Thursday, March 22, 2007

Pre-Vegas Thoughts

Hey gang,

Incredibly short entry today as I'm basically cranking it out before the plane leaves for Vegas. Sorry to not blog Twins today, especially when there is such a fruitful topic such as the end of contract talks for Morneau.

Alright, I can't stand it. A quick take - WE ALREADY HAVE A FOUR YEAR CONTRACT WITH MORNEAU. Only it's called arbitration. And the only difference is that now neither side knows exactly how much it will cost (though they both have a pretty good idea). If the team's option year for the fifth year isn't included, it's exactly the same as the current situation from the fan's point of view.

My gawd I get tired of this sort of thing. The same thing happened when the Twins were negotiating with Hunter. Not having a four-year deal in place means almost nothing to the fans. It means a something to the Twins, but usually it only means a couple of million dollars a year, and the Twins can save that a dozen different ways.

It should be a lot more than that to the player, but if he doesn't want the deal, great. No guaranteed deal removes a huge risk from the plate of the Twins. If those concussions symptoms come back, and the future looks shaky, the Twins aren't committed to an eight figure salary.

Ok, that's it. I woulld encourage you to stop by to see some of the other GameDay writer's takes, and to track all your favorite Twins blogs (and maybe a couple you haven't seen yet). I'll be back tomorrow, or possibly even later today. I'd appreciate any karma you can send my way this weekend.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Money on Both Sides

Bringing back one veteran starting pitcher was deemed necessary. Gambling on another was judged prudent. Signing a third seemed a little overzealous. But as one of the most highly touted prospects in the minors continues to throw pills past hitters, it's natural to ask - why not start the kids?

It turns out that just as their is a financial incentive to rush youngsters onto the major league roster, there is also an incentive against it, and it can be similarly lucrative. To understand it, you need to understand exactly how service time works and how it affects players salaries and team payrolls.

Every day a player is on a major league roster (or on the DL from a major league roster), they're earning service time. Service time is tracked in years and days, and you can find how much service time a player has at Cott's, an indispensable baseball resource. For instance, if you click over there and look at the Twins, you'll find this:

Justin Morneau 1b
1 year/$4.5M (2007)

  • re-signed 2/07 (avoided arbitration, $5M-$4M)
  • 1 year/$0.385M (2006), re-signed 3/06
  • 1 year/$0.345M (2005), re-signed 3/05
  • drafted 1999 (3-89), $0.29M signing bonus
  • agent: SFX
  • ML service: 2.168

That last bullet point means that Morneau has 2 years and 168 days service time. (To be honest, I don't know how many days constitute a year, but I assume it's around 175 or 180). That's less than three years, which is significant, because there are two points on the service time clock that are VERY important to ballplayers and their teams.

6.000 (Six years)

A player who ends the season with a six full years of service time can become a free agent. This is why it is so important that Morneau is just short of three years of service time right now. When the 2009 season ends, Morneau will have 5 years and 168 days of service time. Which means he won't be eligible for free agency until after 2010 and should (knock, knock) be able to play in the new ballpark (knock, knock).

~2.135 (About two years and 135 games)

A player who ends the season with about two years and 135 games of service time is eligible for arbitration for the first time, meaning a several million dollar raise ala Joe Mauer and Morneau this year. That's significant to one other young Twins player...

Remember how last year Jason Bartlett was sent down to Rochester at the end of spring training? And nobody could believe it? Coincidentally Bartlett had earned 148 days of service time prior to last year. If he had been with the Twins from the beginning of the year, he would have undoubtedly been eligible for arbitration after this year.

But, because he spent two months in Rochester, he finished last season with one year and 86 games. Which means that even after this year, he’ll still be a full year away from arbitration. That could save the Twins a couple of million dollars in 2008. And 2009. And 2010.

There’s no evidence that the Twins took this into consideration. In fact, it was reported that they offered to put Bartlett on the disabled list to begin the season, which would have extended his service time. Also, had they really just been trying to dodge an early arbitration, they could have called him up at the end of April and still accomplished that goal.

