Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The 7th Bullpen Spot

I can't make it to spring training this year, which is KILLING me. Instead I'm left taking a look at box scores, occasionally listening to games and reviewing rosters to try and figure out what it going on from 1718 miles away.

I'm missing some drama this year. The 7th bullpen spot had become interesting in sort of a car crash kind of way. The top six spots seem to be pretty well taken....

RH Middle Relievers - Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch and Pat Neshek
LH Middle Reliever - Jose Mijares
Mop Up Guy - Clay Condrey

Condrey has had a miserable spring, giving up another three hits in an inning yesterday, which is a cause for concern. The fact that he's out of options virtually guarantees him a roster spot, especially because there don't seem to be any candidates to replace him. In fact, there don't even seem to be any candidates to JOIN him, let alone replace him, which brings us back to that seventh spot.

I think the top guy on the wish list was Brian Duensing, mostly because he was left-handed, but partly because he really should be rewarded for being one of the best starting pitchers over the last couple months last year. But he's given up 12 hits in seven innings, including four more in three innings on Sunday. If he's healthy, he'll probably get another chance tomorrow, but there aren't a lot of chances left.

Glen Perkins is also left-handed, and was also in camp to supposedly compete for a spot. But his ERA is 9.00 and that's because he's given up 14 hits in seven innings. And now he's hurt with a back strain from working out. That's funny because I think I just read that an important deadline just passed. The reason the Twins sent Danny Valencia out of camp this weekend was because any player on the 40-man roster who is injured in Spring Training and still injured on Opening Day must be put on the DL.

Perkins is on the 40-man roster too. And if he goes on the DL, he gains service time. Coincidentally, Perkins missed being arbitration eligible (and thus probably an extra million dollars in salary) by about three days of service time last year, and was pissed enough about it to file a case against the Twins. And now he has a back injury that could be worth a dozen or so days of service time. Huh. Isn't that a happy little coincidence?

There are a bunch of other former right-handed starters that could have taken this place too, like Anthony Swarzak and Jeff Manship, but they also have had terrible springs. Which brings us to the final candidates:

The one everyone is talking about it Anthony Slama, because we've followed him so long. It doesn't hurt that he has put up such filthy numbers in the lower levels of the minors and has struck out nine guys in five innings this spring. But he's right-handed, and hasn't seen much in the way of major league batters yet.

The guy that nobody seems to be talking about is Mike Maroth, who is left-handed, a veteran, and has a 3.38 ERA this spring. Of course, he's also trying to restart a major league career and has struck out just on guy the entire spring. But he did precede Slama in yesterday's game and get through a scoreless inning. Maroth and Slama look like the two top candidates to me.

(Ron Mahay, the left-handed reliever who the Twins signed yesterday, is not. But he might be ready by the end of April as an insurance policy.)

The name that won't go away is Francisco Liriano, who has been silly good this spring, striking out 16 and walking just one in 10 innings pitched. It sounds like manager Ron Gardenhire keeps bringing up his name as a closer option and I wonder if we aren't seen a little stand-off between him and GM Bill Smith.

Gardenhire wants a closer, and wants Smith to get him one. The talk about Liriano closing might be nothing more than a vague threat in case Gardy doesn't get his way. He may not get to choose exactly who is on his 25-man roster, but he sure as hell gets to decide what to do with them when they're there. And if he needs to lose an ace starter to prove his point about wanting a closer, he just might be that crazy....

I don't think he is that crazy, and I think he has plenty of other options. Liriano will stay in the rotation even though Bill Smith stands pat. Duensing will get the last spot if he finds himself on Friday or next Wednesday. In the meantime, Slama and Maroth will be pitted in a competition to take the spot if Duensing can't pull it together.

Or at least that's how things look from 1718 miles away.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Catchers and MVPs

I've just been doing a little research on historically great catchers, and I've got to tell you, I'm a little blown away by what I'm finding. We sort of generally refer to Joe Mauer as having a chance to be one of the best catchers ever. And he could be, but there are sure some remarkable catchers in baseball history.

