Thursday, February 28, 2008

Post-Game (Exhibition Style)

The nature of blogging is essentially re-reporting. Aside from the new era of legitimate reporters placed on the scene that update sporadically, blogging has historically been the art of taking one's reputable work and altering it into something that can't be interpreted as plagiarism but a thinly veiled version your own thoughts. I would be hard-pressed to even call it regurgitation. It's eating regurgitation, digesting it and then spewing it out again. That is how I feel about this post.

Since I didn't technically SEE any of the first spring training game of the season, I am relying on the reporters to spoon feed me this information. Most of my first-hand information was siphoned off MLB's box score (which is basically saying my "first-hand" information from the war in Iraq was from, but Joe Christensen and Phil Miller did a good job feeding updates via their Strib and PiPress blogs in the afternoon in lieu of GameChannel or whatever ESPN, Yahoo or function I would have normally decided to watch afternoon games on at work.

I do and I do not like the's format for GameDay audio. On one hand, I like the idea of listening to the game with alternative broadcasters just to sample some of the favors of other markets. I feel like you do when you visit out-of-town Targets. The formats are basically the same in every city (i.e. aging play-by-play man, former player color commentary that wreaks of booze, lots of dead air, etc) though something seems OFF. You don't quite get their inside jokes and you might have to look something up on Baseball-Reference or Retrosheet to fully understand the context yet it feels like more active listening that way. On the other hand, I don't like that the streaming function for KSTP is turned off and directing you to feed the cougher at GameDay in order to listen from your workstation.

Forgetting about the technology that brings us the instant gratification of knowing the boxscore refreshed every 30-60-or-90 seconds, it felt oddly nostalgic. Other than being at the game in Sarasota or watching from a live feed near the ballpark, you are able were only to obtain information about this game in just a couple of mediums: (1) to tune in via radio where you are reliant on the spoken word, (2) if you are only to access websites which you are reliant on the written word or (3) internet radio and websites at the same time (the least productive work cocktail of them all). It is amazing how vital verbal communication and literary context is to baseball. For example, when the website boxscore indicated that Carlos Gomez went 0 for 2, it lacked any sort of insight as to what transpired. Without proper framework that 0 for 2 could mean a myriad of things. To your average fan, an 0 for 2 afternoon mean two outs, end of story. But those two outs could have been frozen ropes pissed on to Norris Hopper in centerfield. They could have been dribblers in front of the plate. So when Joe Christensen says that Carlos Gomez had two at-bats that were not pretty, I have to take him for his word on it, much like the scribes from the evening newspapers of a bygone era. They put a good perspective to it.

Then again, that one blurb from Christensen raised a few more questions. How did Carlos Gomez behave as a lead-off batter? Did he let a few pitches go by in his first at-bat to make the pitcher show him something? Did Gomez work the count? Did he foul off several pitches? Did he look fooled by the breaking stuff, way out in front? Was he behind on the fastball?

At any rate, soon enough we all will get these answers, after all, television and hours of analysis will reveal some truths to Gomez's approach to the plate, but for now I am satisfied with asking the questions instead of being crammed with answers.


  • As Gleeman pointed out in his Twins notes, Josh Fogg was one of the alternate candidates being targeted by the Twins as the "innings-eater" position. Instead the Twins went with the most "consistent" Livan Hernandez for $5 to $7 million in 2008. The Reds GM Wayne Krivsky signed Josh Fogg to a contract that will be anywhere from $4 to $6 million dollars less. This inflation of pay could be attributed to the cost of reliability in spite of a steadily declining performance. The Twins have decided to pay an increased rate for piece of mind. Regardless, both starters should finish with very similar numbers at the conclusion of the season. Fogg, meanwhile, made his Cincinnati debut in the 3rd inning and pitched 2 scoreless innings giving up one hit and striking out two (one of them freezing Carlos Gomez for the backwards K) while receiving the win for his efforts.

  • One of the most impressive things to read (via Joe Christensen's updates) was that Mike Lamb, a career .268/.336/.411 hitter against left-handed pitching, deposited a Kent Mercker pitch for a single. Naturally one match-up against a 40-year-old reliever is not like facing the likes of Sabathia, Willis or even Buehrle for that matter, but Mercker still held lefties to a .249/.332/.380 batting line in his career. It is almost common-knowledge that the Twins have had their struggles trying to find an everyday third baseman that has offensive success -- which Lamb clearly has shown with his prior Texan teams. The last being Corey Koskie whose career batting line against lefties was surprisingly low .248/.328/.378 (very similar to Mercker's numbers against left-handed batters). What does any of this mean? Absolutely nothing. However part of the Twins success will be contingent on Lamb's ability to handle left-handed pitching. As it stand right now, Nick Punto and Brendan Harris are the only right-handed bats available to substitute in games which lefties start.

  • Carlos Gomez's first two at-bats in a Twins uniform came this afternoon and, as Joe C reported, neither were "pretty". Easy to say considering he was victim of a Josh Fogg strike out. This shouldn't be taken with too much salt since it was two plate appearances but it could be possible that the only reason he is batting lead off is simply speed. After all, he has not shown a great amount of patience in the minors or his major league stint. His highest season total of on-base percentage was .355 where he split time with high-A and triple-A last season (in only 153 at-bats). His minor league career is .336, better than his rival centerfielder, Jason Pridie's .326 obp (Branden Harris's minor league obp was .359 and he had no hits either). Pridie, also struck out once in Gomez's stead and was hitless in his two at-bats. Still, Gomez flashed some good glove in center: Gomez made a diving catch to end the third inning. Freel broke his bat and hit a pop up that looked like it might drop in shallow center, until Gomez turned on the burners. After making the grab, he stayed hunched over for a minute, and appeared to have the wind knocked out of him. He’s fine. Meanwhile in Arizona, Torii Hunter started his Los Angeles debut with two hits (one a double), a 2-out rbi and a run scored. The double came off of Eric Hurley, Texas' #3 top prospect according to Baseball America. Hurley dominated the lower levels of the minor leagues, often averaging more than a strikeout per inning (in 2006, Hurley struck out 106 in 101 innings in Bakersfield), but ran into better competition in triple-A Oklahoma where his strike outs (59) to innings pitched (73.1) decreased significantly. Maybe I am hunting for omens, but this does seem to be a foreshadowing of the coming season. Torii will undoubtedly have a solid season while Gomez and Pridie will struggle to find their major league legs. In the following season, I would assume that this will equalize that Gomez emerges as that elite player while Torii is relegated to corner outfield or designated hitter in his later years.

  • I can't say that I am rooting against Craig Monroe because that would imply that there would be someone to root for in spring training. I wish there were other candidates signed to a minor league contract that could compete in that right-handed designated hitter role, like Mike Sweeney, who went 1 for 1 with the Oakland A's today while... PLAYING LEFT FIELD. That's how you know it is spring training folks, when they let the guy with the glass back play left field. It is valid to consider bringing in some form of competition, if for nothing else, so that Monroe can prove that he is the better, more capable player. Seems more democratic that way.

  • A few Rule 5 picks from the Twins farm system were on display this afternoon as well. Garrett Guzman, the former Twins farm hand that was selected by the Washington Nationals in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, had a decent first outing with his new team (although playing against local powerhouse Georgetown U). Guzman finished 2 for 3 with a double, rbi and a run scored. While in the Twins system Guzman was a career .290/.339/.439 hitter. In 2,085 plate appearances over a six year career, he only hit 44 home runs but he hit 29 in his last 1,055 plate appearances the past two seasons. RA Dickey got the win for Seattle after blowing the save against San Diego. Alan Schwarz did an excellent profile on Dickey for the NY Times recently. I have to admit, I was hoping that he was going to make the team out of spring training after reading about his season last year.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

American League Central Update (Spring Training Edition)

