Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Whence the Optimism?

"Who cares about Derek Zoolander anyway? The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"
- Mugatu in Zoolander

Hold it – you mean I’M the optimistic one? This is going to take some getting used to.

The pessimism about the Twins making a significant trade before July 31st is everywhere. Joe Christensen kicked off the skepticism, even as he was detailing a trade target. Monday’s comment section reflected it. Then, as I went to lunch, La Velle E Neal and numerous callers on KFAN stated emphatically that the Twins would likely sit this one out too.

And I started to wonder – am I taking crazy pills? I’ve blogged about trade deadlines since 2002, so I was around in 2003 when they made that last significant trade. (And I trashed it, by the way. We all did. It seemed ridiculous at the time.) Which means I’ve covered all of the ones that are supposed to prove that the Twins will stand pat. So let’s review them. (If I can link to them, I will, but only the last three are still on the internet.)

2008 – Last year the primary target was a right-handed hitting third baseman and I wrote about that topic twice. The problem was that there wasn’t much available. Adrian Beltre turned out to be ridiculously expensive (and was terrible this year) and you can say the same thing about Garret Atkins and Kevin Kouzmanoff. The exception was Casey Blake, and of course he belonged to a division rival.

Conclusion: At the position of greatest need, there just wasn’t much. And we knew that. We just chose to ignore it.

2007 – This year hurt. We started talking early about trades because the team was struggling in a manner similar to this year’s. We talked about Ty Wiggninton, but in retrospect the Twins couldn’t afford to give up the middle reliever that the Astros did to eventually get him. Dmitri Young looked like an ideal fit, but Nationals GM Jim Bowden signed him to an extension instead.

Really, on the scale of dumbass contract extensions, this needs to be top five. Young had been floundering his way out of the league for years, both due to health and behavioral issues. Down to his last chance, he produced a monster year, making him the perfect trade candidate for a franchise looking to build. Instead, they signed him to a 2-year extension for $10 million, despite already having Nick Johnson signed through 2009 too.

The Twins have been victimized several times this decade by dealing with some incompetent organizations. In 2001, the Blue Jays agreed at the last second to the final trade piece that would’ve replaced Matt Lawton with Shannon Stewart, but ran out of time. Last year there was the Jarrod Washburn fiasco with the Mariners. And there was this mess with the Nationals. Of course, Young has had a total of 150 at-bats for the Nationals so far over the life of that extension. Nice to see Karma staying on top of things.

By the time the trade deadline showed up, we were debating whether or not the Twins should be buyers or sellers, and when they traded Luis Castillo, we assumed they were sellers. To this day I believe that the Castillo trade (a major gaffe, BTW) was done to free up payroll for another move that never materialized. Looking back, it’s clear the Twins were tapped out financially that year. They had signed Ramon Ortiz for $3.1 million late in the offseason and it pushed their payroll over $70 million for the first time. You’ll recall it was also the year they signed Ben Revere considerably below his slot value.

I’m also convinced this trade season is what convinced Terry Ryan he needed to move on. Like I said, this one hurt.

Conclusion: Financial flexibility and a couple of ill-fitting teams resulted in a stasis that couldn’t be overcome.

2006 – Again, the Twins were looking for right-handed power, and again it’s questionable about whether there was really any to be had. In the deadline recap I forgave the Twins for not trading for Alfonso Soriano because it was rumored they had offered Scott Baker and Jason Kubel and been turned down by – wait for it – Nationals GM Jim Bowden. Soriano played two more months for their last place team and left via free agency that offseason.

Apropos of nothing, the Nationals are in last place in the NL East again this year.

More embarrassing for me is that I ripped the Twins for not acquiring one of the two right-handed bats that were moved that offseason. One was Ryan Shealy, who is still kicking around with the Royals and has all of 17 major league home runs since then. That’s not good, but it’s better than the other guy, Craig Wilson. Wilson hit four home runs for the Yankees that year, and has hit one more in the majors since.

Conclusion: Again, there just wasn’t much out there in terms of high-end talent, and that which was available was controlled by a delusional and short-sighted general manager.

2005 – This one hurt more. We talked through a ton of options, like Soriano, Wigginton, Shea Hillenbrand, Lyle Overbay, Carlos Lee and Jorge Cantu. A week before the deadline, Ryan even said publicly that he thought they were going to make a move. Nothing happened, and I wrote very little about it because I had come down with a 102 degree fever and my whole body was swelling up. Alright, I walked into that one. Take your "I thought that happened immediately after college" fat joke now while you can. I notice that none of those players were actually traded during the deadline, and I'm pretty sure this is the year it ended up being eerily quiet at the deadline.

It's also worth noting that by the time the end of July rolled around, the Twins were playing pretty miserable baseball, or at least they were judging by my posts.

