Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Southpaw Stuggles (Part 2)

OK, we GET it. Our boys struggle against left-handed pitchers. They have for years. We don’t need you guys to prove it to use. You can stop sucking now. Because, as we covered yesterday, our Twins, do, in fact, suck against left-handers. Like one of those nasty eel things that are invading Lake Superior. With big pointy teeth.

But as I mentioned yesterday, things should get better. And not just because the Twins shouldn’t be facing this many left-handed pitchers the rest of the year. The Twins should get better because this team has been hit by a perfect storm, and one that should pass blow over soon (though not as soon as we might have hoped).

Listen, any team whose two star hitters hit left-handed (and by “star” I mean Ursa Major kinda large, bringing home hardware and such) would probably struggle against left-handed pitching. But it’s not the guys that you would expect that are struggling against southpaws:

Joe Mauer is leading the team, for chrissakes, and Justin Morneau, while still relatively weak, is less than totally revolting. The biggest culprit right now is (right-handed hitting) Michael Cuddyer who is pasting right-handers (1.039 OPS!) but can’t hit lefties to save his life. He posted an 894 OPS against them last year, by the way.

Another Twins who would seem due for a rebound is Jason Bartlett. Bartlett and his groin are struggling across the board – southpaws, righties, fielding, probably sexually – but a right-handed hitter is going to finish better than that.

But most infuriating for Twins management is that they planned for this, but a string of injuries has absolutely decimated their ability to respond. You’ll notice Mike Redmond on that list, and while the number under “OPS” is bad, the number under “AB” is worse. Like Dante in Clerks, Mike wasn’t even supposed to BE here today. He’s only playing because the two guys who were supposed to hold down the job – Rondell White and Jeff Cirillo – are both injured.

And it’s not like just one of them could help. Because there is another name that you would expect to see at that bottom of this list, and he hasn’t disappointed. That’s Nick Punto, who has never hit left-handed pitchers. Cirillo was specifically signed this offseason because he can play third base and past left-handers, and that’s awfully handy when Punto is on a roster.

Even more frustrating is that the Twins also worked hard in the offseason to provide additional insurance for those guys – and that’s not working out either. Before either White or Cirillo one was signed, Ken Harvey was signed. He’s a former all-star (which unfortunately says loads about that particular title), who nonetheless can be a fairly suitable DH in a pinch, especially against left-handers. He’s out until mid-May with knee surgery.

And you might also remember a certain lovable chicken-fried-steak poster boy who was in spring training. Matt LeCroy didn’t do much in his major league career, like, for instance, catch things that weren’t chocolate-covered. But he always hit left-handed pitching, and he hit it awfully hard. He’s got to be kicking himself right now, because this is maybe the worst possible time to be hitting .186 in Rochester.

So let’s count up the carnage, shall we? Two solid right-handed hitters who suddenly are slumping, plus two right-handed hitters who are injured, plus two right-handed replacements in Rochester who are unavailable. That’s some solid work just as the team is facing a left-handed pitcher pretty much every other night.

The good news is that the first impression will likely stay with us long past the actual reality. The Twins aren’t going to thrive against left-handers, but they also aren’t going to be this bad for most of the rest of the year.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Southpaw Struggles (Part 1)

As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.

And just because something is an overused cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Such is the case with the Twins hitting left-handed pitchers. It’s been talked about so much that it isn’t talked about anymore – exactly when it should be talked about. I’ll credit Patrick Reusse for pointing it out again, and whether he did it because it’s a cliché or because he really could back it up, it is certainly true.

It’s the reason we’re having such trouble gauging this offense. If you think that the Twins offense has the potential to be top five in the league, you’re right – against right-handed pitching.

American League vs RH Pitching

If you think they’re dreadfully inconsistent, heading towards putrid, you’re right too – against left-handed pitching.

American League vs LH Pitching

That’s one heck of a drop-off, the biggest in the majors. And whether it’s by happenstance, or some devious strategy, the Twins have faced a lot of left-handed pitching. In fact, they lead the majors and it’s not particularly close:

American League At-bats

To some extent, that’s by design. There’s no doubt that other teams like to use left-handed pitching against the Twins. For instance, last year the Twins ranked second in the league in at-bats against left-handers, behind only the White Sox (who, incidentally are the only team worse than the Twins.) That's the bad news.

But the good news is that the Twins are going to face fewer left-handers. It HAS to happen. Last year, even with as many at-bats as they had against left-handers, they still had twice as many at-bats against right-handed pitchers. This year, they’re close to even, which smells like a quirk of early season scheduling.

And that’s the just the start of the good news. We’ll have more tomorrow, when we start examining who the culprits are of this early season southpaw funk.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

You have GOT to be kidding!

Why Santana will be worth $200 million

Johan Santana’s a free agent after next year, and there isn’t a Twins fans who doesn’t want to see his contract extended into the next decade. The popular refrain is that the Twins ‘just need to get it done’.

But what is “it” exactly? And just how much will “it” cost?

