Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Vast Improvement (?): Ervin Santana

Ervin Santana is a Twin.  Four-years, $55MM deal.  For the Twins he presents another foray into the free agent market for second tier starting pitching.  I like it!  I like it when it is compared to Edwin Jackson’s four-year $52 million deal last year.   I have been critical of the Twins for some time but it is nice to see them spending some money on decent players with some upside (even if there were other guys I’d rather see wear a Twins uni).  The good:  he immediately improves one of baseball’s worst starting rotations (sort by any metric you want, they all look bad).  If, and it’s a big if, Nolasco can turn into the pitcher they paid for not the pitcher he was, the rotation looks much more palatable.  A Hughes, Santana, Nolasco, Gibson, Meyer/May/Pelfrey combo looks intriguing.  It looks even better when compared to Hughes, Nolasco, Gibson, Pelfrey, Milone… seriously, wow.  Sadly, this still isn’t a very good rotation and the addition of Santana caused me to mention to Adam how sad it is that the addition of Santana simply made the rotation, not terrible. He is a fly ball(ish) pitcher with strikeout numbers trending in the right direction (thank goodness) and a history of giving up the long ball.  You can hope a move to Target Field will help though the defense behind him will continue to be bad.  I am hopeful he can pitch to his recent track record.  Moving to the AL might hurt but the AL Central is not the toughest of divisions.  

Now, at 32 (tomorrow), durability has to be somewhat of a question.  Fangraphs pointed out back in October that Santana relies more on the slider than any right-handed starting pitcher.  And we all remember a certain lefty with a high reliance upon a slider.  Speaking of Liriano, would you have been upset if the Twins brought back Franky at three years, $39MM?  That seems about right… same age as Santana, similar pitcher, fewer years for less dollars and most importantly, no draft pick.  It is a contract that seems to fit the recent Twins MO.  Admittedly, I do not know the ins and outs of the Liriano deal nor likelihood he would have left the Pirates for a move back to Twins. 

The MLB Trade Rumors breakdown of Santana  is great and they basically pegged the contract.   It is a bit interesting to see the Twins target one of the only pitchers on the market that received a qualifying offer.  With the Twins not likely to compete for a few years it stings a little bit giving up a draft pick to sign Santana.   All-in-all I am a happy Twins fan today.  I don’t believe this makes the Twins a contender nor do I think it hamstrings them from making other, productive signings.  Committing $13.5 million per year to Santana is not onerous.  Hopefully, when the Twins get to the back half of this deal, Santana will be a foundational piece of a team stringing together division titles.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Key to the Jon Lester: Jake Arrieta

One of the great things about this blog revamp is that I'm not longer beholden to only writing about the Twins. Here's my first non-Twins related blogpost.

By now, everyone has heard about the Cubs signing of Jon Lester to a 6-year, $155MM contract (with a $30MM signing bonus!) and I've seen numerous Cubs fans on Twitter now talking about how the Cubs are surely World Series bound. I love the optimism. I'm not here to squash those dreams but instead, I'm here to look at the Cubs rotation after Lester which, in my mind, leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the things I've been seeing on Twitter is this excitement surrounding a 1-2 punch of Lester and Arrieta. I understand the Lester excitement as he's been one of the best left-handed pitchers in MLB for the last several years. As for Arrieta however, he had a great 2014 campaign, but even a cursory glance at his numbers prior to 2013 makes one pause and perhaps pull back a little on the excitement about the Cubs #2 starter.

Arrieta was drafted out of college by the Baltimore Orioles in 2007. He rose fairly quickly with the Orioles and made his Major League debut in 2010 at the age of 24. He had been on the prospect radars but was never very highly ranked (#67 by Baseball America and #52 by Baseball Prospectus) so his arrival at the Big League level was quiet. During his rookie season he started 18 games for the Orioles compiling a 4.66 ERA over 100+ innings and had pretty lackluster peripherals including a 4.7 K/9 ratio, a 4.3 BB/9 ratio, an 89 ERA+, and a 4.76 FIP (5.17 xFIP).

Arrieta went on to miss parts of the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to bone spurs in his pitching elbow - a problem that was ultimately corrected via surgery in 2011. In 2012 Arrieta made the Opening Day roster but was mostly horrible through the first 3 months of the season before being demoted back to Triple-A at the beginning of July. In 2013, he again made the Opening Day roster, was again terrible, and was subsequently demoted to Triple-A again in Late April. It was at that point the Orioles decided to bail on Arrieta and they traded him to the Cubs. The Cubs gave Arrieta another shot in August of 2013 and he ended up pitching pretty well, compiling a 3.66 ERA over 9 starts to end the 2013 season.

