Monday, January 14, 2008

Starting With What's Left in the Twins Farm System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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