Sunday, February 10, 2008

Best and Worst Acquisitions of 2007 (Frugality Free Agent/Trade Division)

One thing the Twins do a good job on is identifying minor league talent in the lower levels that blossom into useful parts (Liriano, Barlett, Casilla, Bonser, etc). This has been a tool that has kept the budget low. However, the Twins have been as bad as anybody when it comes to finding inexpensive existing talent. In recent memory, the Twins have tried Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Rondell White, Jeff Cirillo, Tony Batista, Ruben Sierra, Phil Nevin, Brett Boone, and Jose Offerman.

The only acquisition that I can think of that provided consistent production all season was Kenny Rogers (who happened to be a last second signing during the 2003 spring training). Maybe it was that the Twins didn't have time to think or didn't have any other options, whatever the case might have been, this was a happy accident. It seems that premeditation into the free agent market was not Terry Ryan's strong suit. Naturally, most of the guys listed below are players that were also happy accidents. Then again, most also had previous track records that indicated there was a history of success at various levels.

I will withhold judgement on the Bill Smith seeing as that Adam Everett and Mike Lamb have yet to play an inning in the Twins uniform, but the recent chatter revolving around signing another "veteran arm" has me thinking "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss".

Carlos Pena | 1B | Tampa Bay | 19 WSAB | $800,000

How Acquired: Signed a minor league contract with a spring training invite February 1st, 2007.

Once viewed as the best prospect in both the Rangers and A's organizations, Pena (along with Jeremy Bonderman and Franklyn German) was shipped to Detroit in the three-way trade with New York and Oakland. Given the opportunity in Motown to play first base everyday, Pena showed great power in a vast Comerica ballpark but seemed over-matched by major league pitching. His walk rate had decreased from the minors. He fell out of favor in Detroit. After being released by the Tigers in March 2006, the Yankees picked him up in April and stuck him in the minors. Without seeing the Big Ballpark in the Bronx, Pena was dropped by New York August 16th, 2006 and was picked up by Boston the very next day. Given only 37 plate appearances with Boston, he was granted his free agency at the end of the season.

He started the 2007 season as a non-roster invitation to Devil Rays spring training and finished as the American League's Comeback Player of the Year. While hitting line drives in 21% of balls in play, he displayed the power that was always there with 46 home runs (second only to Alex Rodriguez), magnified by a .345 isolated slugging average. Pena's home run every 10.2 at-bats was the best in the American League. To show that he was not just a freeswinger, Pena walked in 18.0% of his plate appearances too. Pena's .282/.411/.627 batting line was one of the best in the American League and his 1.038 OPS was 5th best in the league as well. Of course any GM can retrospectively ask themselves why they did not take a flyer out on him, proving once again that minor league numbers do predict major league ability in various ways. His monster year was rewarded with a 3 year/$24.1 million dollar contract in the off-season.

Jack Cust | DH-OF | Oakland | 12 WSAB | $380,000

How Acquired: Traded from San Diego May 8th, 2007.

Almost destined to be an asterisks in the baseball history as an "AAAA" player, Cust was rescued from Crash Davis status by Billy Beane and the Oakland A's in May 2007 at the cost of A Player to Be Named Later from San Diego. His minor league track record show that Cust contained the qualities that Beane and the A's front office lusted over: patience and power. The same qualities that could have benefited the Twins as well. Inserted immediately as a designated hitter and outfielder, the small gamble paid dividends.

Cust finished with 26 home runs (.248 isop) and a .256/.408/.504 batting line, not bad for someone toiling in the International and Pacific Coast Leagues. He led the American League in strikeouts with 164 (a 32.2% k%) but offset this by being 2nd in walks with 105 (21.0% bb%). The feelgoodery surrounding his story is somewhat tainted by the PED allegations contain in the Mitchell Report, those of which Cust vehemently denies (like everyone else still with a career to worry about).

Ted Lilly | LHP-S | Chicago Cubs | 10 WSAB | $5 million

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent December 6th, 2006.

I know. Last off-season I bemoaned this acquisition and deemed it foolhardy for the Cubs to sink what was a substantial contract at the time to a pitcher that had an era consistently above league average. I admit, I have eaten a nice foot sandwich. After the 2007 ended, Lilly has proven to be one of the most cost-effective free agent starters. He compiled a 15-8 record with a 3.83 era. For the first time in his career, he had thrown over 200 innings (207) and has improved his control by decreasing his walk rate from 10.2% in Toronto to 6.4% in Chicago.

Also a member of the Yankees-A's-Tigers trade involving Pena, Weaver and Bonderman, Lilly spent most of his career being spanked in the American League. I do believe that Lilly is more effective as an National League starter as he had the long-ball problems facing some of the AL top sluggers, so his numbers may not have reflected as well had he played in the Dome. I speculated that he would be punished in his new home Wrigley Field. While he did surrender a higher home run rate at the Friendly Confines (4.1%) versus the road (2.1%), his control improvement helped avoid the dangerous multi-run home runs. His 1.14 whip was the 4th best in the National League (only Jake Peavy, Chris Young and Cole Hamels finished better).

