Saturday, March 07, 2009

Baker's Ship Comes In

Reports are that the Twins and Scott Baker have signed a four-year contract with a team option for the fifth year. Congrats Scott, and congrats Twins! I'd speculated on this back in January, but the Twins generally like to wait until spring training to offer long-term deals to their pitchers (but will sign hitters to long-term deals during the offseason). Last year was a great example, where they signed Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer before Twinsfest, but waited until spring training to ink Joe Nathan to guaranteed money.

And in this case, it looks like the Twins got a heck of a deal. Back in January, when writing about signing various players to long-term deals, here is what I wrote about Baker:

Scott Baker
There was plenty of talk last season about Liriano and his service time, but the guy on the roster who was closest to arbitration but missed was Baker. He started the year with 1 year and 128 days of service time, and I’m pretty sure he was on the 25 man roster or DL for the whole year, so he finished with about 2 years and 128 days. “Super 2” arbitration usually kicks in somewhere between 2 years and 130 to 140 days. I wonder just how close he was?

Baker’s salary over the next four years closely mirrors Liriano’s. He isn’t the injury risk (in my mind) that Liriano is, so a lower per year salary with a longer deal makes more sense. Four years, $18 million, and a team option on the fifth year ($12M?) with a $2 million buyout seems fair. Congratulations Scott, your ship has come in.

The Twins and Baker agreed to a deal for roughly $5 million less than I had proposed. That's a nice deal for the Twins. And considering that he's the guy walking away from the bargaining table with $15.25 million, that's a nice deal for Baker, too.

Next up? Hopefully Liriano. Here's what I wrote about him in the same story:

Francisco Liriano
You can argue whether Liriano or Scott Baker should be the top long-term target on the roster. Either way, these two players are better fits for a long-term deal than the Twins have had for several years. They’re both relatively proven, they’re both a year away from big money, and they’re both high-ceiling players.

The only issue that might scare the Twins about Liriano – his health – is exactly the reason a long-term deal is probably so attractive to him. And after just missing arbitration last year, he’s faced with one more year of a team-dictated salary before a giant raise. So now’s the time, for both him and the Twins.

Here, very roughly, is what Liriano and the Twins can expect his salary to be over the next four years if he remains healthy and goes through the arbitration process:

2009 – $0.5M
2010 - $3.5M
2011 - $7.0M
2012 - $11.5M
2013 – free agent
Total - $22.5 million through 2012

Repeat after me: The Twins essentially already have a contract with Liriano. It is for four years and (roughly) $22.5 million. That's going to be the case for all these guys, and it’s the best kind of contract because they can renew it yearly, meaning there is almost no risk to them whatsoever. For them to guarantee all of that money ahead of time, they to need to get something substantial in return.

In this case, that something had better include at least one year of free agency. But the question for both sides is how long will they want to commit? If the Twins trust him to stay healthy, the longer the better. But if he comes down with an elbow injury next June, just how long do the Twins want to be on the hook?

Ideally, their offer would be for something like 3 years and $10M guaranteed, with team options for 2012 and 2013 at $11M and $13M respectively. Throw some guaranteed money buyouts ($1.5M?) for those last two years and Liriano is guaranteed $13M, even if he breaks down on March 15th. Given his arm issues, I would think he (and his agent) would have a hard time walking away from that.

The injury issue is a big one with Liriano, but I have faith that both sides can get creative and get something done. Especially given the market that the Baker deal set.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Phoning It In: Saturday's Blogger Get Together

Hey gang,

I won't be writing tonight. The season finale of Burn Notice is on (and I'm completely addicted to that show) and we should be going out to buy supplies for our new (and first) dog which should arrive tomorrow.

But I thought I should mention the blogger get-together at BW3 in Roseville on Saturday at 1:00. I really hope to be there, though now things are a little up in the air due some bad news we received. Still, odds are I'll be able to make it for a little while, and I'd love to meet old and new friends. Here are the details:

What: Twins Blogger Get Together
Where: Buffalo Wild Wings, in Roseville (Nick had the mapquest link on his site for location)
Time: Game time is 1:00.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Whispering Forgiveness

I haven’t spoken much about the steroid scandal in the seven years of this blog's existence. There’s a reason for that. And even if you’re as sick of the topic as I am, I hope you’ll grant me this day of indulgence.

