Friday, November 30, 2007

Replacing Silva (or Adaptation)

Billy Smith had stated in early November that resigning Silva was a priority for the organization. He told La Velle at the Star Tribune that Silva "has been a good player for us, he's a good person in the clubhouse and a good member of this team" At that time I truly believed that the Twins were attempting to do whatever was necessary to bring Carlos back. Under the Terry Ryan Regime, pitching prospects were kept under the stairs in farm system. Only when the moons aligned (or Radke ailing) would Ryan release a prospect into the rotation. Lack of confidence in their own prospects was still evident in Ryan's last season as GM with the offseason signings of Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz. Ryan had seemingly created a front office policy that the organization used as a guiding principle based on inserting major league experience into the rotation in the stead of homegrown talent.

Since that article was published there has been little report of progress of resigning Silva. The Twins were giving the media lip service and had no real intention of making an offer. In the wake of the Twins making a major trade in which top pitching prospect Matt Garza was packaged, it now appears that with the changing of the guard the front office is no longer abiding by the same formula when it comes to the same pitching prospects. As it stands today, it is a forgone conclusion that Silva will not be on the 2008 squad and that (barring any more trades) the Twins will be introducing a 5th pitcher that has little to no major league experience. Had the Twins had one more option year on Silva for a reasonable contract, I would have preferred to have him return to allow for additional seasoning in the minors by some of the 5th starter candidates (Blackburn, Duensing ). Silva's "market value" is unreasonable and could easily replaced from within. As suggested previously, the Twins would stand to benefit from avoiding sinking long-term money into Carlos Silva and let organization like the Royals (who are very interested ) tangle themselves in a contractual folly.

If the world stopped spinning today, eliminating the possibility of a Santana trade and resumed when pitchers and catchers reported, the Twins rotation beginning in spring training would be:

(1) Johan Santana

(2) Scott Baker

(3) Francisco Liriano (pending full recovery)

(4) Boof Bonser

(5) Open

So what do we have to replace (and hopefully improve) when it comes to Carlos Silva? Using Dave Cameron's guideline for evaluating pitching talent, we find that Silva is incredible at finding the strike zone (his walk-rate is nearly non-existent), however he is deficient is several statistical categories, most notably lack of strikeouts (which indicate high contact rate from the batters) and the fallacy that Silva is an extreme groundball pitcher when in reality, he is above-average (Fausto Carmona is an extreme groundball pitcher nearing 60%).

Silva Batters Faced K% BB% GB%
2005 749 9.2% 1.2% 49.2%
2006 811 8.6% 3.9% 43.6%
2007 848 10.5% 4.2% 47.5%

A rotation minus Silva leaves the door open for one of four pitchers: Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing. Applying the same standard of evaluation to the potential 5th starters, we find that the Twins have the depth to adequately replace Silva without having to worry about looking on the free agent market or from outside organizations.

Slowey is most likely the favorite to enter the rotation after spending 66.2 innings and 11 starts with the Twins in 2007. His minor league track record is nearly impeccable. In 353.2 minor league innings, Slowey has struck out 342 and walked 48.

Slowey Batters Faced K% BB% GB%
2006 (AA) 242 21.5% 5.2% 40%
2007 (AAA) 523 20.5% 3.4% 43%
2007 (MLB) 297 15.8% 3.7% 30%

Slowey shares the attribute that has made Silva appealing to the Twins, which is also constantly around the strike zone. This is also a trait that Slowey will have to manage better in his second attempt in the majors considering in his brief stint with the Twins he surrendered home runs to 5.3% of batters faced. It is obvious through his strikeout rate that he has the stuff to make bats miss and with the absence of Garza it would appear that the front office will allow him slack on his learning curve

Glen Perkins, who has spent the past two season with the parent club as a left-handed out of the pen, has an equal amount of major league promise. In 334.1 innings in the Twins farm system, Perkins has struck out 353 and walked 124. After conquering the Big Ten, this former Gopher had climbed from 2004 as a 21-year-old rookie ball pitcher to a 23-year-old in 2006 who was sampling the majors for the first time.

Perkins Batters Faced K% BB% GB%
2005 (AA) 346 19.4% 10.1% x
2006 (AA) 503 26.0% 8.9% 38%
2007 (MLB) 115 17.4% 10.4% 42%

Injuries sidelined Perkins last season after he started in Triple-A and moved into the bullpen with the Twins. Like Slowey, Perkins can make batters miss. His walk-rate, however, is borderline. Cameron writes that anything over 11% is a problem and Perkins is certainly flirting with it but the sample size is relatively small to make a concluding judgement on his major league performance. The Twins will most likely not use Perkins in the rotation unless (a) he has a strong spring training, (b) Liriano is not fully healed from surgery or (c) Santana is traded. Dennys Reyes is the lone reliable lefty in the bullpen and the Twins might be considering leaving Perkins there in 2008 to complement Reyes.

When Dave Cameron at the USS Mariner was bemoaning Silva as a free agent landmine, he mentioned that the Twins could easily replace him with extreme groundball-inducer Nick Blackburn. Typically Blackburn's contract had resulted in groundballs 50% of the time. In his limited 11.2 inning exposure with the Twins in 2007, the 25-year-old righty managed to get 40% of the contact to be into the ground.

Blackburn Batters Faced K% BB% GB%
2005 (A+) 384 14.3% 4.2% x
2005 (AA) 188 14.4% 5.3% x
2006 (AA) 565 14.3% 6.5% 48%
2007 (AA) 160 11.3% 4.4% 53%
2007 (AAA) 433 13.2% 2.8% 52%

While his ability to make batter's miss is low - below average - he will certainly drop a few more percentages once in the majors too. Blackburn is throwing the ball over the plate and is replicating Silva's inordinately low walk-rate. In a longer deployment in Triple-A, Blackburn managed to reduce his walks by half and his groundball rate was about 50% in 2007 at both Double-A and Triple-A. Blackburn is unlikely to begin the season in the rotation, in order to allow for more seasoning in the farm system but it is clear that Blackburn is the heir-apparent to being the miracle groundball inducer that some thought Silva was.

The last candidate for the 5th spot is Brian Duensing. The 24-year-old lefty made a fast ascension in the organization and reaffirmed his capabilities with a strong winter with Team USA. In 2006, he ate up three levels of ball (A, A+ and AA). In 2007 he chewed through two more (AA and AAA).

Duensing Batters Faced K% BB% GB%
2006 (A) 291 18.9% 4.8% 54%
2006 (A+) 170 19.4% 4.7% 49%
2006 (AA) 211 14.2% 8.5% 55%
2007 (AA) 206 18.4% 3.4% 44%
2007 (AAA) 483 17.8% 6.2% 52%

Judging from these numbers, it could be argued that Duensing has the most potential out of the five. While lacking any experience higher than Triple-A, Duensing had adapted quite will in his first year, with a high-strikeout rate of 17.8% and a slightly higher than average walk rate (6.2%) and his groundball-rate suggests that he is able to keep the hitters off-balanced.

If the shift in policy - from protecting prospects to utilizing them - includes not only trading some prospects but also giving them innings over overpriced veteran starter (Silva), the Twins are in a very good position in the AL Central. Any of these five are capable of replacing the production that Silva could offer. My assumption is that Kevin Slowey will have every opportunity to enter Silva's role in 2008 but with four other strong candidates behind him, it would be in Slowey's best interested to emerge as a reliable starter otherwise the Twins have numerous options to replace him. What is even more encouraging is the depth that the Twins have behind these four as well: Anthony Swarzak, Yohan Pino , Jeff Manship, Tyler Robertson, et al.