Arrieta developed shoulder inflammation in Spring Training prior to the 2014 season and ended up missing the first 27 games of the year. His first start of the year was May 3rd and from then on, he was nothing short of spectacular for the rest of the season. He ended up giving the Cubs 156+ innings in 2014, had a sparkling 2.53 ERA, 0.98 WHIP (2.26 FIP, 2.73 xFIP) and had a stunning 9.6 K/9 ratio. I say stunning because prior to the 2014 season, Arrieta had a 6.9 K/9 ratio.

The biggest question with Arrieta is "was 2014 a fluke or did the Cubs change something in Arrieta's delivery, or arsenal, that contributed to this dramatic turnaround?" A few people in the blogosphere who are much better at explaining these things, have taken a stab at this question. In looking purely at the numbers, there are some indications that Arrieta made some significant changes and that his results from 2014 are something he can sustain into the future. The most significant difference you can see in the numbers is his lowered BB/9 rate. From 2010-2013, he walked an average of 4 batters per 9 innings. In 2014, he walked a mere 2.4 per 9. Another standout change is in the rate at which Arrieta induced ground balls. He has always been a ground ball pitcher, but he went from inducing ground balls about 43% of the time, to up around 49% of the time, or an increase of about 14%.

I took a look at Arrieta's PitchFX numbers (pitch speed) and his fastball averaged 93.4mph last seasons which is very typical of his entire career to this a velocity change doesn't explain the different results. If you look at his pitch selection, however, one very interesting thing comes up. In his 3+ seasons prior to joining the Cubs, he threw his fastball roughly 60-65% of the time. In 2014, that number dropped to 47.5% of the time, and Arrieta added a Cut Fastball to his repertoire. That pitch, in particular, is probably the biggest reason for Arrieta's turnaround (in my opinion). Not only was that pitch worth a staggering 15.0 runs above average (stats courtesy of Fan Graphs), but the addition of a cutter made his regular straight fastball worlds more effective. Arrieta's swinging strike percentage went from being around 7% to north of 10%...this is, in large part, the reason he went from being a guy who had a K/9 around 7, to a guy with a K/9 rate of almost 10.

So, in summary, Arrieta with the Cubs has been a guy who walks less batters, strikes out more batters, induces more ground balls, has an improved arsenal of pitches and looks more like an Ace than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Now - having said all of that, I believe the jury is still out on Arrieta. One thing that can't be overlooked is his injury history. He had bone spurs with the Orioles, his Cubs career started out with shoulder discomfort and over the course of his career, he has yet to top 160 innings in a season (at the Major League level). He also only has one good season to hang his hat on. Maybe the cutter will change him forever. Or maybe he reverts back to the guy who walks a lot of guys. Either scenario is possible and until he has another great season, I don't think you say for sure, one way or the other.

In the ways that matter on the field, Arrieta really is the key to the Lester trade. If Arrieta continues to look like his 2014 self, the Cubs have a potential ace-ace 1 and 2 starter combo. If Arrieta reverts back to his old ways, then the Cubs have Jon Lester and a bunch of mid-rotation guys in Arrieta, Hammel, and someone chosen from the pile of Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada, etc. They also have Kyle Hendricks who is an intriguing young arm and who was impressive following his call-up in July, but who has yet to be tested in a full season at the Major League level.

A career-turnaround like Arrieta had in 2014 is impressive and the numbers and data provide many reasons to believe he is now a different pitcher. He's also pitching in the National League instead of the American League East which probably doesn't hurt either. For the Cubs' sake, I hope he continues with the success he had in '14. If he can, this Cubs team starts to look a whole lot more fearsome in 2015...World Series material even...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Twins Front Office: More of the Same

I'll admit, when it comes to the White Sox, I have nothing good to say. I will never have anything good to say. I was living in the Chicago area on October 26th, 2005 and it was one of the most depressing days of my life. Watching them land both David Robertson and Jeff Samardzija in the past few days has brought my blood to a near boil when it comes to the Twins. Look, I get it, the Twins aren't going to be a contender this coming season, but there are moves that they could be making in free-agency NOW that would bring a contender back to Minnesota sooner rather than later. Instead, they are essentially sitting on the sidelines and waiting/hoping that their current crop of young talent will put it all together in 2016 and beyond. They are wasting opportunities that are out there now.

Let's look at some of the recent free-agent signings and trades that have happened.

Jeff Samardzija (SP)
The White Sox received Samardzija from the Oakland As for Marcus Semien (SS), Chris Bassitt (potential SP or long reliever) and a PTBNL. Both Semien and Bassitt are pretty decent prospects and the White Sox will only control Samardzija for one year, but still - that is relatively little to give up for a #2 starter like Samardzija. There is this perception that top-flight starters are expensive, but this is a case where I feel the White Sox didn't have to give up much to get one. Samardzija gives the White Sox a potent 1-2-3 in their rotation (along with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana) and along with the acquisition of David Robertson (FA RP), makes them look a whole lot better on paper than they did just a few weeks ago. I think they overpaid for Robertson (4-yrs, $46M) but that's not the point. The point is that the White Sox made themselves relevant and didn't have to make a bunch of moves to do so.

