Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Ignorance and Bliss

Maybe we feel sorry for Bill Smith, or for ourselves. Maybe living in this god-forsaken tundra just naturally requires some sort of natural optimism, or instlls a need to justify our tortuous choices. But, whatever the reason, there sure has been an effort to justify the Johan Santana trade by comparing it to past deals for Twins stars.

In the last two days, I’ve heard about the criticism leveled at trades of Frank Viola, Chuck Knoblauch, AJ Pierzynski and Eric Milton. And I’ve heard how that was wrong, and how we all learned afterwards that the players the Twins received in return were not just fair, but ultimately favored the Twins. And I’ve heard that we should all just practice a little patience.

But I think there’s a difference in how those trades were viewed by casual fans versus how they were viewed by the wonks. And by baseball wonks, I don’t mean journalists, because some journalists are wonks and some of them aren’t. I mean the folks that study this game, and the business and the salaries and the minors and the draft. I’m talking about the geeks.

The casual fan’s reaction to those previous trades matched their reaction to the Santana trade, and it was probably best captured by Nick Coleman in Thursday’s paper.

“The Twins' best pitcher -- and one of the best in baseball -- was traded to the New York Mets for four stiffs no fifth-grader heard of before.”

(I know, I know. I shouldn’t do it. Literate bloggers should, by now, have had their fill of picking on Nick Coleman. It surpassed “easy” years ago, and cleared “cruel” soon after. But lord almighty he makes it hard to not pummel him ruthlessly. I mean, if he doesn’t want to be bullied, why is he playing with his retainer in public again? And sweet geezus Nick - you need to quit smelling your fingers. It’s like taunting tigers in the zoo. I’m begging you.)

I call Coleman’s method of judgement “The Baseball Card Method” of evaluating trades. Essentially, it advocates that teams should trade players the way kids trade baseball cards, based mostly on stats from previous years. It is based on a desire to ignore salaries, future growth, and projected stardom. It’s often practiced with a reference to “The Good ‘Ol Days”.

Maybe that’s appropriate, because it might have been legitimate for trades made thirty years ago. If so, it has long since ceased, collateral damage of a more equitable system for distributing revenue to players. Which, ironically, is something I think Nick Coleman might favor. Regardless, it allows its proponents to trash most trades a low revenue team makes.

But while those previous trades were trashed by casual fans, they weren’t trashed by the wonks. The wonks evaluate trades by different standards, using the context of payroll, or of future level development, or even with an eye on how the 20th and 21st guys on the roster might help the team next year.

I remember shortly after the Eric Milton trade, I made a small appearance on an FM station, talking about the Twins, and they asked me about the trade. I told them exactly why it was a steal for the Twins – that the Twins freed up an oppressive salary, reduced their injury risk for the next season, and got back a couple of players that might fill reserve roles. We conitnued chatting a bit more about it before the interviewer suddenly stopped and said, “Hold it. You mean you LIKE the trade?” It was like she awoke from a dream.

You see, it was a totally foreign concept, because the trade was being bashed nonstop in the traditional media and on sports talk stations. Fans were irate. Milton had been the golden child, the next big thing. He’d pitched a no-hitter for chrissakes. NOBODY liked that trade. What was Terry Ryan doing?

It was completely the opposite at and on the baseball wonk discussion boards like DTFC. There, the reaction was bordering on jubilant. It was assumed that moving Milton’s $9 million salary was a lost cause, and that the Twins wouldn’t be able to get a warm bucket of spit in return. The Phillies were viewed as suckers – beautiful, gullible, glorious suckers – for giving us anything in return, let alone a couple of useful role players in Carlos Silva and Nick Punto.

This trade is different. I spent yesterday getting IMs and emails from wonks, and for the most part they were in the “talk me down from the ledge” vein. They have a totally different reaction to this than from the other examples. This isn’t a trade for four guys that the public doesn’t know but the wonks love. This is for four guys that the wonks KNOW, and that they know enough to not embrace them.

Which lead to a strange lament yesterday. I spent one email chain yesterday writing how miserable because I knew all these guys coming back from the Mets. For me, it’s one of the more disconcerting aspects of this deal. Usually there’s some guy included that the wonks don’t have on their lists, and often that guy has ended up being Francisco Liriano or Jason Bartlett. Seeing a relative nobody like “Alexi Casilla” coming back makes us feel like the Twins scouting department is doing their homework. Without a name like that….

