Thursday, January 31, 2008

Comparing the offers

There are a lot of disappointed sports talk show fans out there as a result of the Santana trade. The question is - did the Twins take the best deal. Obviously, if high-profile prospects is the measure then no. But I don't think that is the measure.

All prospect evaluations face the same dilemma - ceiling versus certainty. When ranking a prospect's value how much weight do you put on their eventual potential as big leaguers and how much weight do you place on the likelihood they will ever reach that potential. Players who are certain major league players are no longer prospects. The jump from AAA to the big leagues is huge and even guys labeled "can't miss" sometimes do. So there is uncertainty with any prospect, but that doesn't mean the risk is the same.

The other part of that delemma is that the further a player is from the majors, the wider the range of his potential. What this means is that there are a lot more "potential hall-of-famers" in A ball than there are at AAA. As players move up the development ladder their real potential becomes a lot clearer.

The flip side of that, is that the more realized a player's potential, the more expensive he becomes in trade. Teams don't knowingly trade away the next Willie Mays. The Twins grabbed future stars like Liriano and Santana by recognizing their potential and then having them develop. You can say they got lucky. But the reality is that they recognized the potential. We tend to forget the players where that potential was recognized but never realized. Prospects are a numbers game. If you have enough of them, you will "get lucky" occasionally. But if you have prospects whose upside is mediocre major leaguer, even when you get lucky they won't really help you win any World Series..

So how did the rumored trades compare:

Yankees: Hughes, Cabrera, Tabata

Red Sox: Ellsbury, Lowrie, Masterston

Red Sox: Lester, Crisp, Lowrie

Mets: Gomez, Humber, Mulvey, Guerra

Lets start with the center fielders: Gomez, Cabrera, Crisp and Ellsbury.

Cabrera, Crisp and Ellsbury are all clearly more major league ready than Gomez. Cabrera and Crisp would be placeholders in center field for the Twins. Good players, but ones that would not really be the core of a championship team and would likely get shoved aside at some point the way Crisp already has been by Ellsbury in Boston. Of the two prospects, Ellsbury is clearly furthest along but he doesn't have Gomez speed, arm or defense. Nor does it look like he has Gomez power potential. What he does have is a much more advanced approach at the plate. He is also two years older than Gomez.

Hughes, Lester, Humber, Masterson, Mulvey

Hughes is clearly the top dog here. A potential ace and likely number two starter, he was the centerpiece of the Yankees offer. Lester is also a top pitching prospect who is close to being ready in the big leagues. The other pitchers included in the trades are all mid-range prospects with varying pedigrees. Humber, who was the third player taken in the 2004 draft, is probably the most intriguing since he is coming back from Tommy John surgery. If he fully recovers and shows the stuff that made him a high draft choice he could equal Hughes or Lester. Mulvey and Masterson appear to be mid-rotation option. Part of the numbers game for Twins rotation spots that includes a lot of other Twins prospects who are close to the majors.

Lowrie -
None of the other deals really had anyone comparable to Lowrie. And that may be just as well. The reports are that he isn't an everyday shortstop, he may not be a second baseman either and his bat may not be enough to make him a third baseman. But it is that bat, and his potential for versatility, that makes him valuable. Lowrie is the sort of player that could be valuable to a team like the Twins that often seems to need a guy to hold down a spot until a better prospect is ready. And is a solid bat on the bench the rest of the time.

Guerra - Guerra is a high-upside, big risk young pitching prospect. He could be the next Francisco Liriano, he could be the next Scott Tyler. The odds, as always with A-ball pitching prospects, are better for the latter. But Guerra's upside makes him the sort of player that can make a good trade great. The deals with the Red Sox and Yankees do not seem to include this kind of raw talent.

There is a lot of speculation about what deals were really still on the table when the Twins reached their agreement with the Mets. But I think if you look at the players they got, this trade is a classic Twins deal. Heavy on potential rather than immediate help. And for a small market team that is really the only way you win championships. You don't do it by letting other teams do your player development. You have to stockpile guys who have talent and then develop it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Twins 2008

Can the Twins compete in 2008? Both Cleveland and Detroit got noticeably better on paper. But, as everyone knows, the game is played on the field. How do the Twins compare to last year?