But it's probably wasn't an unpleasant side effect.

Which brings us to Matt Garza, who enters the year with 55 days of service time. If the Twins can wait until the end of May to call him up, they'll delay his ability to become a free agent until after 2013, instead of 2012. And if they can wait until shortly after the All-Star break to call him up, they'll delay his arbitration date until after 2010, which means he'll still be pitching for peanuts just as the Twins are facing Mauer's and Morneau's free agency. The future savings for keeping a high-impact rookie like Garza in the minors for another half year could be a couple of million dollars per year.

It's easy to see the obvious costs of signing veterans could probably be replaced by a rookie. But beyond the risks that it includes, there are costs down the road that might otherwise be mitigated. A tweak in a rookie's service time, made possible by a veteran carrying the load for just a few extra weeks, can provide a significant financial windfall.

Twins Takes

  • Machado is going to start the year on the DL (savvy move for a Rule V guy) and Gardenhire seems to have talked himself out of "needing" a new backup shortstop or necessarily keeping Alexi Casilla on the roster. (Casilla, by the way, has 31 days of service time. )
  • That's all great news. What isn't great news is that my research about who the Twins might trade for as a backup shortstop likely won't see the light of day. I still think I'm coming out ahead.
  • If you're not stopping by for the GameDay writers and the updated list of Twins blogging posts, you're missing some good stuff.
  • Speaking of good stuff, Friday's and Monday's posts should be interesting, as The Voice of Reason™ and I will be spending a long weekend in Las Vegas. If you're looking for Twins news, there likely won't be much. If you're looking for drunken debauchary and disconnected ponderings, welcome home.
  • My favorite comment of the week come from T Dog: "My real question is what do Perkins & Garza have to do to make the rotation? Bounce around the majors for 10 years and then sign a minor league contract with the Twins?"

Thanks for stopping by. We'll see you tomorrow.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Yo, New York! We gotchyer MVP right HERE!

(Why Morneau deserved the American League MVP)

History tells us that Ty Cobb was awarded the American League Most Valuable Player award unanimously in 1911. History declines to mention the name of the scribe that ranted five minutes afterwards about how Eddie Walsh was robbed, but I think we can safely assume that happened.

More recently, lambasting the baseball writers’ choice has shifted from pastime to bad habit. Now the outrage emulates from every corner of the baseball universe as bloggers, statisticians, fans and sportwriters scramble for a new viewpoint on one of the oldest debates in baseball. If you don’t have a differing viewpoint on the MVP, you’re robbing yourself of an easy story, as well as a chance to storm the moral high ground.

So I guess we should have expected the reaction we received this December when Justin Morneau won the closest MVP vote since 2001. Morneau edged out Derek Jeter by 14 points, or the equivalent of one first place vote.

And the chum hit the water.

In the feeding frenzy that followed, we were told that the writers overvalued power numbers. That they undervalued defense. They overvalued a team’s record. But they undervalued leadership. We were told that we should consider a player’s lifetime of work. And that pitchers should win. And that Morneau wasn’t the most valuable Twin. And that he wasn’t even the second most valuable Twin.

Nobody thought that Morneau didn’t warrant consideration, but they all agreed that the baseball writers had used the wrong criteria. And had they used the right criteria, the award would have gone to Jeter. Or David Ortiz or Frank Thomas or Jermaine Dye or Johan Santana or…

Sorry guys. It turns out that the MVP isn’t defined the way you might want it defined. It isn’t an award for the best offensive stats or the preferred sabremetric stat of the day. It isn’t an award for the best player or even “The Most Valuable Player”. It isn’t defined by a rule book or metric or baseball czar. It isn’t even defined by this year’s baseball writers.

The MVP award is defined by its history, and more heavily by its recent history. It’s defined by a historical collection of opinions that have shaped it little by little for the last 100 years. If you want to know what an MVP is, you look at who its been awarded to. And so you find the criteria:

“Most valuable” beats out “best” – This isn’t an award for the best baseball stats, whether you’re using something traditional like RBI or more advanced like VORP. A player who has the best statistics will finish second to a player that may have put up slightly smaller stats in more critical situations. Or to a player that was the critical difference between his team making or missing the postseason.

