Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Morneau's Mysterious Legacy

Justin Morneau, at the age of 27 and with four-and-a-half major-league seasons under his belt, has made quite a career for himself already. He has won two Silver Slugger awards. He’s been to two All-Star games. He has won one MVP award and finished second another time.

All the while, Morneau has posted a .281/.348/.498 hitting line at a premier offensive position. He’s never hit more than 34 home runs in a season, never slugged .600, never led the league in OPS (or been particularly close). His top comparison on is Brad Fullmer. Strictly from a statistical standpoint, Morneau has not been an overwhelmingly impressive player up to this point in his career.

Yet, clearly his reputation precedes him. Morneau has already collected some impressive hardware, has had opposing managers marvel at his skill (Ozzie Guillen last year called him the most dangerous hitter in the league) and has managed to earn himself the largest contract in Twins franchise history.

So just what is it about Morneau that causes his perceived value to be so much higher than the numbers we see on the stat sheet? I started wondering about this yesterday, and it was prompted by an entry on Joe Posnanski’s blog in which he expressed great confusion over why Morneau was considered to be so much more valuable than Joe Mauer by MVP voters, both this year and in 2006. Says Poz:
The part that baffled me in 2006 was that NONE of the voters agreed with me. Every single one of them picked Morneau over Mauer in their voting, every last one of them, and the Minnesota guys were pretty pointed in telling me that Morneau was much more valuable to that team even though, best I could tell, Mauer was a better hitter, a billion times more important fielder, a better base runner and apparently more feared around the game based on his 21 intentional walks (to Morneau’s nine). I was told that I was wrong so many times than finally I simply accepted it — obviously there was some greatness about Morneau that I was not appreciating properly and some flaws about Mauer that I was overlooking.

You know what? I watched them pretty closely in 2008, though, and … I think I was right the first time.
What is this “greatness” about Morneau? Is it something so simple as a flair for the theatrics? Morneau does have a reputation for delivering huge hits at crucial moments. Is it the tremendous hitting with runners in scoring position? Possibly, but Mauer was excellent in such situations this year and was actually markedly better in 2006 (though Morneau’s numbers always stand out more since he hits with far more runners in scoring position).

I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about watching Morneau play regularly that brings you to appreciate his game on a different level. I must admit that I’ve gotten swept up in this myself. Late in the season, Morneau was right at the top of my list of MVP contenders; now, looking back, I can’t really understand why. Even without the late-season slump, Morneau’s performance - while good - just didn’t stack up to many of his peers. When I threw together a quick-and-dirty MVP ballot in the comments section from Friday’s post, I ranked Morneau sixth, and I’ll stand by that.

What I think this comes down to is an aura built around Morneau’s reputation. It’s clear that people in the game and around the game have a lot of respect for him, and I’m sure that shades opinions of the writers who fill out MVP ballots. There’s also something to be said for having a flashy style - a big day for Morneau might be 2-for-5 with four RBI and a highlight-reel go-ahead homer in the late innings; a big day for Mauer might be 4-for-4 with two doubles, three runs scored and a walk. Mauer’s contributions may have been more valuable on a basic level, but Morneau’s stick in your memory long after you’ve watched the game.

Of course, I might just be grasping for straws here. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what it is about Morneau that makes his reputation outshine his actual on-the-field performance. But I’m open to suggestions. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

2008 Prediction Results

It's been a slow offseason up this point as far as the Twins are concerned. There's been little of substance to write about, and that continues to be the case. Hopefully things will start to heat up over the next month or so as Winter Meetings roll around and teams begin to engage in more serious pursuit of free agents and trade targets.

For today, I'm going to go back and review the 2008 season predictions that Mr. Mosvick and I made back in March. It's possible that no one cares about this other than me (and I'm not even sure I do), but at the very least it's something to post, and perhaps we can all have a collective chuckle over how utterly awful some of these predictions now look. Moreover, I'm personally a believer that people should be held accountable for some of the outrageous predictions they make, so I feel I have something of a moral obligation to post these. Or something.