To start with its pretty clear their rotation is totally unsettled. They will have to get very lucky with a bunch of talented young pitchers all becoming major league starters at the same time. That is unlikely. But, assuming the young starters come through, what does the rest of the team look like compared to last year:

Catcher: +

Mauer should have a better year than last. Redmond will remain a solid backup. The Twins should be as good or better in 2008.

First Base: +

Morneau had a slight down year last year. As with Mauer, you would expect some improvement and a repeat of his 2006 season is not out of the question.

Second Base: -

Castillo looked like a player starting his decline last year. That doesn't mean the Twins will be better this year. This job is probably Brendan Harris' to lose. He will not match Castillo defensively or offensively. Cassilla could steal the job from Harris, but to do it he will probably have to be an improvement over Castillo last year.

Shortstop: +

Everett's bat will not match Bartlett's, but he will provide better defense at a defensive position. I think that will net out to a little improvement.

Third Base: +

Punto offense was simply unacceptable at third regardless of his defense. The Twins will lose a lot of defense with Lamb, but they will pick up a lot of offense.

Left Field: +

Delmon Young will be a huge improvement over Rondell White, Lew Ford et al. offensively and defensively.

Center Field: -

Gomez defense will make losing Hunter a lot less painful for the pitching staff. His bat will not begin to match Hunters - at least not in 2008.

Right Field: +

Cuddyer should have a better year than last year.

DH: +

Kubel will be better, Monroe will give him a rest against tough lefties.

Bench: +

Punto is really at his best as a utility player, Monroe gives the Twins a solid bat on the bench and Redmond has shown he is solid as a backup catcher. I'm guessing there will only be one other bench player. Jones, Pridie, McDonald, Machado ... There is a long list of players who could win a spot with their performance in spring training. But overall, the bench should be better with Monroe and Punto.

Despite losing Torii Hunter and Luis Castillo from last year's opening lineup. The Twins should have a considerably improved everyday lineup this year.

Bullpen: +
Neshek -
Rincon +
Guerrier -

Based on their having good years last year, we can expect some decline from Neshek and Guerrier. Likewise Rincon should rebound and Crain will add another solid arm if he is full recovered from injury. My guess is that there will be seven relievers with Zach Day or one of the losers in the starting rotation competition taking that spot as a inning eater. Given the Twins are going to be sorting through a lot of young pitching, keeping the bullpen fresh is going to be a real challenge. But the bullpen still looks like one of the Twins real strengths, at least as long as Nathan is still around.

The biggest challenge for the Twins is going to be sorting through the young starting pitchers.
You can almost guarantee that a couple of guys who win jobs in spring training will lose them in the first couple months of the season. If that musical chairs continues all summer the Twins will have little or no chance. But if they can settle their starters in the first couple months, they have an everyday lineup that can compete.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Santana Deal

So the Twins finally pulled the trigger. Like most deals the Twins make, fans listening to the talk shows will be outraged at the failure to get more. When Frank Viola was traded, David West was supposed to be the center of the trade. But the real quality players were Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani. When Knoblauch was dealt, there were fans who couldn't believe the Twins failed to get the Yankees "top prospect", Rick Ledee. Rick Ledee? And there was outrage that A. J. Pierzynski only netted a reliever and a couple prospects (Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser respectively).

We won't know for a few years whether this deal worked out for the Twins. None of the players they get are likely to be better than Santana while they play for the Twins. Whereas arguably each of those other deals actually brought back players as good or better than the player who was given up. But the reality is the Twins can't afford the risk of signing Santana to a huge contract for six years. The Mets can.

So who are these guys and why should we be excited:

Carlos Gomez - An extremely speedy outfielder who was playing in the major leagues last year at age 20. Sometimes those players fail. But usually a guy who can hold his own as a major leaguer at that age will get better and better. He has been described as a five tool player who is already an above average center fielder defensively and will develop some power. A little like a young Torii Hunter, though probably not quite in that league defensively. The Twins now have three young outfielders who are candidates for center field Gomez, Pridie and Span. Its likely at least one of them will develop into an above average major league center fielder. Gomez is probably the most likely contender to do that this year.

