Thursday, January 31, 2008

Heading Out East

I have been traded to a New York blog. This morning I will fly out to NYC to negotiate a new contract. If talks are unsuccessful, I will return on Saturday evening and dutifully play out my contract with Nick & Nick's Twins Blog.

Should be interesting to be in the Big Apple in the wake of this Santana trade and in the days preceding a New York vs. Boston showdown in the Super Bowl. If I come across anything interesting and have Internet access, I'll be sure to blog about it. Otherwise, I'll be back with another post on Monday. Have a good weekend and thanks to all those who shared their viewpoints on the Santana swap in the comments section yesterday.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Cold Day in Minnesota

The Twins have been known to surprise us before. Who would have thought that the prospects received back in the Frank Viola trade would help push them to a World Series championship just two years later? Who could have known that the prospects brought over in the Chuck Knoblauch deal would help form the foundation for putting them back into contention after a horrible dry spell in the late '90s? How could anyone have predicted that two of the relatively unknown pitchers received back in the A.J. Pierzynski trade would transform into elite All-Stars, while the third became an important member of the rotation?

Let's face it, the Twins have a track record of success when trading away star players amidst their primes, even if the results initially seem heavily skewed in favor of the other team. Maybe that will be the case with yesterday's deal that likely sends Johan Santana to the Mets in return for four unspectacular prospects. Unfortunately, that seems rather unlikely.

According to reports, the Twins made a final offer to Santana for five years and $100 million. Santana turned the offer down, and he and his agent pressured the Twins to make a decision as soon as possible. With the Red Sox and Yankees both reportedly having backed off with their offers, Bill Smith was forced to take what he could get from the Mets. It ended up being a package that includes center fielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber.

All that's left is for Santana to pass a physical and for the Mets to reach an agreement with the left-hander on a contract extension for the deal to become official. Since Santana is in tip-top shape and the Mets have the fiscal resources to give him the kind of money he's seeking, it seems very likely that this deal is as good as done.

There was really no way the Twins were going to get equal value for the best pitcher in baseball, and each of the rumored offers from the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets was underwhelming in its own way. Yet, almost each of those deals included at least one player who could be considered a relatively sure bet to produce at the major-league level, a quality which this Mets package lacks. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this package to the rumored superior deals from the Red Sox and Yankees (or even the rumored superior deals from the Mets that included Fernando Martinez and/or Mike Pelfrey) and to accuse Smith of overplaying his hand. After all, there were continual rumblings that Yankees' GM Brian Cashman was unwilling to part with Phil Hughes, and many believed that Boston's only real interest in this sweepstakes was keeping Santana out of the Bronx. Additionally, it is entirely possible that the Mets were never truly considering parting ways with Martinez or Pelfrey. Still, it seems awfully hard to believe that this is the best offer the Twins officially received for Santana, and it's not clear to me that this course of action will be more beneficial to the team than simply hanging onto Santana for another year and taking the draft picks when he departs for free agency following the 2008 season.

In fairness, the players received from the Mets in this deal aren't bad. There's just a lot of questions surrounding them. I first discussed the players involved in the deal a couple weeks ago, when Joe Christensen first reported that the Mets had made the offer. When breaking down the players, I noted that I'm higher on Gomez than most, but that he will need to overcome his alarming plate discipline issues and gain some power to develop into a solid major-league starter. Gomez is a superb athlete with the ability to steal 60+ stolen bases and he has the tools to become an excellent defender in center field with more experience. He could be a star, but he has a long way to go. He was overwhelmed in the majors last year and would likely start this season in Rochester.

I imagine that the Twins view Guerra as the type of pitcher who could eventually transform into a Santana-type talent. At age 18, he has already developed a plus change-up, which will likely become more effective as he adds velocity to his fastball. But there are major concerns. His breaking pitches aren't strong, he's already experienced some shoulder issues, and he still doesn't turn 19 until April, which makes him fairly difficult project. Scouts view Guerra as the type of pitcher who could develop into a star in the major leagues, but he has so many hurdles yet to overcome before that point that it's very difficult to factor him into the Twins' plans, short-term or long-term.

The other two pitchers in the deal, Mulvey and Humber, don't project as anything more than middle-of-the-rotation starters, but then again they also seem like the types of players that could end up surprising us, given the Twins' history. Mulvey is probably being underrated by some -- he has had success at each stop in the minors and reached Triple-A last year in just his first professional season. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get excited about him because he lacks a dominating arsenal. Humber was a terrific pitcher in college and a first-round draft pick, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2005 and has been unspectacular since then. Humber does know how to pitch, however, and he's a guy I could see making a name for himself in the Twins' bullpen.

In order for this deal to really work out for the Twins, Gomez and Guerra need to take some significant strides and make good on their considerable potential. Mulvey and Humber aren't likely to separate themselves from the numerous solid pitching prospects already littering the Twins' system, but if they can, it would certainly be an added bonus and would take the heat off of Smith in what appears to be a situation that could have been handled a lot better. The odds aren't necessarily stacked against these four players becoming productive contributors to the Twins, but the fact that the package lacks a relative sure bet like Hughes or Ellsbury, or even Martinez or Jon Lester, makes the swap a rather disappointing one from the Twins' standpoint. Smith has traded an exclamation point for several question marks, and in dealing Santana he has also likely mortgaged the Twins' chances of competing in 2008 with an eye toward the future. Time will tell whether the gamble pays off, but I'm not overly optimistic.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Update: Santana to the Mets

Sorry to be a little late on posting this. Many sources are reporting that the Twins and Mets have agreed to a trade that will send two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana to the Mets in return for a package of four prospects. That package includes outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra. The deal is reportedly dependent on the Mets negotiating a contract extension with Santana.

