Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Twins Sign Pitcher Eric Hacker

According to a tweet by ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the Twins have signed pitcher Eric Hacker to a major league deal.

The key in that last sentence is the word “major,” which indicates they expect him to make the roster. The 27-year-old right-hander is probably best described by the word “journeyman.” He has less than a year of major league experience, so he isn’t a traditional free agent. He was just released by the Giants, who he signed a minor league deal with last year. He spent the year in AAA. He started hot, and even was considered to be called up with the Giants in May (over of Madison Bumgarner, who ended up looking like a 21-year-old ace in the playoffs this year). Hacker looks like he cooled considerably as the season went on, finishing with a 4.51 ERA and 129K in 165.2 IP. He doesn’t look like he has outstanding control, as he walked 62.

I’m guessing you’re looking at the Twins new long reliever, in the same way Clay Condrey was the Twins long reliever last year, except, you know, hopefully healthier.

I categorize this as puzzling. It’s not clear why a player of Hacker’s caliber needed a major league deal. It’s equally not clear why he would be more valuable in that role than Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, or Anthony Swarzak. And for a team that was so protective of 40-man roster moves chooses to spend one on a minor league journeyman pitcher who is going to throw long relief. Oh, well. At least we’ll have some fun with his last name.

Late note: Seth pointed out to me that Hacker has options, so even though it is a guaranteed contract, it likely means its a 2-way deal, meaning the amount of money he makes would vary if he's in the majors or minors. As such, it's not a rue thing that Hacker makes the 25-man roster, and he might be signed as a AAA starter that could possibly find his way into a long relief or swingman role on the major league team. The move makes a little more sense then - it adds some depth, but doesn't commit the Twins too much. If so, it indicates that Twins thought they had some extra room on their 40 man roster that they didn't want to fill with internal options, which isn't a great sign.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka

There were a few surprising bits of information to come out yesterday about Japanese players looking to play in the US:

1) The Twins bid on one. I don't remember every hearing that before. Joe Christensen reported that they bid on Hisashi Iwakuma, a right-handed starting pitcher who is considered to be one of the top pitchers in Japan. They didn't get him - the A's did, which is interesting because they could now trade a starting pitcher. But it's interesting that the Twins would be willing to target a starting pitcher, that the starting pitcher was right-handed, and that they were willing to pay the posting fee. That last point is an especially good sign considering how cash-strapped we think they are. It also makes me wonder if they wouldn't be happy to pay Pavano to come back, meaning they would be more likely to offer him arbitration.

2) Another Japanese player may be posted, and this one is a shortstop. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a switch-hitting shortstop who hit .346 last year and is known as for stealing bases. He is also known as being injury prone, which is one of the reasons he's playing shortstop, to protect his health. But the most interesting thing about him is that he's just 26 years old, much younger than most Japanese players that are allowed to come to the majors. Or at least that's the most interesting thing to me. My anime-obsessed daughter and his friends are likely going to be more interested in his hair and running their fingers through it.

I don't know that the Twins would have any interest in Nishioka. 24 hours ago I would've thought there was no chance. I still doubt they would. But today, just because they already had one bid for a Japanese posted player, I'm not as sure.

Monday, November 08, 2010

How To Beat The Yankees?

I'm a romanticist, and like to think that heart and character have a place in winning championships. It makes for a better narrative and a better life lesson, and it's one of the reasons I watch.

But I think you'll grant me that character isn't the whole story. There is an element of practical gamesmanship too. We might remember David beating Goliath because of the great courage he showed. But it's also because the weaker party only pulls that sort of thing off every few thousand years. Gamesmanship wins.

I'm also a statistician, so I recognize that luck plays a part in championships, too. But 12 straight playoff losses? That's ridiculous. Do you know what the odds are of a flipping a coin and having come up "loser" 12 times in a row? I don't either, but I know it's significantly beyond "unlucky."

And so I'm back at gamesmanship. In the ALCS, the Yankees were who we thought they were. They have two very good left-handed starters - and not a lot else. They have a lineup that struggles against good left-handed pitching. A catcher that can't shut down the base paths. And a bullpen that can be exposed.

From a gamesmanship and matchup standpoint, the Rangers were a perfect fit to play and defeat that team. Almost their whole lineup is right-handed. They have an experienced ace left-handed starter and another very good one. They have plenty of speed - and somewhat reckless speed at that. And they showed an ability to wear down the starting pitchers.

The Twins aren't too far away from that. They're never going to have a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup with key players like Span, Morneau and Mauer in it, but there is no reason to not look at filling the rest of the lineup with right-handed bats, especially at DH. They already have one ace left-hander in Liriano who can work on his experience and his stamina. Adding another really good left-hander isn't impossible with names like Jorge de la Rosa, Wandy Rodriguez, Gio Gonzalez and Jon Niese out there.

But the gamesmanship isn’t just about getting new names. There are things the coaching staff can do, too. Like working on some aggressive baserunning. Listen, teams shouldn't work on stealing bases to give their team a tremendous edge over the 162-game season. They should steal bases to give them an additional weapon to use against select teams in the playoffs. So let's work on stealing - especially against left-handed pitching.

Finally, I'll point out again that the two home game the Twins lost, they lost when their starting pitcher tired in the 6th and 7th innings. They lost them when their starters were approaching the 100-pitch mark. So, given that the Twins starters arms are getting a little older and given that there is no statistical study (despite a ton of attempts) to show that the 100-pitch barrier has any relation to injuries, how about working during the season to stretch these guys out a bit? How about letting the opposing team decide when our pitcher is done - like they've done in the postseason?

The Twins are beyond the point where they need to worry about just creating the "best team." They routed their division opponents last year and clinched earlier than anyone else in major league baseball. It's time to switch the focus from the regular season to the postseason, and from overall excellence to strategic gamesmanship. Design a team that can matchup well with other likely postseason teams. Especially the Yankees.

It's a riskier course, but after 12 straight losses, it might be time to take a different path.