Friday, December 31, 2010

Taking Advantage of Target Field

Perhaps the biggest Twins event of 2010 was the opening of the new downtown ballpark. With much fanfare and hype, Minnesota baseball returned to the natural environments.

However, after the first full season not everyone had rave reviews about the newly constructed baseball cathedral. The field drew criticisms from members of the offense that the park was unfair and deflating their power totals. In November, Justin Morneau even implored via email to the Star Tribune beat writers that the Twins should consider altering the confines:
"Right-center to left-center is ridiculous. It's] almost impossible for a righthanded hitter to [homer to the] opposite field and very difficult for lefties. It affects the hitters a lot, and you start to develop bad habits as a hitter when you feel like you can only pull the ball to hit it over the fence. You take those habits on the road."
Because of the wall height, distance, temperature and wind patterns, the field in its first season deterred plenty of would-be home runs back on to the field. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the area Morneau noted. Michael Cuddyer, who had hit nine home runs to center and right-center at the Metrodome in 2009, was able to reach those seats just once in 2010. Likewise, Jason Kubel hit 10 home runs in center and right-center at the Metrodome in ’09 but just two this past season.

In the recently released Hardball Times Annual 2011, Greg Rybarczyk, operator of the seminal site which tracks “true” distances of the league’s home runs, published what he considered the “Ultimate Home Run Park Factors”.

For those unfamiliar with the metric, Park Factors measures the influence of a ballpark’s configuration that may increase or decrease the possibility of offense in comparison to other parks across baseball. By’s account, Target Field finished dead last when it came to home runs. Although has been carrying this number for years on their website unlike Rybarczyk’s totals, the World Wide Sports Leader’s website does not include wind patterns and temperature into their equation.

Rybarczyk’s research revealed that, thanks to the extremely inviting Crawford Boxes down the left field line, the Houston Astros’ home ballpark, Minute Maid Park, was the easiest field to hit a home run at (especially if you were a right-handed pull hitter) with an overall Home Run Park Factor of 119. Conversely, based on the distance and size of the walls (16 feet high around), Citi Field in Queens was considered the most difficult venue to book a round-trip vacation at with an overall Home Run Park Factor of 70.

Probably to the surprise of Morneau and company, Rybarczyk’s findings showed that Target Field’s overall Home Run Park Factor was 96, ranking 16th out of 32 possible major league stadiums. This is an astonishingly neutral result:

“True” Home Run Park Factors
Target Field
(via Hardball Times Annual 2011)

What we find, based on Rybarczyk’s conclusions, is that Target Field isn’t all that daunting after all. Certainly from the alley-to-alley the field is a bit home run resistant, but in general, the corners are favorable (right field is a particularly alluring spot for left-handed sluggers who pull the ball) and the ballpark rated out as a field that slightly favors hitters. In short, hitters like Cuddyer, Kubel and Morneau may struggle at times to vacate the field in center and right-center, but they will also be rewarded if they pull the ball a bit more.

While Morneau stated his concern that the home configurations would ultimately affect how players hit on the road, Delmon Young was one player who recognized that this wasn’t a bad thing. After posting a .576 slugging percentage with 7 home runs while pulling the ball in ’09, Young demonstrated much better pop by knocking out 17 home runs to left while slugging a much more robust .846 when pulling the ball. Without much alteration to their approach, Cuddyer and Kubel might be able to mirror Young’s success.

If you are in charge of the team-building for the Twins, what this means is that your ideal free agent acquisition is either a (1) dead-pull hitter to either field or (2) a line drive hitter to center/alleys (fly balls will likely just die in the wind). If you are targeting a free agent who has a majority of their home runs to the alleys or center field, that player is probably going to witness a significant drop in power. This means that someone like Derrek Lee, who has hit nine of his 19 home runs to center, right-center and right, would likely not replicate that total in a Twins uniform. Meanwhile, someone like Vladimir Guerrero, who pulled 23 of his 29 home runs in ’10, would likely have a better chance of having his power numbers remain static.

To be sure, despite the neutral results in ’10, Rybarczyk also acknowledges that Target Field may wind up playing more towards the pitcher in the future but, at the same time, the field should not finish dead last like’s Park Factors suggests:
“Target Field is a fair park if you consider only the field dimensions, but the cool temperatures will shave some distance off most homers hit in the Twins’ new park. I suspect that after an adjustment period, home runs will settle in at Target Field at a level around 90 overall, based on the fence layout and the early and late-season temperatures.”
In the end, the Twins will simply have to learn how to cope with their surroundings. In terms of offense, either hitters need to attempt to pull the ball more if they want the extravagant home run totals or look to capitalize on the spacious alleyways if they can settle for the home run’s less sexy cousin, the double. Delmon Young made some adjustments and it served him well, leading to a team-high 25 doubles at home. Similarly, Danny Valenica, a line drive machine to center field, hit .386 at Target Field by shooting gaps. These success stories can be emulated.

By focusing on playing to the field’s strengths in 2011, the Twins will be able to produce a distinct home field advantage.  

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Protecting the midsection

In the newly released Hardball Times Annual 2011, Baseball Info Solution’s John Dewan presented his yearly review of team defense based on his Plus/Minus system. Perhaps a little surprising, the speedy Oakland Athletics (+77) paced baseball in this area. This is noteworthy because the Green and Gold held the 24th-worst spot in the rankings just one short season ago.

For their part, Oakland, who had already boasted supreme outfield coverage (procuring a +43 tally in this area), went to work improving their infield for the 2010 season. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera was blight on the defensive landscape, turning in a season in which he was -30 runs below average. Similarly, they employed Adam Kennedy as their everyday third baseman who was -5 runs below average. Across the diamond, they used the drug-addled remnants of Jason Giambi for 58 games (who had wasted his entire defense in front of congress apparently).