Chicago White Sox

  • The man who affectionately refers to himself "Swish-a-licious", or as Joe Cowley of the Sun-Times describes him as, Mr. Electricity, reported to Tucson with his new team. Swisher, a former Buckeye, had some previous connections with Jim Thome, then with the Cleveland Indians: ''I couldn't believe a big-league player like that was actually talking to someone like me. I was like, 'Oh man, this guy is the greatest guy ever.' So that was a good story for a while. Then after that we ended up hooking back up at a tailgate party at an Ohio State game. Just a great guy, man. A gentle giant and automatic Hall of Famer. Now, I get to be his teammate.''
  • Swish has absolutely mashed the majority of AL Central: In 103 plate appearances against the Twins, Swisher accumulated a .250/.373/.476 batting line with 11 extra base hits (52% xbh%). But he has also compiled a decent career against Cleveland (123 pa, .290/.382/.486, 48% xbh%) and Kansas City (112 pa, .236/.384/.483, 47% xbh%). The only team he has not faired well against is the Detriot Tigers where in 93 plate appearances has hit .211/.344/.355 with 5 extra base hits (31% xbh%). Still trading the majority of your remaining elite prospects for this kind of output is not exactly a good practice, regardless of his prior performance. Plus I can't help put hate his stupid abbreviation slang: "If you want to hit 35 homers or more in this league, you have to go to the 'oppo,' " said Swisher, using his slang for the opposite field. Couple Swisher with AJ Pierzynski and Gaaaaaaawwwd, I'm going to enjoy hating this team.
  • It is probably just the white Minnesotan but I think how Ozzie Guillen describes newly dictator-less Cuban infielder/centerfielder Alexi Ramirez just sounds as if it would cause an uproar if the same words were uttered by Ron Gardenhire: ''[Ramirez] should be doing a commercial already,'' Guillen said Friday, pointing to his new infielder. ''He should have a man with his arm around him, saying, 'Hello, if you send $2 to the number below, you can help feed this kid from Ethiopia.'''
  • Second base candidate Danny Richar is proving that it is not just Twins stuck outside the country and is late to report to spring training. It is a shame for the youngster who hit .230/.289/.406 - an out machine with power - from July 28th on last season in 206 plate appearances. He is up against stiff competition from the jaded Juan Uribe (who was displaced at short by Orlando Cabrera) and Ramirez.

Detroit Tigers

  • Gary Sheffield, in the midst of his feud with former agent Scott Boras, is at least warning of becoming to "complacent" as he speaks from his 2004 New York Yankees experience, a team that acquired Sheff and Alex Rodriguez prior to the beginning of the season and were touted as the early favorites to win the World Series (despite not having a solid starting pitcher in the rotation). You can easily see parallels of the 2004 Yankees squad and the 2007 Tigers team that has brought on Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis but still has a questionable rotation outside of Verlander and Bonderman.
  • ESPN's Jayson Stark penned a column recently bringing that fact to our attention. Maybe I am just grasping at straws as well, but I have previously outlined why I think the hype about the Tigers is grossly overinflated. They certainly are a playoff caliber team, but I don't quite think they are the be-all, end-all.
  • Warning! Feelgoodery ahead: Detroit News' Tom Gage profiled French-Canadian minor league catcher Max St. Pierre who nearly destroyed his career and his life with alcohol.

    "When I drank," St. Pierre said, "it became easier for me to talk to people, to talk to girls. Suddenly, they liked my accent because it sounded funny. They enjoyed it. They thought it was cute. They weren't laughing at me anymore. That's how I started down, going out more, getting in that routine. But I would drink and show up at the field the next day not remembering what I'd learned. I could play defense, but hitting was too involved for me to remember. I was more pumped about getting done with the game and going out. When I had a day off, I'd start drinking in the afternoon and get lit all day." Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth never used it as an excuse, in fact, I believe they would have described booze as a performance-enhancing drug for those two. But yeah, truly inspiring. Don't do drugs kids.

Cleveland Indians

  • This is the epitome of spring training baseball writing: fluff story on first baseman Ryan Garko and outfielder candidate Ben Francisco who played high school ball together in Anaheim. The story culminates in a tale of how the tandem's senior year team managed to blow the state championship after being up 10-0 with two outs to go before the mercy rule took effect. (Former Twins draft pick and current Toronto Blue Jay Brian Wolfe was their pitcher who surrendered several home runs including a grand slam and ultimately lost 18-17.) I would bet that even after last season's playoff elimination to Boston on a grander scale, the high school loss stings more when prodded. Those you never forget.
  • The Tribe has signed Jason Tyner to a minor league deal. Tyner is resigning with the team in which he spent from July 30th to October 15th in 2004 with triple-A Buffalo where he hit .345/.420/.388 in 157 plate appearances and helped created 6.57 runs per game for the Indian affiliate. Without a doubt it was this performance that spurred the Twins to offer a minor league deal to this on-base machine. Cleveland, a team that frequently deploys platoons, most likely has signed Jason Tyner because of his left-handed bat that hit .299/.333/.374 in 259 plate appearances against right-handed pitching in 2007 with the Twins and hit .325/.363/.380 in 179 pa's in 2006.
  • From the Blind Faith files: Josh Barfield still thinks he has a shot at winning the starting second base position away from second-half sensation Asdrubal Cabrera. Barfield hit a pitiful .243/.270/.324 which was punctuated by his 3.1% walk rate and 20.2% strike out rate in 444 plate appearances. Cabrera, on the other hand, added a spark to a team that was in a dog-race with Detroit for the AL Central. Cabrara, in his 143 plate appearances, hit .283/.354/.421 with a 9.1% walk rate (he drew 3 more walks than Barfield in 258 less plate appearances) and a 15.5% strike out rate. While Cabrera had an extra base hit percentage of 31%, Barfield managed to get extra bases in just 24% of his. In 1,032 innings at second, Barfield made 14 errors (a surprising 6 throwing), a revised zone rating of .784 with 41 balls out of zone. Though Cabrera played a considerable amount less (321 innings), he put up much more confidence inspiring numbers including only 1 error (fielding), a revised zone rating of .850 and nabbed 14 balls out of zone. Both offensively and defensively Cabrera has Barfield shook.
  • Oddly enough, the Barfield acquisition could go down as one of the worst in Mark Shapiro's tenure. He parted with Andrew Brown, a right-handed reliever, and Kevin Kouzmanoff for Barfield. Barfield contributed 0 Win Shares Above Bench while Kouzmanoff provided San Diego with 5. Kouz was putting together a good season at the plate. In 524 plate appearances, Kouzmanoff hit .275/.329/.457 with 18 home runs. Cleveland was convinced that Andy Marte was destined to be at third, but since the trade the Tribe has had to use Casey Blake because Marte has not adapted to major league pitching. On the other hand, Shapiro's acquisition of Asdrubal Cabrera could also be construed as one of his best, stealing this prospect away from the Seattle Mariners for Eduardo Perez on June 30th, 2006. Cabrera finished the year off in Buffalo while Perez hit .195/.304/.241 for the Mariners down the home stretch. In 2007, Cabrera was 3 Win Shares Above Bench as Perez finished the second-half of the 2006 season -1 WSAB.

Kansas City Royals

  • Even though I am an advocate of rooting for underdogs, I still can't get psyched up by this year's Royals team. Offensively, I am a demi-fan of Mark Teahen, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon (I secretly covet them in my forthcoming fantasy drafts), but I don't like Jose Guillen or Joe Buck (good start, bad finish). I do like Meche and think that both Bannister and Soria will have very good years, but I think Brett Tomko is silly. I like the direction this team is finally taking. But there is no way I can see the Royals overtaking Cleveland or Detroit (dare I even say the Twins?). Zip-zilch-nada. Write that down. The Stars' Joe Ponanski gives us a take at why they will be the surprise team this year. Tongue in cheeky.
  • In there Ponanski quotes a scout as saying: There’s a surprise story in baseball every year. Look at Colorado last year. Look at Florida when the Marlins won it. Look at the Tigers when they went to the World Series. It happens every year. You need a couple of players to really emerge, and you need the rest of the team to play consistently every game. However, this is all hooey and here's why: the players like to cite the most recent Cinderella teams like Colorado that emerged last year after going 76-86 to claim the wild card team at 90-72. This is typically possible in the arguably weaker National League. Since the Twins and Atlanta Braves went from worst in 1989 (the Yankees finished with a worse record than the Twins but whatever) to first in 1991, all three teams that finished last in their division rebounded the following season came from the National League. In fact, two of the teams came from the NL West (Arizona '98-'99 and San Diego '97-'98). Unfortunately for the Royals a balance of their schedule consists of teams in the AL Central. Is my logic any better than that of the quoted scout? No, but at least I have some evidence to the contrary.
  • Mark Teahen is displaced yet again, this time relinquished to left field per the request (demand?) of new arrival Jose Guillen. Despite a decline in his offensive potancy, Teahen showed that he has a HOSE of an arm, pegging of 17 base-runners, second only to Michael Cuddyer. In 2007, Teahen had the fourth-best revised zone rating in the AL (.871) only behind Bobby Abreu, Alex Rios and Magglio Ordonez. In fewer innings, Teahen was able to reach more balls out of zone (48) then any other right fielder. Guillen, however, had a weaker rzr (.857), made two more errors then Teahen and also had a weaker arm (9 kills) yet the guy with the bigger contract gets to come in and tell people where they are going to play.

