5% k%. Won in the ALDS against Cleveland. Lost against the Yankees once again in the ALCS.

What is most telling about Sele is that he is heavily reliant on the performance of his team. When he had his Cy Young candidate season, his team was 95-67. When he had a 15-5 record in 2001, Seattle was setting a major league record for wins in a season. Conversely, in 2003 Sele finished 7-11 on an Anaheim team that was 77-85.

The Twins would not have been the recipients of great pitching considering they could not offer the kind of offense needed to support a pitcher like Sele. However, overlooking the small detail that the Twins lacked starting pitching from 1993 through 1999 (aside from Brad Radke), Sele was also a Twin killer. He had more victories against the Twins then any other team (which is more indicitive of the Twins offense in those years). Over the course of his career, Sele through 139 innings against the Twins and had a 17-4 record and a 3.37 era.

1967. r11.217) Al Hrabosky

The Twins took a shot for the left-handed Mad Hungarian in 1967 and did not sign. In 1969's draft, the St. Louis Cardinals snatched him with their 1st round pick (19th overall). By 1970, the Cardinals deployed him early at the age of 20 to the bullpen where he made 16 appearances in 19 innings. Between 1971 and 1972 Hrabosky pitched in only 6 games. 1974 was his coming out party:

-In 65 games, Hrabosky threw over 88 innings, struck out 82 (22.2% k%) and had an era+ of 123 and received MVP votes and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting.

-In 1975, Hrabosky finished with a 13-3 record over 65 appearances and 97.3 innings. He stuck out 82 again (20.8% k %) and had an era+ of 229(!), allowing him to creep up in the voting for both MVP (8th) and Cy Young (3rd). He also had 22 saves.

-In 1976, once again displaying dominance, Hrabosky finished with 13 saves and threw in 68 games. His strikeouts dipped to 73 (17.9% k%) but his era+ of 107 was still very good.

Having the Mad Hungarian would not have radically altered the Twins in any way. The Twins were pretty solid with Bill Campell in 1974 and 1976. Regardless, having another solid arm in that bullpen could have helped allivate some of the workload from a bad starting rotation in 1976.

1998 r17.499) JJ Putz

What's not to like about this one? Selected one pick before BJ Ryan (who did sign with the Cincinnati Reds), Putz opt not to sign and return the the University of Michigan. He was drafted one year later by Seattle and signed. Like most modern closers, Putz began as a starter in the Mariners farm system. Between 1999 and 2002, Putz was a decent starting prospect. He had a rough adjustment period in Double-A, where he went 10-19 with a 3.76 era. The front office in Seattle decided to reallocate his arm into the bullpen at Triple-A Tacoma. Putz adjusted nicely and threw 86 innings and managed 11 saves while striking out 60.

Brought up the highway to the big club for a taste in 2003, Putz finally solidified himself as a fixture in the Safeco bullpen in 2004, working mainly as a part-time set-up man (while obtaining 9 saves). In 2006 the 29-year-old Putz emerged as one of the top tier closers with his 36 saves in 78.3 innings and 102 strike outs (he was dispatching batters at an unearthly 34.3% k%). In 2007, he topped his previous saves total with 40 in 71 innings and struck out 82 (31.5%).

Obviously Joe Nathan is probably one of the best closers in this century, but had we selected Putz, it would have been considerably easier to show Juan Rincon the door.

honorable mention

2000. r1.31) Aaron Heilman

Has been solid in the Shea bullpen. Since 2005, has made 208 appearances and has a 21.1% strike out rate coupled with a low 8.8% walk rate during that period. Meanwhile Juan Rincon has in 213 appearances during that same time accumulated a 21.8% strike out rate and a 9.0% walk rate -- only to have been paid $2.52 million more for the same efforts.

honorable mentions of players drafted who never actually ended up in the major leagues but made a pretty good career out of news anchoring and football.

1988. r13.337) Mike Pomeranz

The Twins drafted Kare 11's future lead anchor out of Princeton in 1988... and he did sign so this one sort of doesn't jive with the predication of this list, but he didn't quite make it to the bigs either. He finished in High-A with the Twins and played in the Orioles systems in Low-A before retiring. Which is a shame because goddamn, would that hair have looked good on a Donruss or what?

1971. r39.771) Joe Theismann

A hell of an athlete, Theismann was drafted out of Notre Dame by the Twins in 1971 as a shortstop. Yes, football was his calling but you have to think that as Lawrence Taylor was snapping his tibia and fibia on Monday Night Football, you have to wonder if he thought that the diamond would have been a safer venue. (Note: If you haven't scene this clip before, watch the "reverse angle" shot of Theismann's leg and try not to spew. Then go buy Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side").