Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Joe Mauer: AL MVP

When Joe Mauer's first swing of the 2009 season sent a ball sailing over the left field wall in the Metrodome, one got the sense that this was going to be a special year. Mauer missed the entire month of April due to a back injury, but in a way that might have been a blessing because his absence made local fans all the more appreciative of what he brought to the table once he finally was able to take the field. Even with a month's worth of missed games, there is no taking for granted what Mauer was able to accomplish this season, and fortunately the BBWAA voters saw it the same way as they awarded the Twins catcher with his first American League MVP award yesterday.

It had been widely assumed that Mauer would capture this honor ever since he batted .354 in September/October to put the finishing touches on a dazzling season and help launch his team to an improbable postseason berth, but yesterday it became official. Mauer becomes the fifth Twins player to win an MVP award, and the second in the past four years.

By now you're probably familiar with the numbers, but let's break them down again quickly. Mauer hit .365/.444/.587, leading the league in all three categories to capture the so-called "Sabermetric Triple Crown." He overcame a historical lack of power by bashing 28 home runs -- more than double his previous career high -- and drove in 96 runs while scoring 94 times. He walked more than he struck out (76/63). He hit .377 against right-handed pitchers and .345 against lefties. He posted a 1.067 OPS with runners in scoring position. It was a remarkable offensive season from just about any angle, and he did it all while putting in over 900 innings at the most demanding defensive position on the field. And while one can use the missed time early in the season as a mark against him, it's worth noting that Mauer was essentially an iron man after coming off the DL, resting less frequently than he ever has in the past and even catching both games of a crucial double-header late in the year. Even though he missed the entire month of April, Mauer played in 138 games and made 606 plate appearances; over the four seasons prior, he had averaged 131 games and 566 plate appearances.

Anyone with a working brain would have recognized Mauer as the AL's best player this year regardless of how the MVP voting results played out, but nevertheless it was quite encouraging to see Mauer place first on 27 of the 28 ballots while Mark Teixeira and his league-leading RBI total did not get one first-place vote. The ability of the BBWAA voters in this instance to look past traditional stats that tell you less about the performance of an individual player and more about the performances of his teammates, as they did with the Cy Young voting, represents refreshing progress.

Of course, the one downside to Mauer's capturing this award is that it will do nothing but strengthen his case at the negotiating table. And that is where our attention must now turn, because the Twins No. 1 priority at this point should be making sure they get their MVP locked up long-term.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wrapping Up the Week

Haven't gotten a post in since Monday, so let's touch on the past week's developments quickly...

* The BBWAA has pleasantly surprised me this week by electing deserving winners for both league's Cy Young Awards, uncharacteristically looking past relatively unimpressive win totals and awarding Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum for their fantastic bodies of work in the '09 season.

Greinke, who had a historically great season, was the clear-cut class of the AL this year, and any concerns that the voters would lean toward the gaudier win totals of less deserving candidates like Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander or CC Sabathia were erased when Greinke captured all but three first-place votes and won in a landslide. The NL picture was a bit less clear, and I was pretty torn between Lincecum and Chris Carpenter, but ultimately Linecum's huge strikeout totals and 2.48 ERA caused voters to overlook his weak 15-7 record. Adam Wainwright, who looked to many like the presumptive winner due to his league-leading totals in wins and innings pitched, surprisingly finished third.

With the quality selections in these categories, the much maligned BBWAA is starting to build up some good will among modern-thinking baseball analysts and fans everywhere. Of course, that could all be erased if Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols aren't announced as MVPs next week.

* Results for this year's Manager of the Year voting were also announced this week, and on the AL side, Ron Gardenhire finished just behind winner Mike Scioscia to notch his fifth second-place finish in eight years as Twins manager (there's also a third-place finish mixed in there). When pondering Gardenhire's candidacy for this award in late October, my conclusion was as follows: "I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scioscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award." So, obviously I think Scioscia was a deserving candidate and I'm happy he won. The fact that Gardenhire recorded his sixth top-three finish in eight seasons since becoming Twins manager, though, only strengthens my perception that he is viewed much more highly around the country and around the league than he is here in Minnesota, and that he's probably a better manager than a lot of local fans give him credit for.

* Thrylos98, who authors the Tenth Inning Stretch blog, has been claiming on his Twitter account to have inside info on a developing blockbuster deal between the Twins and Marlins that will bring Dan Uggla and Ricky Nolasco to Minnesota.

Around the end of the regular season, Thrylos made a vague mention of a major move on the imminent horizon for the Twins, and after the J.J. Hardy trade was completed he claimed that this was the move he'd been referring to all along. Of course, that statement doesn't really jive with reports that the Twins started talks with the Brewers only 10 days before the Hardy trade was consummated, so you can color me skeptical. There's no way in the world I believe the Twins have the pieces (that they'd be willing to move, anyway) to reel in a marquis package like Uggla and Nolasco, but if such a swap actually goes down, I'll officially start referring to Thrylos by the nickname "Scoop."