Well, you feel like the Twins just plain got taken for a ride. And all the evidence that is seeping out about final offers, and Santana’s demands, and the apathy since the winter meetings seems to support that. We may want to believe that this is the same as the other trades, and that in three years we’ll be praising the Twins organization for their foresight. But the future isn’t bright just because Nick Coleman is crabby again. This time, we can't count on today's ignorance leading to tomorrow's bliss.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nonsensical Trade Points to Santana's Influence is reporting that the Twins have traded Johan Santana to the New York Mets for a package of prospects. Invariably, the details of this bleed out much more slowly, and the deal won’t be finalized until Santana and the Mets reach a contact agreement, but with the Mets payroll, there is no reason to believe that won’t happen.

The trade will be a nonsensical ending to what has been a nonsensical situation. Initial reports are that the deadline was self-imposed by Santana, which is particularly disappointing, because the Twins absolutely would have preferred to wait a few more days. The trade or non-trade of Eric Bedard was going to provide a shift that might have well have moved some teams in a different direction, so why trade Santana before we know how that affects the market? After waiting a couple of months, why not next week?

This is not the first time I’ve been confused during this mess, er, I mean, process. My paradigm of this situation must be completely skewed, because there are truly dozens of questions that I can’t answer. If we go over them, maybe we can find an explanation that makes sense. We can start with….

Why aren’t the Orioles trading Bedard to the Mets instead of the Mariners? And why weren’t the Mariners more interested in Santana?
Short of including Jose Reyes, the Mets have always been a TERRIBLE trading partner for the Twins. Their minor league system is a duplicate of the Twins, filled with mid-level pitching prospects who are almost ready for the majors, and hitting prospects who are several years away. The Mets can offer almost nothing that the Twins don’t already have.

The package that the Twins got from the Mets illustrates this. Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey are duplicates of half of a dozen pitchers in the Twins organization. Deolis Guerra might be special, but hasn’t made it anywhere near the upper levels of the minors. And it isn’t clear that Carlos Gomez, who headlines the package, is a significantly better prospect than Jason Pridie. He’s certainly not someone that Twins can count on before 2009.

The maddening par is that they would have been a GREAT trading partner for the Orioles. The Orioles are in full rebuilding mode. They might very well prefer some high-ceiling prospects that are a couple years away. God knows they need some starting pitching help, even if it’s just to plug the middle of their rotation. The Mets are a great fit for the Orioles. Why the hell aren’t they trading Bedard to them instead of to the Mariners?

For Twins fans, that would have be the best case scenario, because the Mariners have plenty of money to spend, and have exactly the kinds of prospects the Twins need. And they would desperately need a top flight pitcher to be any kind of threat to the Angels. They could practically be in the driver’s seat in the division (not to mention the playoffs) for the price of a AAA center fielder (Adam Jones) and a middle reliever last year (Brandon Morrow). How can they not make that deal?

Why weren’t the Cubs, Dodgers, Rockies, Phillies or Rangers in this thing?
These are teams who have a history of paying high salaries. And all of these teams could use even a decent starter, let alone an annual Cy Young contender. And all have some intriguing talent to offer back. So why didn’t we getting a sniff of rumors about them? Why haven’t we heard about Felix Pie headlining a trade from the Cubs, or Hank Blalock from the Rangers, or even some sort of salary swap with Pat Burrel from the Phillies?

The common response was that Santana would prefer to be with an “east coast” team, but was he going to turn down $140 million (before he needs to throw another pitch) because he wants to live a little closer to Florida? Really? Are Chicago and Texas so much further from his home? And why wouldn’t the Twins be trying to get the Dodgers and Rockies into a bidding war, since the Yankees and Red Sox seemed to be lost in a daze. Which brings us to maybe the best question….

What the hell are the Yankees thinking? (And for that matter, the Red Sox?)
I can kind of understand the Red Sox not getting carried away. After all, they’re coming off a world championship, so they put a couple of reasonable offers on the table. Plus, they figure they’re better situated than the Yankees to offer the offensive talent that the Twins need.