Minnesota Twins

  • After La Velle's profile, I think I like Mike Lamb even more. Gardy gives him the nickname "Deputy Dog". His defense will be suspect at third but I am confident that he will have to worry less about range due to Adam Everett and I like his bat. As a career .281/.339/.427 hitter that has had much better seasons the previous two years with Houston. In his limited time, he has proven to get on base (as highlighted by his .366 and .361 obp in 2007 and 2006, respectively) and hit for power (.453 and .471 slugging ). He also finished with high extra base hit rates (30% and 31.6%).
  • Which brings me to Matt Macri. Somebody asked what my feelings towards Matt Macri. My sentiment is that in a perfect world, he would emerge as the platoon partner with Mike Lamb at third. He has shown flashes of the strong, right-handed bat the Twins need when lefties are on the mound. In double-A Tulsa last year, the right-handed hitting Marci finished .299/.350/.504 in 297 plate appearances. This was a significant change from his prior track record. He had not hit that good since his low-A 2004 season when he finish batting .333/.404/.569. In an early article, I attributed this resurgence of offense on his final position stability. He had been rotated to every position on the infield after starting as a shortstop in 2004 and finally landing on third in 2007. One commentor added clarity: "Macri's improvement had a great deal to do with technique. In about November and December, 2006 Macri returned to his former hitting instructor, Mark Wetzel, of Omaha, Nebraska. Wetzel took Macri back to the techniques that he and Macri worked on prior to the start of Macri's sophomore year at Norte Dame which was Macri's break out year and led to his high draft selection by the Rockies. When you look at the stats, Macri's production has improved dramatically each time he has worked with Wetzel. He stayed with Wetzel throughout the 2007 campaign and it showed. The unique thing about this story is that Mark Wetzel is legally blind! See" Sure enough, you can see that if the aforementioned coaching is true then it has greatly improved Macri's hitting. Unfortunately, his overall performance in the Arizona Fall League dissipated after his first 46 at-bats where he was hitting .283/.313/.522 with 2 home runs for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. He finished with 101 at-bats but with a much lower .257/.315/.406 and did not hit another home run. He did finish with 11 xbhs (41% xbh%), leading the team with 9 doubles. He has a lot of work ahead of him in spring training if he plans to change minds. The most likely scenario will be for him to start in triple-A and await an injury.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spring Training Questions: Second Base

The style of play between Brendan Harris and Alexi Casilla could not be more different then, say, the local customs of their respective hometowns of Albany, New York and San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. The 27-year-old Harris presents a what-you-see-is-what-you-get workman-like fielding approach and in his first full major league season finished with an impressive .286/.343/.434 batting line with Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Casilla, spoken of by scouts teeming with potential, has shown flashes of unbridled quickness in his limited play in 2007 yet did nothing offensively (.222/.256/.259) to convince management that second base should go through him in the spring of 2008. Both are hoping to be the starting second baseman for the Twins come March 31st and both have two distinctly different offerings. (Yes, you could argue that Nick Punto should also be considered for the position but for all intents and purposes Punto stands as much of a chance as Ralph Nader did for being President in 2004.)

Offensively, the advantage goes to Harris who has both more minor league seasoning and major league exposure to boot. Developmentally, Harris has been the beneficiary of two additional seasons in the minors to hone his skills at the plate. In six minor league seasons and 2,490 plate appearances, Harris compiled a batting line of .294/.359/.467 while walking in 8.7% of those plate appearances and striking out in 15.9%. Casilla during his four seasons in the minors had 1,589 plate appearances and batted .298/.368/.374 and walking in 8.9% and striking out in 10.2%. In 2007, both Casilla and Harris were given the opportunity to put their talents on display. As Harris was given more than 500 plate appearances to showcase his bat. Casilla meanwhile was shipped between Minneapolis and Rochester and only compounded 204 plate appearances in that time. Harris's .286/.343/.434 was punctuated with 50 extra base hits (33% of his hits went for extra bases) as Casilla produced an easily forgettable .222/.256/.259 with just 6 extra base hits (14% xbh%).

The right-handed batting Harris also proved particularly adept at hitting left-handed pitching, a problem in 2007 and exacerbated in by the departure of Torii Hunter. In 162 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last year with Tampa, Harris hit .345/.411/.487 adding 14 extra base hits (28% xbh%). The switch-hitting Casilla, on the other hand, in 92 career plate appearance against lefties from the right side of the plate in 2006 and 2007 hit .271/.292/.318 with only 4 extra base hits (17% xbh%).

Defensively, the two are very dissimilar. While Harris is more of your straight-forward gloveman with mediocre range, pundits have described Casilla's talent as "electric" even though there is no real metric to measure this. This also seems to be the logic present when considering starting Casilla over Harris. I've heard Bert Blyleven repeat this mantra when Casilla was in the line-up and wondered what exactly the commentator was quantifying this as. You won't find that stat column addressing this on but rather as a talking point on Baseball Tonight. Sure, it is indicative of a potential upside but how does this transfer as to on the field immediately?

One could gauge this on the ability to track down balls that are typically out of the standard second-baseman's zone. In 2007, Casilla and Harris both played over 400 innings at second, and both playing on home games on the rapid surface of fieldturf. The Hardball Times reports that during that span, Casilla showed that he had the motor to nab 13 balls out of zone before they reached right-fielder Michael Cuddyer territory in 421 innings. These 13 plays put him in the company with other highly touted second base prospects with good range like Cleveland's Andrusal Cabrera (321innings), Tampa's BJ Upton (416 innings) and Chicago White Sox's Danny Richar (491 innings). Meanwhile in Harris's 404 innings he managed to wrangle down only 2 balls out of zone. This number gives Harris the dubious honor of logging the most innings in the American League at second base but recovering the fewest amount of balls outside of the zone. The next closest to Harris with significant time charted at second was Kansas City's Estaban German who in 406 innings made 9 plays out of zone. Under this definition Casilla would obviously cover more breadth while Harris would let some balls that Casilla would be able to make a play on bleed through to the outfield.

Another measurement of what could qualify as "electric" is how quickly a second baseman can start and pivot on a double play ball. In Casilla's limited time with the Twins in 2007 he started 16 double plays. This shows a quick release from the exchange of the glove to the throwing hand coupled with a dart of an arm. Harris, on the other hand, started 9.

(Aside: Of course this stat does not put anything into context because it does not account the instances when the players failed to convert a double play ball. Had there been a statistic that showed how many balls COULD have been turned - given the right circumstance - into a double play this would have give a better framework for judgement on the differences between Casilla and Harris's defense. For instance, Casilla's 16 double plays started out of 36 possible situations in which a double play could have been converted is only a 44% conversion rate. If Harris had 9 double plays started out of 12 possible situations would have been a 75% double play conversion rate. This is a statistic that needs to be tracked in order to properly analyze the fielding abilities of a middle infielder.)

Likewise, Casilla turned 23 double plays while Harris turned 17 in that time-frame. Being able to both cover the base and make a quick turn are two qualities that a second baseman in the major leagues needs. Casilla's 23 double plays turned was just 3 short of the double plays turned by Luis Castillo (26) during his 2007 tenure with the Twins, completed in 205 fewer innings played. This shows that Casilla has a strong, quick arm and pivot 90 feet from first base.

Naturally, the numbers above are (somewhat) reliant on several mitigating factors out of the infielder's control including (a) the amount of groundballs induced by the pitching staff and (b) the capabilities of the shortstop partner. Both Alexi Casilla and Brendan Harris had several pitchers that were above average in groundball percentage. Casilla benefited from having starting pitchers Boof Bonser (45%), Matt Garza (48%), Carlos Silva (48%) in addition to relievers Juan Rincon (49%) and Matt Guerrier (47%) all of whom were above the league average in groundball percentage of 43%. Harris, meanwhile, had starters Edwin Jackson (45%) and JP Howell (46%) and relievers Shawn Camp (57%), Brian Stokes (48%) and Casey Fossum (45%) that induced above the aforementioned league average of groundballs.

Having a more sure-handed shortstop partner creates more opportunities to execute a double play. Harris's most common middle infielder comrade, according to Baseball-Reference, was Josh Wilson whose RZR was .736. When Casilla was in the infield his most common partner was Jason Bartlett whose season RZR was .804. Clearly, Casilla was blessed with a better shortstop in 2007. All things being equal in 2008, both would benefit from the increased defensive capabilities of Adam Everett.