Take MVP awards for instance, which is an area where Mauer should already compare favorably. After all, he's only 26 and has already won once and finished in the top six in voting three times. But look at the top seven guys that Bill James identifies as the best major league catchers in his Historical Baseball Abstract:
  • Bill Dickey, who played for the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig Yankees (and batted in the middle of that lineup) never won an MVP but finished in the top ten five times. And he finished in the top 20 ten times.
  • Carleton Fisk (Red Sox in 70s, White Sox in 80s) also never won but finished in the top 4 four times.
  • Mike Piazza never won, but finished in the top ten seven times. And finished 13th and 14th two other times.
Those guys are good, but now we get to the heavy hitters:
  • Mickey Cochrane, who led the Athletics to two World Series titles and then led Detroit to their first championship ever (as a player/manager in 1935) won two MVPs. He also finished 4th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 14th and 18th in other years.
  • The Brooklyn Dodgers Roy Campanella only played for ten years due to the color barrier and an auto accident that left him paralyzed. But during those ten years he won three MVPs and got votes three other times.
  • Johnny Bench of the 70s Big Red Machine won two MVP awards before he was 25 years old. In all he received votes during ten seasons.
  • And not only did Yogi Berra win three MVP awards, but for eight straight years he never finished lower than fourth. He received votes in fifteen consecutive years. His Yankees teams of the late 40s and 50s also appeared in 14 World Series, and he won ten of them.
So keep at it Joe. There's still plenty of mountains to climb.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Joe's Contract & the Twins' Future

The Twins announced on Sunday that they had reached an agreement with Joe Mauer on an eight-year extension for $184 million, which Joe Christensen is reporting will be paid at $23 million per year. We'll get more details at 6:00 on Monday when a press conference is scheduled, but let’s tackle some questions that are popping up from Twins fans.


Well, that’s more of an exclamation than a question, but I totally concur. Woo-hoo indeed.

One of the things that baseball analysts struggle with is what a truly elite player is worth. Can you make up for their value with other, cheaper combinations of players and still be a championship-caliber team? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t care. Here’s what I care about: watching an elite player, maybe even historically elite, for the next nine years. Again, woo-hoo!

Why nine years? I thought it was an eight-year contract?

It’s an eight-year contract extension, not an eight-year contract. Mauer had a contract through this year and the contract extension was announced to go through the 2018 season, at which point Mauer will be 35 years old.

So we have him locked up for nine years?

Maybe, maybe not. We’ll hopefully find out tomorrow if there is an opt-out clause for Mauer at some point during the contract. That’s happened in some recent contracts, like last year’s deal for C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia can opt out of his seven-year deal with the Yankees next year, when it’s only three years old.

This kind of a clause is usually justified as protection for the player if salaries skyrocket. If Mauer and his agent think they already gave a hometown discount, they might regard that as important protection. Plus, with Mauer only being 26 years old, an opt-out clause after four years might allow him to be on the market when he’s 30, which is young enough to justify another longer deal. Like I said, hopefully this will be answered in tomorrow’s press conference.

Did Mauer give a hometown discount?

If so, it doesn’t appear to be a very big one, just like his last two deals with the Twins. The biggest recent contract for a hitter came a year ago, when first baseman Mark Teixeira signed an eight-year deal with the Yankees that paid him an average of $22.5 million per year. Mauer’s deal is just a little richer than that. One could argue that if he became a free agent, Mauer would have exceeded that contract since he’s both younger and a catcher. On the other hand, Teixera has averaged 35 HR and 114 RBI over his seven-year career, numbers Mauer has never
reached in any season.

Would a bidding war between the Yankees, Red Sox or Mets have driven up the number higher than that? Maybe. Of course, Mauer would have had to wait another year, staying healthy and putting up huge numbers again to find out. Instead, he’s guaranteed the money either way now.

What if he gets hurt or can’t stay at catcher?

