Thursday, March 31, 2011

Previewing Twins vs. Jays - Pitching Matchups

I can barely contain myself, I'm so excited for the regular season start. My friends and I call the time between the Super Bowl and the start of the baseball regular season "Sports Purgatory." It's that time of the year where unless you are a hockey fan, NBA fan or college basketball fan, nothing is really going on. Granted, the NCAA Tournament does provide a nice respite, and it dovetails nicely with the start of the baseball season, but unless the Gophers are good *choke* then I'm not really into it. The baseball regular season is finally mere hours away, a slate of 6 games kicking things off today followed by a more robust schedule of games tomorrow in which we will get our first glimpse of our 2011 Minnesota Twins. It's my pleasure to bring you my take on the pitching matchups for this weekend's series with the Blue Jays.

Game #1 - Friday - 7:07pm EST start

Carl Pavano vs. Ricky Romero

Ricky Romero (2010 stats)
210.0IP    (14-9)     3.73/3.64 ERA/FIP     1.29 WHIP     174/82 K/BB

Romero followed up a decent rookie campaign with an excellent season in 2010 and is on a lot of people's fantasy radars to perform well once again this season. What makes Romero a good pitcher is his ability to induce ground balls and last season, he owned a 55.2 GB%, good for a Top 10 mark in all of Major League baseball (just ahead of Felix Hernandez). The way to get to Romero is being patient as he is somewhat prone to issue the walk (3.51 BB/9 in 2010). Romero doesn't have blow-you-away stuff, his fastball sits in the high-80s to low-90s, it's his ability to mix it up that gets hitters to strike-out or make weak contact. He only threw his fastball 42% of the time last year while he threw his changeup 26% of the time; both of the pitches look the same delivery-wise, one is just about 6mph slower than the other. Romero is 2-0 lifetime against the Twins with a 2.78ERA in 22.2 IP. He is much more effective against right-handers (.252/.338/.352) than he is against left-handers (.286/.349/.477) so hopefully the Twins will go with a more lefty-heavy lineup.

Carl Pavano (2010 stats)
221.0IP     (17-11)     3.75/4.02 ERA/FIP     1.19 WHIP     117/37 K/BB

If you've been following Spring Training, you know that Carl has looked pretty good up to this point. This is a good sign because April is typically a rough month for Carl. In his career he's made 41 April starts and pitched to an ERA 4.70, his worst monthly ERA by a sizeable margin. That said, a healthy Pavano is certainly capable of being a horse for the Twins again this year. I don't necessarily expect him to duplicate last year's efforts, and there's always the injury question with Carl, but overall he's been good with the Twins and there is little reason to doubt him. I have been reading that some people think that because Pavano got the Opening Day start that he is somehow the Twins "ace" ...which is honestly ridiculous. Liriano is the clear ace and I think that Pavano got the start because he is the veteran in this situation and Gardy is old-school like that.
Pavano hasn't fared well against the Jays in his career, sporting a bloated 5.91 ERA in 12 career starts...but we'll see, here's hoping his Spring momentum carries over.

Game #2 - Saturday - 1:07pm EST

Francisco Liriano vs. Kyle Drabek

Kyle Drabek (2010 Triple-A stats)
162.0 IP     (14-9)     2.94/3.87 ERA/FIP     1.20 WHIP     132/68 K/BB

Drabek made a short 17 inning Major League debut at the end of last season, but this season he enters as the #2 starter for the Blue Jays which means a whole lot more responsibility and pressure. Drabek's minor league numbers are not bad, but they're also not that eye-popping. In just over 429 MiL innings, he compiled a 3.41/1.23 ERA/WHIP with 7.5 Ks/9 and a 2.18 K/BB ratio. Drabek's main pitch is his fastball which he can hurl about 92-95 mph. His secondary pitch is a slider which he throws about 84-86 mph.  It looks like patience is again the way to approach Drabek, he's not a strikeout machine so if you wait for a good pitch to hit, you'll probably get one.
Drabek was impressive this spring flashing a 14:1 K/BB ratio in 16 innings of work. It'll be interesting to see how he does this season as a member of the young Blue Jays rotation.

Francisco Liriano (2010 stats)
191.2 IP     (14-10)     3.62/2.66 ERA/FIP     1.26 WHIP     201/58 K/BB

Liriano looked better and better with each start this Spring as he looks to put together a 2nd straight year of domination. A .331 BABIP really hurt his traditional numbers last year, but the secondary numbers suggested that Liriano was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year. Among starting pitchers who throw a slider, there was no slider that was more valuable than Liriano's at 19.0 runs above average.
Even though Liriano is 0-2 against the Jays in his career, he has not pitched that poorly against them. In 13+ innings, he has a 4.05 ERA with 14Ks and 2BB. None of the current Jays players aside from Rajai Davis (14) has very many career ABs against Liriano. 

Game #3 - Sunday - 1:07pm EST

Nick Blackburn vs. Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil (2010 stats)
172.2 IP     (15-7)     4.22/4.03 ERA/FIP     1.33 WHIP     117/54 K/BB

Cecil's sophomore season in the Bigs was somewhat of a breakout campaign for the 24-year-old lefthander. After not making the club out of Spring Training in 2010, Cecil was called up early in the season and went on to win 15 games.
Cecil is a lot like teammate Ricky Romero in that he tends to fool hitters by keeping them guessing as to what he's going to throw. Though he does throw his four-seam fastball more than any other pitch (31% of the time), he also throws his slider (20%), changeup (~20%), and two-seamer (~20%) enough of the time to keep hitters off-balance. This doesn't translate to a high K-rate like it does for Romero, but it does allow him to be effective despite a fastball that typically sits right around 90 mph.
Cecil is 2-0 vs. the Twins in his young career posting a 2.08 ERA  and 1.00 WHIP in 13 innings of work.

Nick Blackburn (2010 stats)
161.0 IP     (10-12)     5.42/5.07 ERA/FIP     1.45 WHIP     68/40 K/BB

Oh boy, let the 'Nick Blackburn experience' being once again. Blackie had a nice Spring flashing a team-best (among starters) 1.73 ERA with 11K and 3BB in 26 innings of work. After last year's disaster, the Twins are banking on a bounce-back year from Blackburn, but if that doesn't pan out, the Twins have people in the wings to replace him, which is a comfort for me.
I've talked enough about Blackburn this off-season where I won't go too in-depth here. Suffice to say, his success depends on his ability to control his pitches and induce ground-balls. If we see lower than normal K-rates and higher than normal walk rates early on, he can probably kiss his spot in the rotation good-bye before May gets here.
In 13.2 career innings vs. the Jays, Blackburn has an impressive 2.63 ERA and 0.73 WHIP with a surprising 12:1 K/BB ratio...

This should be a good series, the pitching matchups certainly look competitive. With the somewhat cold & dreary weather we're having here in the Upper Midwest, I'm glad that the Twins are starting the season in a dome, though an AL East roadtrip that runs through New York is kind of a brutal way to start a season. Thank God baseball is back!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Audacity of Hope?

On the eve of Opening Day (for some teams anyway) and with a tidy 2-0 victory under the Twins’ belt to complete Spring Training, we’re all eagerly anticipating Friday night at the Rogers Center and the beginning of the 162-game quest for another division title (and hopefully beyond). In today’s game, Scott baker tossed five shutout innings with four punchouts, Perkins and Slowey added a scoreless inning apiece, Nishioka singled and stole a base, and Kubel continued his strong spring with a double and an RBI. The Twins will have a day off on Thursday before heading north, and I figured this was a good place to wrap up where the Twins have been over the last few months and where they’re headed.