* On Tuesday night, Seth Stohs had third base prospect Danny Valencia as a guest on his weekly podcast. An amusing moment came midway through the interview when Valencia took an opportunity to call out one of his harshest online critics.

"That guy, I don't know his name, he goes by TT," said Valencia. "It just seems like he doesn't like me, it's kind of unfair, but you know I guess it comes with what we do. TT, if I can make you like me man, let me know if I can get you on my side. I hate to read all the bad things you say about me, but we'll see what we can do."

Readers of this blog might recognize that name, as TT frequently engages in lengthy debates in the comments section here and also runs his own blog, Granny Baseball. I found the quoted portion of Seth's interview quite humorous given that I've always felt that TT has been far too critical of Valencia without any legitimate reason. In fact, just this week, when making his recommendations for additions to the Twins' 40-man roster on his blog, TT astonishingly skipped over Valencia while pointing out that the Twins seem high on the third baseman "despite his struggles at AAA last year." That seems like a rather absurd spin on a 758 OPS in a 24-year-old's first stint at the Triple-A level, and of course it's not difficult for any objective observer to see why the Twins are high on Valencia given his .299/.354/.480 hitting line in the minors and the relatively success he has experienced at every level, but it's hardly surprising to read that from TT.

Perhaps a personal appeal from the player himself will soften our friend's stance on Valencia. Somehow I doubt it.

By the way, make sure to check out Seth's podcast from Tuesday night here if you haven't had a chance. Aside from the interview with Valencia, who comes off as a real good kid, Seth also chatted with Steve Singleton, who just yesterday finished up a solid run in the Arizona Fall League.

* Finally, when you get a chance, make sure to check out the newest promising blog dedicated to the Twins and Minnesota sports at large, Undomed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mythical Joe Crede

As the offseason gave way to spring training last year, rumors began to spring up regarding the Twins' interest in free agent third baseman Joe Crede. From pretty much the moment this speculation began, I took a stance against signing Crede, pointing out that with his troubling injury history and Tony Batista-esque career hitting line, his potential for plus power and defense were unworthy of a large financial investment.

The Twins ended up signing him, though they waited out agent Scott Boras until the price dropped to a reasonable $2.5 million guarantee plus incentives. At that type of minimal monetary commitment, even I couldn't take major issue with the signing. Still, I warned fans to keep their expectations for Crede in check, noting that when healthy enough to be on the field, "Crede should be able to provide strong defense from the hot corner while popping a few big home runs, but he is also likely to make a lot of outs."

When I did a preseason position analysis for third base, I projected that Crede would post a .255/.300/.425 hitting line with 12 homers and 50 RBI, anticipating that he'd hit around his career line while missing a sizable portion of the season due to injury. As it turned out, the prediction was accurate and the earlier Batista comparison was apt, as Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (Batista hit .236/.303/.388 with the Twins in 2006) with 15 homers and 48 RBI before having his season ended after 90 games due to yet another back injury. Of course, Crede was much better defensively than Batista, making this a much less disastrous experiment, but I nevertheless felt vindicated to see my warnings about Crede come to fruition almost precisely.

And so, when it came to light last week that the Twins may have interest in bringing Crede back on another incentive-laden one-year deal next season, I was somewhat appalled to see that the reaction from Twins bloggers and fans was overwhelmingly supportive. Are you kidding me?!

It seems to me as though the perception that Crede was a quality player for the Twins this season and would be a palatable option going forward into 2010 is predicated on a number of myths. Let's take a shot at dissolving these right now.

Myth No. 1: When accounting for defense, Crede was an overall positive contributor to the 2009 Twins.

This is a favorite argument amongst my fellow bloggers and stat-heads, and the go-to statistic when trying to support this one is WAR (or Wins Above Replacement), a metric featured on FanGraphs that attempts to quantify a player's contributions to a team while accounting for both offense and defense. According to this stat, Crede was worth 1.9 wins to the Twins in the '09 season.

Now, it's not in my nature to try and dismantle progressive baseball statistics, and I certainly don't think WAR is without it's value, but in the case of Crede I don't think it provides an accurate assessment of what can be expected going forward.

FanGraphs acknowledges that Crede was a liability at the plate, but according to UZR he was worth 12.5 runs over a replacement-level player in the field. Since UZR makes up the defensive side of the WAR equation, that big defensive boost completely accounts for his positive rating. Now, I like UZR as a defensive metric, but even its most avid supporters acknowledge that one year's data in isolation cannot provide a particularly accurate picture of a player's fielding acumen. Extrapolated over 150 games (UZR/150), the stat suggests that Crede's defensive performance would have been worth 23.4 runs this past year. He's a good fielder, but he's not that good. Crede's career UZR/150 is 10.2, so unless you believe that he magically took an enormous step defensively last year at the age of 31, it seems clear that the numbers over that 84-game sample are exaggerated and that expectations going forward should be adjusted accordingly.

My other problem with WAR's calculation is that it gives the same positional adjustment to a third baseman as it does to a center fielder. I don't really buy that the two positions carry the same defensive importance under normal circumstances, and I certainly don't believe that's the case on a Twins team that allows a higher percentage of fly balls than any other big-league club.