The money is guaranteed, so he’ll get it one way or the other. The Twins could take out insurance on it to help protect themselves, but that insurance costs money too, so it likely won’t be for the full amount. And if Mauer can play at a position other than catcher, the insurance wouldn’t help.

A lot of the money Mauer is attached to him playing catcher. This offseason, the next biggest contract was signed by Matt Holliday, who returned to the St. Louis Cardinals. He signed a (much criticized) seven-year, $120 million deal, which averages out to about $17 million per year.

Holliday puts up about 25-30 homer runs per year and has a career batting average of .318. Mauer showed similar power last year and has a career batting average of .327. Holliday isn’t quite the hitter that Mauer is, but he’s close. However, as a left-fielder, Holliday is making about $6 million less per year.

So if Mauer needs to move out from behind the dish, but he still continues to hit, the Twins will be stuck paying about $4-5 million too much for him every year. That’s not terrible, provided he’s still producing offensively.

Does this mean the Twins won’t have any money to spend on other players this year?

Again, Mauer had a contract through this year for $12.5 million and it sounds like that stays intact, so this deal probably doesn’t affect this year’s money much. If there was a signing bonus, then it would affect this year’s money. However, the last deal Mauer signed did not have a signing bonus, and it’s pretty unlikely he needs the money right away.

This could be significant, because the Twins also announced yesterday that Joe Nathan will undergo Tommy John surgery as soon as he can. It was reported last week that over half of Nathan’s salary this year could be insured, meaning the Twins might have $6 million to spend that they didn’t think they would have. That could come in handy when looking for a closer or at the trade deadline.

Is any of the $184 million deferred, like Sid Hartman suggested?

We don’t know. Initial indications are that it’s not. I’ll say this – if Mauer wants to make sure he’s paid market rate AND make the Twins as competitive as he can over the next eight years, it would makes sense for him to demand that a big chunk of that money be deferred.

If you’ll indulge me in some over-the-top speculation, what if Mauer asked that $10 million of each year’s salary be deferred? The Twins would have $10 million more to spend on their team those years. Mauer gets his money, but he also benefits from playing on a team with an artificially higher payroll.

Of course, the fiscally conservative Twins might not be crazy about penalizing the 2020 team to subsidize the 2012 team. And they could be really worried that other stars like Justin Morneau would see this as a viable alternative for their own future negotiations. Again, I hope we’ll find out more about this on Monday.

Is $23 million per year too much? Will it cripple the Twins?

The one question I never heard anyone answer throughout this contract negotiation was “How much is too much?” I’d like to be critical of that, but I don’t have an answer either.
So let’s see what this is going to do to payroll for the Twins the next couple of years, assuming that the breakdown is $23 million per year as Joe Christensen reported. So on the right are some back-of-the-napkin figures for 2011….

That’s tight. The Twins would have a payroll of about $94 million with spots to fill in their rotation, at second base, and in their bullpen. Payroll next year would probably be close to $100 million, so that leaves about $6 million to spend. They would need to fill most spots with youngsters and possibly spend on one lower-tier free agent. (Or, sigh, Nick Punto.)

I’d like to show you 2012, but things get really fuzzy by then. Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and JJ Hardy could all be free agents. Francisco Liriano and Delmon Young could either be very expensive or gone. Nathan’s salary comes off the books. I compute a payroll of just $58 million or so, but we also have a tremendous number of open positions. The bottom line is that it’s just too far away to do any realistic analysis on it.

What’s clear is that the Twins will need to rely on their farm system to provide help to cover contracts like this. Fortunately, that’s not just an economic reality; it’s a philosophical tenet of the organization. It’s what the organization has believed and done for the last ten years.

So no, I don’t think it cripples the Twins. But it does likely mean that spending on free agents in the next decade could look an awful lot like it did last decade. This was a great offseason for the Twins and their fans. I hope you are enjoying it, because we likely won’t see another like it for another nine years.

(Image courtesy of Keith Allison)