Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Opportunity Knocks Again

In the summer of 2004, the Twins had won back-to-back division titles and were on their way to a third straight. Despite their success, they were gifted with an opportunity to reload for an extended run that June, when -- thanks to a mass exodus of high-profile free agents the previous winter -- they held five selections in the first round of the draft.

The players taken with those picks were shortstop Trevor Plouffe and pitchers Glen Perkins, Kyle Waldrop, Matt Fox and Jay Rainville. Seven years later, only Perkins has proven himself as an impact player in the majors, and not until he was 28 years old.

It wasn't necessarily a disastrous group; I like Plouffe's chances of developing into a solid regular next year and Waldrop might get some tread. Still, to have received so little in the way of major-league contributions from five first-round picks up to this point has to be viewed as a disappointment. The man who oversaw that draft, Terry Ryan, will hope for better results when the club is placed in a similarly advantageous situation next June.

By virtue of losing more games than all but one team in 2011, the Twins will pick second in next year's draft. For reference, the second pick in that '04 draft was some guy named Justin Verlander.

Signability has tended to be an issue with the top-tier prospects reeled in at the front of the draft, but as Joe Christensen points out, the new CBA rules will do much to negate this issue. Thanks to a newly imposed cap on slot money, a player taken this high has little to gain by going unsigned and waiting a year.

That's not the only way the restructured CBA benefits the Twins. Matt Capps became a modified Type B free agent, meaning that arbitration need not be offered for a compensation pick to be issued should he land elsewhere. Michael Cuddyer remains a Type A free agent, so he would yield two high picks by signing with another team. But under the new rules, that team would not have to forfeit a pick. This increases the Twins' chances of landing an extra first-rounder, since those clubs with non-protected selections will now be more open to pursuing Cuddyer.

Throw in Jason Kubel, who like Capps would yield a supplemental pick as a Type B, and the Twins could potentially receive four additional picks in the first two rounds of next June's draft, on top of their No. 2 selection.

That's an even better situation than the one they fell into back in 2004. But, unlike that year, they're not currently in the middle of a successful run, so the stakes will be higher. With a farm system badly in need of reinforcements, the Twins will really need to hit a couple home runs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finding Nathan's Replacement

The biggest question created by the departure of Joe Nathan is, obviously, who is going to fulfill his role as closer for the Twins.

This is an organization that has highly valued the ninth-inning job over the years, as evidenced by their willingness to hand Nathan a $47 million extension back in 2008, and later by their willingness to trade for and subsequently overpay established closer Matt Capps to be Nathan's fallback plan.

I would guess that the front office considers the closer position less of a priority at this point, given the likelihood that the team will not contend next year, but this is still not a decision I expect to be taken lightly. As I see it, there are four options for proceeding:

1) Promote Glen Perkins.

Perkins has certainly done plenty to earn consideration. He was one of the most dominant relievers in the American League this year, posting a 2.48 ERA with an excellent 65-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 2/3 innings as a setup man.

What the Twins have to ask themselves is whether they're comfortable removing the southpaw from a role in which he was so wildly effective. As the Twins' de facto bullpen ace for much of the season, Perkins was frequently called upon to get more than three outs, to dispatch lefty hitters (whom he held to a .589 OPS) and to work out of sticky situations.

Perkins would not be utilized as optimally in the closer role, where he'd generally be facing whatever batters happened to be due up in the ninth, with a clean slate and with a lead ranging anywhere from one to three runs. All of those tricky spots he worked out of last year would go to someone else.

If the Twins believe Perkins is capable of repeating what he did in 2011, I think they're better off leaving him where he's at.

2) Re-sign Matt Capps.

I know, I know. This is an unthinkable option. But really, it's not.

In an interview with KFAN's Paul Allen yesterday, pitching coach Rick Anderson called out Capps as a potential replacement, saying "I wouldn't give up on a guy like him so quick." Anderson pointed out that the right-hander's struggles this season were largely attributable to a forearm injury that he pitched through, and it's a fair point.

When he's been healthy, Capps has generally been a good enough reliever to adequately handle closing duties, and he has the kind of makeup and accountability that Twins coaches like to see. He showed signs of returning to normal late in the season season, and if he could be signed for significantly less than he earned in 2011, he wouldn't be the worst option as a late-inning counterpart to Perkins.