Philip Humber - Humber was a number one draft pick (third overall) in the 2004 draft. Last year was his first full season since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Its hard to know what the Twins got here. The news reports about the trade talk about him as a back of the rotation starter, but the scouting reports and his draft position would indicate he is a lot more than that if healthy. I look for him to take a spot in the rotation out of spring training. I think he has the best shot at having an immediate impact.

Kevin Mulvey - Mulvey was the Mets first choice in the 2006 draft. He was the 62nd player taken, in the second round. He is the typical college draftee at that position. His upside is a solid back of the rotation starter who will give you a lot of innings. That assumes that he has major league command of his pitches. He is probably pretty similar to Kevin Slowey, albeit a year behind him in development.

Deolis Guerra - This is clearly the guy with the highest upside. A 6'5" pitcher with great stuff but a long way from the major leagues. Lets hope it is fun to watch him develop. It could just as easily be painful to watch him fail.

This deal looks like it lacks a "can't miss" player. But then even the "can't miss" guys sometimes do, so having several chances is probably more important. Gomez, Humber and Guerra all look like players who have the possibility to develop into core players of a championship team. But, whatever you make of this trade, it looks like the Twins would have been a better team with Santana. This is taking what the market has to offer rather than rolling the dice on winning this year.

Now the question is what can they get for Joe Nathan. Because without Santana, Hunter and Silva this team is going to have to get some real breakthroughs to be competitive. Nathan is not going to make much difference.

Twins Starting Pitching 2008

The Minnesota Twins have been known for their pitching over the last few years. It looks like that will change in 2008. It is only a matter of time before Johan Santana is traded. And Santana was really the only established starter the Twins have after losing Carlos Silva as a free agent. So here are the prospects in order of certainty that they will be in the rotation to start the season:

Scott Baker - A second round draft choice, Baker started last year at AAA after failing in an earlier opportunity in 2006. By the end of last season he had established himself as a mid-rotation starter. He will never be the staff ace, but his results actually improved as the season went along. A very good sign for a young pitcher.

Boof Bonser - Bonser has lost some weight over the off-season. He had problems last season pitching beyond the 5th inning. Whether the weight loss will correct that is an open question. Bonser has decent stuff, but he needs to pitch deeper into games. You just can't afford a starter who consistently relies on the bullpen to bail him out with less than 6 innings pitched.

Francisco Liriano - Some people would put Liriano at the top of this list. Certainly if he is completely recovered he has the highest upside of any Twins pitcher (not named Santana). But, while most pitchers eventually recover from Tommy John surgery, the question is whether he will be completely recovered and back in form to start the season. The other issue, one that a lot of Twins fans choose to ignore, is that Liriano really hadn't established himself as a major league starter when he got hurt. He had a good hot streak in 2006, but he still has only 20 career major league starts. That isn't enough to really evaluate what his results will be when hitters have seen him several times. He may be ready to replace Santana as the staff ace, but he could also struggle and/or spend the year at AAA.

Kevin Slowey - Slowey got a shot last year and got shot down and ended up back at AAA for most of the year. The Twins are really counting on him to have learned from the experience. The results he got after being recalled in September were encouraging. His upside is another mid-rotation starter.

Glen Perkins - Perkins got hurt last year and missed most of the year. There seems to be some opinion that he is not really a starter and will end up in the bullpen. He is another guy who pencils in as a mid-rotation starter. Maybe he ends up in the bullpen as Joe Nathan's replacement if Nathan gets traded, but given the uncertainties of the Twins starting pitching he is likely going to be given a full shot at winning a spot in the rotation. He has the advantage of being a lefty.

Nick Blackburn - Blackburn has come a long way in one season. Before last year, he looked like his upside was a long minor league career - a short minor league career being more likely. He was recently named the top Twins prospect by Baseball America. That seems like a huge stretch of over-exuberance. Despite BBA writer John Manuel's claims to the contrary, Blackburn's likely upside is a bottom of the rotation starter unless he turns out to have the control of Brad Radke. He was sent to Arizona this fall, apparently with instructions to work on changing speeds. That is not a good sign for a guy who lacks a dominating pitch.

