Sunday, February 24, 2008

Examining the Filler

We spent a good part of last year lamenting the Twins offense, and for good reason. It was dissappointing that the team ended up with the third worst offense in the American League, scoring just 718 runs. But what was truly maddening is that it was also so very fixable.

The Twins didn't need to make any major changes. They just needed to replace some offensive black holes. When Rondell White and Jeff Cirillo went down a week into the season, they Twins lacked a designated hitter. When Nick Punto slumped and slumped bad, there were no options to replace him. When Luis Castillo was gimpy, or Michael Cuddyer dinged up, or Alexi Casilla floundering, there were no offensive options to replace them.

That changed this offseason. Almost half of the Twins lineup will change this year, but for the most part, the Twins moves were designed to fill gaps around a core lineup. Third base was plugged. Designated hitter was filled. In fact, it was filled twice. And so, I wondered what we might expect from each of the new positions, and just how many more runs the Twins might score this year. Let's see what we get:

Center Field - ('07 - 836 OPS, mostly by Torii Hunter. '08 - ???)
It's going to be worse, but you know what? Let's save this one for last. We'll get back to it, I swear.

Shortstop - ('07 - 657 OPS, mostly by Jason Bartlett. '08 - Adam Everett, with an OPS of 599 last year)
Bartlett actually hit quite a bit better than the average shortstop for the Twins last year, with a 701 OPS. The overall average was brought down by giving 81 at-bats to Nick Punto, who had a shockingly bad 327 OPS at the position.

The offensive production will get worse with Adam Everett in the position. That 599 OPS was put up in the NL and in a hitter's park. If Everett is ever batting anywhere in the Twins lineup other than 9th, it means the Twins have some real offensive problems. The hope is that his outstanding glove will make up for Jason Bartlett's 10,963 errors last season. And that might just be true. But this is another position where the Twins offense will get worse, not better.

Left Field - ('07 - 677 OPS, mostly by Jason Kubel. '08 - Delmon Young, with a 724 OPS last year)
A 677 OPS from left fielders last year. Good golly. I hope Jacque Jones got a kick out of that. If you're looking for the number one reason the '07 team fell short, this is the one I think we could least foresee. Kubel hit 785 for the year, but he only got half the at-bats for the position. The rest were soaked up by Jason Tyner, Lew Ford, and an especially putrid performance from Rondell White.

It's reasonable to expect a slight improvement from Young, with the chance of significant improvement if something (particularly adding a batting eye) clicks for the 22-year-old.

Designated Hitter - ('07 - 741 OPS, mostly by Jason Kubel. '08 - Jason Kubel, with a 785 OPS last year).
Yes, Jason Kubel led the team in starts at two positions last year. That, by itself, is a good sign for the gimpy one. Another is that he gradually impoved throughout the year. And the third is that he is just 25 years old. I've said it for the last two years, but watch our for Kubel this year.

Again, it's reasonable to expect a small bump in offense here. Last year, Kubel had only 114 at-bats from the DH position. DH wasn't the offensive sink hole that left field and third base were, but a solid year from Kubel should outpace last year's mark, especially if it's supplemented by appearances from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.

Second Base - ('07 - 640 OPS by, mostly by Luis Castillo. '08 - Brendan Harris, with a 799 OPS last year)
Like shortstop, the primary player wasn't the primary contributor to this offensive futility. Castillo posted a 728 OPS with the Twins, but Nick Punto(58 AB - 614 OPS), Luis Rodriguez (46 AB - 618 OPS) and especially Alexi Casilla (177 AB - 517 OPS) were absolutely terrible. The Twins spent most of last year two position players short, but after the trade deadline, they clearly were three.

Harris, judging by last year's numbers, is a significant upgrade. He's just 27, but it's worth noting that those numbers look like his ceiling if you put them in the context of his minor league career. Still, this looks like a position where the Twins will have a moderate upgrade, with plenty of additional upside due to the depths of last year's performances.

Third Base - ('07 - 631 OPS, mostly by Nick Punto. '08 - Mike Lamb, with a 819 OPS last year)
Speaking of depths, that 631 OPS was the worst OPS of any group of third basemen last year in the American League. Starting third baseman Punto actually brought the number lower, with just a 600 OPS in his 323 at-bats in the postion. And that's on top of the number-crunching he did at shortstop and second base. I'm fairly certain that Punto will rebound well this year, but there is no way to evaluate his 2007 as anything more than an out-making machine. That he was given 536 plate appearances last year tells you exactly how short the Twins were of any depth.