It's awfully tough to feel remotely positive about this trade as a Twins fan. Full analysis tomorrow.

Keeping Everyone Happy

Following the announcement of the Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer contracts on Friday afternoon, Aaron Gleeman posted an analysis on his blog that was -- judging by the reaction in his comments section -- perceived as a rather negative take on the deals. Gleeman's argument is that the $104 million that the team has collectively committed to the two players is quite risky when you take into account that neither player has proven that he can consistently provide more than slightly above-average production for his position. Gleeman did note that keeping relatively young and talented players in Minnesota is "obviously a positive thing," and I doubt he intended for his analysis come off as negative as many people took it, but I think it's fair to say that he is less than thrilled with the contracts.

As usual, Gleeman's analysis is accurate, and I agree with the core of his argument. On multiple occasions here, I have labeled Cuddyer as a fairly mediocre right fielder (which has often raised some debate), and Morneau's hitting line last year was pretty much in line with his career line, which is nothing special for a first baseman. (On an aside, I am fairly confident that Morneau will be a significantly above-average hitter over the life of his contract -- in his case I think it is fair to put more stock into the past two seasons while overlooking his atrocious 2005 campaign to some degree.)

With all that being said, I think that the scope of Gleeman's analysis was a bit narrow. Looking strictly at the statistics and the Twins' payroll situation, it's fairly easy to view these signings as a potentially dangerous risk that may have not been overly savvy. Yet, aside from simply locking up two young players who can hit, these signings accomplish a pair of other important tasks: they please fans and they please players. Those might seem like ambiguous and perhaps unimportant goals, and they're not easily analyzed because they are difficult to qualify, but I think they are important, particularly considering the Twins' current situation.

Just as the construction on a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis starts to hit its stride, the Twins are saying goodbye to some of their most popular players. This offseason, the Twins have parted ways with Torii Hunter, and now appear to be on the verge of dealing Johan Santana. Both of these decisions came about due to money, and with the new stadium being put in place and the revenue in Major League Baseball rising, fans can easily get a bad message. Bill Smith and the Twins felt that they needed to make a statement and show that this team is willing to spend money and compete, and so they did so by signing a few core players to some fairly large contracts. Is there risk associated with these contracts? Naturally, but during his tenure as general manager Smith has not shown a major aversion to risk, which is something I respect.

Letting a fan favorite who was the team's best hitter last year walk in free agency is a significant risk, but the Twins seemingly made little effort to re-sign Hunter. Trading the team's best young healthy pitcher for a toolsy but unproven 22-year-old outfielder is a significant risk, but Smith dealt Matt Garza for Delmon Young. And signing a first-baseman who is coming off a relatively mediocre campaign to the largest contract in team history is a significant risk, but the Twins now owe Morneau $80 million over the next six years.

These moves have carried some risk, to be sure, but I would argue that they are necessary risks and that the upside in each of these moves has far outweighed the downside. Losing Hunter might hurt this year and perhaps next year, but I think most would agree that he will not be worth $18 million in 2011 or 2012. Young is almost certain to develop into at least a solidly above-average hitter, even if he never makes good on the Manny Ramirez comparisons. And while perhaps Morneau's true self is not the MVP-caliber hitter he was in 2006, he is a great bet to provide above-average production and very good power to the middle of this lineup over the next six years. That's worth a lot in a lineup that lacks punch and an organization that has very little on the horizon in terms of promising power hitters. In his article, Gleeman rightfully notes that it shouldn't be overly difficult to identify inexpensive players that can provide solid production at power-hitting positions through various means, but it cannot be taken for granted that the Twins simply have not been able to do this. Having a guy like Morneau locked up is important for that reason.

Cuddyer's contract is reasonable, in terms of years and cost, and I think that's a pretty difficult contract to criticize. Morneau's contract is a lot larger, and that seems to be where critics are leveling most of their concern. Over the last four years of the deal, Morneau will be making a significant amount of money -- $14M/yr between the 2010 and 2013 seasons. Yet, these most expensive seasons all come with the Twins' new ballpark in place, and as long as the league's revenues continue to rise and the free agent marketplace continues to escalate, there's more than a good chance that those salaries will look like a bargain by that time.

With players complaining about a lack of commitment to winning, and fans scratching their heads over an inexplicable lack of spending, the Twins needed to make a statement, and they did so with these contracts. There's risk, but it is an acceptable amount and it is not likely to cripple the team's payroll anytime soon. Whether or not they were incredibly smart, these signings illustrate a commitment to winning to players and fans that should make everybody happy.

Monday, January 28, 2008

New York, New York (and Notes)

Let me start out today's post with a personal note that is somewhat relevant. On Thursday morning, I will be heading to New York for a short three-day trip. In and of itself, that's not all that exciting (well, for me it is because I've never been to The Big Apple), but what spices things up is that I'll be there on Super Bowl weekend as the Giants prepare to take on the Patriots in the year's biggest sporting event. Not only that, but it seems like there is a very good chance that Johan Santana will be traded to a New York team within the next week. I think it would be utterly crazy to be in New York at the time a trade was pulled off to send Santana to the Yankees or Mets. I'll walk around Times Square wearing my Santana jersey and I'll be sure to share what types of reactions or comments I get.