Gil Meche | RHP-S | Kansas City | 9 WSAB | $7 million

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent December 7th, 2006.

A lot of money for a sub-.500 team to invest in a starting pitcher without the proper upgrades surrounding him, however Meche did everything he could have done to earn his money. Even though his record was below .500, a he finished with a 9-13 record, a 3.67 era (122 era+), and led the league in games started (34), he still earned a place on the All-Star team. Had Meche thrown for the Twins, his record would have been vastly better (maybe inverse those win-loss numbers). This, of course, is not a signing the Twins would have considered. Instead, they sank little money into Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in the efforts that proved minimal risk and minimal reward.

Being 29-year-old Meche has plenty of life in his arm. Some day when the Royals prospects like Gordon, Butler and Teaham all hit their stride at the same time, this could be a formidable opponent in the AL Central. I due question, however, the Royals front office's ability to provide Meche with ample support. The bullpen is looking solid with Joakim Soria (listed later) and David Riske but the rotation will be suspect. What starts to make this a hefty contract is that is back end is awfully pricey: He is due $11-million per year the next two seasons and then $12 per year the two seasons after that. I still have the sneaking suspicion that he could migrate to the "worst contracts" list in the next few years.

Jeremy Guthrie | RHP-S | Baltimore | 9 WSAB | $380,000

How Acquired: Selected off waivers January 29th, 2007.

Guthrie was drafted by the Cleveland Indians as the 22nd pick overall in the 2002 amateur draft and after several aborted attempts at cracking the Indians major league roster, Cleveland put him on the waivers where he was nabbed by Baltimore -- which was after Tampa Bay and Kansas City passed on him. The Twins would have never gotten a crack at him considering they had just visited the playoffs and were sitting low on the waiver wire list. The Twins currently have plenty of pitchers that have the same type of tools as Guthrie, still, you can't help but wonder what 2008 might look like with him in the mix following his breakout 2007 campaign.

He emerged in Baltimore as solid starter, appearing in 32 games and making 26 starts. He completed 175 innings with 123 strike outs (17.0% k%), a 7-5 record and a 3.70 era. In addition, his 1.20 whip was good enough for 9th in the AL. Guthrie will now be counted on to deliver a similar performance now that the Orioles have traded Erik Bedard to Seattle. He was hit hard in August (6.23 era in 34.2 innings) and September (4.50 era in 16 innings) which may raise some red-flags for those looking to blame a fluky season.

Jayson Werth | RF | Philadelphia | 8 WSAB | $850,000

How Acquired: Signed as a minor league contract with a spring training invite December 19th, 2006.

Comes from a good line of baseball lineage including Dick Schofield (grandfather) and Dick Schofield (uncle). Oh, and stepson of Dennis Werth. So not quite the Aarons, DiMaggios or even Cansecos, but it is something.

From 2002 to 2005, Jayson split time between Toronto and Los Angeles Dodgers as essentially a spare part. While mostly a role player in the outfield, Werth had a decent 2004 with the Dodgers where he had an .824 ops. Signed as a minor league free agent, the Phillies gave him 255 at-bats and Werth responded by hitting .298/.404/.459. He bested his previous career high in ops (.824) with an .863 one. While doing nothing spectacular, Werth hit line drives at a 22% clip and accumulated a .391 babip.

In 2007, Werth mashed left-handed pitching, hitting .375/.467/.591 in 106 plate appearance. Once again, I will bring up the Twins inability to hit left-handed pitching last year - mostly due to the unforeseen injury to Rondell White keeping them void of a right-handed power bat. His future has him pegged as a platoon partner with the newly acquired lefty Geoff Jenkins.

Dmitri Young | DH-1B | Washington | 7 WSAB | $500,000

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent February 14th, 2007.

It seemed that everytime the Twins played the Tigers, Bert Blyleven would remind those of us watching on FoxSportsNet how desirous the Twins were over Young. It was the trade that never took place, possibly because Tigers were asking too much for Young who was best defensively suited for designated hitter. After some domestic situations, the Tiger finally released Young in September 2006 (to his dismay) and let anyone take a crack at him. The Twins, already loaded with Rondell White and Justin Morneau at dh and first base, had no really need for the switch hitter. Nevertheless, for $500,000 and a invitation to Ft Myers extended to the 33-year-old they once coveted, the Twins could have had one of the least expensive, most productive hitters in 2007.

Young finished .320/.378/.491 with 13 home runs and was spraying line drives in 22% of his balls in play. It was good enough to get him on the 2007 National League All Star roster. The Nationals extended Young's contract for two more seasons but now faces the problem of having Nick Johnson finally return in 2008.

Russ Springer | RHP-R | St. Louis | 7 WSAB | $1.75 million

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent December 9th, 2006.