There's no question that the Twins would have a tough time selling this one to the fans, though.

3) Sign another free agent.

There are a number of closers out on the market, which is one reason the loss of Nathan is easier to bear. On the high end, you've got guys like Ryan Madson, Heath Bell and Francisco Cordero, all of whom the Twins are likely to pass on due to cost.

But then you've got a number of intriguing buy-low candidates. One example is Jonathan Broxton, the formerly dominant Dodgers closer who was limited to 12 innings this year by injury but is still only 27. Another example is Brad Lidge, the slider-flinging right-hander from Philly who pitched only 19 innings but turned in a 1.40 ERA with lots of strikeouts.

4) Acquire a replacement via trade.

The Twins have already flirted with this option, as they were reportedly close to a deal with the Nationals in July that would have brought Washington's young closer Drew Storen to Minnesota. Joe Christensen said a week ago that he wouldn't rule out the possibility of those talks being rekindled, but Ryan may also turn his attention to another closer that is apparently being made available: Andrew Bailey of the Athletics.

ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted this week that the odds of Bailey being traded "appear to be about 100 percent." Like Storen, he's a young right-handed reliever with dominant numbers and several years of team control remaining. Bailey is four years older than Storen and he experienced some elbow problems this spring, but those factors should make him easier to acquire.

Of course, another option is that the Twins follow the route they did with Nathan, identifying a quality setup man in another organization who hasn't yet been established as a full-time closer. The Rays pulled this off quite successfully with Rafael Soriano in 2010.

Whichever direction they choose to take, the Twins will be wise not to invest a huge amount of money into the closer position considering the various uncertainties that surround this club in the short term. With Terry Ryan at the helm, I feel a lot more confident about their ability to do so successfully than I did before.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nathan Shuts the Door on Minnesota

During his entire career with the Twins, Joe Nathan was a testament to Terry Ryan's genius. Francisco Liriano, and to a lesser extent Boof Bonser, have had their moments, but Nathan was the prize gem acquired in what is widely viewed as Ryan's greatest move as a general manager.

Over a span of six years, Nathan was one of the two or three best closers in the league. He was a lights-out force at the back end of the Twins' bullpen, never succumbing to the sporadic down years that plague most relief pitchers in the majors. And Ryan managed to net this elite arm in return for one year of A.J. Pierzynski.

Now, one of the players that defined Ryan's previous tenure as GM is the first to exit under his latest. Last night, Nathan signed a two-year deal, $14.5 million with the Rangers.

The parting of ways makes sense from both perspectives. At age 37, Nathan's top priority is understandably winning. The Twins' chances of being legitimate a World Series contender within the next two years are suspect at best, whereas the Rangers will be a favorite out of the gates after falling a game short of glory this season.

Meanwhile, while team president Dave St. Peter tweeted last night that the Twins were never given a chance to match the offer, it doesn't really make a difference. Two years and $14 million was around the maximum that they could have afforded to offer, and Nathan probably would have required more -- perhaps significantly more -- to re-up, given the realities being faced here.

With so many needs left to address, it wasn't in the the Twins' best interests to make that kind of substantial investment in an aging reliever with a surgically repaired arm, even if he is the franchise's all-time saves leader.

Brace yourself, because Nathan won't be the last Terry Ryan success story to walk away this offseason. Michael Cuddyer is almost surely gone -- another victim of financial constraints -- and Jason Kubel could easily follow.

Then, Ryan will face the tall task of rebuilding the solid foundation he constructed in the early-to-mid 2000s, with limited funds and little in the way of tradable assets. This figures to a multi-year project.

As such, can you blame Nathan for heading south?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Doumit is an Ideal Fit for Twins

As I looked over the list of catchers that would be available this offseason, one name stood out to me as a great fit for the Twins, given their situation. Apparently the front office felt similarly, as they agreed to terms on a contract with that very player on Friday.

Ryan Doumit is a switch-hitter who can hold his own from both sides of the plate, having posted an OPS of .711 or higher every year he's been in the majors. He's still in his physical prime -- turning 31 in April. And, most importantly, he offers defensive flexibility that could prove invaluable for a Twins roster packed with question marks.

To be sure, Doumit carries his own question marks, which is why he was available on a one-year deal at a $3 million base. He's not considered a strong defensive catcher, leading me to wonder if he'll be viewed as the true backup to Joe Mauer or more of an emergency option.