The rotation in 2008 is still a question-mark with the 5th rotation spot vacant now that Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Carlos Silva have left. Newcomer Livan Hernandez was more of a flyball pitcher (41% fb%) as is internal candidate Kevin Slowey (50% fb%). This may suggest that the Twins will not have the luxury of having as many ground balls overall in 2008 as they did have in 2007.

A characteristic that typically correlates with the label of being "electric" is that the play of the prospect is littered with errors. This is particularly true with Casilla. To date, Casilla has not proven to be in the same category as Harris who has shown to be nearly flawless. In 143 games in the minors at second, Casilla made 25 errors (.17 errors per game). Harris in his 239 minor league games at second made 17 errors (.07 errors per game). While Casilla has clearly proven that he has the record to make big plays, he has yet to show that he is sure-handed enough to make ordinary plays. In his 421 innings, Casilla had a .784 RZR and committed 10 errors (8 on fielding). This RZR put him slightly above BJ Upton (.783 RZR) but below Luis Castillo (.801). Harris's play incited confidence as he finished with a .826 RZR, only committing one error in that time. This .826 RZR placed him above regulars like Boston's Dustin Pedroia and Los Angeles's Howie Kendrick.

All things being considered, Harris would provide the kind of defensive stability that Ron Gardenhire respects (as was evident by the choice of starting Juan Castro over Jason Bartlett rather than let the prospect learn on the job) but also would add a potent bat to the lineup, one that may suffer lethargy from two positions, shortstop and center, in 2008. Harris also would provide a solid right-handed bat against left-handed pitching and alleviate the amount of errors due to growing pains. As I had previous noted, a healthy Adam Everett at shortstop would exponentially increase the play of the middle infielder to his left. With all of this in mind, Brendan Harris should be the starting second baseman. I do not want to dismiss Casilla as someone who should be sent to Rochester either. His impressive range and quick-hands as highlighted above by his double play started/turns as well as the plays made out of zone merits time in a major league line-up. His presents on the roster allows for Gardenhire to sit the left-handed batting Mike Lamb when there is a lefty on the mound and shift Harris to third and play Casilla though the everyday second baseman should be Harris.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spring Training Questions: Centerfield

One of the biggest questions the Twins have yet to answer is the identity of the opening day centerfielder. Until the end of spring training, we might not know who will be filling the vacuum left by Torii Hunter. For whatever reason, the unspoken consensus among pundits seems to be Carlos Gomez. For a period of time, I was also swept up in it too. After all, he has some major league experience and all the scouts seem to love his tools. Maybe it is out of craving vindication for trading the world's best pitcher and that we need to see immediate dividends. But ultimately are we allowing emotion to dictate this choice in 2008?

The options are as follows: It could be either one of several candidates including (A) prospects such as Denard Span in addition to the recently acquired Carlos Gomez or Jason Pridie along with (B) veterans Michael Cuddyer, Craig Monroe and Delmon Young or (C) a combination of all of the above or (D) none of the above, such as free agent acquisition that has not happened yet (both Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson as still available and Coco wants out of Boston). What can be assumed is that there will be multiple attempts throughout the season to see which of these potential suitors will be able to anchor one of the most demanding positions in all of baseball.

Group B certainly has the talent and experience (minus Young) but lacks the speed to cover the area appropriately. Monroe has the most innings logged at center and his best revised zone rating came in 2005 when he played 229 innings with Detroit and produced a .778 rating. In comparison, Hunter has been above .890 in the previous two seasons. The problem presented when we have questionable hitters, such as those in Group A, is that we already have Adam Everett who is glove but no bat. Two suspect bats in one lineup could result in some lopsided games. Which make Group B appealing. Having a member of this group in center would improve the offensive, although it would allow for the power alleys to be expanded defensively (letting in runs is also a prerequisite for lopsided games).

Group D would be a giant question mark, considering someone like Lofton's accelerated age (41), and the fact that we would be right back here in 2009 debating who is going to man centerfield (or woman, maybe I'm not thinking out-of-the-box enough). And this feels masturbatory. Hell, I could start ranting about how much of a perfect fit Grady Sizemore would be in Minnesota but it won't come to fruition. Group D is purely speculative and does not exist plus at this late juncture in the off-season I'd bet the house that the Twins would not acquire veteran talent (maybe at the trade deadline).

Group A, including Gomez, has the necessary tools to cover plenty of turf but would lack the experience and the chances that the team would suffer from interminable lapses in fielding judgement (throwing to wrong bases, over throwing cut-off men, etc) is increased from immaturity. They all cover very good ground as indicated by their minor league numbers:

games in outfield range factor errors fielding percentage assists
Gomez 275 2.38 19 .972 12
Span 444 2.36 17 .984 25
Pridie 536 2.35 18 .986 44

Gomez (2.38 rf) covered significant ground but committed 19 errors (.972 fld pct) in only 275 games in the outfield. This suggests someone who is more probable to having a larger learning curve. Span did not guard as much turf (2.36 rf) and also committed 17 errors (.984 fld pct) in 444 games and Pridie (2.35 rf) committed 18 errors (.986 fld pct) in 536 games. Gomez threw out 12 baserunner in that time period while Span gunned down 25 and Pridie erased 44. What might be determined out of this is that Jason Pridie's steady glove and arm might compensate for having less prowess.

Offensively, they are all suspect. Gomez is the only member of Group A with any major league experience, and depending how much you rely on predictions he is expected to finished somewhere between .247/.307/.355 (ZiPs) or .270/.330/.390 (MARCELS). Instead of using the projections, let us analysis the career minor league numbers instead:

plate appearances xbh% walk% k% milb batting line
Gomez 1,425 27% 5.7% 17.5% .278/.336/.399
Span 2,184 16% 8.4% 14.6% .283/.348/.348
Pridie 2,634 31% 6.2% 18.2% .279/.326/.432

What we see is that the left-handed batting Pridie and Span have spent almost equal amount of time at the plate in the minor leagues (minus 500 plate appearances by Span). What we see in these numbers is a profile of two distinctly different hitters. While they have comparative batting averages (.283 vs .279), Span shows slightly more discipline at the plate with a higher walk rate (8.4% vs 6.2%) coupled with the higher on-base percentage (.348 vs .326) while making more contact as indicated by a lower strike out rate (14.6% vs 18.2%). Span though, does not generate nearly as much power as Pridie. Pridie has a great advantage over Span in percentage of hits that went for extra bases (31% vs 16%) and a better slugging percentage (.432 vs .348). These numbers indicate that Pridie is better suited offensively - not overwhelmingly mind you - to be given the opportunity to start in center. However, Gomez is interesting, aside from his MLB experience, is his right-handed bat. He is younger than Pridie and yet his numbers are very similar. His percentage of hits that went for extra bases (27% vs 31%) isn't that far off and Gomez is better at getting on base (.336 vs .326) making him a better candidate for the vacant lead-off spot. Furthermore, Gomez has hit left-handed pitching fairly well as he hit .308/.341/.462 with the New Orleans Zyphers in 2007, usually an Achilles heel for the Twins.

Historically it has been difficult to transition from a prospect to an everyday centerfielder (or any position for that matter), unless your name is Ryan Braun: It took over two seasons for Torii to finally become the centerpiece on the diamond. Group A provides a similar situation to what transpired in 1999 where the Twins pitted prospects Torii Hunter, Chris Latham and Jacque Jones against one another in spring training. While Hunter had the lowest batting average of the three at the end of the spring auditions, his glove and rocket arm as his saving grace (it also didn't hurt that you had Tom Kelly as a manager who highly valued defense). Latham and Hunter went north while Jones went west to Salt Lake for more minor league conditioning. After veteran Matt Lawton was put on the 15-day DL following a Dennys Reyes fastball to the eye socket, the Twins recalled the left-handed batting Jones on June 9th, 1999. From June 20th on Jones was the primary starting centerfielder. The 23-year-old Hunter was the opening day centerfielder and played 107 games in center while Jacque Jones played in 82.

While Jones displayed better range (2.48 rf) than Hunter (2.38 rf), he was deficient in overall fielding (5 errors, .969 fld pct) to Hunter (1 error, .996 fld pct). Offensively, Hunter was behind the curve on Jones. Hunter hit a lowly .255/.309/.380 with 9 home runs (28 xbhs) while striking out in 17% of his 422 plate appearances. Jones, on the other hand, finished his year batting .289/.329/.460 with 9 home runs (35 xbhs) and striking out in 18% of his 347 plate appearances. The Twins commitment to defense won Hunter the opening day centerfield spot in 2000. When his average slumped to .207/.243/.300, though, Hunter was on a trek back to Salt Lake. The two months spent in triple-A helped Torii regain confidence in his plate approach. When he was recalled in July, Hunter rebounded to finish .280/.318/.408.