Realizing this bunch of aging fielders was not going to do the pitching staff any favors, the A’s began to make maneuvers. At the trade deadline in 2009, Billy Beane moved their defensive-less shortstop to the Twins and implemented the rangier Cliff Pennington as the starter.  A week later, the A’s granted Giambi his outright release. This allowed for a defensive-minded first baseman in Daric Barton to take over. Last January, Oakland tapped their outfield surplus to acquire third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from the San Diego Padres. The only constant around the infield diamond between the ’09 and ’10 unit would be second baseman Mark Ellis.

Pennington gave the A’s a supreme defender at short, finishing with a +10 rating, seventh-best in the game. Meanwhile Barton was a +27 first baseman, the best in baseball and 13 runs better than the next closest player in Ike Davis. Perhaps because of maturity and dedication to his defensive craft or a statistical anomaly, Kouzmanoff improved his Plus/Minus totals from +7 with the Padres in ’09 to +20 in ’10 with the A’s.   

The moves provided an immediate upgrade to the defense and assisted in elevating Oakland’s pitching staff to one of the best in the American League. After allowing 4.70 runs per game and posting a below-average .682 defensive efficiency ratio, the next year the A’s had the American League’s best defensive efficiency ratio (.709) and allowed the fewest runs per game (3.86). Indeed, a significant portion of this improvement was associated with shoring up the infield defense.

The only other team to have such a dramatic improvement in that timeframe was none other than the Minnesota Twins.

After finishing baseball with the 23rd-worst Plus/Minus ratings with a -31 total, the Twins managed to climb their way into respectability, concluding the 2010 season with a +37 rating.

Minnesota Twins
Middle Infield
Corner Infield
(via Hardball Times Annual 2011)

In the previous offseason, the Twins targeted their middle infield which had been the worst in all of baseball. Admittedly, the relocation from an artificial turf field to a natural one helps in slowing down some of the would-be hits at the Dome, the team also grabbed two of the best defenders at their position.

Like Oakland, the Twins realized that Orlando Cabrera was simply not an elite defender and quickly traded for Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy at the conclusion of the 2009 season. As I wrote back in March, Hardy was destined to be a middle infield repairman for the Twins. While sidetracked by injuries that limited him to 858 defensive innings, Hardy was still +5 runs above average, good enough for tenth in baseball. Although members of the Twins organization indicate Hardy’s lack of foot speed played a critical role in his exodus from Minnesota, data suggests that Hardy’s range was outstanding the past three years, possibly due to his positioning and anticipation rather than his outright quickness.

Hardy’s middle infield mate, Orlando Hudson, was acquired in early February for a nominal one-year, $5 million dollar deal. Hudson’s long outstanding reputation as a defensive wiz, finishing in the top ten of Dewan’s Plus/Minus system five times in the past six seasons, lent itself well to the Twins way of baseball. To his end, Hudson provided the Twins with the best second baseman effort (+22) in the majors.

In all, the Hardy/Hudson combination helped the Twins move from a -59 team up-the-middle to a +36 team. This tandem made up for the defensive shortcomings exposed in the outfield when Jason Kubel was subjected to extended time wearing a glove. Now, with a similar outfield alignment projected in the 2011 season, the Twins have stripped down the infield combination that helped a pitching staff that transitioned from a fly ball one in ’09 (41% FB%) to a groundball one in ’10 (44.7% GB%).

Essentially, the Twins are making the gamble that the two birds in hand are not worth as much as the two birds in the bush.

For the majority of his career, Alexi Casilla’s defense has been questioned by both on-field and off-field representatives. In 2008, despite a fantastic .400 on-base percentage in the Grapefruit League, Casilla was sent back to Rochester because Ron Gardenhire was displeased by his “lack of attention to details” saying:
“He just seems to get really sloppy at second base, because of the short throw and (because) he doesn’t have to use his arm. He’s just got to really get a few things straightened out ... And that’s learning to get outs when you’re supposed to get outs, and get away from all the flashy stuff and get back to the basics of baseball, catching the ball and getting somebody out and using your feet and making good throws. He gets too flashy, thinks that he can do a lot of different things. We’re going to get him away from that.”
A year later, after claiming the starting second base spot in 2008, Casilla received a demotion in 2009 as he continued to display lapses on the field. After several fielding gaffes, the then-Twins second baseman failed to run out a pop fly – trotting to first with the bat in his hand.
He’s quick, with decent hands and a fairly strong arm yet his lackadaisical reputation precedes him. At the same time, there are plenty of indications that he could be a defensive upgrade over the very good incumbent Hardy.

In his small-sample size at short, Casilla managed to save +2 runs while turning 15 double plays in 17 opportunities (88% success rate). That double play rate is a good indication of great footwork, awareness and release. While Hardy has a very good arm, he only converted 55 double-plays in 101 opportunities (54.5%). Although Casilla’s pace isn’t likely going to stay up in the 80 percentile as his playing time increases if he stays at the 60-to-65%-range however he will remain in the top of the league as one of the best twin-killers at short. In the end, if he can keep his over-rambunctiousness under control while maintaining the focus that Twins management requires, he has the potential to perhaps be a superior groundball-stopper than Hardy (particularly if Hardy’s maladies continue in Baltimore and keep him off the field).

The other replacement, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, is even more of a mystery in terms of what he is capable of providing. A recipient of a Gold Glove in Japan, critics like to state that former Japanese convert Kaz Matsui also won several Gold Gloves at short before moving to the Mets where he was below average as a defender at short. This revelation got Matsui shifted to second where he was better suited.