If you read Joe Posnanski’s slightly meandering but overall good piece in defense of a sabermetric approach to baseball (or spent enough time on this site or other places where advanced stats are held in high regard), it hits on the very important idea of sample size. To some extent, then, one season’s worth of spring training statistics are (or should be) nearly meaningless in terms of evaluating a player’s true talent. In other words, despite that there are a number of factors that would point to a potential rebound year for Denard Span, the fact that Span rocked a .339/.385/.458 line in spring training this year does not necessarily mean that’s a sure thing. With that said, however, I’m at least open to making some general observations interspersed with stats that should be taken with a large grain of salt.

- Delmon Young hasn’t given us a reason to think that he won’t pick up where he left off last season. He’s carrying a 1.066 OPS coming out of Fort Meyers and appears to be driving the ball with authority. In the field, though, don’t hold your breath.

- Nick Blackburn looks healthy and fairly comfortable on the mound. He put up a 1.08 WHIP in 26 innings, faced the minimum amount of batters in his last ST start, induced two double-play grounders, and is doing a generally good job of killing worms, which he absolutely has to do to be effective given the extreme lack of ability to miss bats. Do I think Kevin Slowey is a better pitcher? Yes, but the 2008, 2009 and late-2010 versions of Nick Blackburn showed the ability to be at least moderately effective when sticking to his strengths, and it appears that he’s in a position to do that heading into the season. We obviously saw last year, however, that relying on contact to get outs has the potential to send your season into a tailspin in a hurry, and with Slowey waiting in the wings, Blackburn’s leash might not be all that long.

- Nishioka’s spring training UZR...ok, just kidding. As one of the most sample-size-dependent stats, the idea of spring training UZR is especially ludicrous. I haven’t seen him play enough to have formed an opinion of his fielding skills, but Gardy seems to think he’s got Gold Glove potential (a statement which is dubious for at least two reasons, but I digress). It’ll be a while before the advanced metrics have much to say about it, so for now, I’ll take Gardy’s word for it that the kid can handle himself with the glove. As far as hitting, 58 at bats is certainly not enough for the Twins to know what they have in what I assume will be the 2nd lineup spot, but he did put together a nice 13-game hitting streak and a tidy .345/.367/.414 line. Here’s hoping!

- There haven’t been any setbacks (that we know of) with the big names coming back from injury. This might be the biggest victory of all. Mauer’s knee has been fully cleared and he seems to be suffering no ill effects. Morneau’s put in 33 at-bats along with time in the field without complaining of concussion symptoms (again, that we know of), and that’s certainly more important than his .152 batting average. His Opening Day status is still in doubt, but all signs point to progress. Joe Nathan hasn’t been dominant, but he appears to have regained most of his velocity. His slider, his most important secondary offering, has been slow to come back after Tommy John (ask Liriano about that one too), but he hasn’t complained of arm pain even after pitching on back-to-back days. And at least Cuddyer seems to be able to play with a hole in his foot.

On the blog spectrum, I’d like to consider myself more of a glass-half-full sort of guy. Sure, I’ve had my panic moments, but I try to keep things more on the positive side while still being aware of the cold hard facts where appropriate. My goal here was to point out some encouraging trends from spring training, but I'll acknowledge that there are still plenty of areas with unanswered questions. Nick Nelson wrote a well-written piece today responding to allegations that he’s a glass-half-empty type and came to the conclusion that even if we take a look at the numbers and find that they just don’t add up in the way we’d like, ultimately we’re all fans who hope for the best for the team we love. This is, after all, the time of year when hope springs eternal, even for Pirates fans. There are obviously still concerns with this team, perhaps none larger than the threat of injury to the aforementioned trio of Morneau, Mauer and Nathan that would cause the Twins to have to dip into their questionable reserves of minor league offense and bullpen help. Nick’s got the Twins finishing second or third in the Central, which is certainly fair, and if it shakes out that way, I can’t say I’d be utterly shocked. However, we picked the Twins to take the division again, and that’s not just wishful thinking. Some chips may have to fall in just the right way, but based on the spring so far, I have no reason to believe that they won’t.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Something New

Late last week, I happened to see a tweet from Wally Fish over at Puckett's Pond calling for new writers. While I have thoroughly enjoyed building this site from nothing, I also like to embrace new things so starting today, I'm now on staff over at Puckett's Pond. I will continue to write here as well, but I just wanted to let everyone know where they can find me in between my posts here. Check us out!

Monday, March 28, 2011

How Does the Twins Starting Rotation Stack Up?

I was reading another excellent piece by Nick Nelson, a summary of the Twins Starting Pitchers, and then I read the comments...I should probably stop reading comments in blogs, but I saw them and now I can't help myself. This was comment...

"You ask, "Can we compete without top-of-the line pitching?"
The answer is: Within our mediocre division, yes; with the rest of the league, no. Same answer for the past 10 years or so."

The comment's owner is Ed Bast, a faithful commenter on many blogs (which we all appreciate!) and while there is nothing that bothers me about that comment, I just happen to disagree and wahlah, this post was for that Ed, I thank you.

Nowhere in Nick's article did he suggest that the Twins' starting pitching was anything less than "top-of-the-line", in fact he called it the club's "strongest and deepest position." And I agree with that, their starting pitching, particularly the depth they have at the position, is easily their greatest strength. Like I said though, the comment got me thinking and so I want to compare the Twins 5 starters with other top rotations in the American League, just to see how they stack up. For argument's sake, I'm going to use each pitcher's 2010 stats, and for the Twins, I'll rank 1-5 as I see them actually slotted in terms of talent, not in the order Gardenhire elected each one this Spring. For review:

Francisco Liriano (ace)
191.2 IP     (14-10)     3.62/2.66 ERA/FIP     1.26 WHIP     201/58 K/BB
Carl Pavano
221.0 IP     (17-10)     3.75/4.02 ERA/FIP     1.19 WHIP     117/37 K/BB
Scott Baker
170.1 IP     (12-9)     4.49/3.96 ERA/FIP     1.34 WHIP     148/43 K/BB
Brian Duensing
130.2 IP     (10-3)     2.62/3.85 ERA/FIP     1.20 WHIP     78/35 K/BB
Nick Blackburn
161.0 IP     (10-12)     5.42/5.07 ERA/FIP     1.45 WHIP     68/40 K/BB

I've been hearing the most buzz about the Red Sox, so let's start there.

Jon Lester (ace)
208.0 IP     (19-9)     3.25/3.13 ERA/FIP     1.20 WHIP     225/83 K/BB
Clay Buchholz
173.2 IP     (17-7)     2.33/3.61 ERA/FIP     1.20 WHIP     120/67 K/BB
Josh Beckett
127.2 IP     (6-6)     5.75/4.54 ERA/FIP     1.54 WHIP     116/45 K/BB
John Lackey
215.0 IP     (14-11)     4.40/3.85 ERA/FIP     1.42 WHIP     156/72 K/BB
Daisuke Matsuzaka
153.2 IP     (9-6)     4.69/4.05 ERA/FIP     1.37 WHIP     133/74 K/BB

Like the Twins with Liriano and Pavano, the Red Sox had a formidable 1-2 punch last year with Lester and Buchholz. You can count on a healthy Beckett having a better 2011, but Lackey and Daisuke are no more of a "sure thing" than Duensing and Blackburn are. Of all of the other AL teams expected to compete this year, the Red Sox starting rotation appears to be the best of the bunch, but on paper, they aren't that much better than the Twins starting 5, especially if Baker has a 2011 campaign that more closely resembles his 2008 and 2008 seasons and Buchholz experiences some regression this year as his stats indicate he might. Next up, the White Sox.