This of course is a different era than in 1999 or 2000 with a different manager and different general manager but they still orginate in the same school as Tom Kelly and Terry Ryan. If Gomez or Pridie make the roster out of spring training they could experience whiplash from the pulling to and from triple-A.

From here on out the media will be doing its best until the bus is packed and heading north to provide fans with hints from various management personnel from the organization. Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire have already gone on record giving the opportunity to Pridie, Span and Gomez to win the spot. ESPN, on the contrary, has Gomez as the #1 centerfielder on the depth chart reaffirming the masses belief that Gomez is the odds-on favorite. Rotoworld has Monroe as the lead candidate for the Twins. According to STATS blog, it is a two-dog race between Gomez and Pridie (with the outside chance of Monroe).

The best - and most likely - scenario that will happen in 2008 is Group C (which would be a rotation of Group A and Group B). When Gardy wants the increased defense he might be inclined to start one of his younger, faster kids. If a line-up requires offense, Monroe or Young might be inserted at center and allow for Kubel and Cuddyer to man the corners.

Without seeing a minute of batting practice or pepper for that matter, I am saying that Jason Pridie is the starting centerfielder on opening day. Whether or not he performs well enough to retain the position over the course of the season is still questionable. If the Twins cling to contention, against all odds, certainly a trade deadline transaction might be reasonable if no one has claimed that position through June. Lofton is usually available around that time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Centerfield Influx.

It is a daunting task replacing an icon. Just ask Rich Becker. He was the first full-time centerfielder after several attempts were made to insert wayward journeymen into the role following the Kirby Puckett era. The Twins find themselves in a similar situation to what played out during the 1994-1995 seasons. For those two seasons it was a tumultuous time for the Twins, Hrbek had announced his retirement effective at the end of the '94 season and Kirby was not able to cover as much ground as he once did. Like the franchise's modern day version, the 1994 Twins did not seem to have a replacement for the bulbous future Hall of Famer. Some believed that a double-A product Richard Godhard Becker was the right candidate. Others thought they needed a temporary solution to provide more seasoning to Becker and other internal candidates.

In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Puckett was displaced from center by a committee fronted by Alex Cole (who played in 84 games in center), Shane Mack (24 games) and a 22-year-old Rich Becker (23 games). Shane Mack's preseason DL stint allowed for both Becker and Cole to have opportunities to win a full-time position. Becker started as the opening day centerfielder but was sent back to triple-A after returning from the disabled list in June. His highest level prior to the majors had been double-A and it began to show. Cole began to play well enough to convince MacPhail and the front office that he could play center field, which also allowed Becker more conditioning in the minor (whose numbers were steadily declining offensively). Various injuries to Cole (with a broken leg finale) led to Becker's return to centerfield in June 1995 which was his until after the 1997 season when Becker was traded to the Mets and the Twins signed Otis Nixon to bridge the position until the next prospect (Torii Hunter in 1999) could develop.

The Twins searched for replacements before the 1994 season since Rich Becker (AA) and Torii Hunter (low-A) were viewed as light-years away from being major league ready. One player identified was Alex Cole, a journeyman centerfielder who had most recently played with the Colorado Rockies after being selected in the 1992 expansion draft. (This acquisition was one of the last free agent bargains inked by Andy MacPhail prior to Terry Ryan assuming the general manager role for the Twins following the return of baseball post-strike in 1995.)

Cole, after being shuffled from the Pirates, Cardinals and Padres organizations, made his major league debut with Cleveland in 1990. He was called up in July and dispite playing in only 63 games that season he stole 40 bases (caught in only 8 attempts) and hit .300/.379/.359. He showed good plate discipline for a 24-year-old walking 28 times (10.9% bb%) and striking out in only 38 (14.8% k%). His production peaked in his second season as is ability to get on base greatly reduced thereafter. Cole was traded to Pittsburgh but he became the first centerfielder in Rockies history and managed to cover significant ground in the expansive Mile High outfield. The Rockies front office hated his mental lapses such as repeatedly threw the ball to the wrong bases and often missing cut-off men. One play inparticular stands out in Denver fans memories when Cole was tracking a ball deep to center and scaled the wall only to have the ball bounce off of his back. In addition to being a blooper reel with the Rockies, Cole was also a reporter's dream making Rickey Henderson appear somewhat coherent. Once in the lobby of an Atlanta hotel, Cole sought out the Denver Post's Woody Paige and said "Myself made a great try on that long ball. Why are you knocking myself? Anybody can throw to the wrong base once."

Cole signed with the Twins (choosing them over the Tigers and Indians) just before spring training in 1994 to a minor league contract. The former Rockie proved to be swift, stealing 8 bases and breaking the previous Twins spring training stolen base record (7) shared by Rod Carew and Al Newman. This speed led to the decision to bring Cole north as the 4th outfielder. Offensively, it proved to be a good decision as Cole got off to a fast start hitting .329/.444/.476 in the month of April. He also walked in 17% of his plate appearances solidifying the lead-off spot. Unfortunately, the same defensive maladies that made him a liability to the Rockies was afflicting him with the Twins as well. In the home opener on April 6th, Damian Easley hit what would have been a ball played off the plexiglass has it not been removed during the offseason. Cole, playing left field, lazily drifted back short of the warning track when he suddenly realized that the ball was going to be further back than he thought. He scrambled to make an attempt on the ball but it dropped harmlessly into newly unguarded first row of seats. On April 17th, Cole lost two balls in the sun at Oakland resulting in three runs in a 5-1 loss to the A's. A few days later, however, on April 24th the misfortune turned: Cole hit is first home run of his career, a towering shot over the wall in centerfield at the Skydome, ending a 1,317 major league at-bat drought (in comparison, Jason Tyner had to wait only 1,220 at-bats for his first). This home run would be often sited as an example during the juiced-ball accusations of that summer. "When Alex Cole hits one, you've got to take it into consideration," Twins pitcher Kevin Tapani told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Cole would go on to hit 3 more home runs that season.

What can be said of Cole was that with every contribution he made offensively and on the basepaths to scoring a run was negated by his defensive ineptitude. At the plate, Cole finished hitting .296/.375/.403 with 4 home runs and 23 rbis. He led the team in triples (5) and walks (44) His splits were terrible in 1994. The left-handed hitting Cole hit righties well batting .327/.399/.451 but was a lethargic .104/.232/.104 in 56 plate appearances against lefties. While carrying a 2.49 range factor (when the league average was 2.09), his .969 fielding percentage (when the league average was .982) overshadowed his ability to cover ground. His mental lapses worried the front office and new GM Terry Ryan. Cole was a restricted free agent but was an uncertainty in the offseason because new policies being discussed during the strike could make him available on the open market.

Prior to the beginning of the 1995 season, Terry Ryan allowed outfield fixture Shane Mack to leave for Japan. Mack, who had led the team with a .333/.402/.564 line in 1994 but had began the season on the disabled list, was expected to command a hefty salary and the finite resources would be allocated in retaining Chuck Knoblauch. It was believed internally that Pedro Munoz and Alex Cole along with Marty Cordova and Rich Becker could easily supplant Mack's production at a much lower cost. On April 6th, 1995, Ryan resigned Cole to a one-year, $500,000 contract. With Cole and Chuck Knoblauch hitting 1-2 with Puckett, Munoz and Cordova following them the Twins felt they had a semi-dangerous line-up. So long as Cole and Knoblauch were on base, there was always the possibility of scoring runs.

From the belated season start on April 26th to May 30th, the decision to retain Cole was looking ingenious. He was batting .360/.422/.493 while adding 6 extra base hits in 75 at-bats. This allowed for one additional season of growth for Rich Becker in triple-A Salt Lake. Defensively, Cole suffered the same ailments as he did in 1994. On May 3rd against the visiting Royals, Cole lost yet another fly ball in the Dome's ceiling and then ended up throwing the ball into the infield to no one in particular. Two runs scored on that play.

Unfortunately, Cole's resurgence as a professional player was up-ended when he broke his leg fielding a base hit. On May 30th playing at Milwaukee's County Stadium, Fernando Vina hit what should have been a routine base hit in the bottom of the 8th inning. Cole, stopping to play the ball on a bounce, snapped his right leg and buckled. The diagnoses was a broken leg. Even though Cole would return for several games in September and play 24 games with Boston the following year, his career was effectively over.