Matsui, who recently signed back in Japan, had some advice for his inbound countryman. Matsui told Nishioka through the media that:
“(1) The effect natural grass has on defense at second base is small. Don’t have negative preconceptions. (2) Be careful about getting spiked during double plays (3) Gather data on batters with speed.
Obviously, some of this advice can be interpreted as the issues that Matsui had when making his conversion to Major League Baseball. The first issue involving the natural grass versus artificial surfaces that are favored in Japan’s stadiums is of moderate concern. For one, the hops produced on the artificial surface winds up being much more “true” than that of real grass. You don’t wind up with divot holes in the base paths that kick worm-burners up like they do on a dirt surface. Likewise, balls that normal seem to accelerate on the fake green stuff is slowed by the longer grass. However, by Matsui’s experience, the grass factor had only a small effect on his game.

The second piece of advice is aimed at the fact that American players will go hard into second base to break a play up. This is not a tradition shared on the other side of the Pacific. To speculate, Matsui was probably surprised by how little amount of time he had to turn a double play and would likely rush his throws (he made 13 throwing errors in his first season). In the same vein, Matsui also demonstrated issues feeding a double play to his middle infield partner. His 29 double plays started were the fewest among qualified shortstops. Again, while it is pure speculation, it might be different approach in feeding a second baseman if there were less of a probability of him going ass-over-tea-kettle. For instance, a shortstop might not need to hasten a throw to the bag to give his partner additional time to pivot the relay before being barreled into by the runner.

The final word of advice from Matsui, “gather data on baserunners”, is fairly straight-forward. Unlike those that develop within the minor league system, Matsui had little experience educating himself on players in the majors. He was thrusted into a starting role without the proper knowledge of his opposition and, unlike someone like Cal Ripken who goes to great lengths preparing for each opponent Matsui was likely manning a demanding position cold-turkey (particularly when you factor in a language barrier). Either way, Matsui’s message to Nishioka is clear: Spend time learning the competition.  

Needless to say, dismantling one of the better middle infield defensive units in baseball can be frustrating and a painstaking process to watch. After all, the team had moved from the worst to the third best in just one winter. For some, it may be even more difficult to readily accept the unknown as well since Hardy and Hudson represented two of the more tangible commodities while embracing Casilla and Nishioka as improvements requires eschewing advanced defensive data.

Naturally, Casilla and Nishioka will be behind the curve when it comes to knowledge of the competition which Hardy and Hudson benefitted from. At the same time the new duo has better tools – particularly speed – which could provide a big advantage (at least the Twins are betting on that it does). A year from now, we will know if Casilla hit well enough or remain focused to lock down the position for an entire season. We will know if Nishioka heeded Matsui’s recommendation and become a key component in the Twins lineup.

Then again, it is entirely possible that the middle infield will regress back to pre-2010 numbers. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Construction of Twins' bullpen has a blueprint

In 2010, with an average velocity of 94.7 miles per hour, the Chicago White Sox’s bullpen was the hardest throwing unit in all of baseball. This heat led to the highest strikeout rate among relievers in the American League (9.05 K/9) and one of the better overall bellpens. On Monday, they introduced their newest right-handed rifleman, Jesse Crain

Not all too surprising, during his introduction to the South Side, Chicago reporters immediately turned their attention to the team that had finished atop the division for two consecutive years. After all, the White Sox have failed to catch their rival and Crain had been an instrumental component in inflicting that damage. While donning a Twins uniform, the righty held the White Sox to a lowly .185 average against.  

The 29-year-old former Twin-turned-Sock has some enlightening words to say regarding his old employer’s future:
"As for the Twins, I’m not exactly sure what direction they’re going. They like to build from within, but with that said, I don’t know what they will do. There are a couple of prospects coming up, but they don’t have a lot of experience. It will definitely be interesting to see how it will play out. Losing me and [reliever Matt Guerrier to the Los Angeles Dodgers] will hurt them."
While some might interpret this statement from Crain brimming with brash overconfidence with a dash of cockiness, there is some obvious truth to his words. Considering that he and Guerrier combined to digest 30.4% (139 innings) of the Twins’ total relief innings last year, a vast majority of those in high leverage situations as well, Minnesota has a lot of innings to redistribute. And a lot of those arms anticipated to fill the void are chock full of uncertainty.