Regardless of what WAR and Crede's overstated UZR tell us, his quality defense at third simply doesn't outweigh his poor performance at the plate.

Myth No. 2: While not great, Crede's offensive output was significantly better than the rest of the players who filled in at third base in 2009.

On the surface, this statement seems obviously true, but it's really not. Crede hit .225/.289/.414 (703 OPS) this year, while all other Twins' third basemen hit .273/.339/.349 (688 OPS). That gives Crede a very modest offensive edge over the rest of the misfits who were trotted out to third in his absence this year and, depending on how you weigh AVG/OBP vs. SLG, perhaps not much of an edge at all.

There's a perception that hitting some home runs can completely make up for a dreadful on-base percentage, but that just isn't true. Which brings us to our next myth.

Myth No. 3: Crede did his job, which was delivering big hits and driving in the core hitters from the middle of the Twins' lineup.

There's no denying that Crede had some big, memorable hits this year. That fact probably feeds the perception that he wasn't a major offensive liability. But, by making outs more than 70 percent of the time behind the team's best hitters, Crede killed A LOT of rallies. He batted .198 with runners in scoring position.

Overall, Crede hit .225 with a .289 on-base percentage. Despite his ability to hit the ball out of the park on occasion, his slugging percentage fell below the league average for a third baseman. He was a bad hitter in 2009, and next year he'll be another year older and coming off another back surgery, while the Twins will be moving into a new park that doesn't figure to be a whole lot kinder to right-handed power hitters than the Metrodome was. I don't think the smart money is on his improving significantly.

Myth No. 4: Signing Crede again is a low-risk move and doesn't really carry any downside.

This is the biggest misperception, for me. Nick Punto is set to make $4 million next year and it has been made fairly clear by the Twins brass that he'll be starting somewhere in the infield in 2010. If Crede is re-signed, then Punto will be your starter at second base and it's unlikely that another infielder will be added to the club. So, if Danny Valencia isn't ready when Crede goes down (you'll excuse me for not using the word "if" at this point), we're looking at Tolbert or Harris at third base with Punto at second. Isn't that precisely the situation we'd like to avoid?

If the Twins are willing to sign Crede to a deal that can reach $5-7 million or so in attainable incentives, that means they must be prepared to spend that money. It has to be accounted for in the budget. If they're willing to spend that money, why not just go ahead and guarantee it to one of the many second basemen on the market who are better than Crede and far more likely to remain healthy? This would potentially provide the team with the legitimate No. 2 hitter it has been looking for while sticking Punto at third until Valencia hopefully overtakes him at some point.

There's something about Crede that enamors fans. But once you look past the myths and dig deeper into the numbers, you'll find that he's far from an ideal solution and that there are much better options available if the Twins want to field a quality infield group.

If several months pass without Bill Smith taking action on the infield situation and things stand the same in late January as they do now, then fine, sign Crede to another one-year incentive-laden deal. But I would consider that scenario a failure on the part of Smith and the Twins front office. There are too many opportunities on the market right now to settle for Joe Crede.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Missed the Mark

In analyzing possible targets for the Twins this offseason, I'm starting to realize that I've been perhaps overly positive. J.J. Hardy? Great acquisition! Carl Pavano? Bring him back! Adrian Beltre? Great fit! And don't forget about my sleeper free agent second baseman, Jamey Carroll!

Lest I start to look like anything other than a nay-saying curmudgeon, let's spend today's post talking about a player that I think the Twins should most definitely avoid. Ironically, it's a guy that I advocated very strongly for them to bring in just last offseason.

That's because last offseason presented the perfect opportunity to make a play for Mark DeRosa. A right-handed batter, he was coming off three consecutive strong seasons, had only one relatively cheap year left on his contract, was capable of playing multiple positions where the Twins were thin, and was being made available by the Cubs for -- as it would turn out -- a pretty darn low price.

The Indians ended up swooping in and acquiring DeRosa in return for three marginal pitching prospects. He hit quite well for the Indians over the first half of the season before being sent to St. Louis to finish up his campaign with the playoff-bound Cardinals. Now, DeRosa becomes a free agent and the Twins will once again have the chance to move on him.

Things are different, though. He'll turn 35 in February and he's starting to show marked signs of decline. DeRosa skidded after being traded to the Cards last year and finished the season with a 757 OPS -- his lowest figure since 2004. Perhaps more alarming is that DeRosa's defense seemed to drop off the charts; he'd posted excellent UZR numbers at third base in 2007 and 2008 but this year finished at -8.7 there, and he's never rated well at second base.

Another fact to keep in mind when contemplating DeRosa is that he needed wrist surgery at the end of the season. The injury was likely a significant factor in his late-season decline, but there's no guarantee that he'll bounce back even after surgery, considering his age.