Brandon Moss (OF and 1B)
The Indians traded a no-name Double-A infielder (Joe Wendle) and landed Moss, who has the chance to be a really nice fit with the Indians. The best thing for both parties is probably that it gets him out of Oakland and the Oakland Coliseum, where he was terrible at the plate. In 70 games at Oakland last year, his triple-slash was .197/.299/.404 and in 77 games on the road it was .265/.364/.467. This is another example of a team that spent very little to get something decent in return. Moss is under team control until 2017 and will add potency to an offense that is already trending up. As for the Twins - Moss doesn't really address any of their needs as the Twins are already log-jammed at 1B and in the Outfield.

Josh Donaldson (3B)
Donaldson was traded from the Oakland As to the Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin. This trade doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but there had been some mention of Donaldson not seeing eye-to-eye with Billy Beane so maybe there is more to this story. Donaldson has been one of the top 3rd basemen in baseball over the last two seasons whereas as Brett Lawie has been oft-injured and inconsistent so far in his career. Both players have 4-years of team control left and Billy Beane is a well-respected GM, so we'll give the benefit of the doubt to him for making this move. From the Twins standpoint, again, this wouldn't have made much sense for them. If you believe Miguel Sano is your future at 3B and that Sano is close to assuming that role, then there is no need for a guy like Donaldson. And besides, that's a lot to give up in a trade, even for a guy like Donaldson.

Yasmany Tomas (OF, possibly 3B)
This Cuban outfielder received a lot of hype prior to his signing and has been compared to Jose Abreu, last year's ROY in the American League. A lot of teams were interested in Tomas, but it was the Diamondbacks that ultimately won out, landing Tomas on a 6-year, $68.5MM deal. This one, like the Samardzija deal, really sticks in my craw. To me, landing this guy would have been a great move for the Twins. Granted, it would further muddle their outfield situation, but if they had taken the $10.5MM they are going to pay Hunter this season and instead, spent that money on Tomas, I would feel a whole lot better. Tomas has great potential and if he's anything like Abreu, that contract is going to be a STEAL. In my mind, the International market is a great place for the Twins. Unfortunately they were burned in their most public International move when they signed Nishioka and he turned out to be an epic bust. I don't know if they are just scared to sign International players or what, but the recent crop of International players has been pretty impressive with the likes of Abreu, Iwakuma, Cespedes, Puig, and Darvish (to name a few). Just imagine an outfield of Buxton, Tomas and Arcia for the next 5+ seasons...sounds pretty good doesn't it?

Andrew Miller (RP)
Miller signed with the Yankees as a free-agent on a 4-year, $36MM contract. I don't have much commentary on this trade. If there is one thing that Twins FO has been competent at in recent years, it is signing relievers. The Twins don't need a closer and 4-year contracts for relievers seem like a bad idea to me. Miller wasn't going to sign for less than a 4-year deal and it was reported that he had a 4-year, $40MM offer from the Astros in the case that the Yankees decided to pass.

Nick Markakis (OF)
Markakis signed a 4-year, $44MM deal with the Atlanta Braves. Again, not much commentary here. Markakis has been up and down over the past few years and while he seems to have some value in the field (Gold Glove winner in 2014), his hitting has been inconsistent and signing him wouldn't have necessarily been that much of an upgrade in the outfield for the Twins. With that being said, spending that $10.5MM on the 31-year-old Markakis could have made a lot more sense than spending it on Hunter. I have to keep reminding myself that Hunter is just a one-year thing.

**Markakis' battery-mate Nelson Cruz also signed a 4-year deal this off-season with the Mariners for $57MM. The same comments that I have about Markakis apply to that deal. Baltimore got one heck of a season out of Cruz for only $8MM.

Jason Heyward (OF) / Shelby Miller (SP)
This was definitely the blockbuster trade of the off-season so far. As much as I would love for the Twins to get either of these players...I don't think the Twins would have had anything to offer either the Braves or the Cardinals that would have come close to the likes of Heyward and Miller. The deal was great for the Braves in the sense that Miller is under team control until 2018. For the Cards, they get an excellent outfielder for at least this next season and could be fixing to sign Heyward to a long-term deal. They also received Jordan Walden from the Braves who is a pretty good set-up man.