John Danks (ace)
213.0 IP     (15-11)     3.72/3.70 ERA/FIP     1.33 WHIP     162/70 K/BB
Gavin Floyd
187.1 IP     (10-13)     4.08/3.46 ERA/FIP     1.37 WHIP     151/58 K/BB
Edwin Jackson
209.1 IP     (10-12)     4.47/3.86 ERA/FIP     1.39 WHIP     181/78 K/BB
Jake Peavy
107.0 IP     (7-6)     4.63/4.01 ERA/FIP     1.23 WHIP     93/34 K/BB
Mark Buehrle
210.1 IP     (13-13)     4.28/3.90 ERA/FIP     1.40 WHIP     99/49 K/BB

The White Sox will, in my opinion, once again be the Twins toughest competition for the AL Central crown. Their collective ERA/FIP splits suggest that they were quite an unlucky bunch last year, but when you see those inflated WHIPs, it's not that hard to see why. If Gavin Floyd can throw well in the early part of the year, and Jake Peavy makes a strong comeback from back-to-back injury-plagued out. Otherwise this team will struggle to keep up in the AL Central once again because their options to replace these 5 aren't very good. Next up, the Yankees.

CC Sabathia (ace)
237.2 IP     (21-7)     3.18/3.54 ERA/FIP     1.19 WHIP     197/74 K/BB
A.J. Burnett
186.2 IP     (10-15)     5.26/4.83 ERA/FIP     1.51 WHIP     145/78 K/BB
Phil Hughes
176.1 IP     (18-8)     4.19/4.25 ERA/FIP     1.25 WHIP     146/58 K/BB
Ivan Nova
42.0 IP     (1-2)     4.50/4.36 ERA/FIP     1.45 WHIP     26/17 K/BB
Freddy Garcia
157.0 IP     (12-6)     4.64/4.77 ERA/FIP     1.38 WHIP     89/45 K/BB

Burnett had a terrible year, which leads me to believe we'll see a bit of a bounce back from him, though he is 34, so last year might just had been the beginning of the end. CC, what can you say, the guy is superhuman. Phil Hughes gives the Yankees a shot to contend, without a 3rd starter like him, they'd have no chance. Nova and Garcia will be the wild-cards, Nova's minor league track doesn't suggest that he's going to light the world on fire, and in 7 starts last year (10 appearances overall), I think he showed what kind of Major League pitcher he will be. Honestly, I like the Twins top 3 up against the Yankees top 3...remember folks, it wasn't really the starting pitching that has lost games for the Twins against the Yankees in the's been their inability to put any meaningful offense together. We'll get to see the two teams match up right out of the gate this year as the Twins second series of the season is a 3-game series in New York. Onto the next team, the Rays.

David Price (ace)
208.2 IP     (19-6)     2.72/3.42 ERA/FIP     1.19 WHIP     188/79 K/BB
James Shields
203.1 IP     (13-15)     5.18/4.24 ERA/FIP     1.46 WHIP     187/51 K/BB
Jeremy Hellickson
36.1 IP     (4-0)     3.47/3.88 ERA/FIP     1.10 WHIP     33/8 K/BB
Wade Davis 
168.0 IP     (12-10)     4.07/4.79 ERA/FIP     1.35 WHIP     113/62 K/BB
Jeff Niemann
174.1 IP     (12-8)     4.39/4.61 ERA/FIP     1.26 WHIP     131/61 K/BB

Whether the Rays are a contender in the AL East this year will depend almost solely on their rotation. Price looks like a stud, Hellickson really impressed people last year in 4 starts, and if Shields bounces back from a pretty unlucky year (.341 BABIP), they could have quite a rotation. Losing Carl Crawford on offense is going to hurt so the Rays will be relying heavily on their rotation to give them innings and keep them in games. One team left, the Oakland A's.

Brett Anderson (ace?)
112.1 IP     (7-6)     2.80/3.21 ERA/FIP     1.19 WHIP     75/22 K/BB
Trevor Cahill
196.2 IP     (18-8)     2.97/4.19 ERA/FIP     1.11 WHIP     118/63 K/BB
Gio Gonzalez
200.2 IP     (15-9)     3.23/3.78 ERA/FIP     1.31 WHIP     171/92 K/BB
Dallas Braden
192.2 IP     (11-14)     3.50/3.80 ERA/FIP     1.16 WHIP     113/43 K/BB
Brandon McCarthy (2009 numbers, spent the year in Triple-A in 2010)
97.1 IP     (7-4)     4.62/4.70 ERA/FIP     1.36 WHIP     65/36 K/BB

On paper, this looks like a pretty nice starting 5. The only problem is injury. Both Gonzalez and Anderson have had injury problems within the past two years and 4 out of the 5 guys are pretty young. Like the Rays, the Athletics success this year will depend on this group staying healthy and pitching well, something this group certainly has the potential to do.

So that's a lot of numbers and those are all last year's numbers and things could change drastically this year due to injury or other factors and blah, blah, blah. The point of this post was to suggest that the Twins Starting Rotation is not that much different than most of the other top rotations in the American League. Most of the rotations, even the great ones, have weaker pieces in the 4 and 5 slots. Most of them have a dominant "ace" type guy, so do the Twins in Liriano. Most of them rotations have a horse, a guy who can pitch 200+ innings with above average results, so do the Twins in Pavano (fingers crossed he stays healthy). If Scott Baker can pitch like he did in '08 and '09, I would put him up against any of the #3s I just listed above. There's a lot of "ifs" with the Twins, but these 'ifs' aren't great stretches of the imagination, they are things that could easily come true.

Now if we can just get that offense to come alive in the playoffs...that would really help turn the Twins' post-season fortunes around.

Friday, March 25, 2011

AL Central Projected Standings: 2011 Edition

Ah, the AL Central. Although the Twins have had a great deal of success in the division over the last decade, many people are quick to chalk up that success to the weakness of the division rather than the strength of the team. Sure, barring the Twins’ runaway title last year, the AL Central race in recent years usually comes down to the final games of the season, meaning that the title chase is often a close, exciting race that highlights the parity of the division. But is it a good division? While it’s maybe not the AL East, you’d be hard pressed to say that there aren’t three quality teams at the top of this division that all have a shot at the playoffs. As we’ve already covered the individual previews for these teams, we thought we’d take a shot at making some foolish projections that will likely be proven wrong by July (except for the fact that the Royals and the Indians will be league doormats again, which is pretty much guaranteed). Baseball Prospectus aggregates their PECOTA projections into Depth Charts, which they then use to project team standings. It’s obviously not a perfect system, but we’ll use them as a baseline to start our projections and pick out areas where we agree and disagree.

Detroit Tigers (AK)

(83-79) 722 RS 705 RA .266 BA .332 OBP .413 SLG

Honestly, I think that the fact that PECOTA is so high on Max Scherzer is half the reason the Tigers season projection is so bullish. As I covered in my earlier preview of the Tigers, they didn’t add that many impact players, so I’m having trouble seeing how they are suddenly contenders. It seems like every year, the Tigers are someone’s sexy pick to surprise in the AL Central and every year, they fall short of the mark.

Aside from Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer the Tigers starting rotation doesn’t inspire much fear. Scherzer’s numbers have been pretty consistent over the past two seasons and I suppose his PECOTA projection (200IP (13-13) 3.57 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 199K, 3.4WAR) isn’t that outlandish. Porcello can be expected to have a bounceback year, but Coke and Penny are complete wild cards.

The Tigers offense ought to be formidable, especially with the addition of Victor Martinez alongside the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez. One thing you can put lots of money on is some regression from Austin Jackson in terms of his batting average and on-base percentage from last year. His .341 OBP was serviceable in the lead-off spot last year, but if he regresses to the .320 OBP that PECOTA has him projected at, Leyland would have to have some serious coconuts to continue batting him lead-off.

