Monday, March 22, 2010

Mauer's Contract

Now that Mauer finally signed, there are mutterings about how much he will cost the Twins over the next 9 years. There is no doubt that this contract will be a constraint on the Twins payroll. Any large contract is. But if you consider that the Twins current payroll is about $30 million higher than last year, Mauer's contract still leaves them ahead of the last decade in terms of space on the payroll. And its not clear that this year's payroll is really the limit to what the Twins can spend. Some of that will depend on how attendance and spending at the new stadium hold up over the next few years as its newness wears off. And signing Mauer was no-doubt part of the strategy for keeping attendance up. This was a good business decision.

The other question is whether it was a good baseball decision. A lot of comparisons have been made to other players - Mauer got the fourth richest contract in history. But the scary thing about Joe Mauer is he may not have reached his potential yet. He is only 26 and his power numbers are likely to increase. Last year he hit a.most 30 home runs while missing a month of the season. He has the potential to win the triple crown as a hitter while continuing to be the best defensive player at the games most demanding position. Especially with better on base guys at the top of the order and with Morneau hitting behind him. If that happens, Mauer may contend with Babe Ruth as the best player to ever play the game. And Twins fans can spend the next nine years talking like Yankee fans about whether their hometown team will be able to win the World Series, instead of whether they can get into the playoffs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bullpen Competition

There are seven spots available in the bullpen. There are five that were mostly set going into spring traing: Rauch, Guerrier, Mijares, Condrey and Crain. Condrey and Mijares have had some struggles in spring training, but I doubt that those have changed their status. Both need to be ready by the start of the season, but unless they are seriously struggling their positions are probably safe.

With Nathan a question mark, there are one or two positions open. I assume Liriano has all but won the fifth starter position. The other pitchers still in camp are Neshek, Duensing, Perkins, Manship, Slama, Waldrop and Maroth. The last three are not on the major league roster.

Neshek has done well in spring training but still has not got his velocity up to 90-mph. As I understand it, he still has options left and if he isn't throwing at full velocity, they are likely to send him to Rochester to work on his arm strength.

Gardy made a comment about Perkins getting his work in because he was going to "be a starter somewhere". I think the Twins still hope to move him, but if not he is likely going to get the sixth starter spot pitching at Rochester. He also still has options left.

Duensing is still competing (along with Perkins and Liriano) for the last starter spot. Since I think Liriano has won that competition, Duensing is likely to end up starting at Rochester. But if both Perkins and Duensing are still around one of them will likely be in the major league bullpen.

Manship has struggled so far in spring training. Unless he can step things up in his next couple outings, he will likely start the season at Rochester. If he improves and Perkins is moved, he might get a major league spot as the long reliever while Duensing is at Rochester keeping himself ready as a starter.

This leaves the three non-roster guys. I am not sure where the room is found for them, but I don't think that will be the decisive question in choosing bullpen spots.

Maroth has the advantage of being a major league veteran. With two spots open, it seems likely that will be an advantage. If Nathan (or an outside guy) is the closer, then filling the last spot with someone inexperienced may be less risky. Of course Maroth has to show he can get major league hitters out. He had a rough start to the spring, but obviously they still think he could help them or he wouldn't still be in camp.

Slama has been turning fans heads. Likewise, Waldrop has had good success. The two of them need to show they can continue that success as the competition improves the rest of spring training.

I would call Duensing and Maroth the favorites right now, but Slama and Waldrop have legitimate shots at spots. I don't think Gardy wants Perkins around and will find a way for that to happen whether by trade or sticking him at Rochester.


Couple recent posts elsewhere on the Twins bullpen situation:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Twins First Spring Training Cuts

With their minor league spring training opening this week, the Twins made their first cuts of the spring today:

Optioned RHP Deolis Guerra, RHP Loek Van Mil and INF Estarlin De Los Santos to New Britain (EL).
Reassigned LHP Jose Lugo, C Jair Fernandez, C Danny Rams, INF Steve Singleton and OF Rene Tosoni to their minor league camp.

For people unfamiliar with this process, the first three players are on the major league roster, so they have to optioned onto a minor league roster. The others are not, so they can simply be reassigned.