For the heck of it, we'll tally points to see whose predictions were more accurate. I don't think we ever tallied our 2007 predictions (though I'll note that, by a quick count, I think I'd have lost by a pathetic 2-1 score), but in 2006 Mossy got the best of me by a score of 5-3. Time for some sweet revenge.

Nelson: Boston
Mosvick: Boston
Comments: Zero points awarded. Come on -- Rays? Who'd have thunk it. I figured I was going on a limb by picking them to finish third.

Nelson: Cleveland
Mosvick: Detroit
Comments: These were the two popular picks. Both were wrong. No points.

Nelson: Los Angeles
Mosvick: Seattle
Comments: I wasn't falling into the "improved Mariners" trap. Mosvick did. 1-0 lead.

Nelson: Detroit
Mosvick: Cleveland
Comments: We both thought the AL Central would produce two playoff teams. Ultimately, it didn't really deserve to produce one.

Nelson: New York
Mosvick: New York
Comments: Damn Mets.

Nelson: Milwaukee
Mosvick: Milwaukee
Comments: They made the playoffs, at least. Still 1-0.

Nelson: Arizona
Mosvick: Arizona
Comments: Obviously we were very independent with our NL picks. And very wise.

Nelson: Colorado
Mosvick: Colorado
Comments: Yeah... no.

Nelson: Boston over NY Mets
Mosvick: Detroit over Arizona
Comments: OK, I was wrong, but not nearly as wrong as Mossy...

Nelson: Grady Sizemore
Mosvick: Alex Rodriguez
Comments: Not bad picks, really. Both guys should have gotten more consideration than they did. Still, no points here. Man are we doing bad.

Nelson: David Wright
Mosvick: Chase Utley
Comments: They both had very good years. Alas, still 1-0.

AL Cy Young
Nelson: Felix Hernandez
Mosvick: Justin Verlander
Comments: Neither received a single vote. Ouch.

NL Cy Young
Nelson: Johan Santana
Mosvick: Johan Santana
Comments: You can make a case that Santana deserved it, but Tim Lincecum was a fine choice.

AL Rookie of the Year
Nelson: Evan Longoria
Mosvick: Clay Buchholz
Comments: Here I pick up another point. 2-0... this is turning into a landslide.

NL Rookie of the Year
Nelson: Franklin Morales
Mosvick: Jay Bruce
Comments: Goodness... what was I thinking? Bruce was a decent pick.

And so, I claim a decisive victory, managing a whopping two correct predictions. As for Mossy, he ended up with zero points. Not one correct prediction. How very embarrassing. I doubt he'll be showing his face around here anytime soon after a performance like that.

For next year, we'll probably try to do a more broad prediction contest where readers can submit their predictions and the winner will receive some sort of cool prize at the end of the season. As it's currently constructed, this format doesn't really give us much other than the knowledge that Mosvick and I are both very, very bad at this.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Cost of Mauer

When the American League Most Valuable Player voting results were released earlier this week, Justin Morneau found himself runner-up by a relatively thin margin, an indication that without his season-ending slump he may have found himself with a second MVP trophy in three years, an immense honor for the 27-year-old first baseman of humble origins.

Of course, there's nothing too surprising about Morneau's success on the MVP ballots in 2006 and 2008. A slugging first baseman with big RBI totals playing for a successful team and hitting in a lineup where his power numbers stand out immensely, Morneau is the type of player BBWAA voters have long drooled over.

Yet, lost in the impressiveness of Morneau's top finishes on the MVP voting is the impressive feat of his teammate, Joe Mauer, who crept up to a fourth-place finish this year after placing sixth in 2006. Mauer's rise in the vote doesn't necessarily reflect improved production (his numbers in '06 were, in fact, markedly better), nor does it necessarily reflect a diminished field of competition (the 2006 ballot featured a similarly unremarkable crop). Instead, I think Mauer's two-slot rise in the ballot illustrates two trends: an advancement in the way the voters think, and Mauer's continual ascension as a national celebrity.