Those are just a handful of the recent trades and signings in baseball. There had been a boatload of other far less sexy acquisitions. The only two that really bother me as a Twins fan are the Samardzija and Tomas deals. There are still a number of intriguing free-agents that the Twins could potentially be in on including: Brandon Beachy, Ervin Santana, Justin Masterson (probably not), Brett Anderson, Luke Gregorson, Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano, Jed Lowrie, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy, Johan Santana (?), Max Scherzer, Ryan Vogelson, Edison Volquez, and Rickie Weeks. Hey - Delmon Young is still available too!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Torii Hunter: Then and Now

Well, well, well...look who's back. As has been widely reported at this point, Torii Hunter has signed a 1-year, $10.5MM contract with the Twins for the 2015 season. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think there is some good value there is he provides some solid, veteran leadership for this young up-and-coming team that the Twins have put together. On the other hand, I don't understand the front-office's obsession with former Twins players. Hunter is one of the first players they've brought back, but the coaching staff is replete with former Twins and I've heard rumors out there that the Twins are interested in potentially bringing back Liriano. Maybe my fears about the nepotism of the front-office are unfounded. Only time will tell I suppose.

I thought it would be fun to look at Torii Hunter from a 'then and now' perspective. Hunter spent 9 seasons with the Twins before leaving via free-agency to join the Angels and then after 5 seasons there he left and joined the Tigers for the past 2 seasons. When Hunter left the Twins he was a 31-year-old veteran center-fielder who had been a consistent performer on a playoff team. Now he is a 39-year-old corner-outfielder who is solidly in the twilight of his career.

Here is an average season for Hunter during his 9 seasons with the Twins:

136 games played
75 Runs
21 HRs
79 RBI
14 SBs
Averaged about 3.0 WAR per season
7 Gold Glove Seasons

Here is an average season for Hunter during his 7 seasons away from the Twins:

143 games played
80 Runs
20 HRs
86 RBI
10 SBs
Averaged 3.3 WAR per season
2 Gold Glove Seasons

In looking at the numbers, I'm actually impressed with Hunter's consistency at the plate. He has been a very offensively consistent player throughout his career and even over the past few seasons, he has stayed mostly healthy (has played at least 140gms each of the last five seasons) and while there has been a slight drop off in his overall power, he has been a consistent producer.

I think the one caveat we should put here is that he has played in the middle of some pretty powerhouse lineups. Last season, Hunter was primarily either a 2-hole or a 5-hole hitter with the Tigers. In 2013, Hunter was almost exclusively a 2-hole hitter. This means that for at least the last two seasons, he was hitting directly in front of one of the most feared hitters in baseball in Miguel Cabrera, who has been the 3-hole hitter for the Tigers for the past two years. Last season, the Tigers also had V-Mart hitting 4th. That is one heck of a 2-3-4 and is substantially better than what the Twins will have when Hunter dons the Twins uniform this coming season. I should also mention that Hunter had Ian Kinsler hitting in front of him in the lead-off spot...not too shabby there either. At best, the Twins will have a 2-3-4 of Hunter, Mauer and Arcia/Vargas or some combination thereof. It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers Hunter can put up in the less potent lineup that he will now be a part of.

Now let's talk about defense. When Hunter was with the Twins, he was a human highlight reel, regularly making spectacular plays in center field and occasionally robbing Barry Bonds of HRs in the All-Star game. Using defensive metrics that have been created since Hunter was a Twin, let's take a look at Hunter's defense from 2002 to 2007 (his run of 7 consecutive Gold Gloves in CF for the Twins) as compared to other qualified center fielders over that same period of time.

6,994 Innings
11.9 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) - ranked 9th out of 14 CF (qualified) over the same period of time
2.3 UZR/150 (UZR averaged over 150 games) - ranked 10th of 14 CF over the same period of time
13.5 RngR (Range Runs above Average) - ranked 7th of 14 CFers
-36 TZ (Total Zone in Runs above Average) - ranked 14th out of 14 CFers

To put that into perspective, here are some of Andruw Jones numbers over that same period:
8,062 Innings
119.6 UZR - ranked 1st out of 14 qualified CFers.
20.5 UZR/150 - ranked 1st out of 14
92.8 RngR - ranked 1st out of 14
98 TZ - ranked 1st out of 14

For even more comparison, here is Denard Span's numbers in center field for the 5 seasons he was with the Twins:

3,712 Innings
14.4 UZR
4.9 UZR/150
21.7 RngR
-17 TZ

Two observations. A) Hunter must have had a flair for the dramatic because his actual defensive metrics are not that spectacular, even amongst other qualified CFers playing during that same period. B) Holy crap Andruw Jones was good.

