Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Does the White Sox recent bullpen moves merit a response from the Twins?

After having arguably the American League’s most successful bullpen last season, leading the AL in strikeout rate (9.05 K/9), xFIP (3.79) and WAR (6.6), White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has continued to tinker with his relief staff.

Having already parted with the cantankerous closer in Bobby Jenks, who took the opportunity to offer some vapid parting shots at his former employer, choosing instead to replace him with Jesse Crain (which may or may not have been a move intended to keep Crain for destroying the Sox’s offense), the Sox have signed veteran left-hander Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million contract.

Considering the cavalcade of left-handed hitters in the Minnesota Twins lineup, this should be interpreted as a direct assault on attempting to dethrone the reigning AL Central champions.

Ohman, who has held left-handed hitters to a .205 average in his career, will join the fireballing Matt Thornton and Chris Sale as Chicago’s lefties in the ‘pen, giving manager Ozzie Guillen yet another Southside southpaw.  

With Jake Peavy still an unknown, the Sox have a discussed a contingency plan of moving the hard-throwing Sale into the rotation if Peavy is not ready come April. Although Sale would give the Sox three proficient left-handed starters to complement Mark Buerhle and John Danks, his move from the bullpen would leave the Sox with just one lefty reliever in Thornton. The addition of Ohman assures the team that there will be at least two lefties in the event Sale is transferred to the starting rotation. On the other hand, if Peavy is able to begin the season as a starter, the Sox will be blessed with a surplus of lefties, which is a huge late inning advantage versus the Twins.  

Does this maneuvering by the White Sox require a response from the Twins front office?

Although the Twins have done well as team in terms of batting average against lefties (hitting .268, sixth best in baseball), most of those hits have not exactly packed a punch (.326 wOBA, 14th in baseball), leading to the natural conclusion that the Twins need a right-handed presence in the dugout to counteract Guillen’s bullpen strategy.

The popular name that continues to be bandied about by Twins fans is free agent Vladimir Guerrero. While he is a brand-name slugger that is coming off a bounce-back season with the Rangers and has slaughtered left-handed pitching  in his career (.412 wOBA against lefties), there are several reasons to be bearish on him.

Although Guerrero finished the season with a respectable .300/.345/.496 batting line, the bulk of the work was done in the season’s first-half. In the first few months of the 2010 baseball season, Guerrero hit .319/.364/.554 with 20 home runs in 354 plate appearances. Meanwhile, in the latter portion of the year, the right-handed free-swinger coasted in to the finish line somewhat, hitting .284/.336/.461 with nine home runs in 289 plate appearances.

The power drop-off coincides with Guerrero’s inability to elevate the ball in the back-half of the season. As you can glean from the chart below, Guerrero’s groundball rate spiked significantly post-July, resulting in fewer home runs and thus a degeneration of his power numbers:

To me, this is a solid indicator of age and nagging ailments impeding him for sustaining a high-level of production throughout the entire season. According to BaseballInjuryTool.com, he’s had no less than five instances where leg-related injuries have sidelined him for a period of time.

Even if Guerrero manages to repeat his 2010 season in which he avoided any lengthy time in the trainer’s room, there are other indications of a drop-off.  In spite of leading the Rangers with six “No Doubt” home runs (those home runs according to HitTrackerOnline.com that cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence), lending credence to the notion that he is still very much capable of inciting a charge into the ball, he was also second on the team in “Just Enough” (balls that cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or that landed less than one fence height past the fence) and led the team in “Lucky” home runs (a home run that would not have cleared the fence if it has been struck on a 70-degree, calm day). Because his “Just Enough” rate of 31% exceeds the standard 27% in additional to relocating to an environment that has been, so far, unfavorable to home run hitters in comparison to the Ballpark at Arlington, a natural conclusion is that Guerrero’s numbers would experience some deterioration in his home run totals.

What’s more is that while the Twins would require his presence just a few times a week and to occasionally supplant Jason Kubel against left-handed starters, Guerrero is seeking a full-time job. Unless the front office or Ron Gardenhire can figure out how to carve out playing time between Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer so that Guerrero is satisfied, the Twins appear to be unlikely suitors for his services. Rather, a team like the Rays, who have a vacancy at DH, would be able to provide him with his requisite playing time.      

From the Twins’ perspective, in a perfect world, the market for Guerrero would continue to dissipate, leaving Guerrero and his agent accepting a reduce contract with the understanding that he is a role player. After all, he’s mashed left-handed pitching and the Twins could use that. However, Guerrero wants a full-time position and has a desire to be compensated as such

“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.
Naturally, it would be nice to sign a formidable player like Vladimir Guerrero or Derrek Lee to a nominal contract, but both want more substantial role that other teams could guarantee. The Twins simply do not have the plate appearances to go around, limiting their ability to entice those types of players to signing with the team.

In the end, the White Sox recent moves likely require some sort of response from the Twins. What seems to be relevant is that the Twins seem to recognize that due to the statistical fact that right-handed pitchers greatly outnumber left-handed ones, there is no need to overpay for a role playing right-handed hitter. Plenty of hitters are on the market, including established hitters like Andruw Jones, Troy Glaus, Marcus Thames and Jorge Cantu to consider alongside Luke Hughes and Jeff Bailey. 

What seems clear, given the current circumstances, is that that option is probably not going to be Vladimir Guerrero.