Honestly I expect more of the same this year from the Tigers...they’ll contend through April and May and fall off in June and be out of it by August. They simply don’t have the rotation depth that both the Twins and Sox have, rendering a good offense rather useless. They may very well win 83 games, but 83 games isn’t going to win this division.

Minnesota Twins (AK)

(83-79) 719 RS 704 RA .274 BA .338 OBP .406 SLG

For a team that scored 781 runs (sans Morneau for half the season mind you) and only gave up 671 runs, this projection seems like a bit of a slap in the face. That was the most runs scored in the AL Central and the least runs allowed. Sure they lost a couple of starters in the off-season (Hardy & Hudson) and sure they lost half the bullpen, but the starting pitching is pretty much unchanged from last year, they have what looks to be a healthy Morneau once again, and Joe Nathan is slated to return to his closers role.

I’m not going to bet against this team, no matter how shoddy the bullpen looks, because year-in and year-out they have proven to be contenders. I have full confidence in the Twins starting staff, I think their offense will be at least as good as last year’s and I think this team will win at least 90 games...with the usual caveat being team health. Aside from the bullpen, there isn’t much reason to doubt this team. After going 47-25 against AL Central foes last season, I suspect they’ll have a little more difficulty this year, but I see them as a strong contender to once again win the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox (AK)

(82-80) 737 RS 725 RA .264 BA .328 OBP .427 SLG

The offensive projections for this team are about right. They are pegged to lead the division in slugging which should come as no surprise. With the addition of Adam Dunn to a lineup that already features power-hitters like Konerko, Rios, Quentin, and Alexei Ramirez, they should easily lead the AL Central in HRs. Batting average and On-Base Percentage are another story, however, as PECOTA only projects 2 of the 9 starters to have a .275 or higher average and only 3 of the 9 to have an OBP above .326. Nevertheless, the Sox look to have a much more competent offense this season than last.

I think the true strength of this team lies in their pitching, specifically the top end of their rotation and the bullpen. John Danks has been a horse for this team for the past 3 seasons and is just now entering the prime of his career. If Gavin Floyd can avoid his perennial early-season struggles he could really put something together, and I’m just now mentioning Edwin Jackson and former Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy. They have the potential for a very solid 1 through 5 and their bullpen is even better. They have a cast of serviceable righties and lefties (Crain, Ohman, Santos, Bruney), all leading up to flame-throwing Chris Sale and dominating lefty closer Matt Thornton.

When I look at it on paper, this is the team that looks to give the Twins the most trouble. Having Dunn in the lineup reminds me of when Thome was filling that role for the Sox and that starting rotation looks like it has the stuff to go toe-to-toe with the Twins. Better get up on this team early boys, it’s gonna be tough once you get to the ‘pen.

Cleveland Indians (ML)

(74-88) 701 RS 768 RA .256 BA .335 OBP .395 SLG

In our team preview of the Indians, we didn’t have a whole lot to say, because frankly, this Indians team looks basically similar to last year’s team that won 69 games. PECOTA has them slated for five more wins, which may be enough to keep them out of last place, but this team certainly doesn’t look like a contender this year. Having a full year of Carlos Santana will certainly help, and the team’s OBP is projected to be the second-highest in the division (buoyed by OBP all-stars Santana and Shin-Soo Choo), but the Indians, like the Royals (spoiler alert), are probably still a few years away from challenging for division title.

As we covered in our preview, some help is on the way this year from their 7th-ranked (acccording to Baseball America) farm system, likely starting with five-star 2B prospect Jason Kipnis. Bryce Stowell is a power bullpen arm that might see 2011 action as well, but neither of these guys are probably immediate impact players in the short term. The rotation is a huge question mark outside of Fausto Carmona, and although there are a few promising youngsters like Drew Pomeranz on the way up, overall I’d expect only modest improvements from the 2011 version of the Indians. If I had to take the over-under on 74 wins, I’d probably take the under.

Kansas City Royals (ML)

(68-94) 678 RS 807 RA .264 BA .326 OBP .393 SLG

I have to say I have a great amount of admiration for Royals fans, especially Royals bloggers. To stick with a team that has been this bad for this long takes a special breed of dedication. The sad news is for Royals nation is that 2011 isn’t going to be their year. For a team on the verge of losing 95 games for a third straight year, the PECOTA projection of 68-94 isn’t much of a victory, and their 678 RS projection is a small improvement over the 676 they actually scored last year. PECOTA has Kila Kila’hue looking like an All-Star (which is surprisingly very optimistic for PECOTA) and Billy Butler can still rake, but this team will struggle to both score and prevent runs. The rotation could be especially bad - with the departure of Zack Greinke, they can really only hope for Jeff Francis to regain some of his 2007 form and for Luke Hochevar to finally take a step forward, both of which are big ifs (although Hochevar did manage a respectable 3.93 FIP last year).

The really good news for Royals fans is that the cavalry is coming - their farm system is STACKED with premium talent, the consensus best crop of minor leaguers in the game, some of whom could potentially make an appearance in 2011 (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals were stingy on starting the clock on service time with these guys). Will Myers (catcher), Mike Moustakas (3B), and Eric Hosmer (1B) can all flat-out mash and are rated among the top-three propects in all of baseball at their respective positions. Mike Montgomery and John Lamb are excellent left-handed starters as well and will at some point provide a boost to the floundering rotation. The rest of the division should be on notice that the Royals are poised to contend within the next few years, even if this season will likely be more of the same. I don’t think they’ll hit 95 losses again and I could see them getting past 70 wins, but they’ll still be in last place. But maybe not for long.

So in light of these extremely in-depth analyses, here are our projected standings for the Central (just for fun, here were our predictions last year for 2010). In hindsight, the Twins surpassed our expectations, we hit the Sox and Tigers pretty much right on, and both the Indians and Royals were a little worse than we thought (PECOTA slated the Indians for 83 wins and the Royals for 78 in 2010 though...oops).

Minnesota Twins 90-72
Chicago White Sox 86-76
Detroit Tigers 84-78
Cleveland Indians 72-90
Kansas City Royals 70-92

So yeah, we’ve got the Twins winning the division again. Call us homers if you will, but we don’t see how this year’s team is 11 wins worse than last year’s. Valencia may regress a bit, Thome might not capture the lightning in a bottle that he had last year, and Pavano may pitch closer to his 4.02 FIP from last year than his 3.75 ERA (all of which may explain part of PECOTA’s projected dropoff), but 11 wins is a pretty substantial regression for a team that is largely unchanged outside of the bullpen and middle infield. The bullpen has question marks to say the least, but there’s no reason not to expect at least modest rebounds from Span, Kubel and Cuddyer, and the starting rotation has depth behind emerging ace Francisco Liriano. We’re optimistic about the Twins barring a good reason not to be, and we’re also a little more bullish about how the rest of the division will fare overall. If history has taught us anything about this division, however the final standings shake out, it should be another close race.We'll see you in a week.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Taking a Stab at Lineup Optimization - Twins Edition

There has been a lot of blog-angst in recent years about how Ron Gardenhire has figured his daily lineups, most often about the first three spots in the lineup. It's almost impossible to predict what he'll do on a day-to-day basis and it's a safe bet to say that he doesn't subscribe to every rule in the unwritten lineup optimization handbook (actually, there is a "book", but it wasn't written until 2007). Almost everything you read about lineup optimization will tell you that over the course of a season it will probably only account for maybe 1 win, or a few runs, but hey, we were shown in 2008 and reminded in 2009 that 1-win can decide whether our beloved team goes to the playoffs or not. I'm not going to go into any calculations, but rather just use the general guidelines that were laid out very nicely by Sky Kalkman a couple of years ago; I'll be quoting his post liberally from here on.