Some might be a bit reluctant to accept that first point, but hear me out. While there are still some stubborn folks on the voting committee -- such as Tom Boswell and Evan Grant -- who are stuck focusing on the narrowly defined MVP qualifications of yesteryear, I've seen noticeable progress in recent years as beat writers and columnists who were raised on a few simple statistics have been more and more open to delving deeper and giving serious credibility to the advanced metrics that tell us so much more about a player's performance. More and more, I see writers taking positional value and defense into account, and putting increased value into numbers like on-base percentage and OPS, while putting less credence into intangibles like leadership and clutchness. I think we saw that this year, with Dustin Pedroia and Albert Pujols capturing the honor in their respective leagues. Both were not really traditional candidates; Pedroia, the second baseman without big power, and Pujols, the transcendent hitter whose team handily missed the playoffs.

More than that though, I think Mauer's improved voting results can be attributed to the fact that he's more nationally known. He's now won two batting titles. He started the All Star Game for the AL this year and reeled in his first Gold Glove. Nationwide, I think people are starting to appreciate more and more what an exquisite and unique player he is.

The question now, with just two years remaining on his current contract, is how this widely perceived increase in value will play out when it comes to negotiating a contract. When Mauer's agent meets with members of the Twins' front office to discuss a potential contract extension, is Mauer viewed as the patient, singles-hitting catcher who gets on base to set up the team's true MVP-caliber slugger? Or is he viewed as one of baseball's most valuable players whose contributions at a weak offensive position make him a rare and highly valuable asset?

The question is important, because these contract discussions could start taking place during this offseason, if they haven't already. For while the Twins can certainly wait until next offseason to enter real contract negotiations, extending him now -- with the star catcher still two full years away from sniffing free agency -- might be cheaper, and as we saw with the Johan Santana situation that unfolded last winter, dealing with a highly coveted player who is entering his last season before hitting the open market can cause some real headaches.

So just how much would it cost to extend Mauer? Unfortunately, there's no good baseline to go by. There are a few catchers around the league who are on Mauer's plane, such as Russell Martin, Brian McCann and 2008 NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto, but all of these players are young and none of them have signed free agent contracts as of yet. It's difficult to judge what Mauer's comparative value is on the current market.

If he wants, Mauer can pretty easily argue that he's the most irreplaceable member of the Twins' roster, both from a production and public-relations standpoint, and as such he could command a staggering contract in the neighborhood of $18 million a year over an extended period. People should think twice before expecting that the St. Paul native will offer a friendly hometown discount, as he's never really done so before (both his initial signing bonus and his current four-year contract were pretty much market value). One has to expect that, at the very least, Mauer will be looking at a five or six-year extension with an annual salary exceeding $15 million. That's a major investment, and a fairly risky one when you consider Mauer's injury history and the very real possibility that he could need to be moved from behind the plate at some point (a move which would substantially lower his value). Is it worth it?

My answer: yes. And I say that without really having any clue what terms Mauer and his agent will be commanding. I'd say that the Twins No. 1 priority over the next two years should be making sure they can lock up Mauer to a long-term deal, even if the expense is exorbitant. It is extremely rare that a player with such a combination of offensive skill, defensive aptitude, quality character and immense fan appeal comes along, and losing him for unwillingness to pay is simply not something this organization can afford to do.

The year of 2010 marks the beginning of a new era in Twins baseball as the team begins play in Target Field. The increased revenue provided by this stadium should go directly toward making sure that Mauer is out there on that field in a Twins uniform for the better part of the next decade. The novelty of a new ballpark wears off after a couple years, and eventually people will stop buying tickets just to come see it. But people will always pay to go out and see a historically great player, which Mauer seems well on his way to becoming.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Twins Near the Top

Yesterday, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia was named American League MVP, as I and many others expected. Of note for Twins fans is that both Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer finished in the top five, with Morneau coming in second behind Pedroia and Mauer finishing fourth behind Kevin Youkilis.

The results of the voting are not terribly surprising. I'm fine with Pedroia winning the award, and it's encouraging to see that Mauer finished in the top five (I'd feared he wouldn't) and that Francisco Rodriguez did not (he came in sixth). Not to slight K-Rod, but for a closer with unexceptional numbers like him to even sniff the Most Valuable Player award would be a pretty major travesty. Naturally, a single voter saw fit to give him a first-place vote.