None of these players were really candidates to make the Twins this spring. The only surprise here was Rene Tosoni and it probably does not bode well for his future. I am not sure he was ever really a candidate to back up Span in center field, but his quick exit from the major league camp probably means he is not seen has having any role this year. Of course, that can change over the course of a season. The purpose of the minor leagues is to develop players and Tosoni is just arriving at AAA. So its not like he is a lost cause. Jose Lugo's early exit is also a bit of a surprise and an indication that he is going to be minor league roster filler, not major league depth.

Another  big surprise was a couple players who did not get sent out. Ben Revere hasn't played above A ball and is expected to start the season at AA New Britain. That he was not part of the first round of cuts indicates Gardy wants to take a longer look at him against better competition. Of course it may be that, except for Span, he is the only true center fielder in camp.  Chris Parmelee, another A ball player, is another surprise although Parmelee also played in the more advanced Arizona Fall League. It may be both of these guys are former first round draft choices that they just want to challenge. But its also possible they are closer to being ready than expected.

I suppose it is also a surprise that Toby Gardenhire is still hanging around. That demonstrates what being a jack of all trades, including a catcher, can do for you. It also helps to be the manager's son of course.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Is Portes for Real?

Juan Portes has had a very hot start to spring training. With only 10 plate appearances, he leads the team with three home runs. So the question is "Is he for real?". The answer is probably not. (obviously not, if you are talking about hitting 3 home runs in ever 10 plate appearances.) Despite being taken in the 14th round, Portes has always been a pretty good hitting prospect. His problem is that he doesn't have a position. He has moved around the infield and seems to be considered an outfielder now. But if the only position he really has is next to the plate, its tough to make it to the big leagues as a hitter.

Jason Kubel is a good example of why young players rarely break in as DH's. It usually takes close to a 1000 major league at bats before a player settles in and is productive. Kubel didn't become primarily a DH until 2008 with over 750 plate appearances. And he still has played the outfield about 50 games each year while primarily being the Twins DH.  You have to be able to play the field initially in order to get the major league at bats to prove yourself as a hitter. Contending teams just don't usually hand the DH spot to unproven rookies - in fact, no team does.

Of course, if Portes hits well enough, some team will find a way to get him in the lineup. But "well enough" is not they way Jason Kubel hit to start out, it means busting out of the gate with Kubel's numbers from last year. That is tough for a player to do. Portes may be a guy who does, but more likely he will remain a spring sensation.

The other thing to remember about spring training is that, in most games, there are really two games. The first half of the game the regulars play against one another. Then the second game is when prospects, who are likely going to start the season in the minor leagues, relieve the regulars and  play against one another. I haven't looked at who Portes faced, but it is likely those home runs weren't hit off major league pitching. Certainly not the quality of major league pitching he would face starting in April. That is another reason why spring training results don't tell you much - at least not until the last week or so.

I like Portes and have wondered when we might see him break out. But, absent a position, he is likely to remain one of those guys who tantalizes us as fans with his numbers at AAA.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Torii Hunter on Race

These comments by Torii Hunter are going to cause outrage by a few white folks who are still enamored of the idea that race is genetic.  But Torii is right. Dominican's are not African-American. They may still have problems getting a cab in New York, but they don't share the culture that makes people black. His concern that baseball is masking its problems with race by importing dark skinned latin players is not entirely unfounded either. Whether deliberately or not, the presence of dark skinned latin players has masked the declining number of African-American players in the game. That has been a special concern of Hunters and he has put a lot of effort into promoting baseball in his community. Its not clear that effort has been supported with any real resources from major league baseball. Certainly not the kind of resources that go into the Dominican and Venezuela leagues.  That has to be frustrating.

One of the best reactions was from Ozzie Guillen who suggests that Latin players are going to take over the game entirely. He may be right and that would be a shame for America's pastime.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How important is Nathan?

A STRIB story on Joe Nathan demonstrated once again the danger of statistical analysis. The numbers may be right, the computer spreadsheet almost guarantees it. But they often don't mean what the people using them think they mean.  Here is a snippet from that article:


Baseball Prospectus compiled all the data from the past 10 years, and home teams that had a save situation entering the ninth inning -- leading by three runs or fewer -- converted 87 percent of those saves. Road teams converted 86.1 percent of their ninth-inning save situations.

In other words, whether it's Nathan or anybody else standing on the mound, the Twins have less than a 14 percent chance of blowing that save."

It actually doesn't mean that. It means that is the average, but some pitchers are below average - perhaps a long way below average.

