Monday, February 25, 2008

Escaping to Average

At some point last year, I was researching just how dismal the Twins designated hitter situation had become. (I suspect it was shortly after one of Jason Tyner's 58 at-bats there.) And, while it's certainly damning with faint praise, I found that it wasn't quite as dismal as I had imagined. Here is the OPS (On-base Plus Slugging percentage) that each team put up with their designated hitter last year:
OK, so the Twins were 60 OPS points lower than the league average, but it turns out that the DH isn't as easy a spot to fill as you might think. I mean, look at the Angels next to the bottom of that list. When they were rumored to be chasing Hunter, everyone wondered why they would do that when they had just signed Gary Matthews Jr. last year. Now we know. They certainly had a spot to fill.

So how about 2008? I'm tempted to turn this in a "Get to Know" column, but I'm also tempted to get back to my life, so let's do an abbreviated version...

I've already stated that I think the 25-year-old Kubel has a decent chance of moving up that list. A 50 point improvement seems reasonable, and puts him in the middle of that next group of players. What does that mean to the Twins? Well, if you're looking for some back of the napkin figuring...

1. +10 points of OPS over 500 at-bats is about 2 runs.
2. +10 runs over a year is equal to about one win.
3. So a 50 OPS improvement for Kubel might be worth about one run over the course of the year.

But the math gets a little more complicated for Kubel, because he didn't have 500 at-bats. He only had 418 at-bats, while the Twins gave 543 at-bats to various DHs last year. If Kubel, who should stay healthy and have more of Gardy's confidence this year, gets that many at-bats and shows that improvement, it's worth another win, and almost two.

That's a pretty rough estimate, and it ignores that those at-bats were taken by somebody else last year, but since that someone was often Rondell White or Jason Tyner, I'll stick with it for now. The bigger concern is that the presence of Craig Monroe on the roster could eat into those bats significantly, especially versus left-handers. Though that might not be such a bad thing eitehr.

Still, there's room for plenty of hope here. Last year might not have bee quite as bad as it seemed, but it was pretty bad. Twins have two reasons - Kubels improvement and Kubel's health - to expect a significant improvement. Even if it's only to the middle of the pack.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Examining the Filler

We spent a good part of last year lamenting the Twins offense, and for good reason. It was dissappointing that the team ended up with the third worst offense in the American League, scoring just 718 runs. But what was truly maddening is that it was also so very fixable.

The Twins didn't need to make any major changes. They just needed to replace some offensive black holes. When Rondell White and Jeff Cirillo went down a week into the season, they Twins lacked a designated hitter. When Nick Punto slumped and slumped bad, there were no options to replace him. When Luis Castillo was gimpy, or Michael Cuddyer dinged up, or Alexi Casilla floundering, there were no offensive options to replace them.

That changed this offseason. Almost half of the Twins lineup will change this year, but for the most part, the Twins moves were designed to fill gaps around a core lineup. Third base was plugged. Designated hitter was filled. In fact, it was filled twice. And so, I wondered what we might expect from each of the new positions, and just how many more runs the Twins might score this year. Let's see what we get:

Center Field - ('07 - 836 OPS, mostly by Torii Hunter. '08 - ???)
It's going to be worse, but you know what? Let's save this one for last. We'll get back to it, I swear.

Shortstop - ('07 - 657 OPS, mostly by Jason Bartlett. '08 - Adam Everett, with an OPS of 599 last year)
Bartlett actually hit quite a bit better than the average shortstop for the Twins last year, with a 701 OPS. The overall average was brought down by giving 81 at-bats to Nick Punto, who had a shockingly bad 327 OPS at the position.

The offensive production will get worse with Adam Everett in the position. That 599 OPS was put up in the NL and in a hitter's park. If Everett is ever batting anywhere in the Twins lineup other than 9th, it means the Twins have some real offensive problems. The hope is that his outstanding glove will make up for Jason Bartlett's 10,963 errors last season. And that might just be true. But this is another position where the Twins offense will get worse, not better.