Hunter was no slouch in Center, we all know that, but his greatness there may have become a little exaggerated since his departure. Since leaving the Twins, he has also changed positions and is now primarily a Right-fielder. He hasn't been great in right field and last year, he was actually pretty atrocious from a defensive standpoint (-18.3 UZR and -12.3 dWAR). When you look at how Hunter's defense has declined over the past few seasons, it's concerning to think that he will be playing full-time right-field for a team that is already defensively challenged - and in a spacious ballpark no less.

So what's the best case scenario? For Hunter, part of his value to the Twins lies in his ability to get through to the young players and mentor them as they come up (Hicks, Arcia, Danny Santana to an extent, and Buxton). He knows the "Twins Way" and really has a chance to help the organization from that standpoint. As an actual everyday player...if Hunter performs close to what he has done over the past several seasons, he'll do just fine. Defensively I think he's going to have a hard time in right field, but here's to hoping he can at least competently hold down the role. The Twins are already log jammed at DH so hitting him in that spot is really not an option.

What the worst-case scenario? There are probably a lot of ways to go with this. He could get hurt in Spring Training and miss the entire season. That would be bad. He could decline significantly from an offense standpoint as a result of playing in a much less potent lineup and, combined with bad outfield defense, become a player with negative value. That would be bad too.

Overall, I'm happy Hunter is back. I loved him when he was a Twin the first time and he is definitely a fan favorite. Plus, all of those people still running around with Hunter jerseys can now be relevant again. His contract is throw-away money for the Twins and if he plays well, he could be a valuable trade piece at the deadline which could potentially help the Twins to continue to build their farm system. He also provides a solid veteran presence on a young team. All things considered, not a bad move for the Twins. One interesting thing to watch will be what decision the Twins make with Aaron Hicks and/or Oswaldo Arcia. Will Hicks again be given the keys to center field? Will he be relegated to the Minors in favor of playing Santana at Center?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Case for Aaron Hicks

Before my last post, it had been since April 2013 since I had written anything about the Twins. I'm honestly in awe of you bloggers out there who have continued to write about this team despite four straight 90+ loss seasons. Not only does that take dedication, it takes a special kind of stamina to keep going despite the product on the field. My hats off to you. The last thing I wrote about was Aaron Hicks who, at the time, was at the beginning of his rookie season and who had a historically bad opening to his Major League career. I would love to say that he turned it around and is now a fixture in center field for the Twins, but we all know that's not true and, in fact, things haven't gotten much better at all. With that being said, I still think Hicks has a chance to be a decent center fielder for the Twins.

At 25, Hicks is still relatively young, and that may be the biggest thing going for him. For comparison, Carlos Gomez was 26 before he really started to put it together after being traded from the Twins to the Brewers. Torii Hunter was 23 when he played his first full season in the Big Leagues and was 25 before he really hit his stride with the Twins. Curtis Granderson was also 25 when he finally put it all together on the Major League level. Puckett was 24-years-old as a rookie with the Twins in 1984. I'm not saying that Hicks is comparable to Gomez, The Puck, Hunter or Granderson, and in fact, those comparisons are almost laughable. Rather I'm trying to make the point that 25-years-old is not too old and it's premature to say that Hicks' career is doomed. Seven years is a long time for someone to play professional baseball and not "make it" but there are other examples of players who were late bloomers.

The other thing that Hicks has that is fairly unique at the Major League level (if it can fully translate) is his ability to draw walks. Aside from his stint as a rookie in the Majors, Hicks has always had a decent eye at the plate and owns a career .377 OBP in the Minors. Even this past season, which saw Hicks play in 69 games with the Major League club, Hicks had a 36:56 K:BB ratio and an OPS of .341 (despite a .215 BA). If he could hold a batting average closer to .270-.290 and hit with a little more power (.350-.400 SLG), that would be enough offensive production to make him an every-day center-fielder.

One thing that has mysteriously disappeared from Hicks' repertoire over the past couple of seasons is his base-stealing abilities. He was never a prolific base-stealer in the Minors, but from Rookie ball up through Double-A, he had double-digit steals every season and topped out with 32 stolen bases (11 CS) in 2012. Since 2012, he has barely utilized that talent, stealing a total of 17 bases between his time in the Majors AND Minors. Some might look at the stats and see that as a good thing given that Hicks' success rate in stealing isn't great (68% between the Majors and Minors), but he's got speed and, with time, can probably be coached to pick his spots better and bring that number closer to 75%, which would be just fine. For a guy who has the potential to be on-base as much as Hicks, re-discovering his ability to steal bases would increase his value greatly.