You see, I want to start something, and today seems like as good a day as any.

The reason you haven’t heard any steroidal musings is because when news has broken, there have already been plenty of voices. Some have been indignant, some leering, some analytical, but they’ve been there, and they’ve been crowded, looking for ears.

That’s the temptation when looking over a mob. You look upon all those wonderful ears, sense the power, and search for the lever. But, of course, when the mob is also talking, that’s also the hardest time to be heard. Especially when you’re whispering.

So now, while the mob is silent, let’s whisper a while. Let’s whisper of forgiveness.

I’ll start by asking for some.

I have privately referred to efforts that ferret out steroid users as a witch hunt, which is as inflammatory a phrase as anything the mob has uttered. I was wrong. After some reflection, I don’t believe that, or at least not in the worst sense of the phrase. The tragedy of the Salem witch trials or McCarthy hearings wasn’t the fervor, it was that so many innocent people were accused, tried and punished. That is the tipping point of a witch hunt – when the zeal drives the mob from prosecuting the guilty to prosecuting the innocent.

So far, in the steroid scandal, that doesn’t appear to have happened, though I suppose Mark McGwire might argue that it has. It doesn’t appear that anyone will bother to prove that he was guilty, but that hasn’t stopped Hall-of-Fame voters from convicting and punishing him. But for the most part, the confessions surrounding steroid abuse seem to be genuine and not coerced. The various steroid investigations don’t appear to be a true witch hunt.

That doesn’t mean some of the uglier ingredients aren’t there. We can start with a mob fueled by envy. Like fans who view ballplayers as overpaid prima donnas. Or media members who suffer for a half-baked quote on a daily basis. Even ex-ballplayers who were born too early to share in this generation's riches.

The strongest indicator for the level of outrage directed at each ballplayer has been the height of their achievement before their confessions. Our volume, our venom and our demand for the goriest of details is in direct correlation with his fame. The bigger they are, the louder they fall.

We can add territorial desire. The commissioner’s office hasn’t been afraid to blame the players union for this entire fiasco. After all, that next Collective Bargaining Agreement is coming up in 2012. There’s no better time to start gathering public opinion real estate than right now.

And finally, there is a symbol of righteousness that justifies all kinds of ugliness, whether it’s a cross, or a flag, or the number 62. We attach ourselves to these symbols, and find ourselves conceding the moral high ground to whoever raises it high in the air. What’s more, it’s how we get the intelligentsia to buy into the discussion, prolonging the issue.

The answer to all of these is the same: forgiveness. Forgive the guilty for their weakness or greed. Forgive the innocent for turning a blind eye. Forgive the caretakers for their ignorance. Forgive the angry for their disillusioned rage.

And we can save a healthy dose of that forgiveness for ourselves, too. The steroid era is a market-driven phenomenon. We’re the ones who demanded more night games, and then looked the other way while ballplayers chomped down greenies, which are as illegal as any steroid. We’re the ones who tuned in to watch the home run races. We’re the ones demanding our team pay top dollar for free agents.

We’re also the ones approving grand juries. Tuning into congressional hearings. Relishing leaked confidential test results. And marching along with the mob, participating in the zeitgeist.

But we’re also the ones who can just as easily start forgiving. Just like we forgave baseball its labor battles, its segregation, and its gambling habit. We can do so without requiring public self-immolation. And we can do so softly, privately, to members of the mob, both when they’re yelling and when they are silent.

I’ll start. I haven’t spoken much about the steroid scandal in the seven years of this blog’s existence. Today seems like as good a day as any to start whispering forgiveness.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Endgame Mystery

We have a mystery. Let's see if we can solve it.