But I can’t understand the Yankees. They were clearly the second best team in their division last year. The other wild card teams, the Tigers and the Mariners, are trying like hell to improve their clubs. And they’re rotation is filled with injury histories, whether it be veterans like Mike Mussina and Andy Petitte, or rookies like Phil Hughes.

And the situation would have been damn near intolerable if the Red Sox got Santana, right? At the very least they would end up needing to face him in the playoffs. And let’s not forget facing him in the regular season as they try to stay ahead of the pumped up Tigers. Or the Mariners and their weak division. And they passed because they didn’t want add a pitching prospect (Ian Kennedy) whose ceiling tops out as a #2 starter to the deal? That’s like the Twins passing because they don’t want to add Kevin Slowey to a deal. It makes no sense.

I know what I’ll hear from the fans of those respective teams – it’s all too much to give up for one year of Santana. Fiddlesticks. The Mets won’t get a year of Santana, they’ll be getting seven years of him, and they’re going include the prime years of the 28-year-old’s career. Eric Bedard would undoubtedly have been cheaper, but he also might be gone two years from now. Santana will be the defining star of that team into the middle of the next decade. And maybe of New York.

He’s too expensive? Wrong. Imagine his price tag if he had another top five Cy Young award finish this year. If you think an 8-year, $200 million contract is beyond imagination, you need to work on your imagination. And his salary for 2008 is just $13 million, or slightly more than the Mariners will be paying Carlos Silva.

Did those teams think they could just wait until next year? Maybe. But about eight teams were going to be waiting to throw money at Santana next year, and only one of them was going to get him. And now, of course, they won’t even get that chance. Instead they’ll all get to bat against him for the next seven years, of not during the regular season, then in October. How many will think they would rather have their couple of prospects than Santana in 2009?

Did teams think he was hurt? If he is, he certainly doesn’t seem to recognize it. is reporting that he turned down a $100 million extension from the Twins. That doesn’t exactly sound like a guy who is worried about his health.

Were teams just hoping that the Twins sign him? This isn’t a bad thought. Because the Red Sox and Yankees, the Mariners and Angels, and the Rockies and Dodgers, seem to be fine with the status quo. That’s also why the Twins threat to trade him to the Mets was so non-compelling. The only team that would really care about the Mets getting him is the Phils. In fact, if the Twins really wanted to Mets to offer up Fernando Martinez (and it wouldn’t have changed my disdain for this trade), they should have been floating rumors about a big deal with the Phillies.

It’s baffling. I had hoped that the “give us your best offer” was an attempt to get the Mariners to reconsider dealing with the Orioles and the insanity that is Peter Angelos. Or maybe to give the Orioles something to think about before they reject that trade. With Bedard off the market, the Mets would have practically no real options left, and the Angels might think about responding to the move by trading for Santana.

But that doesn’t answer most of the other questions, and sadly, one other thought does. I suspect that the Twins were more handcuffed by Santana than they were admitting, which is a scenario I feared a couple of months ago. Maybe Santana basically dictated that there were only three teams that he would accept a deal with. That those teams caught wind of that. And that it left the Twins with almost no leverage. And of course, it appears he ultimately forced a trade just before the Twins could really react to a positive shift in the market.

I’m looking forward to you theories. And even more to the answers we’ll get when this whole thing is over.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Center Field Solution

I'll give this to Bill Smith - he isn't afraid to face the music.

That's a trait he shares with his predeccessor, Terry Ryan, who never shyed away from contact with fans, or critical radio hosts, or upset, anonymous callers. On Friday night I watched Smith walk away from his radio show and become engaged with several fans who asked about, well, everything. I didn't have a chance to chat with him at that time, since I had some friends waiting for me.

Twenty minutes later, I walked by the same spot, and Smith had moved less than ten feet. He was speaking with a fan and his son, and this time I forgot all about my friends. We began talking about payroll, and then I asked him about, well, everything. Ten minutes later he still hadn't moved those ten feet. And fifteen minutes later I remembered that I was supposed to be bringing my friends their dinner.

Obviously, my first question was about payroll, and he was surprised that things worked out like the ddid. He didn't expect players like Mike Lamb to come as cheaply as he did, and that Adam Everett fell into their lap. He also referenced trying to keep some money for Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva, which blows my mind. I should have followed up more than I did on that point, but I just had so many other damn questions.

