Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Draft - The 2009 Offseason

It's hard to compare the "challenges" the Yankees face to the challenges the Twins face most offseasons, but this offseason is the exception. The Yankees don't need to worry about fielding a competetive core of ballplayers - they can buy that simply enough. Instead, they need to worry about finding the right pieces to build an exceptional ball club, one that will meet or exceed the loftiest expectations.

Suddenly the Cute Little Franchise That Could is facing that same challenge. They don't need to worry about fielding a competetive core of ballplayers - their farm system produced a bumper crop of talent last year. Instead, they need to worry about pulling the right levers to propel that team into the postseason, and hopefully beyond.

And this offseason, the Twins have something else in common with the Yankees - they have a bunch of money. With up to $35 million worth of payroll room and just two lineup positions to fill, the Twins could actually be players for the best free agent at both positions. And still have $10 million to spend on washed up veterans that they can release mid-year. (1)

Of course, the Twins had the same payroll room last year, and their biggest offseason acquisition was Mike Lamb. (2) This is where they differ from the Yankees. They might have the money to spend this year, but top free agents also tend to have the longest guaranteed contracts, and the Twins aren't willing to commit to the length of contracts for these players. When you're only willing to offer one or two year deals, you tend to wind up with lots of fairly replaceable players.

This year might be different. The top free agent 3B, Casey Blake, is 35 years old and won't get a deal longer than 3 years guaranteed, and the Twins can do that. Ditto Orlando Cabrera, who is 33 years old, though he'll cost quite a bit more. Both of these guys are right-handed, too.

But instead of making a play for either of them, I explore trades and I explore them right away, so I can look at either of these as a backup plan. To me, the prize acquisition is Brewers shortstop JJ Hardy, because he's such a good fit. He's young, just turning 26 years old in August. He's a right-handed bat who hits fifth in the Brewers lineup, hit 24 HR with 74 RBI last year, and he absolutely mashed left-handed pitching. He won't turn into a free agent until 2011, and the Twins might well be able to use some of that extra cash to buy out some of his early free agent years beforehand.

And the Twins and Brewers are good fits for a possible trade. Besides needing young pitchers, it's worth noting that the Brewers have a one-year $10 million option on 35-year-old center fielder Mike Cameron, who hit .243 last year with 142 K and declining defense. Offering them either Denard Span or Carlos Gomez clears a glut in the Twins OF next year, upgrades the Brewers outfield defense, and gives them $10 million they can spend on re-signing Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia.

As for third base, I love the idea of trading for Beltre in a contract year, and I'd certainly be willing to part with Glen Perkins or Nick Blackburn, and possibly another minor league asset, to do so. But I can't part with Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano or Kevin Slowey, or at least not stright up. I also like Blackburn and Perkins, but I also have faith that the farm system and Rick Anderson will produce another arm. Plus, when the Twins sign their annual veteran starting pitcher, it will mean he won't have to bump one of them from the rotation.

If the Mariners want more than that, I probably stick with the Brian Buscher/Brendan Harris platoon. I don't trust Garret Atkins and I really don't trust Kevin Kouzmanoff. Instead, I'll continue to look at other solutions, because I'm not buying that Danny Valencia is going to fill the gap at third base long-term. He's 24 years old, played in AA, and struck out 70 times in 246 at-bats (compared to just 18 walks).(3) And I'm supposed to believe that he's the future? I'm puzzled by this.

And that's a good enough first draft for day two of the offseason. We'll continue to explore possibilities, analyze players and participate in destructive rumor-mongering throughout the offseason, so stop by often. See you on Monday.


(1) That's obviously become an offseason tradition. Really, everyone benefits. The GM gets to pretend he's picking up depth, even though he knows the manager will start the veteran. The bloggers get to stick pins into their own eyeballs. The manager gets to relish the veterany goodness of it all. And the radio call-ins get to slam the whole bunch.

Oh, and the prospects get to wait another couple of months and get called up mid-year. Since the veteran sucks, the prospect gets to play with almost no pressure. All he has to do is be a bit better than the guy that sucks. Hell, even if he sucks just as much, at least he's cheaper. Listen up kids - the key to a solid career is to make sure you always replace the guy that sucks.