Star Tribune beat writer La Velle E. Neal III revealed a few of his selections, noting that he ranked Pedroia first, Morneau second, and Mauer fifth. With all due respect, I found it a bit stunning that Neal -- an intelligent baseball mind who seems to be up on the cutting-edge statistical analysis, reads a number of blogs and seems to respect guys who think like Aaron Gleeman -- would rank Mauer fifth, behind Morneau and Kevin Youkilis. (He didn't mention who he ranked fourth on his ballot, but I sincerely hope it wasn't Rodriguez; that would be especially absurd in his case considering his vocal opposition to starting pitchers receiving MVP consideration.) As a Twins fan, I loved watching Morneau all season and appreciated what he was able to do for the Minnesota offense, but looking back, .300/.374/.499 with 23 home runs is just not a very impressive line for a first baseman. Granted, Morneau was terrific with runners in scoring position (.348/.443/.602), Mauer was no slouch (.362/.465/.449). Not to mention Mauer played Gold Glove caliber defense at perhaps the most important defensive position on the field and led the league in hitting, making him the only AL catcher to accomplish that feat other than... Joe Mauer. I just don't see any legitimate argument for ranking Morneau higher than Mauer.

In any case, while I'm a little disappointed in the way Neal voted, I'm not at all disgusted by it. To each his own. And overall I'm just happy to see two Twins finish in the top four, even though I firmly believe their spots should have been switched. What does disgust me, though, is the way some of the other voters cast their ballots. There was, of course, the individual who gave a first-place vote to Rodriguez, who was not only a closer, but perhaps the third or fourth most effective closer in the league. Then there was the individual who gave a fifth-place vote to Jason Bartlett, who posted a stellar 690 OPS. One writer left Pedroia off the ballot completely. Completely!!!

This kind of stuff drives me nuts. I know there are some people out there who say they just stopped caring about how these baseball writers vote on awards like MVP and Cy Young due to the countless examples of sheer idiocy . I know that's a viewpoint that my pal Gleeman has been pushing. But to me, you almost have care about these awards as a baseball fan? What's next, you don't care about the Hall of Fame? Because, like it or not, whether or not a guy gets into the Hall is largely based on how many MVP or Cy Young awards he accumulated during his career. So next you basically have to stop caring about who gets into the Hall of Fame, but man... at that point you're really just ignoring a huge part of the game's heritage and tradition.

Funny, the winners of all six major awards (ROTY, Cy, MVP for each league) have been announced, and I really don't have any problem with a single one of them, but here I am still complaining. I guess that's just the nature of the beast.

On a final note, please make sure to swing by Twins Territory today for the first edition of a series of Offseason Twins Roundtable discussions between Seth Stohs, Alex Halsted and myself (Jesse Lund will hopefully be joining the fray next time around). It's all the nerdy Twins blather you can possibly endure!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tuesday Notes

There's not much in the way of substantial news items in Twins-land, so today I'll just touch on a few tidbits...

* As expected, the Twins announced last week that manager Ron Gardenhire had been handed a two-year extension which will keep him as the Minnesota skipper through the 2011 season. There are plenty out there who aren't particularly fond of Gardy as the Twins' manager, but I'm a results-based guy and he has gotten results, leading the team to a 622-512 record over his seven years at the helm despite a consistently young and fluctuating roster. Though his tactical managing can be frustrating, I think Gardenhire does a fine job overall and is one of the upper-echelon managers in the league.

* The Twins have reportedly made an official offer to free agent third baseman Casey Blake. This news is surely horrifying to some, but I'm alright with it, provided the terms are reasonable. There are several other teams vying for Blake's services, so the fact that the Twins have submitted "the framework of an offer" is hardly a sign that they're close to signing him. Nevertheless, this is probably the first offseason rumor we've seen that appears to have some actual meat to it.

* I'm sure just about everyone who reads this blog is familiar with Seth Stohs, tireless author of Seth has recently been compiling a book called the Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook 2009, which features over 175 profiles of prospects in the Twins' system as well as a foreword from our beloved Pat Neshek.

While there are plenty of bloggers out there with prospect savvy, I don't think anyone out there can measure up to Seth. Unlike many who formulate opinions on a young player simply by glancing over a stat sheet, Seth also attains knowledge from speaking with scouts, coaches and even the players themselves. If I'm on the prowl for information on minor-league players in the Twins' system, there is not one single source I would go to before Seth Stohs.