Anyway, a few notes from over the weekend:

* From the Department of Double Takes, check out this statement that the Pioneer Press' Charley Walters made when wrapping up a blurb predicting that Santana will be traded within the next ten days:
It's clear that Santana, acquired in a Rule 5 minor league draft trade deal in 1999, has become a baseball mercenary who doesn't care where he pitches as long he's paid the optimal amount.
I had to read this a couple times because it came out of nowhere within the context of the article. I wouldn't say that Walters' charge is "clear" at all -- at least it is not evidenced by anything he wrote in the article. Perhaps behind closed doors, Santana truly is the type of disloyal and greedy mercenary that Walters makes him out to be, but none of the quotes Santana has given to the media have really illustrated anything to that effect.

* Along with Walters' seemingly unsubstantiated jab at Santana, yesterday's edition of the Pioneer Press also featured an encouraging update on the progress of Francisco Liriano courtesy of Phil Miller. Says Frisco:
"There is nothing to tell anymore, because my arm feels great now. I can't say it hurts this much, or I still have this work to do, anything like that," Liriano said. "I think I'm ready to go, right now. There is no soreness, no pain, nothing. It's the same every time I throw - there's nothing for me to say because I can pitch normally."
The article goes on to state that Liriano is now throwing all of his pitches -- including the worrisome slider -- without pain and that he has no plans of making changes to his mechanics.

It's certainly great to hear these things, but I must confess I'm a little wary of taking Liriano's personal medical judgments at face value. As many will recall, Liriano downplayed the significance of his elbow issues during the 2006 season, and it later came to light that he was pitching through some serious pain. Hiding his injury may have worsened the problems for Liriano. With that, said, if what he's saying now is true, and he can continue to pitch pain-free through spring training and into the season, the Twins might have their ace after all even with Santana gone. That'd be great, because as much as I like Scott Baker, the idea of having him featured as the team's No. 1 starter is a bit frightening.

* I didn't make it to TwinsFest this weekend, but I've heard from people that were there and encountered Boof Bonser that the slimmed-down right-hander was barely recognizable. Apparently Bonser responded to challenges from his coaches to lose some weight and shed 20 lbs during the offseason. After a disappointing 2007 campaign, a rebound year for Bonser could be crucial to this rotation.

* Speaking of TwinsFest, be sure to check out the Curlz and Curveballs blog for a nice series of photos from the couple's Friday night trip to the Metrodome gathering.

* Here's a name to add to the long list of people who are fully aware that Michael Cuddyer should not be playing center field: Michael Cuddyer. It seems that the only name not on that list could well be that of the Twins' manager.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

You Better Lock It Up!

As the annual TwinsFest celebration kicked off at the Metrodome yesterday, the Twins made a move to generate some excitement by announcing long-term extensions for Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer. Morneau's deal is the largest in club history, spanning six years and totaling $80 million. Cuddyer's deal is considerably shorter, registering at three years/$23 million with a club option for a fourth year worth $10.5 million.'

Let me start off by saying that I'm pretty happy with both of these signings. When analyzing the arbitration-eligible Twins last week, I advocated that the Twins stick with a one-year commitment to Cuddyer; yet, it's tough to take issue with this contract. The years and money are both reasonable, and I love the club option for a fourth year. At worst, Cuddyer is probably about a league-average right fielder, and if he can find his 2006 form and revert back into that type of hitter, the Twins can activate the fourth year and perhaps get a bargain.

Then there's the Morneau deal. I think one can easily make the argument that the Twins are overpaying for Morneau. Over the course of his career, he has really only been an average first baseman overall, and it seems dumbfounding that he can collect a contract worth $80 million when the comparably valuable Joe Mauer signed for $33 million just a year ago. With all that being said, Morneau is a very good hitter and I am fairly optimistic that he'll be an above-average first baseman over the length of this contract. He is one of the team's top hitters, and in a system as sparse on bats as the this one, locking him up for the next six years is an important step. Moreover, I think that this contract sends a positive message to the players and fans.

With baseball's revenue rising and a new stadium on the horizon, the Twins have money to spend. They committed a nice big chunk of it yesterday to a pair of important members of the team. I think both of these players have more upside than downside, and it's tough to see these contracts really coming back to hurt the time. A nice, aggressive move by Bill Smith. Now, we see what effect the moves have on the Johan Santana situation.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Comfortably Average

Last season, the Twins ranked 12th among 14 American League teams in runs scored. It's not difficult to see why -- they received sub par offensive contributions from almost every position. Don't take my word for it, take a look. Here are the 2007 American League averages for OPS at each position, followed by what the Twins got from those positions:

AL catchers: .713
Twins catchers: .750

AL first basemen: .790
Twins first basemen: .812

AL second basemen: .755
Twins second basemen: .640

AL third basemen: .761
Twins third basemen: .631

AL shortstops: .713
Twins shortstops: .656

AL left fielders: .760
Twins left fielders: .677

AL center fielders: .754
Twins center fielders: .836

AL right fielders: .824
Twins right fielders: .764

AL designated hitters: .802
Twins designated hitters: .737

So there you have it. The Twins were well above-average at center field (thanks to Torii Hunter, who is now gone) and marginally above-average at catcher and first base. Outside of those positions, the Twins got substantially below-average offensive production from each position on the field.

Needless to say, getting league-average production at most positions would be a major improvement. And while it doesn't seem like a particularly lofty goal, it's what the middle-market Twins will be shooting for this year. Can they accomplish it? Since positional averages tend to be fairly stable from year to year, we can use last year's numbers as benchmarks going forward. Let's break it down on a position-by-position basis.