Conclusion: The Twins were again looking for a bit impact guy and that player ended up not being availabe to anyone.

2004 – In 2004 the Twins were doing well and they had received a boost from this Justin Morneau kid. So all the buzz at the deadline was about whether the Twins would be able to trade away Doug Mientkiewicz. Make that the moody Mientkiewicz, who had become so distraught over possibly being traded that he pulled himself out of the lineup late in July. That led to this little tirade...

Finally, Dougie
Doug Mientkiewicz's legitimate sensitivity and illegitimate martyr complex deserves its own column, but as far as trading him goes, it doesn't sound like the Twins are close. Doug reportedly can't believe nobody wants him. Uh, believe it Dougie.

Because Terry Ryan shouldn't be the only one trying to work a deal for Doug. Mientkiewicz's agent, who must be getting a good chunk of that $7 million contract that Mientkiewicz is getting, is likely also working the phones. If Mientkiewicz is a Twin tomorrow, rather than doubt the organization's commitment to him, he should start by looking in the mirror. He also might want to ponder if he might be a little more driven to concentrate through this mess if he wasn't guaranteed a $4 million payday next year.

If Doug wants to prove that he's a valuable major league first baseman again, he may have to do so the same way Justin Morneau just did - by waiting for his opportunities, playing his butt off, keeping his self-pitying trap shut, and not taking his major league playing time for granted.

Is that a tough lesson for a major league player and gold glove winner? Yes. But there are tougher options. Like walking away from $4 million guaranteed. Or being out of baseball by 2006.

Thanks for indulging me on that. I laughed out loud when I reread that 3rd paragraph. I swear the only time I really think my writing is any good is several years after I’ve written it. But I REALLY enjoy it then. Boy, was Mientkiewicz an ass during that whole episode.

The popular hope was that the Twins would get back a pitcher, with Kris Benson from the Pirates being mentioned most often. Actually, he was the second most mentioned name. His wife, Anna Benson, was mentioned more. As she should be.

Anyway, both were wishful thinking. The primary goal of trading Mientkiewicz was getting his $4 million contract off the books for 2006, so the Twins were willing to take whatever they could get. They ended up in a four-team trade that successfully ditched Mientkiewicz and got back a minor league prospect named Justin Jones. He ended up being injury prone, and the last I heard of him he had a knee injury in 2008 while pitching in AA for the Washington Nationals.

Conclusion: If we had any expectations for a significant trade, shame on us. It was Doug Freakin' Mientkiewicz.

So let’s take a look at those conclusions. In most cases, we ended up being disappointed because the Twins needed an impact player, and there just weren’t that many available. When dealing with scarcity, everything needs to go right for those few names that fit the bill. If you’re dealing with a difficult GM or you can’t swing it financially, or the market is just slow, you’re out of luck.

This year there is no scarcity of players. That’s the silver lining for Twins fans who have had a front row seat to watch the worst collection of second baseman in the major leagues. Even finding an average second baseman would provide a significant boost to this team. Just look at some of the candidates:

Adam Kennedy – The definition of an average second baseman, and his GM is Billy Beane.

Felipe Lopez – A gamblers pick, since he’s as likely to be terrible as tremendous for any two-month stretch. And the DBacks GM, Josh Byrnes has already started dealing.

Freddy Sanchez & Jack Wilson – Sanchez is close to the perfect fit for this team. His $8 million option next year, which others view as a deterrent, might even be a benefit in the minds of the Twins. Wilson won’t bring the the lumber, but he brings a glove this infield sorely needs. And the GM of the Pirates has also been actively swinging reasonable trades.

Julio Lugo – He’s average, but he gets on base. Plus, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein might be willing to let him go for a song. And the Twins can afford that contract over the next year and a half.

Cristian Guzman – There’s a lot of scary stuff here, but he’s hitting .300. And the Nationals have a new acting GM, Mike Rizzo, who seems to be reasonably sane. They’ve also completed a decent trade already.

This year there isn’t a shortage of options, there isn’t a shortage of money, and it appears there are some competent GMs on the other end. It shouldn’t even be particularly challenging. All the Twins need to do is make sure the competence extends to their half of the table to make this thing happen.

And that last sentence might be from where much of the pessimism comes. If so, shame on you. It's not like we're saddled with the Nationals here. If it's nuts to believe that a franchise that has this much success this decade can pull off a fairly simple trade, than I’ll continue to happily pop those crazy pills.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Opening Bell

Louis Winthorpe III: Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. Buy low, sell high. Fear? That's the other guy's problem. Nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness. Super Bowl, World Series - they don't know what pressure is. In this building, it's either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you're up half a million in soybeans and the next, boom, your kids don't go to college and they've repossessed your Bentley. Are you with me?
Billy Ray Valentine: Yeah, we got to kill the motherf****** - we got to kill 'em!