So where has Hicks gone wrong? I listen to Gleeman and the Geek fairly regularly and many times on their show/podcast, they have talked about how its quite possible that Hicks' development was actually stunted by the Twins and their mis-handling of Hicks over the past couple of seasons. First there was the move straight from Double-A in 2012, to Twins starting center fielder coming out of Spring Training in 2013. After his disastrous first few months as a rookie, the Twins (Gardenhire) publicly questioned Hicks' effort. Last season, the Twins again publicly questioned Hicks' work ethic and on-field production before demoting him to Triple-A in June (after a DL stint). The whole situation, whether merited or not, reminds me of Kevin Slowey's situation with the Twins a few years ago. For some reason, Hicks seems to have rubbed Twins management the wrong way and they haven't responded very well.

This coming season will really tell the story of whether Hicks has a future with the Minnesota Twins or not. Buxton is still another season away from the Bigs (at least) and so for the time-being, Hicks has a spot in Center Field. In my mind, there are 3 things he needs to do to prove himself and get back on the right track:

1.) Bring his overall average and power up. Through 538 PAs in the Majors, Hicks is sporting a .201/.293/.313 triple-slash and that just isn't going to cut it. Those numbers have to closer to .270/.350/.400 to make him a decent center-fielder and probably need to be more like .275/.360/.420 to make him worth a look at a corner-outfield position. This is all much easier said than done, but at the end of the day, without better production at the plate, it won't matter what other things he does.

2.) Make it so the Twins cannot question his work ethic. In my experience, if someone's work ethic is being questioned, chances are they deserve that kind of criticism. Whether someone works hard or not is usually fairly obvious and when it comes to baseball, I imagine it's slap-you-in-the-face obvious. If I'm Hicks, I understand the situation - that this may be my last legitimate shot to be an MLB-regular - and I respond by being the first one in and the last one out. I put in the work and make it obvious that I'm committed to getting better. Even if the results don't follow, you will impress management and they won't have the grounds to question your effort publicly. I obviously don't know Hicks personally and maybe he already has an excellent work ethic, but sometimes you have to make an effort to make it obvious. You've got a new manager now and so, in a sense, you have a clean(ish) slate. Take advantage.

3.) Forget the past. I have no idea how Hicks feels about how the Twins have handled his development but I wouldn't be surprised if he felt a little slighted. Start fresh this year. Take advantage of having Paul Molitor around day-in and day-out. Channel the Hicks from the Minor Leagues who use to draw walks at a 13-14% clip. Be aggressive on the base paths. Embrace the fact that he is a ground-ball and line-drive hitter (74.5% of his batted balls last year were were either GBs or LDs) who is never going to hit for a lot of power. His potential lies in his ability to get on-base.

It's highly possible that Hicks will never become the center-fielder that the Twins once thought he could be. So far, Hicks' off-season isn't going to well from a baseball standpoint. He was released from his Venezuelan League team just a few days ago after hitting a 2-for-21 slump. I heard the rumors last week that the Twins might be interested in bringing Torii Hunter back. I would be really curious to see how having Hunter around might help Hicks. I doubt it will happen but it's an interested "what if". One thing is clear, if Hicks doesn't find a way to produce more at the plate then he likely won't stick around with the Twins much longer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Small Market Response