In April of 2003, the Red Sox picked up an option year in the contract of Pedro Martinez. Doing so allowed them to keep him through the 2004 season, the same season that the Red Sox won the World Series. It also meant that they opted, of their own free will, to pay Martinez $17.5 million, which was the most ever to a pitcher in major league baseball.

But in the last year, three major league pitchers have signed for more than Pedro’s high water mark. They reflect a reality where major league clubs’ revenues are exploding and where risks can be accepted that previously were unthinkable. For Twins fans who are hoping for an announced extension between the Twins and Johan Santana, each reflects a changing reality that will make retaining Santana more and more expensive.

Barry Zito – Seven years/$126 million

Zito is a poor man’s Johan. He’s left-handed, young, and a Cy Young award winner. But he won that award in 2002, and he hasn’t received a single vote for one since. He also hasn’t posted an ERA south of 3.70 over the last three years. That didn’t stop the Giants from committing to him, on average, $18 million per year over the next seven years.

For Twins fans, those last two words should hurt the most. Zito’s contract shocked baseball because pitchers are notoriously prone to injury, and thus usually sign shorter contracts than their offensive colleagues. Zito has stayed healthy and was only 28 years old when he became a free agent. In fact, Cot’s Baseball Contracts reports that the contract includes an eighth year that automatically vests if Zito pitches 200 innings in the seventh year.

Johan has stayed just as healthy, will be just 29 years old when he’s a free agent, and has been infinitely more effective than Zito over the last three years (and counting). He’s likely to receive at least eight guaranteed years if he tests the free agent waters. If the Twins want to talk about an extension, any offer less than five years would seem naive.

Daisuke Matsuzaka – 6 years/$52 million (or $103 million)

If you look up Matsuzaka’s salary in GameDay (salaries are on the statistical insert) when the Red Sox come to town, you’ll likely think the Red Sox received a bargain when they added him to their rotation for just $6 million. But the actual price that Red Sox paid for the 26-year-old was far higher, and the risk they took may have been greater than the Giants took for Zito.

When a player comes over from Japan, before any team can negotiate with him, the Japanese ballclub must be paid. So major league ballclubs each bid for the right to negotiate with the player, and only the team with the high bid is allowed to negotiate. That obviously means the winning ballclub has a fair amount of leverage with the Japanese player, but it also means they’re on the hook for much more than the salary they’ll pay.

When “Dice K” came across the pond, the Red Sox paid over $51 million to the Seibu Lions for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka for 30 days. Or rather to negotiate with Scott Boras, Matsuzaka’s agent, who was also responsible for Alex Rodriguez’s monster deal and Zito’s contract. He not only negotiated another $52 million guaranteed for his client, there are at least $8 million in incentives attached to it.

Add all that together, and Dice K’s services could be worth $112 million, meaning the Red Sox would be paying more per year than the Giants. And they had to pay half of it before they even had a deal in place. All for a guy who not only hadn’t won any Cy Young awards – he hadn’t pitched a single inning in the major leagues.

Roger Clemens - 1 year/$22 million

So far we’ve been talking about players who are young and perceived as great pitchers, but aren’t in Santana’s class. Clemens is the opposite – seemingly old as Methusalah, but has recently been as dominant as Santana. Clemens, like Santana, won a Cy Young Award in 2004 and finished third in 2005.

Unlike the others, the length of contract isn’t important, but it’s telling just how much clubs are willing to pay on an annual basis. Clemens signed a 1-year, $22 million contract with the Astros last year, but only made a little over $12 million because he didn’t start pitching until June 22nd. By the time you read this, it’s likely he will have announced whether he’s pitching in 2007 and the bidding could be fast and furious for him once again. If so, his 2007 salary could provide some real clues to what Santana could receive in an annual salary, since it’s expected that the New York Yankees would be included in the bidding, which really wasn’t the case for either of the two pitchers above.

Johan Santana - ? years/$?? Million

So now you know what the agents and general managers know about the pitching market. Before Santana becomes a free agent at the end of next year, there will likely be some new names that can be included (such as Mark Buehrle, the left-handed White Sox starter who threw a no-hitter earlier this year), but you already have enough data to make a reasonable guess.

For instance, would anyone be surprised if Santana received an eight-year guaranteed contract starting at $18 million per year, with a $1 million raise per year? Add in a ninth year that can be automatically vested and a couple of incentive bonuses, and suddenly a $200 million contract is within reason. That’s not only twice as long as the Twins like to guarantee contracts, it’s also equal to about three times their current payroll. In fact, it’s darn close to the amount that Forbes recently estimated the entire Twins franchise is worth ($216 million).

Which isn’t to say that the Twins can’t sign Santana to an extension. Or that it won’t be worth the commitment, as Pedro’s contract in 2004 might attest. But it’s one thing to say “they need to get it done”. It’s another matter entirely to say it when you find out exactly what “it” is going to cost.

The preceding article will be available in the May issue of GameDay, the independent baseball program sold across the street from the Metrodome. Look for the guys in the red vests.