This is a particularly weak offensive position -- AL catchers hit only .253/.318/.395 collectively last year. So even though Joe Mauer regressed and struggled with injuries for much of the season and Mike Redmond didn't set the world on fire, the Twins still finished with an OPS 37 points higher than the league mean. It's perfectly reasonable to see Mauer rebounding with a healthy year and putting up numbers somewhere between his 2006 and 2007 campaigns, in which case the Twins should be well above-average at this position.

I'm not sure what to think about Justin Morneau at this point. He had a solid debut in 2004, he was horrible in 2005, splendid in 2006, and fairly mediocre overall in 2007 (thanks to a great first half that was marred by an awful second half). I don't know what happened in the final months last year, and I'd like to believe he'll look more like the 2006 version in 2008, but to be safe I'll predict that he'll finish with numbers similar to his final line last year, making him average offensively.

The likely starter here is Brendan Harris. Last year, with the Devil Rays, Harris hit .286/.343/.434, which was right in line with the AL average for second basemen (.284/.339/.416). I think it's fairly reasonable to expect him to repeat that performance and provide average production at second base in the upcoming season, which would be a huge upgrade for a team that was 115 points below the league average in OPS at the position last year.

This is an interesting one. If Mike Lamb is used as a full-time player here and he receives 500+ at-bats, it's likely that he will post an OPS around his career mark of .761 (which is, coincidentally, identical to the AL league average for third basemen last year). However, if the Twins shield him against left-handed pitchers to some degree, much like the Astros have for the past several seasons, Lamb has a great chance of putting up an OPS in the area of .825, which would be well above-average. This depends on Twins identifying a righty-hitting third baseman who could put up a solid OPS in limited duty against southpaws (Matt Macri might fit the bill). In that case, this team could potentially be very solid relative to the rest of the league offensively. Defense, of course, is another story.

Here's the first position we come across where the Twins are almost guaranteed to be well below-average. Adam Everett has a career .656 OPS and there's little reason to believe he'll be any better than that this year.

This is a tough one to predict. The average AL left fielder hit .275/.335/.426 last year, while Delmon Young hit .288/.316/.408 to fall below that mark. Of course, he was only 22. Many optimists are predicting a huge jump for Young here in his second full season, and he certainly has the tools to do it. However, I think some of the people anticipating Hunter-like numbers are setting themselves up for disappointment. Young played in every single game last year and managed only 13 home runs and a .724 OPS. To add 15 home runs to that total and .120 points or so to his OPS would be a staggering leap. ZiPS, a predictive tool used at Baseball Think Factory, forecasts only a slight improvement for Young next year and sees him hitting .292/.323/.424. That seems pretty conservative and I think he'll do better than, but even that would be league-average so I'd say the Twins are a lock to be average at the very least in left field.

This is a obviously a big question mark. If Johan Santana is traded, it remains likely that the 2008 starting center fielder will be a player received in that trade. As long as Santana is still in Minnesota, the favorite to take the job at this point is probably Jason Pridie. Most agree that Pridie is capable of putting up solid numbers, but it's tough to predict him being an above-average hitter as a 24-year-old rookie with only 245 at-bats above Double-A. I'd say the Twins project to be below average in center field at this point, but not by a whole lot. Obviously, this situation is subject to change.

Michael Cuddyer had a tough year last year, in large part because he was derailed late in the season by a thumb injury. Still, I felt Cuddyer was playing over his head in 2006 and he's realistically probably closer to his career .796 OPS than the .866 OPS he posted in that magical season. Nevertheless, there's no reason to believe Cuddyer won't be at least average in 2008 as long as he can remain healthy.

It's astonishing how little production the Twins have gotten over the past several seasons from a position in which the player's sole duty is to hit. That figures to change this year, with a (hopefully) healthy and adjusted Jason Kubel likely taking over full-time. As a DH last year, Kubel hit .302/.385/.500. If he can even approach that type of production in the upcoming season, the Twins should be very strong at the DH spot, and well above-average.

So we have a couple of positions where the Twins project to be below average, but for the most part it appears that this team should be at least on-par with the rest of the league at every position from an offensive standpoint. That doesn't even take into account the very real possibility that a guy like Mauer or Young busts out with a huge season. Of course, as we've been conditioned to learn around these parts, you can't take anything for granted and there's always a very real possibility of guys having down years. Factoring that into the equation, along with injuries, I'd say it's likely that the Twins have about an average offense overall in 2008 -- perhaps better depending on how the center field situation sorts out. This isn't a lineup that's going to light the world on fire like the Tigers or the Yankees, but with great pitching it should be enough to compete.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether or not the Twins will actually have great pitching. And that is a topic for another day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One-Year Deals and Cuddy in Center

Last week I wrote about the Twins' five arbitration-eligible players, noting that I felt it would be wise to lock up two of them -- Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel -- to long-term deals. In the following days, the Twins signed both of those players to contracts, but they were both one-year commitments, with Morneau's being worth $7.4 million and Kubel's worth $1.3 million. The Twins also agreed to a one-year deal with Juan Rincon that will pay him $2.475 million in 2008. That is a relatively small increase from his $2 million salary a year ago, which makes sense given his struggles.

It's disappointing to see the Twins fail to lock down Morneau and Kubel, yet understandable given the uncertainty surrounding Johan Santana and his future with the team. Plus, longer extensions could be reached with either player in the future. As La Velle noted on his blog last week, "Signing Morneau to a one-year deal doesn’t mean they can’t tear up the contract for a long-term deal. They did that exact thing a few years ago with Corey Koskie." I wouldn't be surprised to see this happen with Morneau after the Santana issue gets sorted out, although I doubt they'll look to sign Kubel to a long-term extension this offseason as much as I think it would be a good idea. I can hardly fault the Twins if they remain a little concerned about Kubel's knees.