The larger concerns relate to health. Doumit has been injured a lot over the course of his career and this season was limited to just 77 games. Obviously, the last thing the Twins need right now is another guy who's going to be perpetually nicked up, but it's important to note that he doesn't seem to have any ongoing ailments that will carry into 2012.

Doumit has been tagged with the dreaded "injury-prone" label, but I'll point out that Carl Pavano had that same label when the Twins acquired him and he hasn't missed a start in Minnesota. As another example, J.J. Hardy was jettisoned a year ago largely because he had such a hard time staying healthy, and this year he logged more plate appearances than all but two Twins players.

In other words, you're only injury-prone until you're not.

For their part, the Twins can work to protect Doumit's health by limiting his exposure behind the plate. As mentioned above, I wouldn't be surprised if he's really more of a third catcher, drawing only occasional starts while also spending time at first base, right field and DH. If Mauer goes down or has to switch positions, Doumit would likely step in as the regular, but short of that I suspect Ron Gardenhire will try and take advantage of Doumit's versatility.

And as long as he continues to hit like he has, he'll be a solid asset wherever he's playing. His career .271/.334/.442 hitting line is very similar to Michael Cuddyer's (.272/.343/.451), and Doumit swings well from both sides of the plate -- though he's shown considerably more pop from the left side. Overall, he has hit 67 home runs in 611 career games -- which would average to about 18 per 162-game season -- and while Target Field might sap some of that power he's still a good bet to out-slug most of his Twins teammates.

As long as he can stay healthy, Doumit figures to be a very useful piece. He's a respectable insurance plan at catcher and -- if Mauer is able to hold up -- a quality bat to plug in elsewhere. For the price, you could hardly ask for a better acquisition.

Between the Jamey Caroll and Doumit signings, Terry Ryan has now already addressed the two areas I called out as the club's top offseason priorities while putting only around $6 million toward the 2012 payroll, leaving him in good position as he turns his gaze to pitching and outfield help.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pitching Through Pain

That sound you heard on Monday? That was the collective groan from Twins fans everywhere around the time Joe Christensen posted a blog entry stating that the club has expressed interest in retaining embattled reliever Matt Capps.

The information comes from Capps' agent, Paul Kinzer, and his job is to create a market for his client so it wouldn't be surprising if he is overstating Terry Ryan's interest. Nevertheless, as Seth pointed out yesterday, the Twins wouldn't be crazy to bring Capps back -- in a reduced role and at a palatable price.

Kinzer told Christensen that he expects Capps to get a job closing somewhere, but given the number of established closers in free agency and the number of teams that actually need a ninth-inning guy, this seems like wishful thinking. More likely, Capps will have to settle for a setup job at about half the $7.15 million salary he earned this year. Therefore, I'm not irked by the notion that Ryan would consider reaching out.

I am, however, irked by another tidbit I came across. In pointing out the right-hander's struggles, Christensen mentions that "the Twins appreciated the way Capps kept taking the ball, even when he was dealing with some right wrist tendinitis."

Looking at Capps' 2011 season, it's not difficult to pinpoint the time frame where this ailment may have been affecting him. He's never been a huge strikeout artist, but from June 28th to August 18th he managed only three strikeouts while facing 84 batters. That's a 4 percent K-rate, which makes Nick Blackburn look like Nolan Ryan. During that span, opponents hit .320/.381/.480 against Capps, saddling him with a 5.79 ERA and three blown saves.

Outside of that mid-summer window, though, Capps struck out 16 percent of the batters he faced in 2011, which is right in line with his 18 percent career rate. In combination with his always excellent control, that kind of moderate strikeout proficiency can make Capps a successful late-inning reliever, and certainly has before.

Depending on the terms, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the Twins were to bring back Capps for another season. But they'll be a lot better off in 2012 if he and the rest of his teammates swallow their pride and sit out when they're dealing with inhibiting injuries.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Playing it Slow

When reports arose late last week that the Twins had signed Jamey Carroll, many people were surprised to see a 37-year-old utility man receiving $7 million in guaranteed money. In the Offseason GM Handbook, we estimated a one-year, $1 million deal for the aging infielder.