A starting pitcher doesn’t get the award unless they have an absolutely ungodly year – The Cy Young started being awarded in 1956, and soon after, the MVP has been almost exclusively reserved for position players. Only one starting pitcher has won it has since the mid-70s – Roger Clemens in 1986.

It’s not a lifetime achievement award – It’s based on what a player did for a given year. It’s not uncommon for a fairly mediocre player to win the award based on an absolutely exceptional year (see Versalles, Zoilo). A lifetime’s worth of success probably helps, especially for a player who is popular with sportswriters, but the lifetime achievement award is called “The Hall of Fame”.

Defense gets extra points, but offense is more important – This has shifted a little, as a few of the more recent awardees have been shortstops, but when an award has been given to Mo Vaughn, I think we can all agree that defense might not be the top consideration.

Team success counts – A player gets extra credit for a team that achieves. This is especially true if the team isn’t loaded with other superstars.

God knows there’s plenty of room to debate those rules, but there isn’t a lot of doubt that they are, in fact, the rules. So let’s evaluate:

  • Morneau was one of the top performers in the league in a year that nobody else stood out.
  • He didn’t just put up big numbers, he consistently performed in important situations.
  • His young team went from execrable to division champion at exactly the time he started hitting well.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Delayed Justice

It’s more painful because we remember it so well from last year.

The underperforming veterans returned to validate all our doubts in spring, but were still handed a starting job. Their struggles continued and seemingly infected the rest of the team. Finally, after a couple of dismal months, they were replaced with the younger players that we all knew should have been there in the first place. It was recognized, both internally and externally, as the turning point for the team.

The names have changed, but the story is the same. Instead of Kyle Lohse, Juan Castro and Tony Batista, Twins fans (and impartial baseball observers) are wondering why the Twins are wasting their time with Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Those three pitchers were terrible last year and Silva and Ponson haven’t demonstrated any legitimate signs of improvement this spring.

So the most maddening part to Twins fans isn’t that Twins seem dedicated to these reclamation projects. (Hey, we’re all about reclamation projects. Haven’t you read the press clippings?) The maddening part is that the Twins don’t seem to have learned anything from last year. Or at least nothing beyond “We can get away with putting inferior veterans on the field for the first two months.”

Which would be tragic except for one thing: I'm not totally sure that they're wrong.

Starting the crappy veterans while keeping the kids in Rochester does have some benefits, (and you can be sure that everyone involved is listing them). It keeps early expectations off the kids, letting them get hungry in Rochester while building some momentum and confidence. It gives the organization extra depth, since some of those veterans would need to be released if not handed a spot now. That’s especially handy when injuries inevitably strike. Finally it also puts pressure on the veterans to perform. We could come up with a half dozen more.

Hogwash? It kind of feels like it, doesn't it? But the bottom line is that it worked really well last year. I don't believe Jason Bartlett "learned" anything of use with his demotion to Rochester, but his promotion did correspond with a torrid hitting streak that eased everyone's doubts, including his own. I don't think having Batista lunge (lounge?) around at the hot corner helped Nick Punto, but then I didn't think Punto would be a productive regular third baseman. And how can anyone argue with how Francisco Liriano turned out before he was hurt.

Of course, it also means starting guys who sure seem washed up for the first six weeks. But what does that cost the team? Maybe a slight downgrade of talent for 40 games? Which might cost them a couple of games, maybe? And will likely be corrected with 120+ game left? We may need to understand that an Opening Day spot doesn’t guarantee anyone 33 starts. For Silva/Ponson/Ortiz, it likely doesn’t mean more than a six start trial.

So while it’s not the way I would do things, I’m not sure that starting the season with The Triumvercrap is the worst idea. After all, the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. While it feels a little Orwellian to make an argument that less is more, given their success last year, this organization probably has earned a delayed sentence.