Like center field. I asked him if he would feel comfortable about center field if he entered spring training with the current roster. He said he would, because that would mean that Johan Santana was his Opening Day starter. Umm, no it doesn't - there are still free agent center fielders out there like Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson. He said they're looking at them, too.

I don't know if that slip up was just him reciting a pat answer ("We would be very happy to have the best pitcher in baseball pitching for us on Opening Day.") or whether he really is just planning on getting his center fielder in a trade. In a later question, he felt like he didn't NEED a center fielder in return for Santana.

And I tend to agree with him. The Twins do have a decent solution for center field on the roster, or rather they appear to have two half solutions. Their names are Jason Pridie and Craig Monroe.

The biggest question about the right-handed hitting Monroe is whether he can handle center field defensively. Smith said the Twins scouting reports say he's "adequate", but probably can't play their every day. The defensive metrics in Baseball Prospectus 2007 handbook imply the same thing. In 2006, playing left field, Monroe was a single run below average, and that's in massive Comerica Park. His profile suggests he can probably handle one-third of the games in a center field platoon.

And his bat can certainly play there. Over the last three years, Monroe has hit .281 and slugged .481 against left-handers. Over those same three years, Torii Hunter hit .287 and slugged .487 overall. Monroe can't replace Hunter's bat, but he can replace one-third of Hunter's bat.

The exact opposite questions exist about Monroe's proposed platoon-mate, Jason Pridie, but that's probably a good thing. Defensively, people rave about Pridie's tools, and since he's left-handed, he would end up patrolling CF about 2/3 of the time. Offensively, the 24-year-old never did much before last year, and as Jesse at TwinkieTown pointed out, a lot of that is related to his lack of plate discipline.

That didn't change much last year, but he still had tremendous success, and it was fueled by raking right-handed pitching. Against the port-siders, he hit .326, and slugged .572(!) over 359 at-bats in AA and AAA. (Read that last sentence again.)

In fact, it looks like the Devil Rays figured out that he needed to platoon once he was promoted to AAA. He had 194 at-bats against right-handers and 48 at-bats agains lefties, or about a 4:1 ratio. That's the kind of ratio you only see when a player is being held out of the lineup against southpaws.

Would Ron Gardenhire consider such an option? While the general consensus is that he avoids platoons, this might be to his liking. It would put a good glove in center field 2/3 of the time. It would put a rookie in the best position to succeed. It would allow him to get Monroe and Kubel in the starting lineup together 1/3 of the time, and it's not like the veteran Monroe has a long history with the organization. This might be a platoon that even Gardy could embrace.

During the talk with Smith, I asked him if he needed to walk to anyplace, and pointed out to him that I was mobile. No, he replied, he was here to talk to people. And approximately 45 minutes later, I found him again roaming the floor, this time with one of the Twins minor leaguers. I was again impressed with that quiet display of confidence.

It was comforting to see that considering the pressure he faces in possibly trading Johan Santana. I don't know if he was posturing or not, but I believe him when he says he's comfortable going into spring training with the center fielders he currently has. And after looking at the options, I don't blame him.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Contracts and Cliches

It's easy to say "sign stars to long-term contracts".

In fact, that's part of the problem. Things that are easy to say run the risk of becoming cliches, and cliches are perceived to be a sort of wisdom. That's especially true for this cliche, because the judgement must be delayed, and usually relies more on something nobody can control - namely, injuries - than the details off the contract. But the details is what makes these deals happen or not happen.

On Friday, it happened, and it happened twice. Just before TwinsFest began, the Twins announced that they had signed Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer to long-term deals. Twins fans generally viewed it as good news, with some telling us to celebrate, and some cautioning us.

Last week I speculated on the type of deal the Twins should offer Morneau, and the resulting deal is awfully close. But the devil is in the details, and I suffer a debilitating weakness when it comes to this stuff. So how about we spend 1000 words or so breaking these things down?

The Signing Bonuses
Now we know what the Twins are going to do with that extra money, right? Well, kinda. This still doesn't mean the Twins are tapped out, even if they don't trade Johan Santana. The $8.75 million singing bonuses that they gave Morneau and Cuddyer don't bring the Twins to last year's Opening Day payroll. And at TwinsFest, Bill Smith said they had planned on a sizable increase above that. Plus, of course, if Santana is traded for prospects, they're going to save another $13 million.