For anyone looking to brush up on the organization's up-and-coming prospects or just looking for a good baseball-related read for a cold winter day, I highly recommend supporting Seth and pre-ordering a copy (and maybe one for your friend!).

I've already got my copy pre-ordered, you can do the same by visiting this page.

* On a related note, one other book I've been meaning to recommend is Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year That Changed Baseball Forever. The book is written by Minnesota native (and lifelong Twins fan) John Rosengren, and it chronicles the compelling 1973 season, in which Hank Aaron was chasing Ruth's home run record, baseball fans were being introduced to the designated hitter rule, and Reggie Jackson was being... well, Reggie Jackson. A fine read for any baseball fan as the weather gets cold and curling up on the couch with a book begins to look like a more and more attractive way to spend your Saturday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lost Hope

When news arose on Monday that Pat Neshek would be undergoing an MRI exam of his right elbow after experiencing some discomfort while throwing last week, many Twins fans immediately thought the worst. It seems we've seen this scenario play out a hundred times -- a pitcher tries to rehab a partially damaged ligament only to eventually suffer a setback and learn that surgery is unavoidable. We saw it happen in 2006 with Francisco Liriano, and that's likely why so many fans were unhappy with the team's decision to once again take the rest-and-rehab approach after Neshek originally injured the elbow back in May.

As it turns out, those fears were well-founded. Neshek's imaging scan revealed a fully torn ligament, and the team announced yesterday that he will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2009 season.

This news will undoubtedly raise some ire among Twins fans. There were plenty out there who vocally opined that the team should bite the bullet and have Neshek go through surgery immediately; indeed, had this been their course of action the reliever probably would have been able to return sometime around June or July of next year rather than sitting out the entire campaign.

The finger-pointing, though, is ultimately pointless. There's little doubt that both the player and the team strongly preferred to avoid surgery if at all possible, and as Joe Christensen made sure to note in his blog post on the news, when Neshek first suffered the injury "he received a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, who agreed with the Twins recommendation to rehab the injury, instead of having surgery."

The news that Neshek will be lost for all of next year is gravely disappointing for several reasons. For one thing, he's a great guy and you hate to see anyone as nice, outgoing and helpful to the blogging community go through such an ordeal. Furthermore, he's a great reliever and his return was going to be a key aspect of rebuilding a bullpen that was downright awful this season. Knowing without a doubt that he'll be unable to step in and reclaim that spot as a dominating setup man in front of Joe Nathan clouds matters considerably.

Even without Neshek, there's a chance that the Twins can still field an adequate bullpen with the guys they already have: Nathan, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares, Craig Breslow, Matt Guerrier, Philip Humber and Boof Bonser. The odds of all those guys performing well aren't terribly high though, especially considering how poorly many of them produced during this past season. I held a lot of hope that Neshek could return and provide a significant jolt to the relief corps. Losing that hope is a tough blow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Resurgent Rookies

Yesterday, the winners of the Rookie of the Year Award for both the American League and National League were announced. The top vote-getters, as expected and as picked by myself a month ago, were Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.

As I noted when I picked my postseason award winners, the AL honor belonged to Longoria and it was "no contest." Yet, it's interesting to glance over the other players who received votes from the Writers' Association. White Sox second baseman Alexei Ramirez finished second behind Longoria (who received all 28 first-place votes), and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury came in third. A look at the other players who received votes yields a couple familiar names:
Mike Aviles, Royals, 9; Armando Galarraga, Tigers, 9; Joey Devine, A's, 3; Denard Span, Twins, 3; Nick Blackburn, Twins, 1; Joba Chamberlain, Yankees, 1; Brad Ziegler, A's, 1.
That the Twins had a couple players receive votes for the ROTY award is not particularly exciting or surprising, but that those players ended up being Span and Blackburn has to be viewed with some measure of intrigue given the paths that both young men have followed.