DeRosa's right-handed stick and ability to play second, third and left field make him a desirable fit for the Twins at a quick glance, but a deeper look tells us that this is the wrong time to be signing him to a multi-year deal -- which he'll certainly be seeking this winter. Getting DeRosa a year ago would have been a wise move that would have made the Twins a better team in '09. But the Twins missed their window, and at this point the best idea is to simply pass.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is Beltre the Final Infield Piece?

In his last contract year, Adrian Beltre hit .334/.388/.629 with 48 home runs and 121 RBI for the Dodgers, finishing second in the National League MVP voting. He ventured into free agency for the first time that following winter as a 25-year-old third baseman with elite defense and a 794 career OPS coming off a breakout year. After flirting with numerous clubs, he ultimately signed a five-year deal with the Mariners worth $64 million.

Beltre's five years in Seattle were a let-down. He never came close to approaching that amazing final season in Los Angeles, topping out at 26 homers while failing to bat better than .276 or slug better than .482 during his tenure with the M's. This past season was his last before again becoming eligible for free agency, and it was a far cry from his walk year with the Dodgers. Beltre posted a 683 OPS -- his lowest figure since he played in 77 games for the Dodgers as a 19-year-old back in 1998 -- in a season that was marred by injuries, including one of the most cringe-inducing I've ever heard of.

And so, Beltre enters free agency for the second time this winter under vastly different circumstances than his first forray into the open market. He's got much to prove after seeing his production decline dramatically this past year, but he remained a quality player during his first four seasons in Seattle and some team will likely pay a relatively high price to see if he can regain that form -- or perhaps show some semblance of the ability that he flashed during that final season in LA. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors recently predicted that that team would be the Twins.

The thought is fairly tantalizing. In Beltre and J.J. Hardy, the Twins would boast a tremendous defensive left side of the infield capable of combining for 50 home runs. Beltre's 14.3 UZR in '09 suggests that his defense did not slide along with his offense. Like Hardy, Belte's right-handed stick would play well in the Twins' lefty-heavy lineup and there's plenty of reason to believe that his offensive production will increase once he escapes the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco (he consistently hit better on the road than at home during his time with the Mariners).

If he's back to full health and effectiveness, Beltre would be a perfect fit for the Twins. But finding out whether he'll be able to return to that level is a risk -- even beyond the aforementioned gruesome injury, he has undergone surgery on both his shoulder (twice) and thumb within the past year -- and it won't be a cheap one at that. Beltre is still only 30 years old and with his pedigree of hitting for power while playing outstanding defense at the hot corner, he's bound to draw numerous suitors on the free agent market, especially considering that his tough '09 campaign knocked his free agent status down to Type B. Bill Smith has already taken a rather significant gamble by investing on a player coming off a down year in Hardy; is he willing to do so again by trying to outbid other clubs for Beltre?

My guess is no. I doubt the Twins really even have the money available to make a legitimate offer on Beltre, especially considering their professed need for help in the rotation. But I think he'd be an excellent final piece to the infield equation, adding another dynamic right-handed bat to the lineup while rounding out an exquisite defensive infield by allowing Nick Punto to slide over to second and to the ninth spot in the lineup. Sure, the signing would carry some risk, but Smith has shown no aversion to taking gambles thus far and the upside of a Hardy/Beltre pairing on the left side would easily outweigh the potential downside of such a move.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bringing Back Pavano

The Twins are currently amidst a two-week window of exclusive negotiating rights with internal free agents before the market opens on November 20. During that span, the team will have the opportunity to lock up Orlando Cabrera, Carl Pavano, Mike Redmond, Joe Crede and Ron Mahay before other teams can begin to make offers. From that group, we can already basically write a few names off. The trade for J.J. Hardy essentially closes the door on Cabrera, who will find offers to play shortstop elsewhere. Mahay is unlikely to return, with the bullpen picture for next season looking somewhat crowded as is. Redmond apparently wants to keep playing somewhere next year, but the smart money is against that team being the Twins. Crede could conceivably be brought back, but Bill Smith is almost certain to spend the winter months searching for better options before making a decision like that.

Which leaves us with Pavano. Smith has done nothing to hide his interest in retaining the veteran starter, who posted a 4.64 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 12 starts for the Twins after being acquired from the Indians on August 7. The notion of re-signing Pavano doesn't seem to raise a lot of excitement amongst fans, but re-upping his contract might prove be the team's most reasonable method of ensuring that a reliable veteran arm is present in the 2010 rotation.

Pavano's overall numbers this season understandably don't get people into a lather. In 33 starts split between Cleveland and Minnesota, he went 14-12 with a 5.10 ERA and 1.38 WHIP -- thoroughly mediocre numbers. However, there are a few things that make Pavano an intriguing bet for next season.

For one thing, underlying statistics suggest that Pavano pitched better than those base numbers would indicate. His xFIP for the season was 4.17. Compare that to Scott Baker (4.46), Kevin Slowey (4.46), Nick Blackburn (4.78), Francisco Liriano (4.78) and Brian Duensing (4.97). Pavano gave up a lot of hits this year, but his BABIP of .330 was 22 points higher than his career average and 31 points higher than the major league average. Should that figure drop next season, he figures to do a great job of limiting baserunners given his outstanding control.