Disclaimer: I am more of a football guy.  Now, having said that, I am a passionate Twins fan who lives in the heart of Hawk Harrelson Country™ and that fact has only increased my love for the Twins.  While the past four years have been tough I take solace in the White Sox sucking too…
I don’t have MLB Extra Innings, I went to precisely two MLB games last year (both Cubs games), I would rather attend the local Low “A” game than commute to The Northside, and I struggle to recite the past five World Series champions (only half kidding).  However, I religiously check my “Batter’s Box” app every night and every morning during baseball season to check the Twins box score and highlights.  I believe I know a fair amount about the Twins, not as much as Adam, but I feel I can hold my own.  It is because of this knowledge I am apprehensive about the Twins going forward.   So, here it goes… my response to Adam’s Royals and Twins small-market formula.
Yes, it is well documented; the Twins have a consensus top five farm system.  They play in a terrible division.  They are in a honeymoon period with a new manager.  The stars are aligning.  My problem, nothing has changed in the one spot that matters the most, the front office.  The fact that Bill Smith still has a job (albeit a made up one) is surprising and associating Terry Ryan with success, at this point, is kind of laughable.  The Twins seem to be successful in spite of management not because of it.  Looking back at the ESPN Transaction page you can see what the Twins have done.  For the sake of time and word count I only went back to 2010.  Since 2010, the Twins do not have a lot of “winners”.  Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes, initial signing of Josh Willingham, Kurt Suzuki all seem like winners with Hughes being a steal.  But a quick rundown of the losers is pretty amazing.  Jason Bartlett, Jason Kubel, Ricky Nolasco, Carl Pavano resigning, Matt Capps trade AND resigning, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Letting Hardy go, letting Vance Worley go, and the granddaddy of them all… Tsuyoshi Nishioka.  I am sure I am missing some on both sides and I realize some are minor signings but the fact that the front office even tried to fleece the fans is annoying and par for the course.  The jury is still out on the Denard Span and Ben Revere trades but by trading both the Twins left a void in centerfield that Aaron Hicks hasn’t been able to fill.  That blunder has helped propagate one of the worst defensive outfields in the league.  An outfield which plays its home games in the pitcher friendly Target Field.  I think this furthers the point; they seemed to have lucked into Byron Buxton fitting a huge need, not planned for it. 
To their credit, the Twins have seemed to pivot towards “toolsy”, high upside, position players and power arms in the draft and that has helped position them for a possible run at the division in a few years.  However, associating the drafting profile and the 40-man roster management with a blueprint or anything similar to other organizations… I just don’t see it. 
And lastly, for a team that moved into a tax payer funded new stadium six years ago and then almost immediately imploded, it is annoying to see Terry Ryan publicly state he is comfortable with where the payroll stands.  There has to be a middle ground between going after Jon Lester or signing Kevin Correia (like Phil Hughes contracts).  Heck, the 2015 opening day roster doesn’t even have that many “holes” they need to fill.  They are set at 1b, 2b, SS (Santana), DH, C, RF with placeholders at 3b and CF.  The Twins have the money for a few, targeted, middle to upper tier free agent signings and the fans have been more than patient.  Based on MLB Trade Rumors 2015 payroll estimate, they are projected to be 35% below their high water mark and 13% below 2014’s opening day number.  No one goes into business to lose money, I am not asking for that, but the Pohlad’s certainly didn’t have enough to buy the Twins by being bad at business.  That is why I have a hard time believing there is no margin at the bottom line to expand the payroll.  It seems to me the model, if you have been terrible for a long stretch is be patient, develop talent, and selectively sign free agents (a la the Cubs).  This all is based on the assumption you are correctly identifying talent which is an entirely different post.

I hold out hope that Paul Molitor will continue his more stat friendly ways and for a front office that decides to find a middle ground between bring the Dodgers and well... the Twins. I might even settle for a healthy Sano and Buxton. Here's to 2015.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Emulating Success: The Royals, Twins and the Small-Market Formula

I'll start off with a house-keeping item...I'd like to officially welcome Bryan Chapman as a writer to this blog. Bryan grew up in Kansas City and has been a Royals fan throughout his life. He'll be writing about mostly Royals and Cubs-related things (he’s a Cubs season-ticket holder) as well as other general baseball topics as we try to get this blog rolling again. We might have a 3rd writer coming on soon (another Twins fan) but Bryan and I are still in the process of applying peer-pressure so we'll let you know what happens.

Since this blog is now a Twins/Royals blog, I thought I would start by comparing the two teams and seeing if my beloved Twins might share some things in common with the Royals. Major League Baseball is very much a league of copycats and I think, in many ways, the Twins are following a very similar path to success that the Royals have just completed. The Royals and Dayton Moore, it can be argued, were simply following a formula for small-market MLB success that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays (and the Twins, to an extent).

In 1993 the Florida Marlins were created as part of an expansion move by Major League Baseball. Their first 4 seasons were all losing seasons and then suddenly, in 1997, the Marlins broke through and won it all. After winning the 1997 World Series, they immediately dismantled the team, lost 108 games in 1998 and started building again. All told, they had 5 straight losing seasons before winning it all again in 2003. They never spent a lot of money and created a model based on building from within and then adding key free agent pieces when the homegrown talent started to appear at the Major League level. The Tampa Bay Rays have a very similar story - they were an expansion franchise in 1998, and lost 90+ games for 10 straight seasons before breaking through and making it to the World Series in 2007 (which they lost). The Marlins and the Rays were the modern blueprint of building via the Draft and then making small free agency splashes when the time was right.

The Royals are a much more storied franchise than either the Marlins or the Rays - they were an expansion team in 1969 and had a stretch from the mid-70s to the mid-80s where they were perennial contenders. From 1975 to 1985, they finished either 1st or 2nd in their division in 10 out of 11 seasons. The rest of the story has been repeated ad nauseam over the past 6 weeks as the Royals finally broke a 29-year stretch of non-playoff baseball, went on a somewhat miraculous run through the playoffs, and made it all the way to the World Series. The story, however, starts with a change at the GM position in 2006 - when the Royals brought Dayton Moore in to help turn the franchise around.