That's how it tends to go with free agent signings made in November, though. Early in the offseason, teams aggressively pursue the players that are on their radar, and will often pay a premium in order to take them off the market quickly. We saw it again yesterday, with the announcement that the Dodgers signed second baseman Mark Ellis (who posted a meager .634 OPS as a 34-year-old this year) to a two-year contract worth over $8 million.

Fans get ornery when their favorite team takes a passive approach to the offseason, especially in the wake of a 99-loss campaign. However, this is generally a smart tactic. Two of the best free agent signings of the Bill Smith era were Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, and both those contracts were inked in the final weeks of the 09-10 offseason.

The Twins made their initial splash quickly this year, paying a considerable sum to lock up Carroll in spite of the fact that several seemingly similar infield options will probably end up signing for about half that price. I'm sure they have their reasons. But I expect things to slow down now as the Twins let the market play out, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Twins Sign Jamey Carroll to Man Short

The Twins took their first step toward addressing a decimated infield today, signing free agent Jamey Carroll. According to Ken Rosenthal's sources, the plan is for Carroll to become the team's everyday shortstop.

My stance has been that the Twins' approach this offseason ought to involve finding competent stopgaps that could potentially aid a return to contention in 2012 if things break right, but won't break the bank or require significant long-term commitments. Carroll fits that bill about as well as Ramon Santiago or Nick Punto, who were the players I suggested in my blueprint last month.

Although he'll turn 38 in February, the righty-swinging Carroll has been a consistent producer, finishing with an on-base percentage of .355 or higher in each of the past four seasons, with steady if unspectacular defense in the middle infield. Twins shortstops turned in a .292 OBP while frequently batting in the two-hole this year, so the upgrade potential here is massive. Though he has no power to speak of (he hasn't hit a home run since August of 2009), Carroll is a disciplined hitter, a good base runner and last year he turned in the second-lowest swinging strike percentage in the majors. He's the quintessential piranha.

It's unclear how the veteran's range will play at shortstop as he inches toward his fourth decade of life, but he's committed only nine errors in 1,000 innings at the position for the Dodgers over the past two years, making it easy to recognize his appeal to Terry Ryan and the Twins after a gaffe-filled 2011.

I will say that I've got some quibbles with the contract. The Twins reportedly are guaranteeing Carroll between $6-7 million on a two-year deal; that seems quite excessive for a middling 37-year-old who has earned less than $12 million in his big-league career up to this point. He's bound to start declining sometime, perhaps as soon as 2012, and if that's the case his contract will prove considerably more burdensome than a cheap one-year pact with a similar option (such as Punto).

Here's another thing that should be noted about Carroll: While his .368 on-base percentage over the past two years is impressive, nearly half of his at-bats came in front of the pitcher. If you want an idea of how hitting eighth in an NL lineup can inflate an OBP, consider that Punto posted a career-high .388 mark this year while getting a big chunk of his at-bats there for the Cardinals.

Still, at the end of the day, $3.5 million is a reasonable price for a starting shortstop, and if the Twins felt compelled to spend a little extra in order to ensure they got their guy so they can move on to addressing other needs -- such as pitcher and catcher -- I can live with that.

I do hope that the club isn't done adding veteran depth to the infield. I also hope that the money saved by acquiring a low-cost starter at shortstop is put to good use elsewhere.

Venezuelan Horror Story

One of the most interesting tidbits to come out of La Velle's live chat on Wednesday over at was the revelation that the Twins asked Trevor Plouffe to play winter ball this year and Plouffe declined.

My initial reaction was one of puzzlement. On Twitter, I said that Plouffe's decision was "hard to understand." After all, 2012 is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for the young infielder, at least with this organization. He's 25, he's spent four years in Triple-A and he'll be out of options next season.

If Plouffe can't take advantage of the ample opportunity that will be laid in front of him, with multiple starting spots figuring to be up for grabs, the Twins could hardly be blamed for moving on. Why wouldn't the former first-round pick head south and sharpen his skills over the offseason, perhaps accruing valuable experience at some different positions?

Later on Wednesday night, things came into focus for me upon learning that former Twins catcher Wilson Ramos was abducted from his home in Venezuela, which is where the winter league takes place. Armed gunmen entered Ramos' home, snatched him away from his family and took him away in an SUV. Now, authorities are scrambling to track down the 24-year-old, who just completed a solid rookie campaign with the Nationals.