That outstanding control is something that cannot be ignored when analyzing Pavano. He ranked second among all American League starters in walks per nine innings with a rate of 1.76. His K/BB ratio of 3.76 ranked fourth in the AL, with Cy Young contenders Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander the only starters to sport better marks.

Of course, Pavano doesn't fall into that Cy conversation because he's just more hittable than those other elite hurlers. That's always been the case with Pavano; he's not dominant. Like Baker and Slowey, he falls into the mold of quality starting pitchers who limit walks and post respectable strikeout rates but give up a fair number of hits and a fair number of home runs. Keeping Pavano does not solve the Twins' need for a dominating power pitcher at the top of the rotation. But solving that particular issue will be a lot more difficult than some seem to realize.

Given the Twins' budget constraints, signing a John Lackey in free agency is out of the question. So here are the three viable methods of attaining a power arm that can serve as the team's ace next season:

1) Trade for an established top-of-the-rotation starter, like Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson. These two names were mentioned by Joe Christensen in his Star Tribune article yesterday. Such a move would not be characteristic for this franchise, and I'm very skeptical as to whether they have the pieces to pull of a blockbuster trade of this magnitude anyway. Not likely.

2) Sign a high-risk/high-reward free agent starter with injury concerns, such as Rich Harden or Erik Bedard. Harden's name has been very popular among Twins fans, but what people need to realize is that plenty of clubs around the league need pitching help and the Twins aren't the only ones who are going to think to themselves, "Hey, Harden's value is probably down due to his injury concerns, maybe we can get a good deal on him!" I'm all for signing a high-upside pitcher one a make-good short-term deal, but many of these starters are going to end up signing for more than people think. And once you get beyond a certain point of guaranteed money, these types of signings just stop being a good risk for a team with the Twins' budget constraints.

3) Hope that Francisco Liriano regains his second-half 2008 form. Liriano is the only pitcher in the organization right now with a history of pitching up to the level of a bona fide big-league ace. Even as one of his biggest supporters, I have a hard time trusting him to return to top form any time soon after his disastrous 2009 campaign.

Relying on any of those three options is a major gamble. Pavano is a pretty safe bet, though. He seemed to put any injury concerns behind him this season by racking up nearly 200 innings of work without issue. He fits right into the Twins' strike-throwing mold and seemed to have a positive impact on the hometown club after coming over via trade. While I wouldn't put much stock into it, team officials may take note of the fact that the Twins' team ERA was 4.67 prior to Pavano's arrival and 4.15 after he joined the rotation. It also certainly doesn't hurt that he was absolutely dazzling in his ALDS start against the Yankees.

So, the only remaining question is one of price. Prior to this season, Pavano hadn't put together a full season at the major-league level since 2004, so last winter he was forced to settle for a make-good one-year deal (the kind described in Option No. 2 above) that guaranteed only $1.5 million. He ended up earning close to $5 million with incentives, and he'll surely be looking for a raise next year. In my offseason blueprint, I suggested that the Twins bring Pavano back on a two-year, $12 million deal, hoping that his desire to return to Minnesota and the comfort of a multi-year deal might convince him to settle for a relatively modest raise in salary. He could try venturing into free agency in search of a larger gurantee, but one healthy year doesn't erase all his past injury concerns, and the fact that his actual numbers weren't all that great should play against him.

In the aforementioned Star Tribune article, Christensen quoted Smith as saying "if there's a veteran starter or two that's a good fit for us, then we'll proceed accordingly," and concluded that the Twins' GM might be tipping his hand regarding his offseason priorities. Even though Pavano is merely a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter, bringing him back should be a priority. Engaging in the difficult task of uncovering an ace with limited resources can come afterward.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Wasting No Time

Any concerns I had that Bill Smith and the Twins would become complacent in addressing lineup holes this offseason after enjoying a successful overall season offensively in 2009 were quickly assuaged on Friday morning when the club announced that they'd traded Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. As a relatively young shortstop who remains controllable for two more years and who has historically hit for power while playing great defense, Hardy seemed destined to be a hot commodity this winter after Milwaukee had made clear that he'd be available. Smith wasted no time in taking the 27-year-old infielder off the market, completing a swap just as the Yankees were parading through New York City to celebrate their World Series victory -- still only two days old.