Blackburn was 26 years old all season long, which is not terribly young for a first-year major-leaguer. He never followed the profile of a top prospect; the Twins drafted him out a small college in the 29th round of the 2001 draft and he debuted in rookie ball as a 20-year-old. He had intermittent success as he worked his way up through the low levels of the minors, but he never displayed much dominance and wasn't what you would call a fast riser. After fanning 7.04 batters per nine innings as a 22-year-old in Low-A ball, Blackburn never posted a K/9 rate higher than 5.51 and was relatively hittable everywhere he went. By spring of 2007, he was a 25-year-old preparing to start his third season at the Double-A level after posting mediocre numbers there the prior year. Simply put, Blackburn was the type of guy who prospect buffs pass off as a nobody.

That's when Blackburn turned his career around. He went 3-1 with a 3.08 ERA over his first eight appearances with New Britain, and was then bumped up to Rochester, where he surprised almost everyone by going on a spectacular run. Soon after joining the Red Wings, Blackburn entered a streak where he pitched over 40 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, a span that encompassed the entire month of June. He ended up going 7-3 with a 2.11 ERA in 17 starts with Rochester, earning a September call-up to the big leagues and, in the offseason, a spot on top of Baseball America's list of the Twins' top prospects. Now, a very solid first full season at the major-league level has earned Blackburn a Rookie of the Year vote and a definite spot in this organization's future plans.

Span has followed a very different but equally unconventional path. When the Twins selected Span with their first-round pick in 2003, many viewed him as perhaps the ultimate replacement to another former toolsy high-school draft pick who was currently roaming center field in the Metrodome. This created a lot of pressure for the speedy teenager, and he increased expectations by posting a .339/.410/.403 line over the first half of the 2005 season as a 21-year-old in High-A Ft. Myers and then finishing the year by posting some respectable numbers in Double-A. Span seemed to be brimming with potential, and with his athleticism, it seemed that all he needed to do was keep improving and he'd be ready to roam the Twins' outfield in no time.

Unfortunately, the improvements didn't come. In 2006, Span repeated Double-A and posted a .285/.340/.349 line that was nearly identical to the .285/.355/.345 line he'd posted there during the second half of the previous year. Despite a lack of true success, Span was moved up to Triple-A in 2007, where he posted a pedestrian .267/.323/.355 line. With four-and-a-half years of pro ball under his belt, Span had seemingly settled into a niche as a nice defensive outfielder with some speed who could hit for a decent average but wouldn't ever get on base or hit with enough power to justify a regular spot in a major league outfield.

Yet, just like Blackburn, Span seemed to have a light-bulb snap in his fifth full season as a pro. He went on a tear in Rochester, producing like he never had before since being drafted. It wasn't the high batting average (.340) or the speed (15 stolen bases in 40 games) that came as such a shock. It was the newfound plate discipline (36/26 K/BB, .434 OBP) and power (3 HR in 40 games after totaling 7 HR in 509 prior minor-league games) that created real cause for excitement. After a short April stint with the Twins, Span was recalled in June and he proved that his success in Rochester was no fluke, actually improving on his patience and power (60/50 K/BB and 6 HR in 93 games). Like Blackburn, Span has gone from afterthought to big-league fixture in just a short two-year frame.

Those (like me) who tend to follow and obsess over prospects will always focus on a few key aspects of a player's performance: with pitchers, the ability to miss bats and limit walks; with hitters, the ability to take walks, make contact and hit for power. The two young players featured in this article both consistently displayed massive weaknesses in some of these areas -- Blackburn with his inability to post impressive strikeout rates and Span with his lacking on-base skills and totally absent power stroke.

And despite all their doubters, both players turned a corner and became crucial members of this year's surprising near-playoff team. Blackburn more than held his own against major-league hitters and delivered a tremendous outing in the biggest game of the season. Span was a spark plug at the top of the order, providing the Twins with their first true leadoff hitter since... Chuck Knoblauch, maybe?