Internally, the team is banking on rapid resurgences from Joe Nathan (who likely will not be running at full-speed out of the gates) and Pat Neshek to replace those important innings. Without question, a healthy Nathan/Neshek can be an extremely formidable combination. Include Matt Capps in the mix and the later portion of the game appears accounted for – if all goes according to plan.
The concern is if either arm is unable to maintain the workload required of them, as Crain noted, the Twins have to turn to pitchers that lack experience. These arms included Alex Burnett and Anthony Slama, who have both sampled some MLB innings in 2010, Rob Delaney or Carlos Gutierrez. On paper and in theory, all of them have stuff capable of thriving in the bullpen it is just the matter of executing at the big league level.
Meanwhile, Crain continued to inform his new audience about the Twins financial mindset when it came to building the bullpen:
“The Twins weren’t looking to sign a guy for more than $3.5 million a year. They were out from the beginning, and we didn’t even negotiate with them. They have been smart with the way they do things, but we’ll see.”
Despite a deep reliever market, after the Tigers signed Joaquin Benoit prices suddenly inflated like negotiations were operating within the Argentinean economy. With every free agent anticipating a similar deal, the Twins were smart to remain idle allowing the more desperate teams can overpay in money and years. Crain was no different from his fellow relievers and the Twins realized this.
In general, outside of Joe Nathan, the Twins rarely make long-term, big money commitments to bullpen members. They certainly eschew bringing in free agent relievers for multiple years at an inflated cost. When building his bullpen the past several years, general manager Bill Smith has made small contract commitments (i.e., Luis Ayala, R.A. Dickey), shrewd trades (Jon Rauch) and promoted from within (Jose Mijares, Alex Burnett) while making seemingly insignificant but occasionally useful minor league signings (Bobby Keppel).
If you review this offseason to date, the Twins have followed a strikingly similar blueprint this winter. The Twins nabbed several minor league free agents this winter that could be relief contributors in the right-handed Eric Hacker and the left-handed Chuck James. Likewise, the J.J. Hardy trade brought in James Hoey, who, if able to get under control, could be an extremely effective strikeout artist for league minimum wage. Plus, the aforementioned Burnett or Slama could be names summoned from the ‘pen regularly as well. Obviously at this juncture the majority of brand name relievers are now off the market and the Twins may peel off an intriguing arm that didn’t merit multi-year deals before the winter is over.
For years, the bullpen has been one of the Twins’ biggest assets. Since ’06, they have had the American League’s lowest ERA (3.61), baseball’s lowest walk rate (3.14 BB/9), fewest losses (93) and allowed the fewest runs (1,061) -- thanks in part to the recently departed Crain and Guerrier. While they may not have the sexy strikeout rates or velocity like their Chicago opponents, the Twins have consistently built and re-built without needing to invest as many dollars or years. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

OtB Twins Notes

Having shown interest in acquiring uber-defender Brendan Ryan prior to his trade from St. Louis to Seattle, Buster Olney (via reports that Orlando Cabrera has interest in returning to the Twins as a potential back-up candidate to Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla.

Of course, simply stating your interest in a team doesn’t necessarily mean that the interest is mutual. After all, Jose Canseco has spent the past month stating his request to play for former boss Sandy Alderson now with the Mets and has a snowball’s chance of finding himself back in baseball. But in Cabrera’s case, manager Ron Gardenhire had said that he would be interested in bringing Cabrera back to the Twins after his second-half stint with the team in ’09 to possibly play second base.  

The organization is clearly interested in adding to the depth in the infield, as evidence by the attempts to acquire Ryan. Whereas Ryan was a light-hitting mega-defender, Cabrera is a light-hitting marginal-defender.

When the Twins acquired Cabrera in the midst of the 2009 pennant race, the team was looking to “upgrade” their shortstop position. At the time, Brendan Harris and Nick Punto were splitting time patrolling the turf and were swinging rolled up newspapers for bats. Cabrera, fresh off a red-hot month of July in which he went 41-for-110 (.372 BA) with the A’s, drew the team’s attention. After shipping former first round pick Tyler Ladendorf, Cabrera continued to hit the ball well, batting .289 while slugging .430, but did not prove to be able to avoid outs with a empty .313 on-base percentage. Despite being far from impressive, this was significantly better production than what was offered previously.

Instead of bringing Cabrera back however, the Twins turned to J.J. Hardy quickly after the World Series ended. The younger Hardy was a much better fielder than Cabrera and, when healthy, much more capable of providing a potent bat in comparison to Cabrera’s flaccid offering. So, after showing much decline in terms of bat speed and range, Cabrera signed with the Cincinnati Reds in the winter and was their opening day shortstop. For the fourth straight year, Cabrera witnessed his on-base percentage decrease as did his overall numbers in spite of playing in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. Part of this regression was due to a significant drop in his line drive BABIP. While he sprayed liners at a very good 18.4% clip, he held a .649 BABIP on those, well below the baseball average of .714. So there is some indication that he could put up better offensive numbers in 2011.

Then there is the matter of his defense. While a very adapt shortstop when balls are hit at him, Cabrera has not been particularly mobile in his 30s. Nevertheless, outside of his brutal 2009 UZR season Cabrera has posted somewhat decent marks, holding a 4.5 UZR from 2008 to 2010, which is strikingly average among qualified shortstops in that time. Even though data suggests he’s average, the wisdom of the crowd doesn’t think too highly of his defense. In the past two seasons, the Fan Scouting Report has ranked him near the bottom of the league with a 52 overall score (Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki rating the best with an 85 overall mark).  

Now at 36 years old and coming off one of his worst seasons in his career, Cabrera, who made $2.02 million in 2010, will likely be relegated to a utility role and a salary reduction. Plenty of teams lacking depth or a clear-cut starter might target Cabrera. The Twins appear to fit that exact mold as the recently signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla is a tandem that screams “safety net” in the event either is injured or ineffective.

Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo believes that it will take a three-year, $36 million dollar deal to lock up Carl Pavano.

Cafardo wrote that column prior to the Zack Greinke-to-Milwaukee deal effectively eliminating one potential suitor in the process. That leaves Washington, Texas and the Twins as the front-runners to land Pavano and, all things being equal, this almost certainly gives the Twins the advantage and additional leverage in hopes of talking him down in years and price. The wild card, of course, is if either the Nationals or Rangers decide to increase their offers now that one more trade, Greinke, is now unavailable. Given Washington’s liberal agenda with their checkbook and Texas’s TV money rolling in, neither scenario is out of the question.

Many other analysts have gestured towards Pavano’s declining strikeout rate as an indicator that he is likely primed for regression – particularly his minuscule 4.3 K/9 innings in the season’s second-half – in addition to a drop in velocity (averaging only 89-mph on his fastball) and shakier command (hitting the strike zone just 44% of the time) in his five post-August starts. Certainly, his 221.2 inning workload possibly caught up with him.