But credit the Twins for recognizing a situation that fell into their laps and taking advantage of it. On Friday I wondered why the Twins hadn't structured an offer for Torii Hunter similar to what the San Francisco Giants agreed to with Aaron Rowand, which included a sizable signing bonus. If they didn't think of it then, they certainly did now. And there's two advantages to doing that.

The first is that the signing bonus is essentially free money to Twins management, since they weren't going to find a decent free agent to accept it at this point in the offseason. In fact, this organization's motus operandi has been to throw leftover money at veteran free agent gambles, which just encourages the coaching staff to invest playing time on them, which does as much harm as good.

And the second advantage?

The Money
The second is that money now makes the back end of the contract more palatable. For instance, last week I proposed the Twins offer Morneau a contract that paid him $14M/$15M/$16M over the last 3 years. The contract that Morneau actually signed pays only $14M over each of those last three years. Those are the years where the Twins are going to be more strapped for money, as they continue to keep their best players from free agency.

But it's not just more palatable to the Twins. If things change and the Twins need to trade Morneau and his payroll to another team, he's a more marketable commodity because of his slightly lower price tag. There's a decent chance that $14 million will be an affordable contract in five or six years.

Hmmm. I suspect I'm going to get some grief for that last sentence. There's a decent chance that $14 million will be an affordable contract in five or six years. Let's explore it a little...

Can we expect Morneau, whose offensive performance decline last season, to be woth that money? Well, he is just 26 years old. His home park is going to be beneficial to lefties for the next six years. And we've already see what he's capable of n 2006. I don't know what the various projecting systems say, but I'd be surprised if they didn't put him among the top first baseman in the game over the next few yeas.

And there's also the fact that contracts have risen at a crazy rate lately. Six years ago, the big free agent first baseman signing was Jason Giambi, who the Yankees signed to a contract that will pay him $21 million this year. But back then it was paying him just over $10 million. That kind of increase gives a sense of what has happened to contracts. And then there's Ryan Howard, who will make $7 million in just his first year or arbitration - if he loses.

The Years
By far, the most significant fact about either contract is the length of Morneau's. The Twins have NEVER given a six year contract to anyone. Hell, Kirby had a four year deal. The fact that the Twins would pony up that number of guaranteed years is the bravest, and the scariest, part of this deal.

Personally, I was disappointed that the sixth year wasn't a team option, which is what I proposed last week. But, on the other hand, Morneau's side could have insisted on the same thing - a player option for that year which he could exercise if the market takes off.

Primarily, I think the length of each deal was a factor of each player's age. Both Morneau and Cuddyer will be 32 years old when their deals expire, meaning they will still be perceived as young enough to get a three or four year deal. From the Twins standpoint, they have committed a lot of money, but they're also getting the best years of these guys' careers.

The No-Trade Clauses
Let's review these contracts with three scenarios. First, if Cuddyer and Morneau are hurt or decline significantly, the Twins are screwed. Of course, if the Twins thought that was going to happen, they wouldn't be offering them long-term deals.

But if not, they have signed two productive bats with some significant upside through their peak years. To cover themselves, one of the deals has an option year, and the other is front-loaded to provide flexibility to future payroll. If the players reach the ceiling the Twins hope, they're both going to look like bargains.

And what if both players just level out? Well, with escalating salaries, neither deal should be a terrible loadstone to the Twins, and certainly not to higher payroll teams in the league. Which is why the very limited no-trade clause that each player has is such a nice detail.

Often, when a player feels like he's signing a long-term deal below market value, they want trade protection that they won't be traded. But in this case, Morneau can choose only six teams he can't be traded to, and Cuddyer has just three. That leaves a couple of dozen teams that each can be traded to, and most players won't eliminate large market teams because they're the ones that tend to pay the best.

We know all too well that contracts that are burdensome to the Twins aren't to other teams. At the very least, the Twins should be able to get out from under both of these deals in a pinch. In a best case scenario, they could even get back something of value.

I haven't been terribly complimentary of the Twins ability to negotiate contracts in the past, and these aren't perfect. But they provide the Twins what they needed, and they do so at a fair price, with a creative structure, and provide them some protection. These contracts are what they should be. The fanfare surrounding these cliches is appropriate.