(2) That was a move I fully endorsed, by the way. Remember that as you read today's thoughtful insights about offseason moves. And as you savage my choices on the comments section.
(3) Sorry Danny. But, I look forward to you proving me wrong.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The 2009 Twins General Manager Cheat Sheet

So, you’re looking at your Twins and wondering if you could do a better job? Well, to be a major league GM, you could either:

a) put some time in at the major league level, probably schlep around as a scout for a dozen years or so, stay on top of the free agent market, and experience the joy of negotiating with Satan, er, Scott Boras. Or…

b) stop by

It looks like you chose (b), so we know you’re smart, but let’s see how smart. Your job is to create a competitive 2009 team while keeping the payroll under $85 million (a pretty realistic estimate as to next year’s salary level).

We’ll give you the tools you need, including lists of the positions, the players who will most likely be back, their approximate salaries, and a list of the other assumptions we’re making in case you want to challenge them.

Then you come in. We’ll list the open positions and some of the options you have (including how much they cost). You can build your own team and compare it to the job Bill Smith does this offseason. Just make sure the total is under $85 million, because your boss isn’t known as the freest spender in the world.

The Lineup

These numbers are estimates, but they’re awfully close. Nick Punto is a free agent this year so we’re leaving his spot open, but you can try and sign him later if you like. You could also plug Brian Buscher in at 3B, or even platoon him with someone like Brendan Harris. More on that below.

By the way, you’ve spent $33 million so far.

The Rotation

Wow. Look at all those beautiful low salaries. You know it must bring a tear to Carl’s eye. The Twins entire starting rotation is making less than half of what the Mariners gave Carlos Silva as a signing bonus.

You may want to consider trading one of these arms for something you need next year. Otherwise, this staff is set, and you’ve spent $35.25 million.

The Bench

Again, most of this is taken care of. Carlos Gomez is listed as the 4th OF, because we have Michael Cuddyer back in the outfield. You’ll notice that Randy Ruiz isn’t on this list yet, either. You could carry him as your 5th outfielder and a right-handed platoon for Jason Kubel. Or you could sign a veteran bench player ala Craig Monroe.

Otherwise, you’ve spent $37.55 million so far.

The Bullpen

Dennys Reyes is a free agent this off-season, and with Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares doing well, I’ll leave him and Eddie Guardado out of next year’s plans. You’ll also notice that Matt Guerrier isn’t on the list either. He could be, but who does he bump? And is the roster spot worth the $2 million he’ll be due if you offer him arbitration?
Without Guerrier, your total is a shade over $49 million.

You’re most of the way there! 22 of the 25 roster spots are spoken for, and $49 million, er, $52.35 million is spent. Where did that other $3.3 million come from? Unfortunately, that is money you still owe the departed Mike Lamb. Still, you have almost $33 million to spend. Let’s see what your options are:

The Options


  1. You can bring back Nick Punto with a two-year contract for $3 million per year.

  2. You can start Matt Tolbert at SS and replace his bench spot with a utility infielder for just a half million dollars.

  3. You can sign one of the free agent shortstops. Options include:
    a. Rafael Furcal – a speedy lead-off hitter who will demand $15 million/year for four years
    b. Orlando Cabrera - solid veteran and #2 hitter on the White Sox who will demand $11 million/year for three years
    c. Edgar Renteria – Tigers veteran whose defense is shaky and will want $8 million/year for two years
    d. David Eckstien – veteran spark plug who will want $4 million for 1 year

  4. You can move Alexi Casilla to shortstop and sign one of these free agent second basemen:
    a. Orlando Hudson – Switch-hitter who hit .305 this year and will command $11 million/year for four years
    b. Mark Ellis – Great player, but bad shoulder. If he’s healthy, he’ll get $5 million to provie it for one year.
    c. Pick-A-Vet (Mark Grudzielanek, Mark Loretta, Ray Durham) - $3 million for one year of an old guy

  5. Finally, you could trade for a shortstop:
    a. The Brewers might trade JJ Hardy ($5M) to make room for prospect Alcides Escobar. And with Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia likely on their way out of town, they could use a young effective pitcher.
    b. The Red Sox will shop Julio Lugo. He'll make $9 million over each of the next two years and is a veteran shortstop, but has struggled in Boston.