The Twins now have two arbitration-eligible players remaining: Matt Guerrier and Michael Cuddyer. Guerrier filed for $1.15 million while the club filed for $750,000; I imagine the two sides will reach a deal right around $1 million in the near future. The gap between Cuddyer and the club is larger, as Cuddyer filed for $6.2 million -- $1.5 million more than the team's offer of $4.7 million. Last year, Cuddyer and the Twins very nearly went before an arbitrator, but reached an agreement at $3.75 million at the last second. Given the disparity between the numbers filed by the two sides this year, it seems quite possible that this case could go before an arbitrator, but the Twins are financially in a position where they can easily afford to pay Cuddyer around $5.5 million, so reaching a mid-point would make sense and save a lot of hassle for both sides.

Speaking of Cuddyer, many feathers were ruffled this weekend when Ron Gardenhire had the following quote in a Charley Walters column in the Sunday edition of the Pioneer Press:
Torii Hunter's successor in center field for the Twins could be Michael Cuddyer.

"With Delmon Young in right and Jason Kubel in left," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

That's a consideration of Gardenhire's if minor leaguers Denard Span and Jason Pridie can't convince the manager during spring training that they're ready to succeed Hunter, who left for the Los Angeles Angels via free agency.

"I'm going to talk to Cuddy about it," Gardenhire said.

The idea of Cuddyer playing center field is nothing short of horrifying, given the fact that his range is sub par even for a right fielder. However, I think the reaction to this quote has been a little over-the-top. I realize the information is coming straight from the horse's mouth, but I can't imagine that Gardenhire would ever actually pencil Cuddyer into center field. In such a scenario, it would seem that Craig Monroe would be the full-time DH. That's bad enough as it is, because there's no way Monroe should be counted on as an everyday player, but if that's truly what Gardenhire wants to do, it would make a lot more sense to DH Kubel and have Monroe play center field. That's still far from ideal, and one would hope that the Twins can acquire a legitimate center fielder before the offseason is over, or that Pridie can step up and seize the job in spring training.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Notes

Happy Friday! It's back to school for me next week as I embark upon what will potentially be my last semester at the University of Minnesota, but for now here are a few notes on various Twins-related topics.

*'s Buster Olney opined in the Wednesday edition of his daily blog that the best option for Bill Smith and the Twins would be to hang onto Johan Santana, even if extending him is not a possibility. Says Olney:
If I was in Smith's shoes, I'd keep Santana. Because to trade him would be to forgo the opportunity to contend in 2008, when the Twins have a chance to be a good team, with Francisco Liriano returning, with Joe Nathan closing, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young hitting in the middle of their lineup.
This is a good and -- I think -- often overlooked point. The Twins could potentially have one of the strongest groups of hitters in the middle of their lineup of any team in the American League this year. Olney doesn't even mention Jason Kubel, who in my mind could be the best hitter among the aforementioned group in 2008. Many people look at the big acquisitions by Detroit this winter and a Cleveland team that is mostly intact from its playoff run in 2007, and write off the Twins as a third-place team at best. While that may be where I'd pick the Twins to finish if I were ranking the AL Central teams right now, I think the Twins are are a lot closer to competing for a playoff spot than many people think as long as Santana is leading their rotation.

* Twins minor-league guru Dianna of the blog Rookie Whites noted yesterday that Twins' prospect Jose Mijares was in a traffic accident early Sunday in which he suffered a fracture in his left elbow that required surgery. Dianna relays that while "the operation was deemed a success," it will be two or three months before Mijares is able to throw again. Later in the day, Joe Christensen confirmed the report with Bill Smith, who stated that Mijares could be out of action four to six months.

Being that Mijares is a left-handed pitcher, it's disturbing to hear that he damaged his left elbow in the accident. Mijares is a highly intriguing prospect in that, while he has struggled mightily with control over the course of his career, he has electric stuff that has been compared to Francisco Liriano and many feel that if he can conquer his command issues he can develop into a dominant major-league reliever. He had been showing marked improvement in his control while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he held a 1.86 ERA over 37 appearances. Mijares is only 23, but this incident could cause a considerable lag in his development, which is unfortunate given that the Twins need him to put things together as quickly as possible. There is a good possibility that Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes will all be gone after the 2008 season, leaving a need for some young players to step in and restock the bullpen. Here's hoping Mijares experiences a speedy recovery.

* File this headline under "Obvious."

* Earlier this week, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus put together a list of nine young players who are "breakout candidates" in 2008. Fifth on the list is Kubel, about whom Sheehan has this to say:
  • Jason Kubel: While playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, Kubel, then 22 and considered one of the best hitting prospects in the game, suffered a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2005 season. Although he came back and played in ’06, he wasn’t remotely the same hitter. Most notably, Kubel’s post-injury strikeout rate has been much higher—147 in 835 PA, versus 193 in 1770 PA prior to the injury. That’s not just a result of playing at higher levels: that’s evidence of damage to the engine.

    What we saw in ’07 was Kubel finally get back to the hitter he was before the injury. In the season’s first two months, Kubel struck out 33 times and walked 11 in 165 PA. In the next two months, those numbers were 21/10 in 148 PA: a big drop in strikeout rate and K/BB. Over the last two months: 25/18 in 153 PA. Kubel, a disciplined hitter coming through the minors, regained that discipline in ’07. His batting average and power followed. He’s 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins’ best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer.

