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?