That the Twins were interested in Hardy comes as no huge surprise. He's a very logical fit for this team and was in fact the very top player listed among our potential trade targets in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook. Here's what I wrote about Hardy there:

Age: 27 (DOB: 8/19/82) | Contract Status: Arb Elig
2009 Stats: .229/.302/.357, 11 HR, 47 RBI
With the free agent market for shortstops looking exceedingly thin and the Twins lacking any legitimate prospects at that position, it appears that the only way to make a meaningful upgrade might be through a trade. Teams generally aren’t willing to part with capable young shortstops that are competent at the dish and in the field, but Hardy may be an exception. He is coming off a dismal offensive year, but he had averaged 25 homers and 77 RBI in the two seasons prior and he’s only 27 years old. Plus, he rates quite well defensively. The Brewers have a major-league ready SS prospect in Alcides Escobar, so they may be willing to deal Hardy even though his value is down. They’d likely seek big-league ready pitching in return.
Here's a more in-depth scouting report on Hardy, courtesy of Kyle Lobner from the Brewers blog Brew Crew Ball (you can also read a take on the trade from that blog here):

The Twins are getting a solid defensive shortstop in Hardy, but his potential contribution as an offensive player is unknown at best. After having two above average seasons in 2007 and 2008, including an All Star appearance in 2007, Hardy's stat line at the plate declined dramatically in 2009, when he posted a .659 OPS, the lowest of his major league career, with a .229/.302/.357 line.

A fair portion of Hardy's struggles last season can probably be attributed to luck: Hardy hit .264 on balls in play last season, down from .280 over the course of his career, and only connected for home runs on 8.3% of his fly balls, down from his 11.2% career total. However, it's hard to blame all of Hardy's struggles on luck: His line drive percentage has dropped in each of the last four seasons, from 19% in 2006 all the way down to 13.9% last season. Hardy had some tough luck early, hitting a lot of line drives at defenders, but never seemed to recover or make the adjustments necessary to regain his stride. He also doesn't take many pitches; his career walk rate is just 8.3% and his career OBP is .323.

Even if Hardy doesn't bounce back offensively, he's a very good defensive shortstop. FanGraphs has him listed as saving 29.7 runs in the field over the last three seasons, good for roughly three wins. There's another interesting note in those numbers, though: Hardy saved 14.8 runs in 2007, 8.2 in 2008 and 6.7 in 2009. While Hardy's 30 runs saved over the last three seasons ranked sixth among major league shortstops during that span, his 6.7 last season was outside the top ten. His UZR/150 over the last three seasons have been 16.7, 8.5 and 8.8.

You might think a guy as defensively gifted as Hardy would have to have some pretty notable athletic ability but you'd be wrong, at least when it comes to running speed. Hardy might be one of major league baseball's slowest shortstops. He frequently looks like he's dragging an anchor behind him on the basepaths, and struggles to take the extra base in situations where a runner with average speed would get in easily. He also only turned 7 ground balls into infield hits in 2009 - that 4.5% was the sixth lowest among shortstops with at least 460 PAs.

Hardy will likely get a raise in arbitration, even if it is a
small one, and made $4.65 million in 2009. With that said, the Brewers' decision to demote Hardy to AAA for 20 days in August pushed his arbitration clock back a year, and he'll be under the Twins' control for two more seasons, should they decide to hang onto him.

Many were surprised that the pitching-starved Brewers didn't move Hardy in return for a young starter (I had suggested Glen Perkins, whose name may or may not have come up in these discussions depending on who you listen to), but Gomez fills a need as well. With Mike Cameron departing, the Brewers were looking for another strong defensive center fielder, and they'll hope that with regular playing time in 2010 he can start to realize his offensive potential while tracking down everything between left and right.

Reaction to this trade from Twins fans has been overwhelmingly positive, and with good reason. As mentioned in my writeup from the Handbook and in Lobner's report, Hardy had been an excellent hitter during the two seasons prior to 2009. It is, however, difficult to ignore the struggles that the shortstop experienced during this past season. There was no major injury to explain away his dismal hitting, and with a strikeout rate that has jumped for three straight seasons, there are some who believe his drop-off last year was no fluke. If he is unable to improve somewhat significantly on his disappointing production in '09, Hardy will hardly be the dramatic upgrade this team is looking for at the bottom of the lineup. But the Twins certainly seem confident that he can rebound, and his power potential is very intriguing for a club that hasn't gotten a .400 slugging percentage from the shortstop position since 2001 and hasn't had a 20-HR hitter there since 1979.

The loss of Gomez is being downplayed by many who have grown tired of his mental mistakes and offensive ineptitude, but his departure is not insignificant. Twins' pitchers allowed the highest fly ball percentage of any team in the majors this year, and that doesn't figure to change significantly next season. In trading Gomez, the Twins seem to be committing to an outfield alignment of Delmon Young, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer, which represents an incredibly vast downgrade from the Span/Gomez/Cuddyer alignment. Hardy is a better defensive player than anyone the Twins trotted out at shortstop this season, but given the nature of this pitching staff, swapping out Gomez for Hardy will likely lead to an overall drop in defensive proficiency.

Of course, Gomez's slick glove doesn't do much good when he's stuck on the bench, and Gardenhire seemed to have made up his mind on which young outfielder he was going to commit to by the end of the year. In September and October, as the Twins made a furious dash for the playoffs, Young started in the outfield 26 times; Gomez only eight. For better or for worse, Gomez had become the fourth outfielder on this club, and any time you can trade a reserve player for a starting shortstop you've done pretty well for yourself.