The other problem is, as most people know, the real difference is not how well pitchers do with a three run lead. It takes a real meltdown to blow one of those and those are pretty rare for any quality reliever. If you dilute the sample with a lot of sure things - you get a high percentage of success. But it tells you nothing about the relative ability of the closers, it just means you have masked it with a lot of situations where failure is basically random.

A closer who blows three or four more games than the next guy costs his team three or four wins. That is enough to decide a close pennant race.  And if the alternative to Nathan pitches like Dave Stevens, it will be more than three or four games the Twins lose as a result.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Replacing Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan's his first spring training appearance with soreness in his surgically repaired elbow raises the obvious question, if Nathan can't pitch to start the season who do the Twins put in the closer's role. Almost anyone in the bullpen could be a candidate on a short term basis. Here is the list in rough order of likelihood:

Jon Rauch - The role of closer is one that puts a lot of pressure on a pitcher, as the veteran in the bullpen Rauch may be the most ready to step up in that role. He is not, by any means, the guy with the best stuff.

Jesse Crain - Based on his performance in a setup role, Crain would appear to be an unlikely candidate. But closers are a different breed. They pitch only one inning, go all out and need to handle pressure. Crain has pitched in that role in college and the minor leagues and his stuff might well hold up better under the lighter load of closing.

Clay Condrey - Like Rauch, he is veteran. Like Rauch, he really lacks the stuff to be a closer.

Pat Neshek - I would rate him higher, but having not appeared at all in the big leagues for a couple years it seems unlikely that he is ready to step in immediately in the closer role. He needs to be eased back into the role.

Jose Mijares - He has the stuff. He is a lefty. But he struggled in the pressure of the pennant race last fall. He does not yet appear to have the maturity and bulldog makeup of a closer. He may not be ready, but then no one else is either.

Matt Guerrier - In some ways, he should be at the top of this list. But I think his promotion to closer would be the peter principal at work. He can be a solid setup guy, but his stuff is not lights out and is not likely to improve in the closer role.

Francisco Liriano - He has the stuff, but he looks to be a potential ace in the rotation.

Anthony (corrected) Swarzak - He has the stuff to pitch in that role, but he may not be ready for the major leagues. Its hard to imagine the Twins putting a rookie in that role. Especially one who has struggled at the major league level.

Glen Perkins - I think he is more likely to be trade bait for a closer than to be handed the job.

Brian Duensing - I don't think they are going to move him out of the rotation and he isn't really closer material anyway.

One thing I think is important to note. The light work load of the closer and the critical situations in which they are used often mean they get better results than the same pitcher pitching more often would in a setup role. So numbers alone don't telly you a lot about who will be able to do the job. Having great stuff helps. But being able to handle the pressure is even more critical. A guy who can't come back the next day after losing a game is a disaster in the closer role where almost every time they are out there they are preserving a win the rest of the team has achieved. Three straight meltdowns can have the whole team pressing. With Reardon, Aguilera and Nathan, the Twins have not seen a lot of that in the past twenty five years. But anyone who remembers Ron Davis, or the brief period in the mid-90's when various pitchers struggled in the closer role, Nathan's arm troubles are alarming.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Is Denard Span Irreplaceable?

Ron Gardenhire and others have commented on the fact that the Twins don't have a candidate to back up Denard Span in center field who is likely to make the roster. In fact, unless Ben Revere made the leap from A ball to the major leagues in a single season, they don't really have any candidates to play center field every day in the entire organization. If Span went down today, its possible Jacque Jones would be out in center field opening day. Jones has not been a center fielder in almost a decade.

What has not been commented on is Span's role in the offense. Not only do the Twins lack a center fielder, but they lack any other players who fit the leadoff role. The next best guy with the combination of on base percentage and speed is proablay Nick Punto. Hudson gets on base, but he is slow and really much better suited to the number two spot. Harris doesn't get on base enough and lacks speed. Casillas? He needs to win a spot on the roster and he isn't an on base guy. The best guy is probably Joe Mauer - just like he is the best number two hitter, number three hitter ...

This lack of organizational depth at AAA in two critical areas is actually alarming. Putting Michael Cuddyer out in center field between Jason Kubel and Delmon Young is going to give the Twins perhaps the worst defensive outfield in baseball. A lineup with Nick Punto at the top looks a lot less formidable, especially if some of the other question marks, like JJ Hardy, come up with negative consequences.

There is a lot riding on Denard Span staying healthy. 

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