That notwithstanding, Pavano demonstrated some excellent skills that could hint at a brighter future. The right-hander increased his groundball rate in 2010, raising it from 43.6% in ’09 to 51.2% in ’10. With the possibility of gaining a speedier middle infield (after all, that is the reason for going with Nishioka/Casilla over Hardy/Hudson), Pavano could have a few more of those gloved down. In Texas, where Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler provide rangy and fortified defense up the middle, Pavano clearly stands a chance of having one of his better seasons if he replicates that groundball rate. Of course, Pavano has reportedly recognized the value of calling Target Field his home rather than The Ballpark at Arlington as fly balls have the tendency to die in the voluminous outfield in Minneapolis. After all, Pavano allowed 16 home runs in 18 starts on the road versus just 8 home runs in 14 starts at home. As a consistent strike-thrower, there always exists the chance he’ll be taken deep.

Also, in the past two seasons, Pavano has exercised the best out-of-zone swing rate in baseball. His 34.1% mark represents the highest standard in the game for the most attempts incited at, essentially, bad balls. Other names directly below Pavano’s on that list include Shaun Marcum, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren and Francisco Liriano. By getting opponents to swing at pitches out of the zone, Pavano is likelier to have less hard contact.

As I wrote in November, despite the abundance of in-house talent, the Twins will find it difficult to replace Pavano in the rotation:
“The Twins realize that allowing Pavano to walk – with or without offering arbitration – means the rotation loses the starter that consumed the most innings for them. In addition to the sheer total of innings, he worked deep into the games, averaging 6.9 innings per start, saving an often overworked bullpen that was forced prematurely into active duty after numerous Kevin Slowey (5.5 innings per start, third-lowest in AL) and Scott Baker starts (5.8 innings per start). Furthermore, with the team’s rash of injuries and ineffectiveness in 2010, it would be difficult to have the utmost confidence that the in-house starters can pick up the slack Pavano would leave behind.”
Two years for Pavano is potentially the highest recommended duration for his contract. Anything beyond that is a risky investment. Even two years is a steep venture for a team like the Twins would have a finite amount of budgetary wiggle room in the next few seasons but as noted, the team likely needs his contributions in the short-term.

On Friday night, TwinsCentric-like fan blog at Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bernie’s Crew, broke the story that the Brewers had acquired Zack Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for four prospects.

Numerous Twins fans held on to hope that the team was somehow piecing together an offer that would be able to woo the Royals’ front-line starter away from the club. It would be the Brewers, however, that would be able to get enough talent together to entice Kansas City’s GM Dayton Moore, to swap his best starter and garbage shortstop.

The Brewers gave up two under-25 starters in shortstop Alecido Escobar (who had supplanted J.J. Hardy as the starting shortstop) and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Additionally, Milwaukee also gave up right-handed starters Jake Odorizzi (A) and the mercurial Jeremy Jeffress (MLB). Considering the depth of their system was already somewhat depleted before, the Brewers emptied the coffers to attempt a run while Prince Fielder was still under contract.

The Royals wound up with a decent mix of talent. The two position players as capable of starting this season with Escobar being a big upgrade defensively over Betancourt and Cain being a speedy, gap-hitter with to patrol the spacious Kauffman outfield. Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein had indicated that Odorizzi could wind up being very similar of a pitcher to Greinke while Jeffress may eventually find himself in the bullpen where he can make better use of his triple-digit fastball.’s Tom Pelissero tweeted that he had heard from a Twins source that they were interested in Greinke but the Royals refused to deal with their divisional adversary. It is hard to imagine, even if Kansas City was willing to listen to any Twins offers, that Minnesota could round up enough MLB-ready young talent to appease the Royals. Back in early November, an MLB executive told ESPN’s Jayson Stark that the Royals were looking to:
“(A) they would need to "win" the deal, (B) they would have to get the kind of four-for-one haul the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira to pull the trigger, (C) they need a bunch of "front-line, winning, quality players" in return, and (D) at least one of those players has to be a pitcher capable of turning into the next Zack Greinke in a couple of years.”
To that end, the Twins would have had to have little to offer. Delmon Young might be the best under-25 position player but even he is under club control for just two more seasons and stands to make a substantial amount more than his $2.6 million in 2010. While some of the prospects the Twins could have provided KC would possibly be a better haul in the long run, the Royals ultimately wound up with two players that can contribute immediately followed by two top flight pitchers that will be a part of the staff when other prospects like Eric Hosmer are the core of the team. 

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Twins ship Hardy to Baltimore

In what became an inevitable transaction from the front office’s standpoint, the Twins dished off shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Baltimore Orioles for two minor league relief arms in return.

Back in September, in a conversation I had with a Twins official, it became apparent that J.J. Hardy was not in the team’s long-term plans. In not so many words, I was told that the Twins did not have the desire to extend him past his 2011 expiration with the team. Still, I was hopeful that his above-average defense and his terrific second-half at the plate was going to be enough to convince the decisionmakers that keeping Hardy, in spite of a nominal increase in his salary, would be the right choice. After all, as I outlined last March, Hardy’s defense would help solidify a spot where the team had troubles dating back to ’07.