1. Lead-off (candidates include Denard Span and Tsuyoshi Nishioka)
According to 'the book', the lead off spot is about two things: Speed and On-Base %. You want this hitter to be able to get on base frequently and advance, via steal, hit-and-run or bunt, especially late in games when you're trying to manufacture the tying and/or winning runs. You also don't want this hitter jamming up the bases with power hitters coming up behind him. This is why you wouldn't put someone like Jim Thome in the lead-off spot, despite his high OBP. For the Twins, they have a couple of options for lead-off hitter, including Denard Span and new-comer Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Personally I think D-Span should get a shot at it before Nishi. In 2008 and 2009, Span was an OBP monster (.387 and .392 respectively). He was also a threat on the base paths, making him an ideal lead-off man. Last year he struggled mightily, thanks in large part to an uncharacteristically low BABIP, which has made many doubt Span's lead-off capabilities. Even if he rebounded only somewhat this season, to around a .350 OBP, that would make him a good lead-off candidate because he still possesses a good eye for stealing bases (26 out of 30 attempts last season). I'm not saying you couldn't put Nishioka here, but I think he has to prove himself a little before you replace the guy who's had the job for past two seasons. If we were really going "by the book" here, I'd have to nominate Mauer for the lead-off, but that's a little too progressive even for me.

2. Two Hole (candidates include Joe Mauer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka)
Kalkman's write up says the following about the ideal 2-hold hitter:

"The Books says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often.  That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall.  And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player."

The system that Gardenhire seems to operate under is what would be considered the "old-school" of thought which basically says that the 2-hole guy's job is to "set the table" (get the leadoff runner over) for the 3rd and 4th hitters. Knowing that, I fully expect him to put Nishioka in the 2-hole, when really it's Joe Mauer he should have there. With Mauer's high OBP (.407 career mark), he makes an ideal 2-hole hitter because of all the people on the team, he's the most likely person to get a hit or take a walk. Just think, if you had Span getting on-base at a .350 clip and Mauer getting on-base at a .400 clip, that equals a lot of runners for the 3-5 guys in the lineup to knock in. The reason it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to put Nishioka in this role is because when you do that, you negate his speed. If Span gets on via a single, and Nishi comes up and walks or singles, it's unlikely you're going to execute a double-steal so you've negated some of Nishi's value, he's better off in the 9-hole. 

3. The Third Spot (candidates include Joe Mauer and Danny Valencia...go with here for a minute)
Ron Gardenhire will almost certainly put Joe Mauer in this spot as he's done consistently over the past years. I thought it would be fun to pretend if Gardy didn't do that. I was looking at the players the Twins have that could fill a 3-spot role and after much consideration I came up with Danny Valencia. It's important to note two things about the #3 hitter.
a) this hitter comes to the plate with two-outs and nobody on more often than any other hitter and
b) this hitter, not surprisingly given the last point, comes to the plate with, on average, fewer men on base than the #4 and #5 hitters
In other words, the #3 hitter should not necessarily be the high-average, solid-power guy that old-school lineup composition rules would suggest. Valencia would fill the #3 role admirably, I think, especially if he can duplicate his performance from last year. He's a decent on-base guy (.351 mark last year and .353 career MiL mark) and he showed he has some decent pop as well. Another thing I like about him is his consistently high BABIP marks over his career. That tells me that he not hitting a lot of weak grounders that turn into double-plays, he makes good contact. He also doesn't strike out a lot... I'm just saying, it's something to think about. 

4. The Clean-Up Hitter (there is only one candidate for this job, Justin Morneau)
This is where old-school and new-school rules come together, for the most part. This is the most important spot in the lineup (probably tied with the 2-hole in terms of importance) as the clean-up hitter comes to the plate with, on average, the most chances to do damage. I cannot think of a better option for the Twins than a healthy Justin Morneau, and he's excelled in this role for a number of years. He's a decent average guy, he's a solid on-base guy and he's a great power guy. There really isn't much debate here. 

5. The Number Five Guy (candidates include Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome)
The book says this guy is the 4th most important  hitter in the lineup, after the 1, 2 and 4 positions. Old school would have you believe that this lineup position is for, as Kalkman put it, the "wannabe cleanup hitter." This position, for the Twins, gives one a lot to think about. The new-and-improved Delmon Young makes a good candidate and some combination of Jason Kubel or Jim Thome makes an intriguing option as well.
I think if Thome's in the lineup, he's a lock for the #5 slot. His combination of power and patience makes him a great on-base threat which is exactly what you want to keep a rally alive. I also think his all-or-nothingness is an attribute at this spot in the lineup because with him, you have a lower risk of the double-play...especially with the shift other teams put on him.
If Thome is not playing, I think Young or Kubel both make sense as the #5 guy. Both are higher average hitters (usually) and both have some pop in their bats. Kubel has a slight edge in the on-base department, but Young has a little more speed. Either is a better option than Cuddyer who's streakiness leaves something to be desired.

6. The Six Hole (candidates include Young, Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Nishioka)
From here on out, who you put in what spot matters less and less. Any of the 4 candidates for this position would fit here in the 6th hole, though I suspect if Nishioka is not high in the lineup, he will be in the 8th or 9th spot. Young or Cuddyer make the most sense here. The general thinking is that from 6 to 9, you stack the hitters based on talent with the least talented hitter batting 9th. If I had to rank the remaining hitters, I'd probably put Delmon Young here in the 6th hole, followed by Cuddyer, Nishioka and Casilla.

7 - 9. Back end of the lineup (candidates include Nishioka, Cuddyer, and Casilla/Hughes)
If I were the Twins, with Nishioka and Casilla still left to slot, I would put Casilla at 9 and Nishioka at 7, to stagger them a bit since they are likely very similar hitters and both have a little speed. I would sandwich Cuddyer in the 8th slot because he has a little pop and a decent career on-base percentage.
So, after all that, my ideal lineup would look something like this:
1. Denard Span
2. Joe Mauer
3. Danny Valencia
4. Justin Morneau
5. Jim Thome/Jason Kubel
6. Delmon Young
7. Tsuyoshi Nishioka
8. Michael Cuddyer
9. Alexi Casilla

There's obviously a fair amount of room for debate here. I could easily see someone else besides Valencia in the 3 hole and there's a lot of play towards the back end of the lineup as well. I think having Mauer batting 2nd is very enticing simply because of his ability to get on base in front of the power the Twins have behind him. Just for fun, I ran the numbers at this site to see what it would come up with in terms of an optimized Twins lineup:

1. Joe Mauer
2. Jim Thome
3. Danny Valencia
4. Justin Morneau
5. Michael Cuddyer
6. Alexi Casilla
7. Tsuyoshi Nishioka
8. Delmon Young
9. Denard Span

A couple of caveats. 1) I chose Thome over Kubes. 2) It only has you input two data points, OBA and SLG. For Nishioka and Valencia I had to project a little, for the rest of the players, I just used their career averages.
I'm glad to see that the simulator agreed with my Valencia slotting, but having Mauer and Thome at the top of the lineup would be problematic in terms of log-jamming on the basepaths. Both of them are slow and thus not ideal in front of faster players. I probably should have adjusted Thome's numbers a little, his career averages look to be skewing things, and he's a part time player anyway, perhaps an average of his and Kubel's projected production. My problem with this "system" is that it doesn't account for speed. I know that the new "book" downplays speed, but you can't ignore it when you've got guys who are as slow as Thome.

It's a fun look anyway, I'd love to hear what other people think.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Goodbye Pat Neshek

The Twins somewhat unexpectedly let Pat Neshek go yesterday, watching the Padres claim him off waivers within mere hours. While I personally mourn the move, it probably is the right one for the Twins. Gleeman had a nice write-up this morning and Nick Nelson wrote up a piece that I agree with as well.

