Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Nathan's Red Indicator Light

You may not be a machine Joe, but that doesn't mean we can't treat you like one.

The result was bad - a loss to the White Sox that leaves the Twins currently 4.5 games back of the Tigers. But the implication might have been worse.

Joe Nathan hasn't been right, and it's been apparent for several weeks, starting with a blown save that led to a 53 pitch outing against the Royals on August 21st. Nathan has been a stable and nearly unstoppable force since his arrival in 2004 in the AJ Pierzynski trade. This year and last you can change that article to "the", as in "the" stable and nearly unstoppable force. Because there hasn't been much else. Losing him might be the final blow to a team that has been deflecting a lot of final blows this season.

You can probably go somewhere else on the Twins blogosphere for a breakdown of Nathan's mechanics, but when I want to figure out if there's something wrong with a pitcher, I treat them like a machine. And the red indicator light for a pitcher with a serious problem is a sharp decline in his strikeout rate. So let's use that nifty Excel Chart Wizard and map Nathan's K/9 rate for each month since he got here, and compare it to his average rate over that time:

Nathan's strikeout rate this year and last has generally been a little lower than his overall average. That's to be expected, by the way - it happens to pitchers in the major leagues as hitters slowly adjust. But in Nathan's case, his strikeout rate has been increasing towards the end of this year, and was as high in August as it has been for the last couple years. That's far from a blinking red indicator light.

Is he trying to strike out people too much? Is he nibbling? It can't hurt to take a look and see if his control is off a bit, can it? Let's take a look at his BB/9 (walks per nine innings) rate over the same period.

Remember, on this chart, a peak is bad, and valleys are good. And last month, Nathan was at a peak that he hadn't seen since September of 2007 , when he blew back-to-back saves. Before that he reached this level back in September of 2006, when he was actually very, very good, because he was striking out a ton of people to make up for the walks.

But if you've been watching Nathan, the revelation that he's struggling with his control isn't a revelation at all. He's been missing the target on the outside of the plate consistently, especially against left-handed hitters. That's not exactly good news, but it isn't as bad as it could be. The machine definitely needs a tune-up, but he doesn't need an overhaul.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Swapping The Same Guy

In case you missed it, the PTBNL in the Jon Rauch trade came through yesterday, and it was Kevin Mulvey. This will undoubtedly stoke the "Johan Santana was a disastrous trade" fire. Whatever. The Santana trade was a dissappointment from the minute it was announced.

By the way, I think that link is worth a click through. The entire situation was baffling then, and it seems clear that Santana was manipulating it far more then we understood. It was a crappy trade because it was a crappy situation. That was true then, and it's true now.

Of course, this trade shouldn't be evaluated as part of a trade two years ago that still has some stink on it. It should be evaluated for what it is. So here are the components:

Mulvey is a 24-year-old AAA pitcher who is basically in his second year in AAA. His stats are slightly above average almost across the board, except for hits given up, where he's closer to average. He projects to be a back-of-the-rotation guy or middle reliever.

When Rauch was a 24-year-old, he was also in AAA. And his stats were slightly above average almost across the board, except for home runs given up, where he was below average. He had a handful of starts but ended up being a middle reliever. For the last few years, he was a very durable and effective middle reliever for the Nationals, but for the last year he has been a little less effective (and healthy) with the Diamondbacks.

In case you didn't notice, they're the same guy.

Straight up, not taking into consideration existing needs, Mulvey is usually going to be the more valuable guy to an organization because he has six more years of team control at a far lower salary. I'll even go as far to say that Mulvey might be at or near Rauch's level as early as late next year.

But Rauch is ready now. He's under control for next year. And he doesn't have the risk that Mulvey has or require the patience. This is not a steal, but it's a solid move, and the downside is that you probably lose an effective middle reliever from 2011 through 2013. So be it.

Twins Win!
Great win. A decent start by Jeff Manship, a few bombs by Michael Cuddyer, a bullpen meltdown, and a clutch hit by Jose Morales. I'd like to give you a few thoughts, but the dog needs walking. Here's an idea - follow me on Twitter. It takes about a second to sign up, and you can check your cell phone during the game and get all kinds of insights from all kind of Twins geeks.

You mean you're not? C'mon, what could be better than getting texted my Twins thoughts on your cell phone? You don't need to answer that. Just nod politely.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Catching Up with a Harden White Paper

After two weeks of traveling through Colorado with my family, I'm the last person you should be coming to for any insight on the Twins this week. So why am I writing? Because I'm afraid if I don't restart soon I might never.

It doesn't make it any easier that there are so many juicy topics. The Twins resurgance, the upcoming White Sox series, the September callups, two new bullpen arms....and the possible acquisition of Rich Harden.

The last, to a Twins Geek, is the biggest news, and worthy of a little research. Sorry if it's a little dry. I'll be walking through this as I go along.....

