Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kouzmanoff to Oakland

During the Winter Meetings in December, reports emerged that the Twins attempted to extract the 28-year-old Kevin Kouzmanoff from the San Diego Padres by offering the organizationally ostracized lefty Glen Perkins.  On paper and in theory, sending a pitcher with major league experience that has a skill set that would play well in the spacious Petco Park in exchange for a player with tools best suited another stadium and on the verge of getting expensive for a bottom-dwelling club appeared like feasible transaction. That pipedream came to an abrupt conclusion on Friday as the Oakland Athletics sent outfielders Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham to San Diego for Kouzmanoff and prospect Eric Sogard.

 Kouzmanoff, who will be 28 years old in 2010, was far from an ideal piece for the Twins – a fact that I’ll touch upon later. Without question, Kouzmanoff represented an upgrade for the Twins in 2010 but would be dubious in the long-term, big picture. Admittedly, obtaining him for a disposable component like Perkins would have been a coup. Even though they were well publicized sellers with few potential buyers, San Diego had a higher sticker price in mind and would not cooperate with the Twins attempted robbery. Even though Oakland’s offer was far from a kingly sum, it was a significantly better package than Glen Perkins-for-Kouzmanoff and addressed a glaring need for the Padres.

To be sure, when Padres’ GM Jed Hoyer rebuffed Bill Smith’s original offering of Perkins, the Twins were realistically all but out of contention for Kouzmanoff. With an overabundance of major-league ready outfielders, the A’s had plenty of trading chips to move. This was an offseason requirement that San Diego had to address to help their young pitching staff. Both Hairston and Cunningham allow for Chase Headley to move from the outfield to the vacated third base opening where he is better suited. This alone upgrades their outfield coverage.

Hairston, traded from San Diego to Oakland midseason a year ago, was once viewed as a fast-moving prospect in the Diamondbacks’ organization. His tenure at the major league level has been punctuated by substandard plate discipline (career 6.8% walk rate) but with the capability of putting a charge into the ball (career .202 ISOP). Defensively, he’s an above average fielder in the corner outfield (although does not have the matching offensive qualifications to be an elite player) and is serviceable in center. Now entering his 30’s, the future for Hairston is muddled as his arbitration eligibility status will increase his salary over his reasonable $1.25 million from a year ago. Future cost notwithstanding, Hairston is a short-term but immediate solution to a nagging outfield problem in southern California.

Meanwhile Baseball Prospectus recently compared Cunningham to a right-handed hitting version of Travis Buck, which speaks volumes as is. Essentially, Cunningham is a fairly redundant player with Hairston only several years younger and minus the pop. Like Hairston, Cunningham projects to be an above average defensive corner outfielder (with a questionable arm) but does not come with the necessary prerequisite power supply. What was probably appealing to Hoyer was that he has a quality that neither Hairston nor the majority of the Padres have:  the ability to get on base. In his minor league career, Cunningham posted a .382 on-base percentage. This is a tad misleading however. Even though this is a fantastic rate, this number was mostly attributed to an exaggeratedly high batting average on balls in play rather than via walks (a rather average 8.7% walk rate).

Is the Twins farm system equipped with better offerings than the package Oakland sent? Without a doubt. Do any of them come shrink wrapped and ready for major league playing time? No. With the exception of pitching, the Twins do not have a surplus of any players able to contribute at the big league level immediately. And, again, pitching was not San Diego’s biggest need. With Kevin Correia, Chris Young, Clayton Richards, Mat Latos, Wade LaBlanc and Sean Gallagher, the Padres had more than enough arms to feel stable for several seasons. How appealing can a routinely injured pitcher with an abysmal strikeout rate be? Certainly not enticing enough to swap for a third baseman of Kouzmanoff’s pedigree.

What’s more is that at 28-years-old Kouzmanoff is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get finished product. He’s got the potential of producing some hefty numbers outside of the suppressive Petco Park environment, yet his development ceiling has been reached. He doesn’t walk (career 4.9% walk rate, .308 OBP) and swings at everything. In ’09, Kouzmanoff offered at 52% of the total pitches seen, well-above the baseball average of 45%. This component of his game makes him less attractive inserted into the Twins lineup, more so when you consider that he is an infield version of Delmon Young. Furthermore, now that he’s reaching arbitration years, he’s poised to see an escalating salary. To the Twins who has someone like Danny Valencia near-ready for big league play, investing in a player whose skills are marginally better than the in-house candidate but exponentially more expensive would be a waste of resources (both financially and prospect-wise). Minnesota does not need more power; it needs better on-base presence (preferably a player with both).

Although there is little indication that the Twins are prepared to do so, acquiring a second baseman that can fit into the number two spot in the lineup with a sustainable on-base percentage is a much more pressing need. After all, as John Bonnes relayed this week, Baseball America’s John Manuel described the Twins’ infield as their biggest Achilles’ heel, no more so than at second. Passing on Kouzmanoff should give the Twins ample opportunity to deal with the larger need through free agency.