Lamb likely fixes 2/3 of that problem. He won't post a 819 OPS because he was protected last year against left-handers. But he'll still be an exceptional upgrade over the group the Twins played there last year.

Conclusion -
I count one slight downgrade (SS), two slight upgrades (LF, DH), one moderate upgrade (2B) and one major upgrade (3B). Which brings us back to center field, which is clearly a major downgrade.

Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson are still available on the free agent market. Patterson posted a 690 OPS last year, so he would likely be a moderate downgrade to Hunter at best. Plus, he bats left-handed, and has never hit lefties. Since Jason Pridie and Carlos Gomez also bat left-handed, it's not like he could platoon with anyone that they can't.

But Lofton had a 781 OPS last year. He can bat lead off, sporting a .367 OBP last year, and the Twins need both of those traits on their team. And if he has a similar year this year, he represents a minor downgrade at center field. I'm as excited as the next guy to see what Pridie and Gomez might bring to the team, but Lofton is an awfully good fit for this team if they think they can compete this year. And given that they could score quite a few more runs, that isn't a far-fetched idea.

For now, since we don't know what's happening in center field, let's call this incomplete. We know the Twins offense will be better, and they'll certainly be deeper. Last year the Twins struggled through most of the season with two holes in their lineup and ended the season with three. This year, the holes are filled, and there is some additional filler in the form of Craig Monroe (and maybe even Nick Punto) on the bench.

The Twins offense will almost certainly be better this year, but we likely won't know how much better until the center field position is resolved.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gomez bats from the right.

ubelmann said...

Kenny Lofton is projected by PECOTA for a 6.9 VORP this season. Jason Pridie is forecasted for a 4.0 VORP. Part of that is playing time, but the difference between Pridie and Lofton isn't that big, and given their ages, Pridie could easily be better than Lofton (and his weak arm) defensively. I'll take my chances with Pridie rather than bring in a 4th centerfielder to make the logjam for CF at-bats even worse. Lofton doesn't make the Twins into a contender and his presence makes it harder to figure out how to best deploy our talent in 2009 and beyond. No thanks.

BP has the Twins at 709 runs for this season. I'm not seeing an overwhelming case here for an offense that's significantly better than the offense last year. Sure, with some good luck, the Twins could score something like 740-750 runs. On defense, they'll probably have modest upgrades at SS and CF, but a modest downgrade at 3B and a massive downgrade at 2B.

So the offense might be a little better overall, the defense could be a little worse overall, and we have no Santana. And last year's team won 79 games while being outscored by 7 runs. Lofton really makes no sense unless the Twins see an injury or two in CF.

TT said...

Another is that he (Kubel) gradually impoved throughout the year.

Or Gardenhire got better at putting him in situations where he could succeed and he had Rondell White to take most of the at bats against left handers later in the year.

I expect Kubel to be better this year. But looking at averages is always misleading for Twins players who don't play absolutely every day. Gardenhire does a pretty good job of working the matchups.

As for Lofton et. al., I don't think there is a snowball's chance that the Twins will sign someone to play center. They have three young kids who can play the position defensively. They will take the one whose bat is most ready.

hey'll probably have modest upgrades at SS and CF

Right, one of the Twins young guys will take away Torii's gold glove. I don't think so, and not just because the players and coaches who vote for gold gloves do it solely on reputation.

ubelmann said...

Torii hasn't really deserved his Gold Gloves since 2004. Leg injuries have sapped him of some speed and he hasn't been able to adjust. He plays deep so he can make spectacular catches at the wall (which have themselves become less frequent) but with less and less speed, more and more singles have started dropping in front of him. Torii's defense is about the last thing I'm worried about replacing on this team.

BeefMaster said...

Or Gardenhire got better at putting him in situations where he could succeed and he had Rondell White to take most of the at bats against left handers later in the year.

The numbers don't bear that out. Kubel did have his most PA against lefthanders in April, but the next-highest total was for September, and the lowest total was in June. Kubel's results vs. righties went up at basically the same rate as his overall results from month to month (which makes sense, because he rarely hit against lefties).