Harden would be available for seven starts for the Twins if he is acquired from the Chicago Cubs. He's supposed to pitch for them Monday night, but if he starts for the Twins on Tuesday or Wednesday, he could be lined up to pitch the leading game of both Detroit series. This for a guy who, you could argue, was as valuable an acquisition as CC Sabathia last year, and has posted a 2.94 ERA over the last two years.

Yes, he's unreliable because of his injury history. He's also very good. And he's been VERY good over his last eight starts, with seven quality starts and a 1.80 ERA. He also has that magic strikeout rate that gets us geeks so excited, though it's worth noting that we might want to get over that, seeing as those extra pitches that lead to strikeouts also likely contribute to his diminutive inning totals.

But what's really fascinating about Harden to a Twins Geek is his perceived 'value' in the marketplace. At a very simple level, he's going to be a free agent this offseason, so he's only worth seven starts, which is worth....well, it's hard to say. If we look at that phenomenal eight-game stretch he just completed, the Cubs won just four of those games.

I suppose I could break out a sabremetric like VORP here, but with just a month remaining, lets' eyeball it a bit. If Harden is replacing various fill-ins, like Jeff Manship, it seems realistic to say he's worth at least a couple of games, and maybe as many as three. And if one of those games are versus the Tigers, then maybe we're talking about one more game swing. It's a risky play, but there is some real value there. And if he fronts a starting rotation, that value could increase significantly.

But the value that the Cubs and Twins are focusing on is also off the field, and is a result of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In an attempt to reduce the demand for (and salaries of) free agents, there is a clause which states that a team that loses a very desirable free agents (based on a formula developed by Elias) receives two top compensatory draft picks - one from the team that signed the player and one "sandwiched" between the first and second round.

However, and this is key, that only happens if they offer "arbitration" to the free agent. That means the team offers the player a chance to sign a one-year deal with them at a salary level that both can estimate but which will be ultimately decided by an arbitrator. In Harden's case, that essentially means offering him a one-year $10 million contract for next year. If he takes it, the Twins or Cubs must pay it. If not, that team would get the draft picks.

So, IF the team offers arbitration and IF Harden ends up going to another team anyway, he would be worth two high draft picks to that team. And since high draft picks often become top prospects, the Cubs are reportedly claiming that two top prospects are the starting point for Harden.

But what makes Harden's case so interesting is that it isn't totally clear that either team would definitely offer him arbitration. And it also isn't totally clear that if they do offer it, whether he would become a free agent.

The Cubs claim they would absolutely offer him arbitration, but of course it is in their best interest to claim that. But posturing aside, given their payroll and their needs in their starting rotation, it would make sense to do so and almost be irresponsible to not do so. The only thing that really gives me pause is that they're even entertaining offers. If they are in true talks about Harden, it must be to save the $1+ million he's owed this year. And if they're trying to save that, they might not be too keen on the $10 million he could make next year.

It would also make sense for the Twins to offer him arbitration. The Twins will have money to spend given their projected payroll, could use the starting pitching, and have a recent history of liking one-year contracts (even if they are somewhat expensive). The only puzzling factor is all the noise in the rumors about the Twins wanting an extension. Why would the Twins want an extension with a guy who has serious injury problems and who hasn't made more than 25 starts in a season since 2004? Why wouldn't they just offer him arbitration?

Ok, so maybe that wasn't that tough. It sure makes sense for both teams to offer him arbitration. But what are the chances he accepts it?

The question really is: what are the chances that some team offers him a deal better than that, such as a 2-year, $18 million contract or a 3-year, $26 million contract. Despite the down market last year, the Yankees guaranteed $82.5 million over 5 years to AJ Burnett, who also has struggled to stay healthy and accumulate starts prior to his contract year. To be fair, Harden makes Burnett look like Lou Gehrig, but Harden is five years younger and shows similar strikeout acumen and promise.

And promise is an intoxicating commodity. Just ask the Mets, who signed Oliver Perez to a $36 million, 3-year contract after he teased them for a couple of years. The only other free agent that looks somewhat comparable is Ben Sheets, who went unsigned, but he's just plain unable to pitch due to his latest surgery. Provided he stays healthy, Harden will likely be able to secure a significant multi-year deal, as the only free agent starting pitchers that seem likely to outrank him are Cliff Lee and Josh Beckett.

Again, provided he stays healthy. If he gets seriously hurt over the next two month, his team can't offer him arbitration, and he's not worth two top draft picks. That's what the Cubs have to gain by trading him. If they can get two top prospects, they cash their chips in a bit early, get their return, and probably save themselves a million bucks this year. If the Twins pull off the deal for two top prospects, they get their seven starts, a bill for a million dollars, two top draft picks, and a few healthy slices of risk to handle.

That seems like a fair trade to me. Taking some risks in September and October should be something that organizations fight for, not avoid.