These are the same trends I've noted with Kubel, which is a major reason I'm expecting big things from him in the upcoming season (as you may have gathered). Another fact that isn't mentioned here about Kubel is that despite some of his struggles last season, he consistently drove the ball hard. Kubel finished the season with a line-drive percentage of 22.1; that is considerably better than the rest of the team's hard hitters, such as Mauer (17.9%), Morneau (15.9%), Cuddyer (18.7%) and Torii Hunter (14%). In fact, if Kubel had enough at-bats to qualify, he would have tied Jorge Posada for sixth in the AL in LD% last year.

What's depressing? The only 2007 Twin that actually ranked in the Top 25 in the AL in LD% was the now-departed Jason Bartlett, who ranked 19th at 20.1 percent. What makes that less depressing? Brendan Harris and Delmon Young ranked 10th and 11th, respectively.

* Sticking with Sheehan's article, as interesting as it was to see Kubel's name halfway down the list of breakout candidates, I was perhaps even more intrigued by the player listed below him:
  • Melky Cabrera. Cabrera went backwards in ’07, but not by enough for concern. Remember that he is just 23 years old and has more than 1100 plate appearances in the majors, with average to average-plus defense (good physical tools, but very raw, takes bad routes) and a very good 129/96 K/BB. He is a mature player offensively, patient at the plate and fair on the bases (25-for-35 stealing in his career). One interesting quirk is his G/F ratio, which is 1.63 for his career and was a whopping 1.81 last season. Cabrera is listed at 5’11” and 200 pounds. He’s not Willy Taveras, but rather a player who should be developing power and learning how to drive the ball, rather than hitting the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time.

    I’m reminded of Alex Rios, who doesn’t look a thing like Cabrera. Rios was largely disappointing in 2004 and 2005, hitting just 11 homers in more than 900 at-bats, with an isolated power of 117. The problem: Rios was hitting the ball on the ground too much, a 1.82 G/F in those two seasons. Starting in ’06, Rios put the ball in the air more than half the time, and became a star. When you look at Cabrera’s body, his established control of the strike zone, and his ability to hold his own at a young age, you recognize that all it’s going to take is for him to start elevating the ball. Cabrera may not get there in 2008, but he’s going to pop 80 extra-base hits and slug .500 in a season very, very soon.

Cabrera, who has been mentioned frequently in Santana trade rumors, gets bashed by a lot of fans for reasons I cannot surmise. He reached the major leagues as a 20-year-old in 2005, and has held his own in the big leagues over 1,024 at-bats with a .275/.340/.388 line. Many Twins fans seem to be sour on him because he posted an unimpressive .718 OPS last year, but it is essential to note that he was only 22 years old for most of the season and playing in a fairly high-pressure environment in New York.

I'm a fan of Cabrera, and while he doesn't profile as a superstar, I certainly think he can be an above-average outfielder in the major leagues for many years. That's a big part of the reason that, in my mind, the reported Yankees' offer of Phil Hughes+Cabrera+prospect is by far the best one on the table for Santana at this point.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


The Twins have several players eligible for arbitration this year, and the time is nearing for the organization to decide on a course of action to take with each of these players. Generally, the way arbitration works is that each player and his agent will come up with a reasonable figure for a 2008 salary, and the team will come up with a different number they find reasonable. At this point, the Twins have three basic options: negotiate to a mid-point figure and sign the player to a one-year deal, take the case before an arbitrator who will decide which figure is more fair, or come to terms on a multi-year contract.

The Twins had six arbitration-eligible players last year, and they reached mid-point one-year agreements with four of them while locking up Nick Punto and Joe Mauer to multi-year deals. This year the Twins will have to make decisions on five arbitration-eligible players. Teams and players usually prefer to avoid going in front of the arbitrator, as the process can damage the relationship between the sides, so we'll rule out that possibility and today I'll look at each of the Twins' arbitration-eligible players on a case-by-case basis to analyze which players merit a multi-year contract (Deal), and which ones would be better served with only a one-year commitment (No Deal).

1. Justin Morneau - 1B
Many were frustrated that the Twins didn't lock up Morneau a year ago following his MVP 2006 campaign, as the team instead settled on a $4.5 million one-year deal to avoid arbitration. Even though Morneau's numbers declined in 2007, his salary is still likely to nearly double here in his second year of arbitration.

Morneau is the Twins' best slugger, and the departure of Torii Hunter makes Morneau's role on this team all the more vital. Locking him up long-term should be a high priority, and fortunately the Twins have the money to make it happen, particularly with Johan Santana's salary likely coming off the books by next year at the latest.

The Twins should do the same thing with Morneau that they did with Mauer last year, locking their young star up with a four-year contract that will buy out his first year of free agency. I'm thinking something along the lines of four years/$50 million would do the trick.


2. Michael Cuddyer - RF
After a breakout campaign in 2006 that saw him post an .866 OPS (more than 100 points higher than his previous career high), Cuddyer regressed in 2007, hitting for a solid average and on-base percentage but posting a slugging percentage nearly 70 points lower than his '06 figure while hitting just 16 home runs in 144 games. Overall, Cuddyer was not a bad hitter, but the Twins need him to be a legitimate power threat, and he's been unable to do that over the course of his career with the exception of that 2006 season.

The upcoming season should be a big one for Cuddyer. Hunter is gone, and it's unclear what kind of jump Delmon Young will be able to make, leaving a strong possibility that the Twins will be relying on Cuddyer as their big right-handed stick in the lineup. If he can't produce more power than he did last year, the offense could potentially be in some trouble.