In addition to resigning Cole, the Twins employed the right-handed batting 31-year-old Jerald Clark to offset the void created when left-handed pitching was on the mound. Signed to a minor-league contract on March 6th, Clark had played the 1994 season with the Yakult Caneries in Japan. Initally, Clark was brought on to complete for the recent vacancy at first base as well as left field. In 109 at-bats, Clark showed pop as he batted .339/.354/.550 with 3 home runs and 15 rbis. But he was far from a patient hitter. Through May 16th Clark had 40 at-bats and no walks. Left with no other viable platoon options, Clark would go on to play center in 10 of his 23 games with the Twins. He might have been one of the more astute players on the roster, describing the Metrodome to a Rocky Mountain News reporter: "It's got different acoustics," Clark said "Its got a different smell, too, if you care to notice."

As Clark will also learn, it has a different background too, then say, the sky. Like Cole, Clark turned plenty of balls hit to center into adventures. On May 19th, with Ken Griffey Jr at the plate and Clark manning center at the Metrodome, Griffey hit a towering fly ball that sent Clark sprinting back to the warning track. Only the flyball fell way short of the track in shallow center resulting in an rbi double for Griffey.

With Cole about to be out for the majority of the season with the broken leg and Tom Kelly not ready to allow Jerald Clark to be the full-time centerfielder, Terry Ryan made an emergency recall of Rich Becker from triple-A. Becker, who was drafted by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 1990 amatuer draft, had seen sporadic major league time in 1993 and 1994. He developed well in the minors: in high-A Visalia, he hit .316/.442/.486 with 15 home runs. At double-A Nashville in 1993, Becker hit .287/.397/.450 with 15 home runs again (a strikingly similar season to that of Carlos Gomez's .285/.350/.423 while with Binghampton). This performance earned him a September call up in 1993 and the opportunity to vie for the starting centerfielder position in spring training in 1994. The scouts took note of his hustle, his uniform was always dirty. In fact one Twins scout, Don Cassidy, told the Pioneer Press after seeing Becker play in Kenosha that "Rich Becker will be our starting center fielder one day. He's got all the tools; reminds me of (Philadelphia's) Lenny Dykstra." But Becker suffered from on-going knee problems. In September 1993 he torn some cartiledge that required surgery on his knee. The following April, Becker strained a ligament sliding into home.

After being assigned to the Pacific Coast League in spring training, the 23-year-old Becker had been hitting well at Salt Lake, through 36 games he was batting .309/.430/.512. He was fleet of foot and covered ground as indicated by his 2.73 range factor (lgRF 1.99), though he too was a blooper reel stemming from youth and inexperience. On July 29th, he lost a fly ball in the Dome's roof as the bases loaded with Yankees costing the Twins the game (although, Matt Walbeck failed to cover home in the 7th that led to another run as well). On September 5th, Becker allowed a groundball to skip through his legs allowing CECIL FIELDER to score from 1st. A little over a week later he misplayed a Lance Johnson flyball for a triple. In spite of this, Becker proved to be much more reliable with the glove in center than Cole or Clark.

Becker's bat was his biggest detriment. From May 31st on, Becker hit a paltry .237/.303/.296. He struck out in over 21% of his plate appearances and coaxed walks in only 7%. His plate approached proved so poorly that in August the Twins decided to send Becker to the Florida Instructional League with the rest of the rookies to have him rediscover his swing and phase out his switch hitting (by 1997 he was strictly a left-handed batter).

In all, 1995 was right near the sharp bottom of the Twins decline. Fans stayed away from the Metrodome in droves. Only 1.05 million people entered the downtown stadium as the Twins finished last in attendance in the American League (even being outdrawn by Milwaukee). The team followed suit and finished 5th in the newly created AL Central, a whopping 44 games behind the front-running Cleveland Indians. In what was Kirby's last professional season he hit .314/.379/.515 with 23 home runs, earning yet another berth the All-Star game. Puckett led the team in extra base hits (62) and rbis (99). But at 35, Puckett was slowing down even by corner outfield standards where he had a low 1.86 range factor (1.99 league range factor). Had 1995 not been Puckett's swansong and would have been able to come back for the 1996 season, he would have been best suited for designated hitter.

The 1996 season did not go according to plan. In what was Terry Ryan's first full season to prepare for, he signed Greg Myers and Paul Molitor with the assumption that the pitching prospects like Brad Radke, Frankie Rodriguez and Latroy Hawkins would emerge has front line starters. Tragically, Puckett had to bow out of baseball after glacoma appeared in late spring. Throughout the season Molitor, Marty Cordova and Chuck Knoblauch all played well but only Rick Aguilera could produce a winning record (8-6) in his 19 starts. Fans began to reappear as the Dome was visited 1.4 million times, good enough for 11th best out of 14 American League clubs. In the first full season back from the strike, Becker was in a battle with double-A sensation Matt Lawton and recently acquired Roberto Kelly as a backup insurance policy. With good reason too. Becker started the season 3-43 (.070 ba), hitless in 23 at-bats, finally batted through and finished the season as his best totals as a professional. He finished .291/.372/.434 with 12 home runs but struck out in nearly 20% of his at-bats. His 1997 season emulated his 1995 season and the Twins decided to give up on him. On December 12th, 1997, the Twins traded Becker to the New York Mets for Alex Ochoa.

Friday, February 15, 2008

AL Central Update-Clemens Testimony Reaction Edition (2.15.08)

This should be a post regarding the reporting of pitchers and catchers, which usually is a cause for jubilation and typically makes me think of the up-tempo Josh Ritter song "Snow is Gone". Here in Minnesota, seeing the words "pitchers and catcher report" in print conjures up imaginary odors such as mowed grass and the scent one gets from kicking up infield dirt, even if the exterior thermometer reads well below zero. Here in the prairie land though, we still have a half-dozen snow falls left until spring finally commences but such a beautiful announcement reminds us that there is land on the horizon.

Normally at this time of year I am satisfied debating such issues as the recent Hernandez signing, if the Twins received enough prospective talent for Johan, or whether the Twins participated in the 4th outfielder market too soon when they acquired Craig Monroe. These arguments seemed to have conclusions. We will find out at the end of the 2008 season whether the Twins were justified adding Livan. We will have any answer in three years whether the bounty that was reaped for Santana was enough. We will know if $3.8 million was squandered on Monroe. These have answers.

Like the rest of America the last two days, I have been fixated on the Roger Clemens ordeal. Not on Clemens specifically, but the way the whole witch-hunt has degraded to what is essentially neo-McCarthyism. Like Communism and "the Red Scare", I believe that what really frightens congress (politicians, et al) is that this idea of injecting HGH could pour over the boundaries of our sacred fields into the American people: People idolize these players; People hate aging; These players have temporarily defied aging; Ergo, people might start gravitating towards human growth hormones or stem cells that might be able to provide youthful vigor prolonging the inevitable end. Don't forget that the government is still scared of stem cells (some don't even like the research). This has become bigger than the game itself. Hell, maybe an issue that will define a generation.

If growth hormones added longevity to a career without being a physical detriment, how is that a bad thing? Because everybody can't afford it? Because Clemens, et al should have conceded to aging and accepted the fact that they would not have been still playing if they couldn't do so without HGH? Should Debbie Clemens have simply allowed SI to touch up the photos without the aid of HGH?

I don't have an answer. I waffle on both sides. Half my foot is in the "let them all do everything" camp and the other believes in mandatory testing in the on-deck circle. Maybe when I am 65 and still playing softball pain-free I will think back on the HGH forefathers that made it possible for me to play on the diamond as a retiree the same as I would when I was 35 and mired in work. Maybe when my kids starts dabbling in steroids at 15 I'll be cursing the players whose cards I once idolized for teaching my young such a dishonest way to win. Who knows. Mentally, I want to return to considering whether Nick Swisher or Alexi Ramirez is a suitable centerfielder in US Cellular or if the Twins really do have a true lead-off hitter. These aren't heavy. But I can't just yet. Here are some of the more thought provoking columns in the afterglow of the testimony of Roger Clemens:

  • The Strib's Pat Ruesse lambasted Clemens ability to so easily throw his wife under the bus. In efforts to discredit his character, Ruesse quotes former Boston Globe scribe Mike Barnacle describing Clemens as:

"If Clemens had not once been able to consistently throw a baseball 95 miles per hour past men with bats in their hands, he would be wearing bib overalls and sitting on a milk crate at the open end of a trailer somewhere, brushing his tooth, while shooing away flies from his head," Barnicle wrote. "The man is a complete dope."