I've written many things about Pat Neshek in the past and he was nice enough to give us an e-interview when this blog was in it's infancy. He's a class guy and I'm sad to see it not work out for him in Minnesota. I wish him the best of luck with the Padres, I hope he can rediscover some of the magic he had a few years ago. The Twins organization really has no one to blame for what's happened with him except themselves. They botched the treatment of his original injury which I can't help but think played a large part in Pat's continuing ineffectiveness. Neshek will always be a fan favorite in MN, and I have no doubt he will quickly endear himself to the fans in San Diego as well.

More to Nick Nelson's point, this move, though understandable in many ways, is baffling in others. The Twins bullpen situation is easily their most pressing concern as we near the end of Spring Training and yet they let a guy go who could have probably held down a spot, at least for the first few months of the season. Gardy and the coaching staff are seemingly adept at putting bullpens together, but the situation isn't looking any better now than it did in the off-season.

Goodbye Pat Neshek, you will be missed.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

2 Weeks To Go

It's almost here. We just had our fantasy baseball draft this past Monday and that's usually my signal that the regular season is getting close. Naturally I reached for Joe Mauer in the 3rd round of the draft...I have to have him on my team, I don't know why, but the world wouldn't feel right if Mauer wasn't on my fantasy team. I also have D-Span, a late-round pickup, so now I'm really hoping he has a bounce back year. On the pitching side I had Liriano as a keeper and picked up Nathan as well, so the Twins are fairly well-represented on my team. It's a very competitive league which includes Domedog and former TBS writer SR, and though it's only 8 teams, draft-day really decides much of your fortune for the season. All that to say, I'm getting more and more excited for Opening Day, which for the Twins is only 15 days away.

The roster is starting to look more and more defined as the Spring progresses. Mauer played in his first game of the Spring yesterday, Morneau has been playing on and off, the rotation looks a little better with each start and the bullpen is slowly sorting itself out. I'd like to highlight a couple of bright spots for the Twins so far this Spring.

Carl Pavano - SP
Pavano's looked to be in mid-season form so far this spring throwing 13 innings of 0ER ball with 7Ks against 1BB. Buster Olney even heard a scout say that Pavano was, "best pitcher I've seen in Florida this spring." I hope Carl's success continues into the regular season, the Twins need Pavano to pitch like last year again this season.

Luke Hughes - 3B/Utility
With 4HRs and 13 RBIs in 13 games so far this Spring, Hughes has easily been one of the Twins most impressive offensive players. At the very least, he's making a case for himself as a strong backup candidate. The thing that concerns me is that he has 10Ks and only 2BB so far. That suggests to me that some of his success has been somewhat lucky because those numbers look an awful lot like his Minor League K/BB ratios. I look for Hughes to make the team out of ST as a utility infielder.

Danny Valencia - 3B
This kid is out there looking to prove all of us naysayers wrong. So far this Spring in 28 at-bats he's hitting .393/.452/.643, he's showing good plate discipline (5Ks, 3BB), and he hit a HR a couple of days ago. I've been banging the regression drum since the end of last season, but I'll be happy to eat my words if Valencia has another production season in 2011.

Jason Kubel - RF/DH
Koobs has been ridic so far at the plate this Spring hitting .469/.500/.750 with 8RBIs, 4 doubles, a triple and a HR. The Twins could really use a big year from Koobs who had quite a disappointing season in 2010. He looks comfortable at the plate this Spring.

Denard Span - CF
It's hard to get that excited for D-Span just yet, last year he had a good Spring only to go on and have a mediocre season. I think Span is motivated to perform better this season and he looks more focused so far. His 5Ks to 3BB is encouraging from a plate discipline standpoint. Perhaps his 2nd year at Target Field will prove better than the first.

Dusty Hughes - RP
The move the Twins made to claim Hughes from the Royals wasn't very well-received by Twins bloggers, but the Twins have to be liking what they're seeing so far. In 6 appearances, Hughes has thrown 6 innings allowing only 2 hits while striking out 4 and walking none. I'm not sure those numbers mean a whole lot, it depends a lot on who he's been pitching to, but so far he looks like a decent bullpen option.

Brian Duensing - SP
There has been a lot of debate as to whether the decision to move Duensing into the rotation full time is a good one, but for Duensing's part, he's done nothing to cast any doubts. So far this spring he's thrown 12 innings, given up 14 hits, struck out 10 and walked only 2. The high WHIP is a little concerning, but Duensing has limited the damage.

Those are a few of the Spring performances I wanted to highlight. Like most, I don't believe much in Spring numbers, except that I feel they indicate a player's preparedness for the season. I think a good Spring can give a player like D-Span or Kubel a good mindset going into the year which could lead to a hot start. As far as pitchers go, I think the innings they get over these final two weeks of ST will give us the best indication of where they're at. Liriano will be of particular interest to me, as will Blackburn. I want to see Liriano looking more and more like the guy we saw last year and I want to see if Blackburn can continue to be deceptive enough to keep hitters off-balance. The first 7 games of the season won't be a cakewalk for the Twins (3 at Toronto and 4 at the Yankees) so they need to be ready to go right out of the gate.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Is Alexi Casilla the second coming of Luis Rivas?

Spend enough time on the Twins blogosphere and you’ll find that, ever since the departure of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy announced that the Twins were likely pegging Alexi Casilla for a middle-infield spot, a number of fans have brought up comparisons to another Twin of seasons past: Luis Rivas. This is certainly not meant to invoke the “glory days,” although the Twins teams featuring Rivas as a middle infield mainstay had plenty of success. No, this sort of comparison hints at what certain fans think the Twins should expect from Casilla, which, in a few words, ain’t much. Besides the obvious (both are Latin infielders, both first broke into the majors at a fairly young age, both were at some point widely regarded as the “second baseman of the future” before falling short of expectations), is there actually any truth to this comparison? At this point in his career, Casilla has amassed just over 1000 plate appearance, roughly half of Rivas’ career total, probably enough to make a comparison at least somewhat valid.

Career stats:

Luis Rivas 648 2290 541 286 34 201 0.257 0.303 0.377 0.301 0.2 -3.3
Alexi Casilla 312 1073 239 125 8 96 0.249 0.306 0.327 0.291 0.1 -7.9

Rivas joined the Twins organization out of Venezuela at the age of 16, spending one year each at Rookie, A, High-A and AA before making the jump tfrom AAA to the majors at the end of the 2000 season, posting a .311/.323/.414 line in 64 plate appearances, presumptively enough to earn him a chance at the starting job in 2001. Rivas played in 153 games in 2001 at a .266/.319/.362 clip, albeit with 31 steals. That was good enough for a .304 wOBA, which ranked him third-to-last in the majors, ahead of such luminaries as Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston. Due to injury, Rivas managed only about half the number of plate appearances in 2002, and despite having 23 of his 81 hits go for doubles, his wOBA stayed exactly the same at .304. His improved fielding, however, meant that he was worth 0.5 WAR, as opposed to the -0.6 WAR he accumulated in 2001.

Despite decreasing his strikeout rate in 2003 for the third straight year and playing in 135 games, Rivas’ production stayed remarkably similar, with a .303 wOBA and the exact same number of runs created. This again put him near the bottom of the 2B rankings offensively, and his defense didn’t fare much better with a -13.2 UZR/150. In 2004, however, Rivas put together his most valuable season as a Twin, hitting 10 homers and slugging .432 (perhaps the result of a different approach at the plate, as his BB rate sunk to a career low of 3.6% and his fly-ball rate spiked to a high of 39%), good for 1.1 WAR. By 2005, Rivas appeared to be once again heading the wrong direction, and was sent to Rochester mid-season before signing a minor-league deal with the Devil Rays in 2006. He’s been a minor-league journeyman ever since, playing his last games in the majors with the Pirates in 2008.