TT said...

Torii hasn't really deserved his Gold Gloves since 2004.

I don't agree and neither did the voters. In any case, there isn't much reason to think any of the rookies will be better. Although I am sure they will impress some fans with spectacular corrections for their mistakes.

neckrolls said...

You didn't mention the production at 1B, C and RF. Morneau, Mauer, and Cuddyer have all had better years than 2007. Do you expect them to be better/same/worse in 2008? I don't expect any of them to be worse, and I bet at least 2 of the 3 are better. That should lead to a few more runs for the offense, in addition to the other upgrades Smith has made.

Nick N. said...

I don't agree and neither did the voters. In any case, there isn't much reason to think any of the rookies will be better. Although I am sure they will impress some fans with spectacular corrections for their mistakes.

The voters also thought Jason Varitek was the best defensive catcher in the league in 2005. And that Bartolo Colon was the best pitcher. You'll excuse me if I'm not overly impressed with their credibility.

Hunter is a mere shell of his former self defensively. And there's plenty of reason to think the rookies will be better. You know, scouting reports, stuff like that? By all accounts Gomez has better range and a stronger arm than a 32-year-old Hunter.

John said...

Ubelmann,

We're going to need to come up with a friendly wager on that PECOTA prediction. I'll gleefully take the over.

Maybe PECOTA just plain struggles with the Twins. Mauer likely is tough to estimate. Kubel probably is too, given his injury. And, of course CF is a crapshoot.

But there is almost NO WAY this team is worse offensively than it was last year. They scored 83 runs fewer than the year before, with almost the same group of guys. There are just too many places that this offense was incredibly brutal.

Though, I'll admit, the CF and SS situations do give me a bit of pause. But I'll still be happy for some sort of friendly wager on a PECOTA prediction that seems to be increasingly cited as some standard.

ubelmann said...

I may be up for a friendly wager. Here's my main beef at this point: I keep hearing about how PECOTA is so "pessimistic" yet no one is out there producing evidence that there's some kind of PECOTA bias against the Twins. Maybe ZiPS has all of the Twins projected to hit better. Maybe PECOTA is using different park factors than everyone else. But I haven't seen anyone take one of the other sets of projections, sit down and systematically lay out how many runs that projection system spits out. If PECOTA gives the fewest runs of all the systems, then I could see good reason to take the over.

PECOTA is what it is: a projection system that produces a list of comparable players and looks to see how that group of players did in the future. In the past, it has stacked up very well compared to other objective projection systems (ZiPS being the other top contender) and I haven't seen anyone release their own subjective projections for the entire league at the beginning of the season so that we can see how they stack up. So in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I think it's a pretty good place to start forming my opinion about how many runs the Twins are going to score.

There is, on the other hand, plenty of reason to believe that Twins fans could be biased into thinking their players are better than they actually are. I believe the technical term for this is the "Lake Woebegon Effect."

TT said...

? By all accounts Gomez has better range and a stronger arm than a 32-year-old Hunter.

Those are tools, not skills. There is more to playing defense than running and throwing. But which accounts are you referring to other than your own? I have yet to see a direct comparison to Hunter from any scouts.

Nick N. said...

Those are tools, not skills. There is more to playing defense than running and throwing. But which accounts are you referring to other than your own? I have yet to see a direct comparison to Hunter from any scouts.

Range is a tool? No, speed is a tool which leads to range, which is a skill. Having a strong arm is a tool which leads to being able to throw out base-runners, which is a skill. You're drawing a pretty pointless distinction here.

Hunter has the advantage of being more experienced, so he makes better reads and takes better routes. Not denying that. But I think most objective observers and statistical metrics would agree that Hunter's defensive ability has diminished consistently over the past few years. At some point his instinctive abilities get canceled out by the raw talent of a young guy like Gomez. Whether we are at that point right now is probably debatable, but for you to say that "there isn't much reason to think" we're there is false in my mind.

David said...

Castillo's skill with a bat was partly offset by his lack of range on defense. The same is true of Hunter. Bartlett had the range, but didn't always make the play. The Twins have significantly improved their defense at all three positions, unless they sign Lofton.