Nevertheless, the team continued to cite speed as their main need in 2011 and often dropped Hardy as an example for an area where the team can improve. In November, Ron Gardenhire lamented about his need for more speed. On 1500ESPN radio with Reusse & Mackey, the manager targeted Hardy specifically:
"We all know Hardy doesn't run like he used to, and when you're talking about injecting speed, there [are] only a few places that you can do that, and shortstop is one of them. We like Hardy a lot. He's a great guy, great teammate, and we believe when he's healthy he's solid at shortstop. But when you start looking at speed and everything, and other options, that's one of the areas we're going to look at options at and see if we can find more speed -- a little more versatility out there. So we're looking, and not to say we don't want Hardy back, but we're just trying to make our ballclub better."
But there appeared to be more to targeting Hardy than simply his speed, which Bill Smith cited as the main impetus for this transaction. In addition to his lack of foot speed, according to some reports the Twins were less than impressed by Hardy’s rehabilitation process. On several occasions, Hardy would have waited until the last minute to inform the manager that he was not able to play, ultimately irritating Gardenhire and leaving him needing to make an unexpected adjustment to his lineup card.  

So the Twins place him on the shopping block.

After some interest from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles along with openings in San Diego, San Francisco and St Louis, it appeared to be a very favorable market for the Twins to dangle Hardy in the water. In the end, the Twins reached an agreement with the Orioles to send Hardy, Brendan Harris and his deadweight plus $500,000 (likely to offset Harris’s contract) in exchange for two minor league relief arms in James Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

Unlike most of the arms in the system, the big-bodied Hoey (6’6”, 200 pounds) and the equally sizeable Jacobson (6’6”, 205 pounds) can throw heat and have exercised impressive strikeout rates (26.8% K% for Hoey, 21.7% for Jacobson). Hoey and Jacobson are not your prototypical Twins’ spot-hitter. 

The 28-year-old Hoey, with his power arm, was once viewed as a potential closer. In the past, when other teams inquired about Hoey’s availability, the Orioles would tell them that he was not available under any condition.  However, in 2004 he required Tommy John surgery that took him out of play for much of that season and the next. Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus did not have too many favorable things to say about him aside from his triple-digit heat:
“Hoey came back from TJ surgery a couple of years ago and has since teased the Orioles with minor league dominance and major league submissiveness. He’s a one-pitch guy, that pitch being a fastball that can reach 1000 on a kind gun but that lacks movement. It doesn’t help that he’s been a lot worse from the stretch, but it does account somewhat for the gap between his major and minor league performances; once runner start reaching base against him, the boulder starts rolling downhill.”
After that, he fell off of the prospect radar as Hoey once again needed major surgery, this time to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. In 2009, Hoey returned and, like most labrum surgery recipients, indicating that his experience that season was viewed as rehab. He spent the entire year at AA, working 48 innings and posting a 47-to-32 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. This past season, Hoey worked in both AA and AAA, regaining his velocity while attempting to harness his command better. In 52.2 innings, he allowed just 37 hits while striking out 70 and walking a robust 34.If the Twins can assist him in improving his control, Hoey has the potential to be a very strong relief arm, with the potential contributing immediately.

Meanwhile, Jacobson, 24, who was originally drafted by Detroit in 2008 but sent to Baltimore for Aubrey Huff in 2009, had just finished his second consecutive season in High-A. While his age at that level would raise some eyebrows, Baltimore had Jacobson repeat High-A because what they viewed as Detroit mishandling him. The Tigers have an infatuation with fireballers – and Jacobson can dish up some gas to be sure – however, the Orioles wanted him to have strong secondary pitches to avoid being a one-pitch guy:
"With the Tigers, I threw mostly fastballs. I've pitched just once here, but I've noticed the Orioles have a different approach. I didn't get much of a chance to work on my off speed stuff with the Tigers. But I threw my off speed here, which is good for me because that's what I need to work on."
In addition to his repertoire, judging from his Cape Cod League video, Jacobson had see-saw shoulders in his mechanics – first down, then back up and then down again – which is a waste of movement. (For comparison, watch Kevin Slowey’s shoulders in this video.) For the most part, you want this level. Depending on either the Tigers’ or Orioles’ minor league approach, either team would have attempted to smooth out. There are clear signs of someone attempting to working on a new pitch or making mechanical adjustments. After tossing just three wild pitches and hitting one batter in his first 84.1 innings of work in the Tigers system, Jacobson has since drilled six batters and uncorked 14 wild pitches in his last 81 innings of work with the Orioles. If the Twins can accelerate Jacobson’s development in this department, he could possibly be pitching in a Minnesota uniform in a year or two.

Moreover, in addition to the two power relief arms, the Twins also have appropriated approximately $8.5 million (after shipping Brendan Harris and his $1.75 million along with $500,000 to the Orioles) to spend this winter. Of course, while it seems like a substantial among of savings, it is likely earmarked to retain Carl Pavano and potentially add another bullpen arm.

Given the market for shortstops and the morose quality of shortstops available coupled with Hardy’s potential as a starter, the Twins return-on-investment obviously came as a disappointment. One would think, given the circumstances, the Twins would have been able to extract something useful in the present, not just iffy hard-throwers (as Dan Wade pointed out, neither pitcher was a part of prospect maven Kevin Goldstein’s Top 20 of the Orioles’ system). Personally, I cannot overstate how much more valuable a starting shortstop can be in comparison to a pair of bullpen arms. On the other hand, if Hoey and Jacobson can indeed develop into quality relievers, they could have cost-effective method to stabilize the relief staff for several years instead of having to repurchase expensive free agent arms. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Signing Koji Uehara makes a lot of sense for the Twins

