Monday, October 31, 2011

WS Thoughts & The Off-Season

I went to bed in the 8th inning of Game 6, my birthday was on Friday and I was out and missed Game 7...that said, I still caught the excitement of it and and my thoughts about this year's World Series can be summed up in one word: WOW. I love how a number of 'sportswriters' out there are all, "oh my gawd, this World Series SAVED baseball..." it didn't, it simply reminded everyone of how great of a sport baseball is and how exciting it can be. This whole season was great (home-town team aside) and the St. Louis Cardinals are an incredible story of how anything can happen if you just keep playing hard every day.

On the flip-side, my heart aches for the Texas Rangers and their fans. Back-to-back Game 7 losses in the World Series?? And I thought missing the playoffs for the first time in 2 years hurt. I just think of all the work that is takes to get to the World Series, then to do it in consecutive seasons and have nothing to show for's heart-breaking. Overall, I thought it was a great series, it was quite compelling, I loved seeing Pujols make some history and I was really glad that there wasn't a "goat" or some extraneous circumstance that would ultimately distract from what a hard-fought series this was.

As we all bask in the glow of a great end to the 2011 MLB season, it's time to start talking Twins again - more specifically, it's time to start brain-storming ways that this team can attempt to field a much more competitive team in 2012. As has been reported on a number of blogs, the Twins look to have about $30M to spend this off-season and with the number of issues they have to address...figuring out how to spend $30M will not be a problem. For my money, the Twins need to address the bullpen first and as things are shaping up, there should be a number of intriguing options. The bullpen was clearly one of the Twins' greatest weaknesses this past season and as far as fixing things go, the bullpen is probably one of the cheaper fixes.

1. To Sign or not to Sign: Joe Nathan.
Those who say that the Twins should not re-sign Joe Nathan are the ones who point to his overall 2011 numbers, which are pretty ordinary. 4.84 ERA, 43/14 K/BB ratio, 1.16 WHIP - not closer-type numbers. That said, the last couple of months were much more Nathan-esque. Between July and the end of the season, Nathan threw 27.1 innings, striking out 27 and only walking 5 while saving 11 games. Considering the Twins only won 22 games in the second-half of the season, 11 saves isn't bad. Velocity-wise, Nathan only improved as the season went on which bodes well for his success next season and beyond. Ultimately, the question will most likely be cost - it wasn't a surprise at all that the Twins declined Nathan's $12.5M option. I think if they could sign the 36-year-old right-hander to a 2-year deal worth around $10-14M, I feel that they would end up getting their money's worth. In reading around other Twins blogs, it would seem I'm not alone in wanting Nathan back next year.

2. Identify your core bullpen pitchers and build around them.
Among the remaining in-house bullpen options (the obvious ones anyway), all of the main guys are arbitration eligible. Jose Mijaries, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are all up for arbitration and the Twins could easily offer arbitration to all of them and not spend much cash. The most expensive of the three, Kevin Slowey, is worth the extra money because of versatility as a spot-starter. The total cost for all three would likely between somewhere in the $4.5 - $5.5M range and all three have been effective in the past. Around these 4 arms (Mijares, Perkins, Slowey and Nathan) - sign 2-3 additional bullpen pitchers. Options are plenty; here's a list compiled last year. There are a number of intriguing names on that list and it should not be any much trouble to land a couple of them on relatively cheap contracts. Some of the names that interest me are: Scott Linebrink, Jason Frasor (if the White Sox don't pick up his option), George Sherrill (left-handed, would be a nice set-up man for Nathan), and Michael Wuertz (could be a cheap option with good potential).

3. Don't sign any relievers to 3-year contracts.
Last year, it seemed like a number of teams lost their heads signing relievers to three-year deals. Of note in the AL Central were Jesse Crain (signed by the White Sox) and Joaquin Benoit (signed by the Detroit Tigers). Both pitchers end up having very good seasons, but one season does not a 3-year contract make. On top of that, for every example of a 3-year reliever deal that started well, you have an equally good example of one that did not (see: Rafael Soriano, NYY). With so many good names out on the market this year, there's no reason to be desperate. If you can't get Player X without a 3-year deal, move on and find someone else.

I know how this all plays out is much more complicated than I make it seem, but I really do feel that a re-vamped bullpen could add 15-20 wins to the season total next year. Twins relievers had 20 blown saves last year against 32 saves and 29% of the runners that Twins relievers inherited last year scored, which was right about average for the American League. If the Twins could reduce that blown-saves number from 20 to 10, that alone would be worth a $10-$15M investment in the bullpen. As was highlighted during the recently concluded post-season, bullpen pitching is critical to a team's success and if a team has a good bullpen, the confidence of the rest of the team increases accordingly.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Some Awards Banter

As much as I was looking forward to the end of the regular season this year I have to admit, I've actually kinda missed being able to check up on the Twins everyday. I don't miss the feeling of loss after loss, but I miss the day-to-day. Fortunately, this year's MLB playoffs have been REALLY good and have been filled with major market schadenfreude which has been medicine for my weary baseball soul. I'm very pleased with the 4 teams that remain and I was really happy for Milwaukee fans who saw their baseball team snatch a Game 5 victory from the clutches of defeat in winning their first playoff series since 1982. I was born in 1983 so to think that in my entire lifetime, the Brew Crew hadn't won a playoff, this is big. I really like their team too, the combination of power and hustle, scrap and confidence,...and their swagger is undeniable. I like their rotation, I like their bullpen and if they go on to win the World Series, I think I might even have a smile on my face.