Call this season an aberration or a fluke, but Springer was legit in the Cardinals bullpen. His low era (2.18) was reaffirmed by his low FIP (2.77) while his strikeout rate was high (25.7%) and his walk rate was low (7.4%). Springer's whip was under 1.00 (0.909) and he threw a little under one inning per appearance (0.88) and managed to vulture 8 victories during that time, reminiscent of Tony Fiore. Sure, the Twins have plenty of bullpen arms, but take this acquisition as a blueprint in case the well runs dry.

Matt Stairs | DH-1B | Toronto | 7 WSAB | $850,000

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent December 12th, 2006

Better viewed as a beer league softball player or a "Bigger Loser" contestant midway through the series, Stairs proved that you don't have to look pretty to hit pretty. "I've got a beer gut. I've got a goatee and long hair. I'm a rebel. I enjoy life. I don't think I'm better than anyone. I always treat people with respect, because if I didn't, my old man would whup my ass." Stairs described himself to the San Francisco Examiner in 2000 while with Oakland.

Toronto was rewarded for not passing judgement on the portly Canadian native (St. Johns, New Brunswick), who supplied them with 21 home runs and a .289/.368/.529 season. His isolated slugging average was a hefty .260 as Stairs crushed line drives in 20% of the balls in play. Similar to Dmitri Young, the Twins did not have starting room for Stairs at either first base or dh, but having this kind of potent bat on the bench would have been wonderful. In 2008 at the rip age of 40, Stairs will find himself behind Frank Thomas and Lyle Overbay but would be a very good insurance policy once again.

Joakim Soria | RHP-R | Kansas City | 7 WSAB | $360,000

How Acquired: Drafted from San Diego in the Rule 5 draft on December 6th, 2006.

There hasn't been too many Kansas City relief pitchers in recent memory that came into face the Twins with a lead and I've thought: "Game over". When Soria was first deployed on April 22nd against the Twins at Kauffman, I had yet to hear of Soria - aside from the fact that he had pitched in the Mexican League. Asked to get the heart of the Twins order in the top of the ninth, Soria got Cuddyer to ground out to second, struck out Morneau looking, gave up a bunt single to Torii and then closed it out by striking out Redmond to earn his 2nd career save. If that wasn't enough, two days later he again saved a 4-3 game at the Metrodome by pitching the 8th and 9th. Soria has legit stuff.

In his 69 innings pitched, Soria whiffed 27.8% of his batters faced with a minimal 7.0% walk rate. He finished with 17 saves finally solidifying the backend of the Royals bullpen in 2008.

Sammy Sosa | DH-RF | Texas | 6 WSAB | $500,000 ($2 million with bonuses)

How Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent January 30th, 2007.

After missing the 2006 season, it was hard to believe that Sosa would have provided any offensive production to a major league team, especially after his stint in Baltimore. There were plenty of doubters: "But if the new Sammy becomes the old Sammy, then this marriage between Sosa and the Texas Rangers will end in either a quickie annulment or a messy divorce," wrote Gene Wojciechowski in ESPN preparing us all for what seemed would be a collision course with a May release of Slammin' Sammy. Still he proved everyone wrong and did what he was known for and socked the ball around, hitting 21 home runs with an isop of .216. The Twins, lacking any sort of right-handed designated hitter should have been shopping for a player like this: He absolutely crushed left-handed pitching. His .328/.410/.613 (1.024 ops) would have done wonders for the punchless Twins lineup against the lefties in the AL Central.

Still on the market as of February 10th, Sosa remains the kind of player the Twins should consider extending a contract to to battle Craig Monroe as the 4th outfielder/right handed designated hitter. The Dallas Morning Star is suggesting that Sosa believes he can get $8 million for the 2008, which would price him right out of the Twin Cities.

Josh Hamilton | OF | Cincinnati | 6 WSAB | $350,000

How Acquired: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from Tampa Bay in the 2006 Rule 5 draft. Cincinnati traded Chicago for him.

Overcoming adversity. Wrestling with personal demons. Whatever media cliche you want to use for Hamilton, insert it now and get past it because he has done so with his sorted past that involved "a bottle of Crown Royal a day with cocaine or crack". There are plenty of storys involving Hamiton's faith-based career resurrection. I sometimes question how this would play out in the Twins clubhouse (considering the reaction Gary Gaetti's highly publicized and vocal faith played out with the team). It would appear that as opposed to some teams like the Atlanta Braves, which have sermons at the ballpark (hosted by John Smoltz), the Twins are quite the non-denominational club. Nevertheless, I wouldn't have minded if Hamilton was wiccan or a snake-handler the way he raked in 2007. His belated rookie season came complete with 19 home runs (.262 isop) and .292/.368/.554 batting line in only 298 at-bats. Now with Texas, I would expect that his power numbers would increase due to the Ballpark at Arlington's hitter-friendly atmosphere.