Third Base

  1. You could have Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris platoon at the position, for just a half million dollars. You could even include prospects like Matt Macri, Luke Hughes or Danny Valencia in the competition in spring training.

  2. You could sign a free agent:
    Casey Blake – He’s right-handed and 35 years old, and will probably get a three-year deal for $6 million per year.
    Joe Crede – Had a great year until his back sidelined him for the last two months; he’ll ask for $7 million for one year.
    Pick-A-Vet (Rich Aurilia, Russell Branyan, Wes Helms)—$3 million for one season of questionable production.

  3. You could make a trade:
    a. Adrian Beltre – He’ll cost you $11 million and one of your young pitchers.
    b. Garrett Atkins – He’ll cost you $7 million and one of your young pitchers, and he hasn’t hit outside Coors.
    c. Kevin Kouzmanoff – He’ll cost you a half million dollars and one of your young pitchers. He’s 27 with a career .267 average.
Backup Outfielder
  1. You could have Randy Ruiz occasionally play right field and be a right-handed bat off the bench. He’ll cost the major league minimum.

  2. You could pick up a veteran free agent for backing up the OF:
    a. Cliff Floyd – LH veteran will likely get about $2.5 million next year.
    b. Jonny Gomes – RH reserve might be a nice gamble for $3M.
    c. So Taguchi – Probably not the bench bat Gardy would like but he sure will hustle for his $1 million.
How’d you do? Did you spend all your money? Did you pump up the offense? Do you still have your young pitchers? And, most importantly, is your boss going to be happy with how much you spent?

Great. Now let us see how you did in the comments below. (Unless, of course, it involves re-signing Mike Lamb. Then you might want to try again.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Flip of a Coin"

That's what my friend David said as the game ended and we watched the White Sox celebrating on their home turf.

He was referring to the home field advantage the White Sox had, but he might as well have been referring to half a dozen more figurative coin flips. Like the result of a one-run game between fairly even teams. Or the chance that AJ Pierzynski drops a ball as he is barrelled into by Michael Cuddyer. Or any of another dozen game this season that the Twins lost (or won) because of something as trivial and chancy as the flip of a coin.

By the way, you can include that last win against the White Sox at the Metrodome in that last example. That's why I grew increasingly squeamish as the players and media portrayed it as a litmus test of character. Well, how about now? Do the Twins lack character for losing the coin flip, maybe literally and figuratively, last night?

Nick Blackburn doesn't get the loss for that game because he lacked character. He got the loss because he threw a changeup high in the zone and across the heart of the plate twice in a row. And the Twns didn't fail to score runs because they lacked character. They failed to score runs because Joe Mauer had a couple of borderline strikes not go his way, and because Justin Morneau fell into his worst slump of the season at exactly the wrong time.

Oh, and because they were once again timid on the basepaths. If there is a bad taste in my mouth after this game, that's where it comes from. I understand that John Danks is left-handed and was especially interested in keeping the Twins from running. And I understand that this was a priority after the Tigers stole four bases last night. But that's because the Tigers stole four bases last night. And one of those was by Gary Sheffield. Using his walker.

But other than that (and it's not a minor quibble), credit the Twins for being creative and taking some risks. Sending Cuddyer with two outs on Brendan Harris' short fly ball was a no-brainer, because there is a 70% chance that either Ken Griffey's throw is not perfect or Pierzynski drops that ball. There is only a 30% chance (at best) that the next batter, Nick Punto, drives Cuddyer in. You send him every time on that play, and you need to credit Griffey and especially AJ for making the play.

The Twins also batted Jason Kubel againt Jenks to lead off the ninth, which is a nice little substitution. I also liked pinch-running Matt Tolbert. And I liked Mauer's attempt to get off the snide with the bunt in that long US Cellular grass. It was just a bad bunt.

On the opposite side, my biggest fear entering the game was that manager Ron Gardenhire would underuse the key assets in his bullpen. Instead he did exactly the opposite, bringing in his two best relievers, Jose Mijares and Joe Nathan, earlier than might have been anticipated and rode them to 1 and 2/3 scoreless innings. And prior to Jim Thome hitting the moonshot (and it was an absolute moonshot), there wasn't much of an indication that Blackburn was tiring. It was just a really bad pitch. Especially because it followed a duplicate really bad pitch.