Hardy is a nice addition with the potential to provide serious power from the bottom of the lineup (or perhaps the No. 2 spot, if Gardenhire feels so misguidedly inclined) while likely upgrading the team's defense at one of the most important spots on the field. Gomez's departure also seemingly finalizes the club's outfield situation, effectively putting an end to the tired Gomez vs. Young debates. Second base and third base remain uncertain, along with at least one spot in the pitching rotation, so Smith's work is hardly done. But, less than a week into the offseason, he has already gotten a running start on his work for this pivotal offseason. Meanwhile, he has very quickly put to rest any worries that he'd be sitting on his hands as the team prepares to defend its AL Central title in the first year at Target Field.

Smith deserves credit for this bold, aggressive move. Even if it does mean that one of my very favorite Twins players will be suiting up across the border next season.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Twins Trade Gomez for Hardy

Bill Smith made his first big offseason splash today, sending Carlos Gomez to the Brewers in return for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was a suggested trade acquisition in my offseason blueprint. The deal swaps two players who both saw their value drop with rough seasons in 2009, though surely Hardy has proven more at the major-league level.

My initial reaction is that I'm very sorry to see Gomez go, as he was a personal favorite, and I'm very concerned about the team's outfield defense over the next few seasons. But perhaps the writing was on the wall during a month of September in which the Twins were making a fierce charge and Gomez was seeing virtually no playing time.

I'll have plenty more analysis of the move, and a more thorough breakdown of Hardy, on Monday.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Importance of Foresight

The Twins have enjoyed an impressive run of sustained success over the past nine years. Only once during that span (2007) have they posted a losing record. And if there's one lesson to be taken from the '07 team, it relates to the pitfalls of complacency.

In 2006, the Twins boasted a rather impressive offense. Joe Mauer won his first batting title, Justin Morneau captured the AL MVP award, Michael Cuddyer enjoyed a career year, Luis Castillo excelled at the top of the lineup in his first season as a Twin, and Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto delivered strong offensive contributions after taking over the left side of the infield midway through the season. All told, the Twins led the American League in batting average and surpassed the 800-run threshold that team officials seem to consider the bar for a successful offensive season.

Content in his lineup's quality production, Terry Ryan remained relatively inactive on the offensive side during the following offseason. This proved highly detrimental, as the Twins' offense suffered a massive slide the next year. The team's OPS+ dropped from 103 to 93, pushing them from above average to solidly below, and their average run output dropped from 4.94 to 4.43.

One could hardly have expected Ryan to predict that the production of Morneau would drop so significantly, or that both Mauer and Cuddyer would battle injuries for much of the year, or even that Punto and Bartlett would regress so dramatically after seemingly putting together breakout campaigns in '06. Yet, with a little foresight, Ryan could have better prepared the team for these types of circumstances. Entering the season with a useless Rondell White as a starter and with the offensively challenged Lew Ford and Jason Tyner as the team's top backup options in the outfield was pretty clearly a recipe disaster, leaving little margin for error amongst the offense's core. Ryan certainly had the right idea in signing Jeff Cirillo as a backup option for Punto at third base, but the aging Cirillo proved incapable of filling in at third on a regular basis and Ron Gardenhire seemed unwilling to pull the struggling Punto out of the lineup for prolonged periods of time anyway.

The 2009 season bears some similarity to that '06 campaign. Several members of the lineup's core -- Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Denard Span and Jason Kubel -- enjoyed absolutely phenomenal offensive campaigns, and the team's impressive late run at a playoff spot was once again boosted by unexpected late contributions from infielders who took over new spots and rose to the occasion. Smith must now learn from the past and avoid the complacency that led to the 2007 club's demise, because if just one or two of the lineup's core players battle significant regression or injury problems next year, the holes that surround them in the lineup could be magnified significantly.

Fortunately, Smith doesn't have to deal with deciphering the illusions present on that 2006 team. Despite his strong finish, Punto's overall numbers were terrible, and one would have to be out of their mind to think that Tolbert looks like a legitimate full-time major-league third baseman. There's also a clear hole in the outfield and no obvious candidate to start at shortstop unless Orlando Cabrera is re-signed (which in itself is an unsafe bet considering his age and declining production).

Given that the Twins ranked fourth in the league in offense this past season while averaging over five runs per game and ranked fourth-to-last in team ERA, one could logically conclude that improving the pitching staff should be Smith's chief focus during this offseason. I'm not sure that's the case. With guys like Kevin Slowey, Pat Neshek and Boof Bonser returning from injury next year, and with the defense hopefully taking some steps forward, I think the team's run prevention is bound to improve even without significant outside reinforcements (particularly if Carl Pavano is brought back). Meanwhile, I see lots of room for regression on the offensive side of the ball, because it's tough to expect all five of the aforementioned "core" offensive players to repeat what they did during the 2009 season -- especially considering that three of those players have somewhat troubling injury histories.

Adding solid depth and filling lineup holes with adequate supporting players could go a long way toward protecting the Twins against the type of drop-off that struck that 2007 team. If the 2009 unit enters the season with a starting infield that consists of Tolbert, Cabrera and Punto, this lineup could be in serious trouble should Mauer's back act up or Kubel's knee give out.