  • Rick Morrissey at the Chicago Tribune discusses that many celebrated what the ideal of Clemens is (an old man that won multiple Cy Youngs) but cringes at the idea of his 39-year-old wife. He questions why the bulging six-pack was the way she wanted to look:

But back to the pursuit of perfection. Allegations of HGH use aside, what told Debbie Clemens that the look she achieved was worth striving for?

What tells women that beauty is breast augmentation or nose jobs or face lifts? Or even that beauty can be found in an incredibly intense workout regimen and a strict lifestyle?

I don't find most female bodybuilders to be particularly attractive.

Both they and overly driven athletes have the same glassy eyed, single-minded look to them. It's neither beautiful nor excellent.

In our world, the line is getting very, very blurred between natural and unnatural.

In the pursuit of perfection, women with artificial breasts and athletes with artificially large biceps sometimes don't seem so different.

  • The Kansas City Star's Joe Posnanski in his personal blog gives his thoughts on the televised hearings. Including this on the idea of mistaking it for a B-12 shots:

I do want you to pause for a moment here and think about how stupid this B12 thing is for a moment. Let’s assume for a moment that Roger Clemens is weary of needles, a reasonably fair assumption since it appears he kept taking shots in the buttocks region, which is where needles-haters take shots. I know where he’s coming from. I hate shots. I am nervous about shots, I don’t like them, I don’t like when my daughters have to get them, I don’t like seeing them on TV. Anyone who knows me and several people who don’t know me will tell you: I hate shots.

OK, let me tell you what it means to hate shots: There’s is no way, no chance, no possibility that I would take a voluntary B12 shot unless there was a lot of money involved. No chance. A vitamin shot that MIGHT help me in some vague way or MIGHT NOT help me at all? Are you serious? Why in the hell would I do that? I don’t even believe in flu shots. I wouldn’t take a B12 shot even if recommended by a doctor (which, as Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Iowa righlyt pointed out, a doctor would not recommend unless I become a vegan or have to deal with Alzheimer’s or start dealing with mental health issues which is growing more and more likely by the day). And, while I love my mother very dearly, there’s is no way I would start taking B12 shots because she decided they’re good for met. Hating shots means hating shots all the time; you only take a shot when it’s ABSOLUTELY necessary and you really try to avoid them then too.

So based on the fear of shots alone I’m calling total bullcrap on the whole B12 shot thing.

  • Detroit Free Press's Mitch Albom approaches the issues straightforward: who is lying because both can't be telling truth.

I think he [Clemens] is. I think if Clemens is guilty, he is treating it like an injury the other team can't know about. Just get out there, look tough and pitch your butt off. He may figure nobody will believe a creep like McNamee, and Pettitte will never turn hard on him, he can just say Andy "misremembered" their conversations. In other words, in pitching terms, he can retire the side.

A big risk? You bet. But Clemens is nothing if not self-assured.

Meanwhile, what's the big picture here? What changes if Clemens is proven a liar? We already have plenty of big fish admitting steroids. One more changes nothing. If he did it, he did it years ago, when there was no testing.

  • Slate's Josh Levin decided that this is a split-party issue with Republicans siding with Clemens ('Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, considering that the pitcher is a close friend of George H.W. Bush, "even building a horseshoe pit at his home for the former president," according to a 2006 USA Today article.') and the Democratic Representatives siding with trainer Brian McNamee ('Foxx, Burton, Shays, and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., attacked McNamee's credibility relentlessly, while their colleagues across the aisle—most notably committee Chairman Henry Waxman, Massachusetts' Stephen Lynch, and Maryland's Elijah Cummings—laid off McNamee and grilled Clemens.').

  • Finally, even though I am sick of Boston's reign as the best sports town in America and Bill Simmons as their official scribe, I do like his ESPN The Magazine article written at the end of January describing a game in 1996 where the fatter version of Clemens struck out 20.

The stunning turn of events didn't leave me as satisfied as I thought it would. Whenever people write about the Steroids Era, they always focus on numbers. After all, the combination of numbers and history makes baseball unique. We crunch them, compare them, memorize them, and eventually they become living, breathing entities. The Steroids Era has made it impossible to say which numbers are genuine, so fans worry that we can't compare generations anymore. I'd argue that every generation has mitigating factors that affect the numbers, and in time we'll learn how to weigh those factors from the past 15 years. We just need time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Best and Worst Acquisitions of 2007 (Poundfoolish Edition)

What sets the Twins apart from most franchises is that they avoid sinking both large sums of money and years at free agents. Instead they rely on internal development (Mauer, Cuddyer, Kubel, Morneau), well-timed trades (Young, Castillo, Stewart) and the occasional place-holder one-year contract (Rogers, Hernandez) to bridge them from season to season. Conversely this fiscal restraint can prove detrimental to a fan base when star free agents are allowed to walk or demand trades. The blowback usually comes from some fans who request the easily identifiable superstars and local heroes to be on the field.

Spending large amounts of both years and dollars on Torii Hunter and Johan Santana, obviously two players that would have aided in winning in 2008 and 2009, would have been beneficial in the immediate future however towards the later years of the contract, the Twins could burdened by injuries, aging and overall decline in performance. As people like to point out, there is yet to be a pitcher that has signed a $100 million dollar contract that a team has not regretted in the end.

The Twins have (usually) had the foresight to have candidates ready when another exits (exception: centerfield). In cases where there are no viable candidates internally, general manager seek out potential suitors on the free agent market which grows increasingly more expensive as the desired commodity is limited. Had they decided to find Hunter's replacement on the free agent market, they could have ended up paying anywhere from $7 million (Cameron) to $12 million (Rowand) to $18.1 million (Jones) as season -- all grossly inflated rates.

Here are some of the other acquisitons made prior to 2007 that we as a Twins collective can be glad we did not invest in:

Adam Kennedy | 2B | St. Louis | -5 WSAB | $2.5 million

How Acquired: Signed three-year, $10 million dollar deal

In the first year of a three-year contract returning to the team that drafted him as the 20th overall pick in 1997, Tony LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals were not too pleased with his prodigal return. Long been known for his glove at second (he has a career 4.54 range factor), Kennedy struggled to find himself in his new Midwestern home. In April and May he held a batting average of .229. His season bottomed out in June where he hit .172/.238/.172 in 64 plate appearances. He somewhat rebounded prior to a season-ending knee injury at .219/.282/.290, well below his career average of .275/.329/.390.

Kennedy is due $3.5 million in 2008 and $4 million in 2009. Which if improvement doesn't happen rapidly, the Cardinals organization could be choking on a $7.5 million dollars. Kennedy skipped the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up prompting LaRussa to comment, "This year, I just don’t think we have that margin (to let a player play out of a funk). Adam is a key guy in that mix. So I expect him to return to his winning player form. But he needs to make sure he dots all the I’s, and not coming (this weekend)
is I hope his first and only mistake."

Danys Baez | RHP-R | Baltimore | -2 WSAB | $5.5 million

How Acquired: Signed a three-year, $19 million dollar deal November 27th, 2006.

After the 2006 season concluded, Baltimore's brain trust determined that the team's bullpen needed the most attention. The team when out and signed Danys Baez, Corey Bradford and Jamie Walker to three-year deals worth a combined $41.5 million. Instead of alleviating an already dreadful bullpen, the three posted a franchise worst 5.71 era. Baez exacerbated the problem: In 53 appearances he went 0-6 and accumulated a 6.44 era with 3 saves.

Blessed mercifully by an injury that would require Tommy John surgery on September 15th, 2007, Baez will miss the entirety of his second year under the contract.

Adam Eaton | RHP-S | Philadelphia | -2 WSAB | $7.2 million

How Acquired: Signed a three-year, $24.5 million dollar deal (with mutual 4th year option at $9 million) on November 30th, 2007.

Eaton came off a season with Texas where injuries and rehabilitation limited his innings to just 65. His 7-4 record with a 5.12 era was good enough though for the pitching-hungry Phillies who signed him during the off-season to a potential $33.5 million dollar contract. Able to start 30 times for the first time since 2004 then with the Padres, Eaton was hit hard and never really acclimated to his new team. He finished with a 10-10 record in 30 starts but had a terrible 6.29 era (113 earned run, 3rd worst in the NL) and gave up 30 home runs (4th worst). All this in only 160 innings of work.

In 2008, the Phillies are still committed to him but have said that he will have to battle out for the fifth spot in the rotation against JD Durbin and Mr. Anna Benson (who recently signed a minor league deal).

Rich Aurilia | INF | San Francisco | -2 WSAB | $3.5 million

How Acquired: Signed a two-year, $8 million dollar contract on December 4th, 2006.