After joining the Twins organization in 2004, Casilla climbed up the ladder a little quicker than Rivas, and appeared to have a better mix of speed and offensive talent. By the time he reached High A and AA in 2006, Casilla put together an impressive .318/.385/.398 line and burned up the basepaths for 50 steals. He started the season in Rochester in 2007, and although his line was less impressive (.269/.345/.344) the Twins had apparently seen enough to call him up during the summer of 2007 after Luis Castillo was traded. He didn’t exactly make a good first impression, however, managing a measly .244 wOBA in 204 plate appearances. He didn’t make the opening day roster in 2008, but was called up again when Nick Punto was injured. Casilla started to look more like the prospect that many thought he could be, hitting .281/.333/.374 with 7 HR and 50 RBI, providing 1.2 WAR and a much a much-needed offensive spark during the Twins’ drive to catch and almost pass the White Sox. His .298 BABIP didn’t necessarily suggest that regression was in the cards, but the power numbers certainly appeared to be a little over his head. Regardless, many of us thought perhaps the future had arrived at 2B, providing stability at a position that had been in flux since Rivas’ departure.

It wasn’t to be, however. Casilla limped out of the gate in 2009, hitting .167 before earning another demotion to AAA. He would be called back up, but finished the season with a .202/.280/.259 line and no HR, a .260 wOBA that ranked him exactly last out of 2B with at least 250 plate appearances. Sure, a .238 BABIP didn’t help matters, but it was certainly a massive letdown after the promise he showed in 2008. He did, however, provide the defining moment of the 2009 season when he drove in Carlos Gomez (quite the pair of unlikely heroes) for the walk-off victory against the Tigers in an epic game 163. 2010 again saw him rebound as a late-season callup, providing 1.1 WAR in only 170 plate appearances (more than many 2B with a full season’s worth of at-bats) and posting a career-best wOBA of .327. In the field, he seemed less prone to the mental mistakes that had plagued him earlier on (how many outs are there again?), making only one error and posting a 4.4 UZR/150 in an admittedly very small sample size.

So how do Rivas and Casilla stack up against each other? Neither has very good on-base skills; Rivas’ career walk rate was only 5.5%, and Casilla’s is only 7.2%, and both have OBPs that are a shade over .300. Neither has seemed especially adept at translating their speed into results on the basepaths or defensive range either; Rivas swiped 31 bags in 2001 but was caught 11 times, and Casilla has only 35 for his career, and both have negative career UZR/150. Rivas showed slightly more power than Casilla with a .377 career SLG and .120 career ISO (Isolated Power, essentially the difference between batting average and slugging percentage), whereas Casilla has only managed a .077 career ISO, placing him near the bottom of the list among 2B from 2008-2010 with at least 750 PA. Pointing out differences in power between these two, though, is probably like asking whether Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan is crazier.

So what’s the point of this? Did I really just spend all that time comparing two players whose closest comparables on are players you’ve most likely never heard of in your life? Well, a) I thought it was interesting to take an actual statistical look at a comparison that a lot of fans have been making on the surface, and b) Casilla is a huge variable on this team heading into the 2011 season, which will likely be his make-or-break year. Although Rivas and Casilla have many similarities, the interesting difference that I see between the two is that Rivas was pretty consistently mediocre, both in the minors and in the majors, where as Casilla has swung fairly drastically between stretches of excellence and stretches of utter futility throughout his career. That’s not necessarily a good thing for Casilla, but I think it shows what he’s capable of when his head is in the right place. Here’s hoping that we get something closer to the 2008 and 2010 version than the 2009 version - it’s probably his last chance.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who could the Twins get for Slowey?

With the recent news that the Twins might be trying to deal Kevin Slowey, I thought I might try my hand at trying to figure out who they might be able to get for the 26-year-old right-hander. I personally think the Twins should hang onto Slowey, especially since he's under team control through 2013 and I also question the wisdom of trading a young-ish starting pitcher for bullpen help, but because the Twins could use some better bullpen options, and because they have a definite surplus of rotation arms, I'm open to the idea.

The team with the most public interest in Slowey has been the Toronto Blue Jays. Joe Christensen reported yesterday that the Jays had 3 scouts watching Slowey and that they feel they have a surplus of relievers, some of whom might interest the Twins. In looking at the list of Blue Jay relievers, nothing impressive stands out, but I'll let you decide for yourself.

Frank Francisco
Octavio Dotel
Jon Rauch
Jason Frasor
Shawn Camp
Casey Janssen
Carlos Villanueva
Josh Roenicke

I think we can safety rule out getting Jon Rauch in a trade. Frank Francisco can probably be ruled out as well due to his $4M price tag this season. Dotel would be about right money-wise, but he has struggled mightily the past few seasons and is 37 years old. Frasor is definitely worth taking a look at and the Twins have been reported to have been interested in Frasor in the past. Shawn Camp would struggle to beat out relievers the Twins already have, as would Casey Janssen. Villaneuva would be a decent cheap option but Roenicke is not appealing at all.

Jason Frasor
Frasor has been a picture of durability over the course of his 7 year career. He has pitched in at least 49 games in every season since 2004 and has averaged almost 59 appearances per year over that time. He has a tasty 0.8 HR/9 mark for his career to go along with a career 8.4 K/9 rate. His $3.5M price tag is a bit on the high side, but he would fit in nicely in the Twins 'pen. He's tough on both righties and lefties, holding RHBs to a .649 OPS and LHBs to a .696 OPS for his career. Frason and prospect or two would be a decent get in return for Slowey.

Carlos Villanueva
This is definitely the cheap option as Villanueva is only slated to make $1.415M this year. The Jays traded for him in the off-season, so that may impact their willingness to trade him away. Villanueva would likely come with a prospect or two as well, so that's definitely something to keep in mind. Villanueva had an interesting year last year as he saw his K/9 rate jump to a career-high of 11.45 which was very uncharacteristic for a guy who sat solidly in the high 7s for most of his career up to this point. As far as whether he's a ground-ball or fly-ball pitcher, he's kinda right in the middle holding a 1.01 GB/FB ratio for his career. He seems like an interesting option, though I'm not sold on his K-rate staying above 10. If the Twins dealt for Villanueva, I'd be more interested in which prospects they received.

Other teams speculated to have interest in Slowey include the Cardinals and Yankees, but I'm not seeing much reported interest from either team. There have been conflicting reports from the Cardinals, some saying they will look internally to fill the void left by Wainwright's injury, others saying they will look externally. Whatever they decide to do, I think it will be a couple of weeks until they make a decision to look outside the organization and by then, Slowey may have been traded already. As far as the Yankees go, I just can't see them being terribly interested in Slowey, especially considering how impressive some of their young guns have been in Spring Training so far. I see the Yankees waiting till mid-season to acquire a pitcher over trying to get Slowey now. The Yankees are looking to a make a splash, and acquiring Slowey would be more of a splat, at least in the eyes of the media and various Yankee blogs. In fact, Mike Axisa over at River Ave Blues wrote about this very topic the other day. Should be interesting to see what happens in these last 3 weeks of Spring Training, 7 starters, 5 slots. I'm in denial that Blackburn is a sure thing for the rotation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An Idea and some Links

First the Links:

The Minnesota Twins page is a daily stop for me, mostly because it's one of the only places to find first-hand reports of what's going on Twins camp. After writing this the other day, I was encouraged to see this about Pat Neshek, I think he could be key this year.

My favorite line of that article..."Gardenhire said that the dugout on Saturday in Port Charlotte was full of bees." Like I said, "first-hand reports."

The thinking seems to be that Slowey is the one on the trade block now. I hope for the Twins sake they actually get something decent for him if they trade him, considering how few starting pitchers are available at this point in the year.