When the Twins outlined their strategy for the offseason, they focused on two items: solidifying the middle infield and repair the bullpen. Now on the verge of landing Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the former task appears to be completed. Addressing the latter issue, however, may also tie in with the acquisition of Nishioka.
Reports emerged from the winter meetings recently that the Twins have been linked to the Orioles’ free agent closer, 36-year-old Koji Uehara. Uehara, in addition to giving the team a wonderful bullpen arm, would also provide Nishioka a cultural compatriot in the clubhouse that could help ease the transition from Japan to America.
According to’s Phil Mackey, Twins general manager Bill Smith told reporters that neither Nishioka nor his wife speaks any English. While baseball is a universal language between the chalk lines, there can be a substantial barrier on the bench, in the clubhouse and on the road. Without question, this could have an adverse affect on his performance and, ultimately, his career.
Take Hideki Okajima’s story, for example. Okajima, a four-year veteran of the Red Sox, admitted to’s Gordon Edes that he experienced what he described as significant loneliness and isolation. After being one of key pitchers that reliably protected the game in front of closer Jonathon Papelbon for three consecutive years, Okajima suddenly began to struggle this past season. At one point, he allowed 27 hits in 15.2 innings of work. Perhaps his downtrodden 2010 season compounded the problem but through his interpreter, Okajima told Edes that the time spent in the bullpen, without the interpreter in the area due to team regulations, made him feel distant and unconnected. Portrayed as a malcontent by the Boston media, Okajima was non-tendered by the Red Sox this winter.
But acquiring Uehara goes beyond just providing Nishioka a partner to reminisce with about the old country or grab post-game sushi at Orgami. Because of the potential of losing three right-handed middle relievers in Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch, a right-handed replacement that is tough on same-sided opponents would be an ideal solution.
And that’s just what Uehara is. Last season, Uehara was absolutely cold-blooded against right-handers, holding them to a .196 batting average against while posting a 26-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. As good as the Twins trio was none of them had that kind of success against righties.
Despite college-level velocity (his fastball barely gets into the upper 80s), Uehara hits his spots and mixes in a curve, changeup and a nasty split-finger. With underwhelming stuff that bores radar gun enthusiasts, you might think he would be a high-contact pitcher. You would be wrong. According to’s contract data, Uehara’s contact rate of 74.1 percent was the fifth-lowest in the American League. Using a deceptive delivery – or what Orioles skipper Buck Showalter called “his presentation” - along with his assortment of pitches that he throws with pin-point accuracy, Uehara misses a ton of bats and rarely gives his opponents a free base.  In fact, in 44 innings, he struck out 55 and walked just 5. That 11.25 K/BB ratio was the second-best in the AL (behind Chicago’s Matt Thornton). 
When opponents do make contact, the majority of the results end up as fly balls. Actually, his fly ball rate of 58.2 percent was the second-highest in baseball, trailing only Brian Fuentes in this statistic. For a Twins pitcher to have that much elevation, it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Target Field has one of the most home run-resistant confines in baseball, ensuring that most aerial endeavors remain on the field of play. On the other hand, the Twins also have two of the slowest corner outfielders in the game. If those flies are aimed towards the gaps, there is a strong chance that those can drop in for extra bases.
Because of his injury history, missing most of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 with a forearm strain, the Orioles decided not to offer Uehara arbitration, which would have been a raise above his $5 million salary. Instead, the Orioles have expected to re-sign him at a lower price than what he would receive through the arbitration process. There is some sentiment that the feeling is mutual as Uehara has enjoyed the closer’s job, a position he wouldn’t likely be guaranteed outside of Maryland, and had just recently purchased a home in the Baltimore area. At the same time, he has made it known that he is seeking a two-year deal, which many teams may hesitant to commit to because of the aforementioned injury history.
The Twins essentially have two very good reasons to obtain Uehara, besides being both affordable and effective. First of which is that he would be a solid replacement arm for the bullpen’s departed, possessing a strike-throwing skill set that is highly coveted by management. Secondly, they need someone to act as an ambassador to the organization’s newest investment. If they neglect the opportunity to bring him in, it would seem to be a disappointing miss for the hometown club.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Will Thome be back?