This is one of those instances where as a general manager you simply get robbed. Aurilia came back to San Francisco from Cincinnati where he finished a very successful season hitting .300/.349/.518 with 23 home runs. Then again, had the Giants front office performed their due diligence they may have realized that the Great American Ballpark was a much better hitting environment than At&T Park. But no one could have anticipated the steep decline in 2007 where Aurilia hit .240/.304/.368 with 5 home runs in 329 at-bats. Of course Aurilia's 2006 season was significantly out of the norm from his previous production and he was also approaching his mid-30's. Two facets that might have been consider prior to giving a two-year contract to.

One appealling aspect of Aurilia's 2006 campaign was that he absolutely mashed left-handed pitching in 2006 hitting .347/.406/.680 with 11 home runs in only 165 plate appearances. This alone would be reason enough to enlist a batter. Only in 2007, Aurilia's abilities greatly plateaued at 35 years old. Instead of hitting lefties as he did with Cincinnati, he slumped hitting .240/.265/.411.

Jason Schmidt | RHP-S | Los Angeles Dodgers | -1 WSAB | $12.5 million

How Acquired: Signed a three-year, $46 million dollar contract on December 8th, 2006.

On November 3rd, 2006 Sean McAdams wrote a piece of precautionary prophecy, quoting one unidentified GM as saying "We could be looking at some regrettable deals in a couple of years." A month later, the Dodgers sank $46 million and three-years into Jason Schmidt. Without a doubt, along with Barry Zito, Schmidt was the premium arm on the market last offseason. From 2001to 2006, Schmidt compiled an 84-47 record (a .641 wpct) coupled with a 3.44 era while with the Pirates and Giants. When considered during the off-season, Schmidt seemed like a low-risk signing.

Around spring training there were tell-tale signing of lingering arm problems, such as a decrease in velocity that Schmidt tried to brush off: "I know what it takes in Spring Training and I don't think about velocity now," said Schmidt, who has two more exhibition starts before he takes the ball in Game 3 of the regular season in Milwaukee. "It's not only about being ready for April 1 but for June and July and August and throughout an entire season. I feel fine."

After 3 starts Schmidt proved to be not fine. His shoulder needed surgery (again). This time there is concern that he will not be able to recover considering his accelerated age of 35: "The Tommy John success rate is 82-85 percent for returning to the previous level, while the success rate for labral tears is about 70-75 percent," said Stan Conte, Dodgers trainer and medical director. "The qualifier is that the studies only focus on labral tears and a lot of pitchers have a combination of injuries."

Nevertheless, the Dodgers are on the hook to pay $34.5 million dollars over the course of the next two seasons, with or without his services.

Juan Pierre | OF | Los Angeles Dodgers | -1 WSAB | $7.5 million

How Acquired: Signed a five-year, $44 million dollar contract November 22nd, 2006.

Next to pitchers, centerfielders seem to be the next big free agent cash crop. Seth Mnookin wrote an article for Slate questioning the practices of the general managers. Essentially, general managers preach frugality and quality is driving their decision yet their actions say something completely different. Mnookin cites the Dodgers signing of Pierre as such evidence.

Pierre is a one-tool hitter: He hits singles. No more, no less. In 2006 he led the National League with 156. For an encore, he led the league with 164 (of 196 total hits) in 2007. He doesn't walk (4.6% bb%), but he also doesn't strike out either (5.1% k%). And he certainly doesn't have any power (.060). He would be the ideal lead-off candidate only if his .331 on-base percentage wasn't the second-lowest among Dodgers starters. It is a shame that the Dodgers vastly overpaid for an eight-hitter.

Jay Payton | OF | Baltimore | -1 WSAB | $4.5 million

How Acquired: Signed a two-year, $9.5 million dollar contract December 11th, 2006.

As you might have guessed by now, the Baltimore Orioles are not the exactly wizards of the free agent market. The Baez contract - in addition to his bullpen compatriots - scream ill-advised. Even as they attempt to make a somewhat frugal maneuver, it backfires in their beaks. Jay Payton had a blue-collar season for the Oakland A's in 2006. In 557 at-bats, Payton hit .296/.325/.418 with 10 home runs. He shows little patience (3.7% bb%) but he doesn't strikeout a lot either (8.9%). That said, Payton lives and dies by the type of contact he makes and where the ball lands on the field. In 2006 he held an average of .313 on balls put in play. His high line drive rate (22%) assisted in achieving a near .300 batting average.

The Orioles probably saw his nifty batting line and figured that since that was close to his career of .281/.325/.432, he must be able to replicate that. Unfortunately between his decline on line drives (15%) and the placement on the field (.271 babip), Payton and the Orioles saw his hitting slip to .256/.292/.376. Payton could rebound, but it is still a gamble of a contract rather than a sure thing. Payton told his former hometown paper that he'd like to play until he is 40. It is a game of chance with Payton.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Twins sign Innings Eater.

About fifteen years ago, I owned a book written by Jay Leno playing off of his various “Headlines” shtick sent in by loyal fans nationwide. There would be a headline (such as “Trees Break Wind”) from a paper sent in from Bismarck, North Dakota, Scottsbluff, Nebraska or what have you followed by a witty comment (“I thought that forest smelt funny”). One in particular was from a Muesli* cereal ad. The ad print read “Muesli: if you are not satisfied, we’ll send you another box, for free!” Leno’s commentary under the headline image was something like “Dear Muesli, your cereal tasted terrible. Thank you for sending me more.”

What does Livan Hernandez have to do with cereal and late night comedy bit made popular in the early 1990s?

The Twins front office - like the good people at the Muesli Global Corp. - is hedging their bets that more equals better. They are not necessary analyzing the quality but rather the quantity - a mistake comparable to thinking that subduing this fire requires a tad more gas.

Hernandez claims he will be 33 years old in 2008 (then again, he also told Cuban officials that he would be right back). Admittedly, the market for established starters who have thrown 150-plus innings in 2007 is stretched thin (Fogg, Benson, Lohse) and Carlos Silva set the bar by signing to his 4-year, $48-million dollar contract. If he is indeed 33 years old, $5-million for the one season (and an addition $2-million if qualifies for bonuses) would seem like a minimal risk. Supporters of this signing will argue that signing Hernandez will give the Twins pitchers veteran leadership (a quality that is not definable statistically), alleviate usage of the bullpen and provide one more season of minor league development for the pitching prospects. Most indications say that the Twins needed some "experience".

Last season, unable to leave the keys to the mound to a group of talented prospects, the Twins signed Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson to round out the rotation with the expectation that they would be digesting innings in the majors while Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker put the finishing touches on in the minors. As the year played out, Ortiz and Ponson combined for 108.2 innings and were eventually displaced leaving 292.4 innings to Garza, Slowey and Baker. Not only did they pitch more, the young guns threw better innings. The former veterans had a 6.73 era; the later prospects had an era of 4.21.

Instead of relying on your own talent the Twins squandered 108 innings and missed the opportunity have Garza, Slowey and Baker in the rotation everything 5th day. Baker is on his way to being declared the staff “ace” in 2008 (that is, if Liriano doesn't rebound). Garza’s showcasing eventually landed the Twins Delmon Young this offseason. Slowey could find himself as the 4th or 5th starter.

What is startling is the comparison between Ortiz’s 2006 season with Washington and Hernandez’s 2007 season with Arizona. Ortiz finished with 190 innings and an 11-16 record with a 5.57 era in the NL East, Hernandez threw 204 innings with an 11-11 record and a 4.93 era. Peripherally, their numbers are even more closely related:









L. Hernandez (2007)









R. Ortiz (2006)









200+ innings is great, only if they are not laden with runs surrendered. As Hernandez’s 2007 home run total (34, 2nd in the NL), earned runs (114, 4th) and hits allowed (247, 1st) would suggest, he is a potential liability in the designated hitter American League. The Twins should have no obligation to consider buying, considering the talent available in-house candidates, or at least judging by the 2008 ZiPs standards:




L. Hernandez



F. Liriano



S. Baker



B. Bonser



K. Slowey



N. Blackburn



B. Duensing



Last season, Ortiz and Ponson blocked Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, two young arms that provided the team with quality innings last season and will potentially be integral components of the rotation. Clearly tapping Hernandez is yet another message that the front office is once again buttressing the 2008 rotation, unable to commit to the young organizational talent. The Twins should learn their own lesson from 2007: let the youngster eat the innings.

*The cereal brand might not correct, but it was some sort of high-fiber, non-sugary stuff. Apologies to the Muesli people.