- Dan Akroyd (when he was funny) and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places

You might hear the dread silence of three days without meaningful baseball. I hear an opening bell.

I suppose some would say the trade deadline “season” really begins around June 1st, but the All-Star break signifies when things get serious. For Twins fans that should be doubly true. Check that – triply true. Let’s count the positive signs for a deal getting done.

1. The Twins have at least one position of extreme need
2. There are plenty of trade candidates available
3. The Twins have financial flexibility, both this year and next.

Add them up, and I don’t think I’ve been this sure about the Twins making a trade since the Johan Santana death watch.

The Twins rank 30th in the league in OPS at second base, and they’ve done so while having a below average defense. Finding a mediocre middle infielder, both offensively and defensively, would provide a significant lift to this team’s performance and to Twins Territory’s morale.

Fortunately, there are several middle infielders who qualify available, and some of them are considerably better than mediocre. Joe Christensen has broached the subject of acquiring Freddy Sanchez, and there’s also his teammate Jack Wilson. And there are plenty of others, depending on what you’re looking for.

Looking to do no more than plug a hole? How about infamous Twins killer Adam Kennedy from the floundering Athletics? Those willing to gamble a bit might favor the upside of Felipe Lopez on the Diamondbacks. For those interested in a three-way deal, there’s the Braves Yunel Escobar. For those willing to take back a little salary, there’s Cristian Guzman and Julio Lugo.

Every one of those guys is a realistic trade target. If you want to dream bigger, how about Dan Uggla or Brian Roberts? (Emphasis in that last sentence should be on “dream”.) And of course we haven’t even talked about the various relievers that might improve the beleaguered bullpen.

So I suspect that’s going to be the focus of TwinsGeek.com for the next few weeks, or until the first big need is filled, whichever comes first. To kick it off, I’ve partnered with Seth Stohs, Parker Hagemann, and Nick Nelson to offer the Twinscentric 2009 Trade Deadline Primer. It is 65 pages and 30,000+ words breaking down the trade deadline from a Twins fans point of view. It includes:
• Breakdowns of the Twins organization, looking at strengths and needs, both now and in the future.
• Team Reviews on the other 29 teams, looking at whether they are buyers or sellers, and what they need and have.
• Profiles on over 100 players that the Twins could, or should, have interest.
• Essays on the Twins payroll situation in 2009 and 2010 and internal options they have.
I’m responsible for about one-quarter of the content and had in editing almost all of the rest. It’s available for download for $9.95 using this button.** Buy Now And if you aren’t satisfied with it, let us know and we’ll refund your money.

So while today represents a little vacation for major league baseball, it also represents an awfully fun season for the fans. The closing bell rings on July 31st. Given all the opportunities the Twins have to make a significant move this year, I’m hopeful they won’t end up like Mortimer and Randolph Duke.

President of Exchange: [Randolph Duke has just collapsed with shock] Mortimer, your brother is not well. We better call an ambulance.
Mortimer Duke: F*** him! Now, you listen to me! I want trading reopened right now. Get those brokers back in here! Turn those machines back on!
[shouts - it echoes pathetically throughout the trading hall]
Mortimer Duke: Turn those machines back on!


** I anticipate some people will be disappointed that some of the bloggers who you’ve supported for years are offering a project but demanding payment for it. I understnad it, but I have no reservations whatsoever about doing this, and here’s why:

This is the eighth year I've operated this site, and during that time I’ve seen a lot of very good Twins blogging sites go away. Actually, I’ve seen so many go away I’m hesitant to mention names, because I am going to forget them. But off the top of my head, I miss Will Young’s extensive analysis of the organization. I miss Twins Junkie’s interviews. I miss TwinsTerritory.com’s community and the Dickie Thon Twins Board discussions. And I miss Bat Girl’s sass.

I miss them, but I don’t blame them for stopping. This is a labor of love, but it IS ABSOLUTELY A LABOR, and we all have other loves too. I walked away from this site in October of 2005 because my energy was giving out and I didn’t see a future. And it’s worth noting that even after I returned I post roughly half as much as I used to.

This project represents an attempt at finding the future I couldn’t find in October 2005, not just for myself, but for the entire Twins blogging community. I’m not saying I want people to buy this to support the bloggers whose content they read every day. But if you value their work enough to give them your attention every morning, perhaps you might like special content from them a few times a year. If you enjoy their writing, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy this book.

And by the way, I also hope you’ll care enough to give us feedback on it. We have a email address that we can all access at TwinsCentric@gmail.com, and I would love any thoughts you have on the idea, the project, the book, or future endeavors.