When the Twins decided to exercise Jason Kubel’s option for 2011 and almost simultaneous declaring their intentions of pursuing Jim Thome, it more or less guaranteed that the lineup would be predominately left-handed once again.
All had been quiet for the longest time when Thome’s agent emerged to announce that his client fully intended on playing in 2011 – no doubt trying to reach that magical 600 home run mark (and sell more of these bad boy shirts). Despite being a fan favorite and the team’s biggest source of power last year, Thome has aged, wants more dinero and is the preverbal slow-footed, one-dimensional player that Ron Gardenhire has been outspoken about avoiding. In spite of those facts, the Twins still remain interested in his services.
In some ways, the team’s insistence on remaining left-handed heavy was one of the reasons behind their demise in the ALDS against the Yankees. Because no right-handed alternative existed, Kubel and Thome were left to combat CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte. To be sure, both Kubel and Thome are middling against average southpaws, let alone the Yankee duo that shuts down more lefties than Bill O’Reilly. The results were predictably ugly. In Game 1, the pair went 0-for-3 with two walks and a hit-by-pitch off of Sabathia. In the ensuing Game 2, Thome managed to line a single left and Kubel coaxed a walk but they finished 1-for-5 in that contest.
And just like that, the Twins were down two games to none.
Several hours after the Yankees recorded the final out in New York in the elimination game, I tweeted in haste that the biggest need this winter was to acquire a bat to fill that role. In short, with no particular rhyme or reason, I listed six would-be free agents who swing a right-handed stick and implored the GM to contact their agents this off-season.
(In full disclosure, I submitted that tweet consumed with equal parts disgust and Grain Belt.)
In my mind, in that hour, after, let’s say, the twelfteenth bottle of Premium that was the most important item to cross-off the to-do list.
It wasn’t just that the Twins were short-(right-)handed for the Yankees, they would have been at a disadvantage if they had eventually met up with the Rangers (who had Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson). This appeared to be a gross miscalculation by the team’s builders as the post-season landscape starting to take shape at the trade deadline.
Having time to let it marinate, I have since recanted my stance on this issue and no longer view it as a pressing need, per se. In that small sample size of three games, it was clear that the Twins were deficient when it came to right-handed options. This fact remains true. However, this is not an imminent need, at least not in the sense that the Twins need to commit a significant amount of payroll to a right-handed bat. 
The Twins won 94 games last year based on their ability to man-handle their divisional opponents. While going 47-43 with everyone else, they posted a 47-25 record against the Central – the best interdivision record in the American League. They were able to accomplish this feat because the AL Central is loaded with Kansas City Royals and right-handed starting pitchers. And this situation isn’t likely to change in 2011 either.
Unless they make some bold moves, the Indians and Royals currently have five righties slated for their rotation. The Tigers had five right-handers last year but plan on moving the left-handed Phil Coke to the rotation. Only the White Sox, who have Mark Buerhle and John Danks with the possibility of fireballer Chris Sale joining them, are considering going lefty-heavy to presumably compete with the Twins’ core of left-handed hitters. Nonetheless, on the whole, the AL Central will be a righty dominated group.
But the right-handed majority isn’t just limited to the AL Central. At the time of the Kubel option, I wrote this:
“Last season in the American League, right-handed pitchers were on the mound for 62,275 out of the total 86,725 match-ups. That is, 71% of the overall encounters saw a righty on the mound. Therefore, stacking the lineup with potent left-handed bats presents a sizeable platoon advantage to the offense.” 
Given that left-handed pitchers represent a smaller universe compared to their right-handed counterparts, Twins needn’t sign a right-handed hitter who is interested in 500-plus plate appearances – marquee guys like Paul Konerko, Maggilo Ordonez and Derrek Lee are going to want full-time jobs and also be compensated as such. What the Twins need is a player that can siphon off 250 plate appearances during those other 29% of match-ups against left-handed pitchers -- basically a right-handed version of Jim Thome last year.
Unfortunately, that person does not exist. Until scientists figure out a way to extract Thome’s DNA from whatever hunks of raw porterhouse he chews for sport and create a mirror image of him so that the Thome clone swings from the right side, the Twins will have to seek out other alternatives.
There are a handful of modestly priced hitters that can adequately fulfill this need. Marcus Thames, the Yankees righty de jour last season, has demonstrated that he has an ownership over left-handed pitchers (career .264/.333/.505 hitter vs LHP). Because of his non-existent defense, Thames is familiar with the irregular workload and would be a very serviceable platoon partner for Kubel. Similarly, Troy Glaus has mashed left-handed pitching (career .273/.396/.542 vs LHP) but wore down late in the season with the Braves last year. Seeing as that he will be 34 in 2011 and has something to prove, a one-year deal and part-time play appears on his horizon. Other candidates for this type of work include Jorge Cantu (career .272/.323/.451 vs LHP) or Matt Diaz (.335/.373/.533 vs LHP).
Outside of the one-dimensional hitters like Thames, Glaus and company, there are several options that may provide the Twins with more versatility as well as right-handed lumber. Austin Kearns’ numbers were impressive in Cleveland but a wrist injury zapped his offense after he was traded to New York at the end of the year. In addition to being respectable against lefties (career .261/.383/.416 vs LHP), Kearns would be a great defensive replacement in right field (career 11.0 UZR/150). Likewise, Andruw Jones provided the White Sox with some thunder, played above average in the corners of the outfield and was passable as a backup center fielder giving him value beyond just his offense. He too has torn through left-handed pitching (career .261/.361/.501 vs LHP).
To be fair, having Jim Thome return for one more season at $3 million wouldn’t be the world’s worst proposition. Sure, he reduces the roster’s flexibility and likely won’t recreate the same numbers he produced in 2010 but he has been a good “clubhouse presence”, mentoring youngsters like Danny Valencia who credits a lot of his rookie success to the lumbering lug. As noted previously, there is an abundance of right-handed pitchers and Thome was no slouch at handling them (.302/.455/.698 in 246 plate appearances last year). Furthermore, while still in its infancy, Target Field appears to give a slight power advantage to left-handed hitters, as they as a group out-slugged righties by 26 points in the ballpark’s first season (thanks in part to Thome who slugged .688 at home). If Thome indeed comes back to Minnesota, he provides the team with an offensive boost during the regular season.
Of course, it doesn’t mean neglecting the right-handed bat issue either. Even though it may be a future problem, we witnessed how the Twins were brushed aside by the Yankees two lefties and they will attempt to woo Cliff Lee this winter, setting up another one-two southpaw combination. Marching back into the postseason without an answer would pave the way to another mid-October on the golf course.
If nothing attractive manages to manifest during the winter, serviceable right-handed bats are frequently a commodity that is often readily available on the waivers or in a trade near the deadline. Consider the slew of them that changed hands between July 1 and August 31 of last year: Jhonny Peralta, Cantu, Miguel Tejada, Derrek Lee, Kearns, Ryan Ludwick, Jeff Francoeur, Manny Ramirez, and Cody Ross. Certainly several of these kinds of players will be obtainable just in time for a post-season run.
Because the Twins have to run a 162-game marathon before they can even enter the three-game sprint, the focus should be on conditioning for the long run before the short burst. If they can acquire a viable, inexpensive right-handed option like one of the few listed above, the Twins will be better prepared for the post-season than they were a year ago. If they forgo that route to retain Thome, they still have a roster capable of inflicting plenty of damage as well and the possibility of finding right-handed help, if need be.