Dayton Moore cut his teeth as a scout for the Atlanta Braves and eventually worked his way up to Director of Player Personnel Development before leaving the Braves for the GM post with the Royals. Since 2006, Moore has become been quite a controversial figure among Royals fans and is seen as a middle-of-the-road GM around the rest of baseball. He doesn't command the respect of a Billy Beane or Theo Epstein as many of his moves over the past several years have been questioned, but he's also put together a fairly young and very exciting team that could be a contender for several years. He's done it using the blueprint that the Marlins and Rays forged in the late-90s and early 2000s. The primary difference between him and his predecessor in Kansas City, Allard Baird, has been in their approach to player development. I wasn't a rabid baseball fan in the early-2000s when Baird was around, but in looking at the moves he made, it appears he viewed young talent as trading pieces to land bigger groups of young-ish talent, most notably trading away budding stars like Damon and Beltran in multi-team, multi-player deals.

Moore inherited a team that had some decent pieces in the farm system including Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and they had a mentally-shaky Zack Greinke who was just getting started in the Majors. Moore immediately set about stocking the shelves of the farm system and within 3 years he had a farm system full of players that are now on the Major League roster: Greg Holland (2007), Danny Duffy (2007), Mike Moustakas (2007), Eric Hosmer (2008), Yordano Ventura (International Signing 2008), Salvador Perez (International signing 2006), Jarrod Dyson (2006) and Wil Myers (2009). In 2009, he traded away Greinke and received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. As some of that talent started to reach the Majors, Moore started to add free agents here and there without losing many of the pieces that the Royals had developed. He traded away Myers and Odorizzi to land James "Big Game" Shields and Wade Davis (both integral cogs of the 2014 team) and also added Norichika Aoki, Jeremy Guthrie and Omar Infante. He followed the recipe perfectly – building from within and then adding the missing pieces via trades and free-agency when the window started to open.

So where do the Twins fit into all of this and, if they are indeed following the same formula, where are they in the process?

I mentioned in my opening that the Twins were one of those teams that, along with the Marlins and Rays, helped to blaze a path to winning baseball for small-market teams. All of us remember 2002-2010 and how great it was to see the Twins become a year-in, year-out contender. That success, however, was built on a pile of losing seasons which allowed the Twins to gather some blue-chip prospects like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer. The Twins brass ended up being more lucky than skilled as all of those aforementioned players arrived in the Majors at about the same time, setting the stage for several years of winning baseball in Minnesota.

Since 2010, this team has been one of the worst in baseball – there are no two ways about it. The losing, however, hasn’t been without its benefits as the Twins have been able to build a fairly powerhouse farm system that features some of the best prospects in baseball. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are at the top of the class, but the Twins have a bevy of talent in the middle rungs of the organization depth chart that could be sniffing the Majors within 1-3 years. The Twins had five of Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects and have the top ranked farm system in the Majors according to Baseball Prospectus. The Twins are essentially in the same position the Royals were about 5 years ago…a stable full of talent that they are waiting for.

It seems obvious that the Twins are at least attempting to follow the template for success that has been utilized by other similar small market teams. In fact, it could be argued that if you, as a small-market team owner, are not willing to spend a lot of money on payroll, your only real chance to compete is using the model that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays. The Twins have taken advantage of their losing ways by filling their Minor League talent pipeline. Over the last few seasons, they have also cut their payroll down quite a bit, from $113MM in 2011 to $85.5MM in 2014 (and even less in 2015), which should give them some room to dabble in free-agency once some of these prospects start to burst onto the scene. It remains to be seen whether the Twins will actually open up the pocket book when the time comes, but that’s another blog post altogether.

The question for the Twins, and that the Royals had even as recently as earlier this year is, “will this all pan out?” Sano missed most of this past season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Buxton hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all and had recent surgery that ended his Arizona Fall League season. Some of the talent that we have started to see with the Major League club, most notably Trevor May, has struggled mightily. Other unexpected call-ups have been quite impressive (Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas). There are some young arms in the system that seem to hold a lot of promise but that are still in Single-A and Double-A (Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart). There are some Triple-A arms that have lost some of the luster as time has passed (the aforementioned May and his former battery-mate Alex Meyer). In summary, there are a lot of question marks and no quick answers. This team, at a minimum, is still at least two years away from being competitive and probably at least 3-4 years away from being a playoff contender. That seems like a long time but when this is the model you’re following, patience (and some luck) is necessary.

One thing that will be interesting to watch with the Royals going forward is seeing how they handle the free agency of their own players. Many of their core players (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Holland) are still under team control for a few years, but James Shields and Billy Butler are free agents this off-season and Alex Gordon will be a free-agent next season. Will the Royals try and re-sign either Butler or Shields? Will they pony-up to keep some of these other core players on the team, or will they try and trade them away to see what they can get to keep their farm system stocked? It’s the ultimate dilemma in the small-market success formula. Spend to try and keep the winning window open awhile longer, or trade away valuable pieces for more young talent and another chance to catch lightening in a bottle…