Now, this is not meant to be a total abandonment of those prospect-analysis tenets. It remains true that pitchers who can't strike minor-league hitters out and don't reach the big-leagues until they're 26 aren't usually bound for success. It also remains true that speedy, diminutive outfielders who show almost no power or patience over their first full years generally won't suddenly develop both those skills at the age of 24. But Blackburn and Span should serve as loud reminders that players can adjust and improve, even if it takes longer than results-hungry prospect hounds would like.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Golden Boy, Plus Another Rumor

The American League Gold Glove Award winners were announced yesterday, and among the names on the list was Twins catcher Joe Mauer. It was Mauer's first time receiving the honor, but he's got the name recognition and skills to be one of those guys who is a yearly fixture on the list, perhaps taking over the reigns for Ivan Rodriguez, who has won the AL Gold Glove Award at catcher in 13 of the past 16 seasons.

Mauer was among just four backstops to catch 1,200-plus innings this season, and he did so while working with a young and inexperienced staff that achieved surprisingly successful results. He also did a good job of controlling opponents' running games, gunning down 29 of 80 potential base-stealers (36 percent).

Moving back to the rumor mill, Rockies beat writer Tracy Ringolsby reported yesterday that Colorado may be interested in Michael Cuddyer as a trade piece for Garrett Atkins. Says Ringolsby:
The Rockies are looking to add a quality starter in the offseason, and the Twins could offer the likes of Nick Blackburn or Kevin Slowey. But the Rockies would also like to add a right-handed, run-producing hitter in a multiple-player package, which is where Cuddyer, a strong clubhouse presence, would fit.
Something's not right here.

Atkins, career (162 gm avg): .298/.360/.474, 22 HR, 108 RBI
Cuddyer, career (162 gm avg): .268/.344/.441, 18 HR, 79 RBI

The Rockies are in the market for a "right-handed, run-producing hitter," yet they're interested in swapping the good one they already have for an inferior one who makes more money and is coming off a disastrous, injury-riddled campaign?

If the Twins decide to move an outfielder to clear up their current glut, I certainly think Cuddyer should be the guy, but I always assumed his value would be pretty low right now. If it's true that the Rockies covet him and would be willing to trade Atkins for a package composed of, say, Cuddyer, Kevin Mulvey and an arm in the low minors, I'd be all for it. I don't think that's likely. My guess is that the Rockies would be asking for Cuddyer plus Nick Blackburn, whose ground ball tendencies would play well in their park.

Atkins has some attributes that make him an attractive fit for the Twins. He's a right-handed slugger who has averaged 22 home runs and 105 RBI in his four full seasons as a major-leaguer. He remains arbitration-eligible for two more years, so he fits the bill as a relatively inexpensive short-term fix. However, questions abound about how Atkins will hit when he's removed from Coors Field (his career OPS at home is 170 points higher than his career road OPS) and he's coming off arguably the worst season of his career. He's also a marginal defender at third base.

Atkins is an intriguing player who has had his name connected to the Twins on multiple occasions in the past, and the emergence of Cuddyer's name as a potential trade piece is interesting. Unfortunately, I don't see how that trade makes sense for the Rockies, and if they're looking to chip into The Fab 5, Bill Smith does not face an easy decision.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


It's been a while since I've talked some Twins, so let's get to it.

Tim Dierkes of recently compiled a list of his Top 50 2009 Free Agents, along with where he projects each of them to end up. The three Twins-related names:
18. Casey Blake - Twins. If the Twins don't like the asking prices for Garrett Atkins and Adrian Beltre, Blake may be the best third baseman on the free agent market.

21. Orlando Cabrera - Twins. Completing the Twins' new-look infield. Blake and Cabrera should be capable of league-average production.

42. Nick Punto - Rays. Cork Gaines suggested this idea to me. Seems feasible, unless Punto craves a starting job.
Those first two make sense. In fact, I wrote about them both a month ago. I suggested Blake as a logical short-term solution at third base, and while I oppose the notion of signing Cabrera, it certainly seems like a move the Twins could make.

The third signing suggested above, though, makes little sense to me. While Punto might not necessarily be someone who "craves a starting job" (although I suspect he does and I also suspect he could land one somewhere), he almost certainly craves playing time, like any other player. There wouldn't seem to be much available in Tampa Bay's infield, where Akinori Iwamura, Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria already have spots locked down. If Punto wants a shot at significant playing time or perhaps a starting job, he's much better off sticking with the Twins, who really don't have an established starter locked in at second, short or third presently. Furthermore, I doubt the Rays would offer significantly more money in a contract than the Twins could. I don't find it totally unlikely that Punto will end up somewhere else next season, but I highly doubt it will be with the defending AL champs.