Oh, and congrats (I guess) to the Yankees, who won the World Series in six games. Who could have seen that coming? :-)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Not Always Such Sweet Sorrow

When Bill Smith took over as Twins' GM back in 2007, he wasted no time in completing his first roster purge, removing Josh Rabe, Luis Rodriguez, Lew Ford and Tommy Watkins from the 40-man roster just weeks after the regular season came to an end. I lauded the move at the time, noting that Smith was immediately "trimming the fat" and creating space on the roster for more useful players. Terry Ryan had a tendency during his years as GM to allow marginal players to occupy valuable roster spots for entirely too long, so this initial move by Smith seemed to bode well.

Indeed, Smith has subsequently shown a willingness to part with players, even if doing so reflects poorly on his earlier judgment. This was displayed perhaps most prominently when the Twins cut the disappointing Mike Lamb midway through the 2008 season despite having him signed through '09, forcing the club to eat millions in remaining salary. This offseason, we've already seen the organization part ways with Philip Humber and R.A. Dickey, and yesterday the team outrighted Brian Buscher from the 40-man roster.

It's no secret that I've always had a soft spot for Buscher; I certainly think he can serve a purpose if used correctly and I wouldn't have minded him as the left-handed side of a third-base platoon this past year. He's a patient hitter who makes good contact and often provides quality at-bats off the bench. Yet, he's not a strong defender at third base, doesn't have the speed to pinch-run and can't hit left-handed pitching. There's no denying that there are much better uses for a roster spot than a player with a skill-set as limited as Buscher's. There's a chance he could remain with the organization, but I suspect he'll look to get a fresh start elsewhere and I wish him the best if that's the path he chooses.

The goal now, as always, is finding a superior player to fill Buscher's spot on the 40-man roster. There was some thought yesterday that the Buscher move would serve as the prelude to an acquisition of Akinori Iwamura, who sources in Tampa Bay had reported was on the verge of being traded. Midway through the afternoon, though, it was revealed that Iwamura was headed to the Pirates. That scratches one high-ranking option off our list of potential upgrades at second base for the coming season.

In any case, Buscher's departure leaves an open spot on the 40-man roster, and a few more could open up in the near future depending one what happens with impending free agents Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay and Carl Pavano, not to mention others like Buscher who are candidates to be outrighted.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Defense Rests

In diagnosing the issues with the 2009 Twins, many people often point to the pitching staff. That's reasonable; the Twins ranked fourth-to-last in the American League with a 4.50 team ERA -- that includes an ugly 4.84 ERA for the starters. Given how promising the team's young rotation looked a year ago, this nearly across-the-board regression is obviously a rather large disappointment that shrouds this group's future in doubt. But, it is important to note that Twins' pitchers are not totally to blame for the drop-off in run prevention. These guys were not generally getting a lot of help from their defense.

The Twins ranked third-to-last in the majors in team UZR during the 2009 season -- only the abysmal Royals and Mets rated worse. The defensive metric -- widely considered to be one of the most accurate -- suggests that the Twins' defense cost them more than 36 runs over the course of the season. The Twins had been below-average defensively in 2008 as well, but that negative figure is more than double the mark from the previous season. The reasons for the plummet? There are plenty of culprits. Carlos Gomez played in center field less; Denard Span played there more. Jason Kubel started playing the outfield more often. Orlando Cabrera was a regular at shortstop for two months. Joe Crede couldn't stay in the lineup consistently. Alexi Casilla had a terrible year defensively.

The Twins have a long-standing reputation as being a strong defensive club, mainly because they don't commit many errors. But they haven't always lived up to that reputation, and they certainly didn't this year. If he wants to get better results from his pitching staff next year, Bill Smith would be wise to keep team defense in mind as he reconfigures his roster. Fortunately, strong defenders tend to be undervalued assets in free agency as well as in trades.

When the Mariners traded away J.J. Putz and a pair of other players in a blockbuster three-way deal last winter, few people viewed Franklin Gutierrez as the gaudy centerpiece of a hefty return package that also included Aaron Heilman, Mike Carp, Endy Chavez, Jason Vargas, Maikel Cleto and Ezequiel Carrera. However, Gutierrez was quietly one of the league's most valuable overall players this season, playing absolutely stellar defense in center field (20.9 UZR) while posting a solid 764 OPS with 18 homers, 75 RBI and 16 stolen bases. Gutierrez was no small part of the reason the Mariners led the majors in UZR, which itself was no small part of the reason they led the AL in team ERA.

It's tough to find players like Gutierrez who can be quality contributors on both sides, but certainly those are the guys Smith should be focused on getting into his lineup. At the very least, though, he should make sure the defense that lines up on Opening Day next season is one that the Twins' starters can count on to make plays behind them.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Foul Ball!

No new post for today, but I thought I'd share a picture of my Halloween costume. I'm sure Twins fans will need no explanation.