I personally believe that Cuddyer is a pretty mediocre right fielder, and losing him to free agency ultimately would not be the worst thing in the world. The Twins have a pair of good young corner outfielders in Young and Jason Kubel, both of whom will probably be better hitters than Cuddyer in the long run. If Cuddy has a big season and proves that he truly is the type of hitter he was in 2006, then perhaps the Twins can revisit the idea of an extension at a later time; for the time being, another one-year deal is probably wisest.


3. Jason Kubel - LF
Due to unfortunate circumstances, the Twins haven't gotten much production from Kubel during his cheap serfdom years. Kubel's service clock ran while he missed the entire 2005 season with a knee injury, and continued to run for the following two seasons while he struggled to find his form. However, in the second half last year, Kubel showed the type of promise many fans have been waiting for by hitting .303/.379/.511. My feeling is that Kubel's second half in '07 is a preview of things to come.

I view Kubel as the type of hitter who can ultimately be an anchor in this lineup, be it in left field, right field, or at designated hitter. Since he has yet to piece together a great full season, his price tag will not be overly high. I think the Twins would be wise to sign him to a long-term deal that will buy out his remaining arbitration years and perhaps take him a year or two into free agency. In the end, he could wind up being a great value.


4. Matt Guerrier - RP
Guerrier went from solid long reliever to premier setup man last year, posting a 2.35 ERA while frequently pitching in high-pressure situations out of the back of the Twins' bullpen. With the escalating market for relief pitching, the conventional wisdom states that the Twins would be wise to lock him up as quickly as they can. However, seeing as how this is Guerrier's first year of arbitration eligibility, and seeing as how his 2007 season came out of the blue to a large degree, I think the Twins would be wise to stick with a one-year commitment for the time being to see what they've really got in Guerrier. If he proves to be the reliable reliever he appeared to be last year, then next year the Twins should lock him up and solidify his spot as an important member of their 'pen.


5. Juan Rincon - RP
Rincon has seen his numbers decline for three straight seasons now, culminating in a brutal 2007 campaign that saw the formerly dominant setup man post a 5.13 ERA and 1.56 WHIP. Given his unstable performances, there's really no need to try and lock up Rincon beyond this year; in fact, considering that his price tag will likely be around $3 million, I wouldn't be surprised if the Twins seriously gave serious consideration to non-tendering him back in December. It would be great if Rincon could recapture his magic in 2008 and return to being a key member of this bullpen, but given his recent trends, it is somewhat difficult to see that taking place.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Meet the Mets

Joe Christensen had an article in the Star Tribune yesterday reporting that the Mets may be the most likely eventual destination for Johan Santana, noting that they have reportedly offered the Twins a package that includes outfielder Carlos Gomez along with pitchers Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey and Phil Humber.

I've always felt that the Mets were a logical trading partner, in that they have a greater need for Santana than the Yankees or Red Sox and thus may be willing to take their offers one step further than either of those clubs. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the Twins would rather send their star left-hander to the National League so as to avoid being forced to face him a couple times during the regular season and -- more frighteningly -- in the AL playoffs.

Christensen reports that the Twins have "told the Mets they'd have a done deal if New York would add prized outfield prospect Fernando Martinez." That's not exactly a minor toss-in, as Martinez is the Mets' top prospect and one of the better outfield prospects in baseball. Yet, if the Mets can make that happen, this is potentially an exciting package with a lot of upside. Martinez reached Double-A last season and held his own despite being just 18 years old, which is extremely impressive. He has tools that scouts rave about; then again, he has only accumulated 563 professional at-bats at this point, and he hasn't put up any jaw-dropping numbers as of yet (which is understandable, given his age), so making him the centerpiece of a Santana deal is a risky proposition.

As for the package the Mets have reportedly already offered, it has some potential but probably isn't significantly better than the offers the Yankees and Red Sox have made. I'm higher on Gomez than most and I like his chances to turn into a Jose Reyes type player. At 22, he's one of the fastest players in all of baseball, which makes him a very exciting player to watch, and I believe he'll build on his patience and power, both of which are fairly meager at this point. The lack of plate discipline is particularly alarming, as he'll never be able to put his blazing speed to good use unless he can get on base at a decent rate, but he is young and raw.

Along with Gomez, Guerra is the other enticing piece in the Mets' reported offer. A Venezuelan right-hander who won't turn 19 until April, Guerra has already put in a full season at Advanced Single-A, posting decent numbers against older and more experienced hitters. At 6'5" and 220 lbs., Guerra is an imposing figure on the mound and he brings a very good changeup which could become even more effective as he adds velocity to his fastball. Of course, Guerra is still at least a couple years away, and judging teenage pitching prospects is always a tricky task, so naturally there is a lot of risk involved with making him the centerpiece pitcher in a Santana deal.

Mulvey and Humber, the two others mentioned in the package, are decent pitchers who I don't believe will develop into above-average major-leaguers. The Twins already have numerous similar pitchers in the shape of guys like Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Jeff Manship -- guys who can put the ball in the strike zone consistently but lack exceptional stuff. I'd prefer to see the punchless Twins get more offense out of a Santana deal than one speedy center field who could well become the next Juan Pierre, which is why the Mets' offer isn't overly appealing unless Martinez is involved.

At this point, with the offers that are reportedly on the table, I still feel that the Yankees' package is the best. Phil Hughes remains the best player mentioned in any trade discussions, Melky Cabrera provides a solid young outfielder, and the additional prospect or two added to the deal would help stock the Twins' system. The Mets, however, appear to be serious bidders, and if they can adjust their deal a bit and find a way to include both Gomez and Martinez, they might be the club that comes out on top in these lengthy Santana Sweepstakes.