Elsewhere, Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus last week scribed an article listing "five radical moves that would give the offseason some sizzle." The first move suggested?
1. Minnesota trades Francisco Liriano to Texas for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Hank Blalock and Omar Poveda.

The Twins weathered the loss of Johan Santana by replenishing the rotation from their deep farm system, and more live arms (Anthony Swarzak, Tyler Robertson, Jose Mijares, Yohan Pino) are on the way. Now, they can deal the lefthanded Liriano, 25, while his value is high to improve their anemic offense, especially on the left side of the infield. Andrus, 20, is a long-term solution at shortstop; Saltalamacchia, 23, a catcher who can DH; and Blalock, 27, an inexpensive short-term play at third. The Rangers, in turn, add the young ace (under team control through '11) that they've lacked since, well, forever, as they wait for Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz to develop.
This move, quite simply, makes no sense. First of all, the Twins are hardly in a position that they can afford to part with Liriano, who is arguably the only ace-caliber pitcher in the entire organization. If they were to trade him, it would have to be for an extremely significant package that provides legitimate, immediate help in other areas. I don't see how this one does that. Saltalamacchia, while a nice young hitter, derives much of his value from the fact that he plays catcher, a position where offensive stars are spread thin. I'm sure most of you are aware that the Twins already have a pretty decent young catcher. In fact, their three best hitters are their catcher, their first baseman, and their DH, which are the only three positions Saltalamacchia has played in his big-league career. So, really, Salty wouldn't fill any need.

Andrus -- a top-notch SS prospect who put up solid numbers as a 19-year-old in Double-A this year -- is a more intriguing player, especially since he plays a position that is one of this organization's biggest weaknesses, but he's not terribly close to the majors and hasn't done much to prove that he'll be more than an average bat. Not worth losing Liriano for.

Blalock, one the surface, seems like a reasonable solution to the Twins' third-base dilemma. He's a big-name slugger who will be relatively cheap next year and could serve as a short-term replacement. However, a closer look reveals that the left-handed hitter is, historically, close to useless against southpaws and much less productive away from his hitter-friendly home park. That's not the type of player the Twins should be targeting.

Finally, check out Twins Fix for Andrew Kneeland's interview with 2008 first-round pick Carlos Gutierrez and cmathewson's Top 40 Twins prospects list over at Twinkie Town. Oh, and if you're interested in some in-depth, original fantasy baseball analysis with projections for the '09 season, consider purchasing a copy of John Burnson's Graphical Player 2009. The analysis of Twins players in the book was produced by yours truly.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I've already cast my hypothetical votes for MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in each league, but today I must urge every reader over the age of 17 to get out and vote in the far more important presidential and congressional races today. This is an important day that will have a significant impact on the future direction of our country, so please make sure to get out and make your voice heard. I've never used this blog to push my personal political views and I'm not going to start now, so I'll simply encourage everyone to make it out to the polls and vote for whichever candidates you've chosen to support.

We'll get back to Twins-related programming later this week.

Monday, November 03, 2008


I must apologize for the sparse content here last week -- only one post, eek! It was a busy week, as I celebrated my 23rd birthday on Wednesday and then engaged in some Halloween festivities over the weekend. But now, with the World Series in the books (congrats Philly) and the season officially over, that long grind that is the offseason is finally upon us.

I don't foresee time constraints being a big problem for me this winter, so I should be able to post relatively often as long as I can continue to find material to write about. I'm going to try to avoid writing up a long analysis of every frivolous trade rumor, but certainly I'll look to break down the speculated moves that seem to have the most meat. I'll also probably do a bit more stuff on the 2008 season that was and touch on contract extensions, coaching changes, minor-league movement, etc.

This was a good year for the blog. There was a strong readership and a lot of good interaction in the comments section and via e-mail. Thanks to everyone who's stopped by and joined the conversation. I hope you'll continue to swing by throughout the winter and forward into the 2009 campaign.