Left Field - ('07 - 677 OPS, mostly by Jason Kubel. '08 - Delmon Young, with a 724 OPS last year)
A 677 OPS from left fielders last year. Good golly. I hope Jacque Jones got a kick out of that. If you're looking for the number one reason the '07 team fell short, this is the one I think we could least foresee. Kubel hit 785 for the year, but he only got half the at-bats for the position. The rest were soaked up by Jason Tyner, Lew Ford, and an especially putrid performance from Rondell White.

It's reasonable to expect a slight improvement from Young, with the chance of significant improvement if something (particularly adding a batting eye) clicks for the 22-year-old.

Designated Hitter - ('07 - 741 OPS, mostly by Jason Kubel. '08 - Jason Kubel, with a 785 OPS last year).
Yes, Jason Kubel led the team in starts at two positions last year. That, by itself, is a good sign for the gimpy one. Another is that he gradually impoved throughout the year. And the third is that he is just 25 years old. I've said it for the last two years, but watch our for Kubel this year.

Again, it's reasonable to expect a small bump in offense here. Last year, Kubel had only 114 at-bats from the DH position. DH wasn't the offensive sink hole that left field and third base were, but a solid year from Kubel should outpace last year's mark, especially if it's supplemented by appearances from Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.

Second Base - ('07 - 640 OPS by, mostly by Luis Castillo. '08 - Brendan Harris, with a 799 OPS last year)
Like shortstop, the primary player wasn't the primary contributor to this offensive futility. Castillo posted a 728 OPS with the Twins, but Nick Punto(58 AB - 614 OPS), Luis Rodriguez (46 AB - 618 OPS) and especially Alexi Casilla (177 AB - 517 OPS) were absolutely terrible. The Twins spent most of last year two position players short, but after the trade deadline, they clearly were three.

Harris, judging by last year's numbers, is a significant upgrade. He's just 27, but it's worth noting that those numbers look like his ceiling if you put them in the context of his minor league career. Still, this looks like a position where the Twins will have a moderate upgrade, with plenty of additional upside due to the depths of last year's performances.

Third Base - ('07 - 631 OPS, mostly by Nick Punto. '08 - Mike Lamb, with a 819 OPS last year)
Speaking of depths, that 631 OPS was the worst OPS of any group of third basemen last year in the American League. Starting third baseman Punto actually brought the number lower, with just a 600 OPS in his 323 at-bats in the postion. And that's on top of the number-crunching he did at shortstop and second base. I'm fairly certain that Punto will rebound well this year, but there is no way to evaluate his 2007 as anything more than an out-making machine. That he was given 536 plate appearances last year tells you exactly how short the Twins were of any depth.

Lamb likely fixes 2/3 of that problem. He won't post a 819 OPS because he was protected last year against left-handers. But he'll still be an exceptional upgrade over the group the Twins played there last year.

Conclusion -
I count one slight downgrade (SS), two slight upgrades (LF, DH), one moderate upgrade (2B) and one major upgrade (3B). Which brings us back to center field, which is clearly a major downgrade.

Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson are still available on the free agent market. Patterson posted a 690 OPS last year, so he would likely be a moderate downgrade to Hunter at best. Plus, he bats left-handed, and has never hit lefties. Since Jason Pridie and Carlos Gomez also bat left-handed, it's not like he could platoon with anyone that they can't.

But Lofton had a 781 OPS last year. He can bat lead off, sporting a .367 OBP last year, and the Twins need both of those traits on their team. And if he has a similar year this year, he represents a minor downgrade at center field. I'm as excited as the next guy to see what Pridie and Gomez might bring to the team, but Lofton is an awfully good fit for this team if they think they can compete this year. And given that they could score quite a few more runs, that isn't a far-fetched idea.

For now, since we don't know what's happening in center field, let's call this incomplete. We know the Twins offense will be better, and they'll certainly be deeper. Last year the Twins struggled through most of the season with two holes in their lineup and ended the season with three. This year, the holes are filled, and there is some additional filler in the form of Craig Monroe (and maybe even Nick Punto) on the bench.

The Twins offense will almost certainly be better this year, but we likely won't know how much better until the center field position is resolved.