On an aside, if you're interested in reading what Mets fans are saying about this proposed deal, you can check this post and its comments over at

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

We Gotta Do This F***in' Thing Over Again, 'Cause They Just F***ed It Up

Another year, another Hall of Fame snub for Bert Blyleven. The Baseball Writers' Association of America had their votes tallied yesterday, and only Goose Gossage had his name on the necessary percentage of ballots (85.3 percent) to surpass the 75 percent threshold and achieve entry to the Hall of Fame. Blyleven failed to get elected for an eleventh straight year, although he did find his name on 61.9 percent of ballots, which is a considerable increase from last year's 47 percent.

Joe Christensen called the boost in percentage for Blyleven "a big jump," adding that the increase is a good sign that Blyleven will reach the Hall eventually, a notion which was very much in doubt after he saw his support drop six percentage points last year from the year before. Perhaps this year's results should be viewed as an encouraging sign, but it still frustrates me each time I see the voters fail to give Blyleven his proper due.

Obviously, I'm a major believer that Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame. I won't go into a lengthy tirade about all the reasons I feel this way (you can already find material like that in numerous other places, including here, here and here); suffice to say that nearly every anti-Blyleven argument centers in some way around his win-loss record, which was heavily influenced by the unfortunately mediocre teams he tended to play for. This is the same type of flawed thinking that prevented Johan Santana from winning the Cy Young in 2005, and it's a systematic issue in the BBWAA that drives me batty.

Other former Twins to receive votes were Jack Morris (42.9 percent) and first-timer Chuck Knoblauch (>1 percent). I'm not by any means a believer that Morris belongs in the Hall, and the fact that Knoblauch received even one vote is somewhat laughable. Still, another snub for Blyleven has me peeved. Here's hoping that his luck changes within the next couple years.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Center of Attention

Ah, a new year. It means we can all make resolutions for ourselves that will undoubtedly fade away within a matter of weeks. It means we will all spend the next month or two scribbling out the "07" that we accidentally wrote in the date section of our checks, and replace it with "08." But most importantly (at least for nerds like me), it means that pitchers and catchers shall be reporting for spring training in less than two months.

Naturally, there has been little action in the world of the Twins over the past few weeks, which is why nearly the entire blogosphere has been a virtual graveyard. Johan Santana has not been traded, and he might not be. As things stand, the Twins could field a pretty decent team with an established starter at every position -- with one exception. There is no obvious replacement for Torii Hunter in center field. The prevailing assumption has been that the answer would come over in a Santana trade, but with the very real possibility that Santana will still be a Twin in April, an answer might have to be found internally.

For yesterday's Pioneer Press, Phil Miller penned an article on Jason Pridie, a center field prospect who came over in the Delmon Young trade and seems to be the leading internal candidate to fill the team's vacancy in center field. Pridie is an interesting case, in that the Twins showed interest in him back in 2006 when they invited him to spring training as a Rule 5 draftee. Pridie did not make the Twins' roster and was sent back to the Rays organization, where he went on to put together a very poor campaign, batting .230/.281/.304 in Double-A as a 23-year-old. Last year, however, Pridie broke out with a big year, batting .290/.331/.441 in 71 games at Double-A before advancing to Triple-A for 63 games, where he raked to the tune of .318/.375/.539.

As Miller mentions in his article, Pridie is the only center fielder on the Twins' 40-man roster aside from Denard Span, so many view those two as the contending candidates for the starting spot in center field should the Twins fail to find an answer externally. One thing must be stressed here: Span is not a legitimate candidate to start in the big leagues next season.

Because Span and Pridie are both lefty-hitting center fielders with good speed and experience in Triple-A, people tend to group them together as options for the Twins' spot in center field. Both players were selected in the 2002 draft (Span with the No. 20 pickl; Pridie with the No. 43), and both will be 24 on Opening Day.

It is important to note, though, that Pridie appears to be a far superior option than Span. The two players are similar in that both have shown the ability to hit for a decent batting average -- Pridie is a .279 career hitter in the minors; Span .283 -- while neither has exhibited a whole lot of plate discipline. This prevents either player from looking like an ideal leadoff hitter, but the nice thing about Pridie is that he has some power. Between Double-A and Triple-A last season, Pridie racked up 32 doubles, 11 triples and 14 homers, while also stealing 26 bases on 36 attempts. Span, meanwhile, has hit a total of seven homers in nearly 2,000 minor-league at-bats, and he set a career high last year with a total of 30 extra-base hits in Rochester. It might be a promising sign that Span has seemingly gone from having no power to having slight power, but he still slugged only .355 and along with the marginal rise in power came a drop-off in batting average (his .267 average tied a career low) and a rise in strikeouts (he struck out in 18 percent of his at-bats, his highest percentage since 2004). Furthermore, for a guy whose game is supposedly based on his tremendous speed, Span has failed to even turn himself into a legitimate base-stealing threat; his career high for stolen bases is 25 and his career success rate is a mediocre 66 percent.

Pridie has been inconsistent over the course of his career thus far, some of which can be attributed to injuries. He has shown several flashes of talent though, and the Twins clearly recognize that which is why they have apparently coveted him for some time. He needs to hone his on-base skills and improve his plate discipline in order to become the top-of-the-order hitter the Twins need him to be, but his combination of speed and ability to poke the ball over the fence make him an intriguing prospect and a far more attractive candidate for the center field job in the upcoming season than Span.