This headline is hilarious to me...player gets hit in the shin with a ball, has a bruise...REALLY?! No way, that's crazy talk.

Various places are reporting that Nick Blackburn has been guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation, but based on what Gardy actually said, I'm not sensing this is a translation would read something like, "Blackburn's been pitching really well so far this Spring and if he continues to pitch well, his chances are looking good."

Now the idea:
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the history of Japanese position players that have come over to the Major Leagues. To say that history doesn't favor that transition would be and understatement. Ichiro and Hideki Matsui are pretty much the only ones who've had sustained success and both of those guys were a couple of the best players in Japanese League history. My idea involves changing the posting system. In it's current form, Major League teams makes "bids" on a player and if they win the bid, they get an exclusive window in which to negotiate with the player. If they are unsuccessful in signing the player, they get their money back, but if they are successful, that money is included in the overall contract.

What if the posting fee was delayed by one season, or one year, either way. In this format, the bidding would remain the same and the team with the highest bid would win the rights to negotiate. The process from that point would also remain the same in that the posting fee would be contingent upon successfully signing the player. The difference between the way it is now and my proposal, would be that the posting fee would not be payable until the player had completed one season. If the Major League team put the Japanese player through Spring Training and didn't feel as if that player was ready, they could start them in the Minors for some work. If that player didn't make the Majors by the end of the season, the posting fee would be waived. As it stands right now, between the fee and the actual contract, the cost of these players pretty much forces the Major League clubs to give these guys a starting spot. Clearly many of these players are average at best and might benefit from a short period of less pressure and scrutiny in the Minors. I'm not sure who benefits from the posting fee, but if it's the player, it might provide some incentive to them to improve their skills if they are sent to the Minors to begin their first season.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Preliminary Look at the Twins Bullpen

In terms of the bullpen, this Spring really is an audition for a select few spots in the upcoming drama. Heading into the off-season last year it was the biggest question-mark the Twins had to answer and it remains the biggest question-mark heading into this season. It's quite early yet, the Twins have only played a handful of ST games, but we've had a chance to see an audition or two from each. Here are the potential cast members:

Joe Nathan - Closer
We're starting to get some answers to the question, "what type of Joe Nathan will we see?" So far he's had two, 1-inning outings with yesterday's being the most encouraging. I imagine the Twins will continue to be a bit cautious with him, but so far, so good, which is a huge relief (no pun intended :). Stay tuned.

Matt Capps - Setup man? Closer?
Agree with it or not, Capps is here for another season with the Twins. Capps would be well suited for either the setup role or the closers role if Nathan can't do it, but I suspect Capps will end up in the setup role, at least in the early part of the season. He gets a bad rap overall, but he did have a very good 2010 season, throwing 73 innings of 2.47ERA (3.23FIP), 1.26 WHIP ball...oh and he had those 42 Saves. He's one of the harder throwing bullpen options that the Twins have and he will be a staple at the back end of the bullpen in one capacity or another.

Jose Mijares - Setup man?
Jose had another solid outing yesterday, throwing a 1-2-3 inning. So far in his career with the Twins, Mijares has been a solid relief option, and after watching Jesse Crain leave via free-agency in the off-season, he could certainly be a contender for the setup role. Mijares struggled a bit in 2010 and he injured himself on an awkward play at 1st late in the season, but his 2.49 career ML ERA (3.78 career FIP) are encouraging. I have my doubts about Mijares; he has never been a dominant reliever and he seems prone to the "bad outing," but I think it's safe to say that Mijares will be relied upon for a bigger role in 2011.

Pat Neshek
To me, Neshek is the wildcard for the Twins bullpen this year. I wrote a more lengthy piece about Neshek a couple of weeks ago, asserting that Neshek's fastball velocity will determine the level of his effectiveness. He was absolutely fantastic his rookie year in 2007, but spent two years rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and was pretty ineffective in 11 appearances last season. So far this spring, Neshek has appeared in three games, all scoreless frames, and has allowed only one hit to go along with one K. His fastball last year was a full 2mph slower, on average, from early 2008 which lead to a much higher contact rate on his pitches and, ultimately, poor results. His control was also off which suggests to me that he was not fully recovered, even a year and a half removed from surgery. It would be fantastic for the Twins if Neshek's 2011 season even slightly resembled his 2007 season, I know I'll be rooting for him.

Anthony Slama
How frustrating was last year for Slama? He's been absolutely lights-out in the minor leagues, posting a career 1.95ERA and 1.06WHIP in 249 innings. Not only that, he owns a career 12.5 K/9 mark AND a 3.25 K/BB ratio. Those are absolutely stellar numbers, but when the Twins called him up in late July last year, he fell flat on his face and only lasted two weeks before being sent back down to Triple-A. This Spring isn't off to a good start either as Slama got knocked around the other day for 4 hits and 2 earned runs in 1 inning of work. Slama has the stuff, of that there is no doubt, but he needs to find the confidence to pitch in the Majors. If he does that he could be a truly valuable bullpen option, especially with his ability to get the Strikeout.

Alex Burnett
Like Slama, Burnett posted solid numbers (not nearly as good as Slama though) in the Minors, got a chance to show his stuff last year, and failed. He appeared in 41 games, posting a 5.29ERA and 1.573WHIP in 47.2 innings. That eventually earned a demotion to Triple-A and then returned to the Major League club for the month of September. His Spring is off to a much better start than Slama and has seen him throw 3 innings, allowing 1 run on 2 hits with 1BB and 1K. I believe there is a role on this team for a guy like Burnett, who was actually pretty tough on righties last year, but he'll have to do better than he did last season if he wants to stick around.

Jeff Manship - Long Reliever/Spot Starter
Manship's Major League stat page is pretty underwhelming, that is until you look at his FIP and xFIP from last season and see that it was over 1 1/2 runs lower than his ugly 5.28ERA. Manship isn't the kind of guy who's likely to get you out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the 7th inning, but he is the kind of guy who can come in when one of the starters gets pulled in the 4th and give you 3 decent to good innings. He has a fastball that averages about 90mph, he has good control (1.9 BB/9 last year), and he has done the spot start thing before. His Spring is off to a mediocre start (3IP, 3.00ERA, 2BB, 0K) but I can definitely envision him making the team simply because of his versatility.

Glen Perkins
Perkins virtually disappeared of the radar last year after an abysmal 2009 season. He spent most of the season at Triple-A, was called up in August, was sent back down at the end of August, and was called back up in mid-Sept. Prior to his time in the minors last year, Perkins actually had a sub-4.00 career ERA in the minors, and prior to the 2007 season, he was ranked as the #66 prospect by Baseball America. It just hasn't worked out for Perkins in the Majors and he has struggled at nearly every point. Overall Perkins has had a little more success vs. right-handed batters, but we're still talking about a .292 BAA which doesn't really cut it in the Majors. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Perkins didn't make the Major League club out of ST again this year, though if he does make the team, it most assuredly be as a long-reliever. Thankfully the Twins have enough starting rotation depth so I doubt we'll be seeing Perkins in a starting role (even a spot start) again.

There are others who might crack the bullpen this year including Jim Hoey, Scott Diamond, Anthony Swarzak, and Chuck James. I consider those guys the long-shots, but that's certainly open for debate. I think the fortunes of the Twins bullpen rest on two guys have bounce-back years and those two guys are Pat Neshek and Anthony Slama. If those two can be effective relievers, they could instantly transform this bullpen from a weakness to a strength. You also have to keep in mind that the Twins will have one of their rotation guys from last year in the 'pen (either Blackburn, Slowey or Baker) and we might also see young Kyle Gibson in a bullpen role this year as well. The Twins certainly have enough bodies to comprise their 'pen, it's simply going to be a matter of who is going to step up and execute.