Anyway, I didn't put my pen to paper to write about the post-season, plenty of others are writing much more meaningful pieces. The purpose of my piece today is more obligation, but calling it 'obligation' gives it the wrong connotation. As a part of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA) we are asked to cast our votes every year for various awards and then those votes are compiled amongst all the blogs in the network and the network as a whole comes out with it's winners. This has already been done for manager of the year (Connie Mack Award) which you can check out here. For my part, I'd like to take on a couple of Awards, notable the "Walter Johnson" Award (honoring the best SPs) and the "Stan Musial" (honoring the MVPs). Since we are a Minnesota Twins blog, we vote for the American League winners of these awards.

Walter Johnson Award - Best Starting Pitcher (AL)

The Walter Johnson Award uses a 5-3-1 point system so we are supposed to vote for our 1st, 2nd and 3rd place vote getters which makes this whole process a little more interesting if you ask me.

1st Place: Justin Verlander (5 points)
I've trolled my Yankee followers on Twitter a little bit lately suggesting that Verlander was a 'no doubt' winner of this Award despite the fantastic, but under appreciated season that Yankee ace CC Sabathia had. That said, Verlander had a super-human season and I don't see you could give the award to anyone else. First, the vitals:

24 Wins (not really important, but hey, it's a lot of wins for a single-season)
2.40 ERA - Lead the AL
0.920 WHIP - Lead the Majors
2.99 FIP - 4nd in the AL
3.12 xFIP - 2nd in the AL
251.0 IP - Lead the Majors
250 Ks - Lead the Majors

4.39 K/BB ratio - 2nd in the AL
2.84 SIERA - Lead the AL
5.14 WPA - Lead the Majors
7.0 WAR - 2nd in the AL

The argument for Verlander is pretty convincing. He helped his team run away with the AL Central crown, he was dominant from start to finish, and he lead the Majors in a few of the more important measures of pitching success.

2nd Place: CC Sabathia (3 points)
I already alluded to it earlier but this should come as no surprise. CC actually was worth 7.1 WAR this season which was. 0.1 more than Verlander and also out-pitched Verlander in FIP (2.88) and xFIP (3.02). Pro-CC people will argue that it should be taken into consideration that CC also pitches in the AL East and is therefore facing tougher opponents on a more regular basis. I would say that's a legitimate point, but who a pitcher faces is nothing that the pitcher can determine so what division a given pitcher is in cannot be used as criteria for an award. CCs reward for a great season will be either a) 5 more seasons at $23M per in New York or b) a HUGE free-agent deal somewhere else.

3rd Place: James Shields (1 point)
I'm going out on a limb a little for my 3rd place selection. What I am most impressed with about Shields season was all of the complete games...11 of them to be precise, which led all of Major League Baseball. For a guy who had never been a dominant pitcher, Shields had a breakout year of sorts winning a career-high 16 games with career bests in ERA (2.82), IP (249.1), WHIP (1.04), Ks (225), and WAR (4.9). I will say that Shields had an awfully "lucky" season considering his BABIP was .258 while his career average for that category sits at (.299). That will occasionally happen with ground-ball heavy pitchers though and for this season, it no-doubt worked in Shields' favor.

Stan Musial Award - AL MVP

Here is my list of my top 10 with a general discussion at the end.

1. Curtis Granderson (13 points)
2. Jacoby Ellsbury (9 points)
3. Miguel Cabrera (8 points)
4. Ian Kinsler (7 points)
5. Dustin Pedroia (6 points)
6. Jose Bautista (5 points)
7. Justin Verlander (4 points)
8. CC Sabathia (3 points)
9. Alex Gordon (2 points)
10. Ben Zobrist (1 point)

If I'm going strictly off of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) values, then Ellsbury wins this award running away...but in considering "valuable-ness", Granderson gets my nod. The Red Sox were/are absolutely loaded with talent. Among the WAR leaders, the Red Sox have 3 of the top 9 players (Ellsbury, Pedroia, A. Gonzalez). The Yankees are also loaded with talent, but not to that degree having only 2 players in the top 13 (Granderson & Cano). In a year in which A-Rod was not himself and Teixeira was streaky, Granderson was the constant producer setting career highs in Runs, RBIs, HRs, BBs and OPS all while committing only 3 errors in the field all year next to a dozen highlight-reel catches. Granderson's 7.0 WAR pales in comparison to Ellsbury's 9.4, but to me Granderson was more valuable in the sense that his team really needed his production to win.

I had a couple pitchers on my MVP ballot, though to be clear I would not have put them anywhere near the top. I've talked about this before (mostly on Twitter) but I feel that the MVP award name should be changed to Best Offensive Player. Keep the Cy Young Award as "the best pitcher" and make MVP the best hitter award. "Value" is to subjective and I don't think great offensive seasons should be ignored, much like Alex Gordon's was, simply because the player is stuck on a bad team. In the same way that the team a given pitcher plays for should not factor into the discussion for the Cy Young Award, the team a hitter plays for and whether or not that team makes the playoffs should not factor into their selection as the best hitter.

Anyway, that's enough pontificating for now. I hope to post more regularly here this off-season. My job has changed a bit in the sense that I have less and less time to blog about the Twins, but I am going to try my hardest to keep the discussion going here. It should be an exciting off-season!