Brain Duensing - Duensing is another mid-rotation guy. Like Perkins, he is a lefty which gives him an advantage to start. He has zero major league experience and chances are he will start the season at AAA.

Zach Day - Day has recovered from rotator cuff surgery. He is a long-shot, but if he is healthy he could win a spot as the veteran the rotation. His upside is probably a number five starter who gives you some innings.

Brian Bass - Bass spent last year at the Twins AAA affiliate after signing as a minor league free agent. Then he pitched well in winter ball in Venezuela, was re-signed and added to the major league roster in November. He is likely a longshot for the rotation. His upside is similar to Nick Blackburn's. They are the same age, although Bass signed out of high school so he has more professional experience.

Matt Guerrier - Guerrier is almost certain to be in the bullpen. But he may be given a shot at the rotation if the younger guys prove they aren't ready.

That sounds like the Twins will be very thin on starting pitching in 2008. That is probably why they seem to be insisting that they get at least one major league ready pitching prospect
in return for Santana.

A rotation of Baker, Bonser, Slowey, Day and Bass? Scary.

Edit: Add Humber to that list.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Twins Top 10 - 1998 Retrospective

As Baseball America releases its top ten prospect list for 2008, its useful to look back and see who the top prospects were in the Minnesota system after the 1997 season. Not the guys everyone was excited about at the time, but who are the players who have been the most productive major leaguers. The Twins first round choices in the draft in 1997 were Michael Cuddyer and Matt LeCroy weren't officially signed until after the season so they didn't play. But I included them on the list because both made the Baseball America's list.

To start with, I looked at each level and found the players in the Twins system who became even marginal major leaguers for a very brief period. Michael Ryan and Brad Thomas are probably a stretch even at that low bar. And I used the level that they played at most. Some of these guys got brief promotions.

Todd Walker
Mark Redman
Travis Miller

At AA:
David Ortiz
Torii Hunter
Corey Koskie
Doug Mientkiewicz
Javier Valentine
Benj Sampson

At High- A Fort Myers
Chad Allen
Jacque Jones
AJ Pierzynski

Low A - Fort Wayne
Chad Moeller
Luis Rivas

Rookie - Elizabethton
Mike Ryan
JC(Juan) Romero
Brad Thomas

Gulf Coast
Grant Balfour
Juan Rincon

Didn't Play:

Based on their actual performances in the major leagues, here is a list of the Twins top ten future major league players after the 2007 season:

Torii Hunter
David Ortiz
AJ Pierzynski
Jacque Jones
Michael Cuddyer
Corey Koskie
Juan Rincon
Doug Mientkiewicz
Mark Redman
Luis Rivas

There are really only two other candidates to be on that list, Matt LeCroy and Travis Miller.

Here are the top ten prospects in the Twins system after the 1997 season accoring to Baseball America in 1998:

1.Luis Rivas, SS
2.David Ortiz, 1B
3.Michael Cuddyer, SS
4.Chad Allen, OF
5.Torii Hunter, OF
6.Dan Serafini, LHP
7.Jacque Jones, OF
8.Corey Koskie, 3B
9.Matthew LeCroy, C
10.Mike Lincoln, RHP

Missing: Rincon, Redman, Mientkiewicz, Pierzynski,
Misses: Allen, Serafini, Lincoln, LeCroy

That is a pretty good record, considering the uncertainties with prospects. But its also important to remember that while we call it Baseball America's list, it is more likely the list of one of their writers with some input from others. John Manuel did this year's list and I don't think he was around in 1998.

The other thing is that if you look at the order of that BBA list, you don't want to make much of the differences between the number one guy and all the rest. Occasionally there is a real "can't miss" guy like Joe Mauer at the top. But usually these are really lists of prospects with little real difference between the number one player and the number ten. So when John Manuel says Nick Blackburn is the best prospect in the Twins' system, take it with a grain of salt. It means Blackburn has about a 50-50 shot of having a major league career.

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