So give credit to the White Sox, who are at least as good a story as the Twins this year. I picked them for fourth after last year's implosion, so they exceeded my expectations at least as much as the Twins did. They also won this division despite more critical injuries that the Twins faced. And tonight they came up with a key hit, a key defensive play, and even a key defensive substitution to win the game. Make no mistake, I hate that team, but that's because they're worthy of hate.

Meanwhile, the Twins have nothing significant to hang their heads about after this game or this season. They reached their preseason goal of 162+, even if it's not necessarily what they had in mind. They had a very solid young core of players that succesfully navigated a pennant race and got a taste, albeit small, or what fall baseball can be like.

And they found out that fall baseball can come down to a hit. A throw. A catch. Or maybe just a flip of a coin.

The Offseason
I suspect you'll see a lot of stories today that wrap up the season in a nice little bow today for the Twins. Tomorrow you'll see a lot of speculation about what might happen in the offseason, and will be no exception. Check in tomorrow or maybe even later today, after the requisite mourning period.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bring on the "+"

The magic number is "1", so one way or the other, the Twins are going to meet their preseason "F U" goal of playing 162+ games.

By now, you've probably heard about the t-shirts that they had made in spring training that said something like "162+" on the front and "Prove Them Wrong" on the back. (If not, I'm guessing you'll hear about it again this week.) And one way or the other, the Twins know that the'll be playing again this week. The question is whether their next game will be a playoff game versus the Rays, or a "play in" game versus the White Sox.

Bet on the latter. Vegas certainly is. They're giving slightly better than 2:1 odds for the White Sox in this game.

There will be lots of talk about how the Tigers want to knock the White Sox out of the playoffs, but in reality, there is almost no incentive for them to do well. It's probably a little bit telling Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen, Gary Sheffield and Edgar Renteria are all listed on the injury report as "day-to-day". Manager Jim Leyland is known to be quite a motivator, but you can be sure that most of that roster would just as soon phone in that game.

The one exception might be the Tigers' pitcher, Freddy Garcia, who will be pitching for a decent offseason contract after a lost season due to shoulder surgery. Unfortunately, incentive only take a guy so far, and they don't instantaneously cure scar tissue. Garcia has had two starts in the majors, and has lasted only five innings in each. His first, against the Rangers, went well. His second, against the Royals, did not. And his AAA stats from this year, where he made 11 starts, are underwhelming as well.

The White Sox will trot out Gavin Floyd, just three days ago in the series finale at the Metrodome. Floyd will be pitching on 3 days rest, and when he did that a week ago he gave up 5 runs in 6.1 innings to KC.

Against the Twins, Floyd threw 101 pitches, but only made it through 5.2 innings. If he leaves relatively early again, Ozzie Guillen will have his two best relievers available. Both Matt Thornton and Bobby Jenks pitched yesterday, but neither threw even 10 pitches. So that's another couple of trump cards the White Sox can play.

Finally, it's worth noting that the White Sox have dominated the Tigers this year, even when the Tigers did have plenty of incentive. They're 11-6 against Detroit this year, and 6-2 at home. You might recall them even sweeping a double-header against the Tigers just two weeks ago. And Floyd has two of those 11 wins.

Which brings us to Tuesday. That's when the "+" game will most likely be played, and when I expect the oddsmakers in Vegas to again favor the White Sox. We'll see if the Twins can once again "Prove Them Wrong".

Individual Races

If the "play in" game versus the White Sox becomes a reality, the stats in that game count towards the players regular season totals. That could mean good things for those people hoping for an individual award for Justin Morneau. He would need two RBI to pass Josh Hamilton for the RBI lead.

Joe Mauer;s second batting championship looks to be safe either way. I see Dustin Pedroia didn't play in the Red Sox second game last night, and so he stayed at .326 while Mauer is rounded up to .330. He would need to go 0 for 6 to fall below Pedroia's level.

I'm a little baffled by Pedroia not playing. If you had a shot at a batting championship, wouldn't you play that second game? I'm guessing there is a story there I don't know.