The bullpen's performance last summer fueled plenty of speculation about minor league alternatives. The most common names were relievers from Rochester, or closers from further down the ladder, like Rob Delaney or Anthony Slama. None of them were called.

Instead, when rosters were expanded in September, the Twins suprised us by promoting left-hander Jose Mijares from AA-New Britain. When asked about this, Ron Gardenhire mentioned the evaluations Mijares had drawn from those in the organization:

"Mijares was throwing the living fire out of the ball."


"Molitor told me midseason that he'll be in the big leagues before the year's out," Gardenhire said. "[Minor league pitching coordinator] Rick Knapp said that's a very good callup, well-deserved. ... I saw his fastball at 93-94 miles per hour."

But Gardenhire wouldn't see that 93-94 mile per hour "living fire" in a game until almost two weeks later. Mijares didn't appear in his first big league game until 9/13.

It wasn't for lack of need. During those two weeks, the team struggled, and they did so because the bullpen struggled. The Twins were swept by the Blue Jays, lost a series to the Tigers, and took two of three from the Royals. For four of the six losses, the losing pitcher was in the bullpen.

Was Gardenhire trying to protect Mijares? Gardenhire has often been criticized for not trusting young players enough, or protecting young players too much.

If that's the case, Mijares is an extreme case. Because not only didn't Mijares pitch in the six losses, he also didn't pitch in the three wins - and they were all blowout wins. The final scores of the Twins three wins during that stretch was 10-2, 7-1, and 7-2.

Were the Twins protecting Mijares arm? After all, he had broken his elbow and only had been pitching since the middle of the year. If so, they overcame their caution in a hurry. Over the second half of that month he was used ten times.

And that was because those reports Gardenhire had from the organization were dead on. About a week after his first major league game, he was already trying out for the eighth inning role that had eluded the Twins all year. He bridged a 4-1 win for Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan on Sept 21st. He was the first option for the rest of the season. He gave up just one run over his ten appearances.

So that's our mystery. Why wasn't he used earlier? There's no sign that health was the issue. Maybe Gardenhire was protecting him, or didn't trust him, but just how much trust does one need in a 10-2 game? Not using Mijares for the first two weeks of that month could be viewed as the biggest strategical blunder of the season. And it was done by a manager whose bullpen-building skills are often listed as his greatest strength.

Well, it might have something to do with the messages that the Twins have been sending Mijares' way since the offseason began. First, Mijares was cut from his winter ball team and received a very public message from GM Bill Smith. The Strib gives us the details:

But after suffering two playoff losses for Tigres de Aragua, Mijares had a rift with manager Buddy Bailey and walked out on the team, Twins officials confirmed Thursday.

Mijares, 24, returned to the Aragua team but only after skipping multiple games. Bailey didn't use Mijares again and soon cut him from the playoff roster, even though Mijares had posted a 1.40 ERA in 28 regular-season appearances for de Tigres.


"If he comes to camp thinking he's a lock for our bullpen, he'll probably be in Rochester after our first cuts," Smith said. "If he pitches the way he did in September, he has a good chance of making our club."

Hmmm, first cuts, huh? That sounds ominous, especially considering the reports that the already large-boned Mijares packed on some extra pounds this offseason.

But first cuts also seemed unlikely after learning that Boof Bonser would be out for the season. Or it would if the the Twins hadn't kept up the pressure. The news that they were talking with Juan Cruz would've created a roster crunch that would jeapordize Mijares spot on the 25 man roster.

Juan Cruz signed with the Royals this weekend, but the manager has also created some of his own drama by pondering entering the season with just an eleven-man pitching staff. With five starting pitchers, that would mean that one of the seven projected bullpen arms would be left behind. And Mijares is the only projected bullpen arm left with options.

Given the messaging that has happened so far this spring, it's likely the Twins started those messages back during the first days of a September call-up. Viewing an attitude or some behavior they didn't like, they sat a vital asset on the bench. Gave him a "time out" to think about how opportunity can be fleeting.

And perhaps we don't have such a mystery after all.