This is pretty horrifying stuff. It's not the first time a professional athlete has been targeted for ransom in what has become an increasingly dangerous climate in Venezuela. Given this grave situation, I feel silly for even questioning someone's decision to stay out of that region.

At this point, all we can do is hope and pray for Ramos' safe return, while feeling glad that Plouffe opted to stay home for the winter. I would imagine that many players will make the same choice going forward.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Change in Direction

If there's one aspect of Bill Smith's forgettable tenure as Twins general manager that will stick with me, it's the veil of secrecy that came attached to all of the organization's operations. Front office personnel are not typically the most candid folks -- understandably so -- but Smith would protect every little detail regarding the team's decision-making as if it were a matter of national security. His interviews were about as dull as his name.

As such, it is fitting that the oddly-timed announcement of Smith's dismissal from the GM position on Monday came with little explanation. In a hastily scheduled press conference, Jim Pohlad would cite only "philosophical differences" while refusing to delve into any particulars.

At this point all we know is that, about a month ago, Pohlad indicated that Smith's job was not in danger, bristling at the notion that the Twins would resort to such a "knee-jerk" reaction after one bad season. Yet, here in November, with free agency already underway, Smith has been suddenly fired and replaced by his predecessor, Terry Ryan.

Given the dearth of available information, any conclusions we draw are going to be largely speculative. However, considering that the Twins' brass met very recently to discuss offseason planning, it seems safe to say that Smith's ideas about how to proceed did not align with those of the ownership. The final portion of this statement from Pohlad leaves little doubt about that:
No one in the Twins' organization wants to win any more than Bill ... The Twins' goal is to get better in 2012 and beyond. Bill was equally motivated to achieve that goal, but we differed in the scope and approach that was required.
One could venture to guess that Smith adamantly pushed for a more long-term rebuilding process, which would entail punting the the 2012 season for all intents and purposes. Ownership, feeling the pressure of a disgruntled fan base hungry for meaningful steps aimed at short-term improvement, simply could not accept this approach and handed the reigns back to a man whose moves fueled a decade of success.

On the flip side, one could also surmise that Smith was unhappy with the team's proposed spending reduction (Ryan pegged $100 million as an estimate) and felt inhibited from taking the actions he needed to right the ship. Drastically improving a 99-loss club with only $18 million or so is a tall task, and another ugly season in 2012 would only further tarnish Smith's reputation. The Twins, noting Ryan's past proclivity for succeeding under financial restrictions, may have opted simply to go back to what's worked before.

Either scenario seems plausible, but -- as I said -- it's really all just speculation for now. What we know is that Smith's blunder-filled reign at the helm has come to a close, and Ryan is back in charge after a four-year hiatus. Those who have grown exasperated with the club's direction in recent years should think twice before exploding into a jubilant celebration, however.

I wrote a post back in late September yearning for an injection of fresh thinking into the Twins' front office power structure. While swapping Ryan for Smith qualifies as a major shake-up, it hardly guarantees a complete change in philosophy; in fact, it falls right in line with the good-ol-boy, promote-from-within strategy for filling vacancies that we've come to expect.

By all accounts, Ryan remained heavily involved in the team's decision-making during Smith's shaky tenure, and the only new figure who's been added to the front office mix through all this is Wayne Krivsky, who was a long-time fixture here before. Ryan is now the man in charge, but it's not clear that this will drastically alter the traditional and heavily scouting-based approach that has increasingly hurt the club in recent years.

That's not to say I disapprove. Far from it. It's become clear to most who follow this team that Ryan -- a trained scout -- has a better understanding of the game than Smith, and the Twins are clearly doing right by the fans, as evidenced by a Star Tribune poll that has a whopping 97 percent of readers approving of the decision.

Personally, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Terry Ryan and at the very least I'll enjoy reading his reliably insightful quotes rather than Smith's obnoxious administrative cliches. My dissatisfaction with Smith over the past year has been well documented and I'm all for a change in direction at the top, even if I wasn't necessarily clamoring for it. I'm not convinced that shuffling front office personnel will completely cure all of the misguided philosophies that have plagued this organization at times, but I can say this much:

The unexpected switch adds yet another level of intrigue to what was already shaping up as a pretty interesting offseason.